In computer programming, context switching refers to storing an active process in its current state so the system’s CPU can shift its resources to other tasks. A user can then instruct the CPU at any time to resume the process from the same point. Context switches consume a lot of resources, and system designers try to reduce the need for them. But these switches are necessary to allow operating systems to multitask.
Unfortunately, humans — even superhumans known as product managers (PM)— aren’t operating systems. When it comes to a PM’s to-do list, multitasking is a myth. When you think you’re simultaneously engaging in two complex activities, you’re context switching between them. And for people, context switching is a productivity killer.
The High Cost of Context Switching for Product Managers
It might seem like you have no choice but to cram as many tasks as possible into your day, even if that means trying to focus on more than one thing at a time. We get it. Product management is under constant pressure from many different stakeholders.
But there’s plenty of evidence showing this is counterproductive. For product managers, the cost of context switching is too high. That’s the bad news. The good news is there are strategies for organizing your schedule to minimize context switching — so you can give all of your attention and creative energy to every task.
In this post, we’ll discuss:
- Why context switching can seem unavoidable for today’s product manager
- What the research says about the costs of context switching
- Tips for more effectively managing your schedule
Assuming you’ve cleared your desk and your mind of distractions, let’s get into it.
Why the Cost of Context Switching is Harder to Avoid than Ever
Product managers have always faced unique challenges finding uninterrupted blocks of time to focus on a single project. Not many professionals have such frequent contact with so many other departments across the organization. On any given day, a product manager might communicate with executives, sales, marketing, development, design, customer support. They also interact with members of the media, industry analysts, and customers.
But the digital revolution has made it even more difficult for PMs to create any interruption-free time at work, or even focus on a single task for an extended period.
Consider today’s chat apps, project management software, SMS texting, alerts from productivity apps, and of course, email. Even if they try to clear some time to focus on a project, chances are within a few minutes they’ll hear a ding or buzz interrupting them about a request from a coworker.
When these distractions grab that product manager’s attention, dealing with it requires a context switch. Then, getting back into the frame of mind to focus on the original project requires another.
It’s more complicated than ever for the modern PM to avoid the cost of context switching. But there’s a massive downside to giving in to this routine of continually shifting your attention back and forth among different tasks.
Research is Urging You to Minimize Context Switching
As an article in Psychology Today points out, multitasking or context switching could be costing you 40% of your productivity every day.
In reality, we can’t do more than one mentally demanding task at a time. Sure, we can listen to and comprehend a science podcast while doing the dishes. But not while also talking on the phone or reading a financial report. Our ability to handle one of those mentally taxing tasks will suffer. As the article notes, we’ll almost certainly do both tasks poorly.
Worse, if the context switch itself takes less than a second — say, to stop focusing on your product roadmap to answer a coworker’s urgent Slack message — switching back to your roadmap mindset could take several minutes. Add up all of these switches across a day, and you could be losing nearly half of your productive time.
Psychology Today describes context switching, or task switching, as an “expensive” way to spend your time.
4 Tips to Reduce Context Switching
But is context switching inevitable for the modern PM? Do you have to accept the fact that you’re going be interrupted throughout the day, or that you have so many responsibilities that you’ll need to figure out how to do two at a time?
We say no. Not if you make a deliberate effort to arrange your schedule, and you always keep in mind the strategic value of focusing on one complex task at a time. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Batch similar projects
Switching between any two complex tasks can be draining and cause you to lose some of your strategic sharpness. But when you have to shift to an entirely different subject, that can make you even less productive.
One way to reduce the costs of context switching is to group similar tasks on your calendar. For example, you could try to batch all items relating to your user personas. You would add the review of the results from a customer survey, hone your product’s messaging with sales and marketing, discuss user stories with your team, etc.— into the same few-day period.
This way, even as you transition from one project to another over these few days, you’ll still be focusing on a similar topic. What you learn from each of these persona-related tasks will benefit your thinking on the others.
2. Keep your meetings laser-focused
One common source of context-switching problems is meetings. You might go into a meeting with your product team or executive staff prepared to discuss a single strategic topic, but instead, find yourself dealing with requests and challenges on all sorts of other issues.
To minimize the risk of a context-switching meeting, prepare yourself and your attendees ahead of time. Send out a clear agenda, along with a notice that you’ll be confining the contents of this meeting to what is on that agenda. This agenda will help both your productivity and the productivity of your attendees — because no one will come away from that meeting having to deal with the mentally exhausting consequences of context switching.
3. Proactively block out time
At ProductPlan, we’ve implemented Throughput Thursdays. We dedicate three to four hours to tackle the more significant tasks that we find challenging to make progress on during the workweek.
If you need uninterrupted time to focus on a single, complex assignment — for example, developing your product strategy or updating your buyer persona — put that time on your calendar. Then let everyone know that time is blocked and protect it like your life depended on it.
4. Turn off your digital alerts
Even if you set aside time to focus on a complex project, you could still face frequent interruptions if you’re not managing your digital environment effectively. Remember those constant buzzes and dings from your productivity apps? They could still pull you away from your focus, forcing costly context switching.
Turn them off! When you’re single-tasking on something important, don’t allow any interruptions, even digital ones. And if you need to take a break from your project, take a walk. Grab a snack. Have a friendly chat with a coworker.
But do not — we repeat, do not — use that “break” as an excuse to check your Slack channel or your Asana updates. That’s a fast route to context switching, and now you know how costly that mistake can be.