Context switching: the secret sales productivity killer

Posted October 18, 2017

By Chelsey Feldman

Product Marketing at Outreach

Multiple monitors. Endless browser tabs. Toggling between email, applications, and Buzzfeed. Sound familiar? If you’re a modern worker, I bet it does. We live and work in the golden age of multitasking. If you're not whizzing from one program and platform to another, are you even working? Actually, yes you are. And in fact, you're likely working more effectively.

There's an insidious side effect to our modern work habits. While multitasking may feel more productive (two tasks done at the same time!), science reveals that it's wildly inefficient. You're not doing yourself any favors when you draft an email to one prospect while you’re distractedly setting up a meeting with someone else. Multitasking can cause stress and fatigue; a study out of the University of London found that it even leads to declining IQ scores when it occurs during cognitive tasks. Ouch! All that hustle, and multitasking doesn't even lead to better, faster results.

Context switching is one of the big problems that results from our modern, multitasking workflows. If you’ve ever opened a new browser tab, email, or program, and then gazed blankly at your screen, wondering how you got there, and what you meant to be doing next, you’re all too familiar with the perils of context switching. Put simply, context switching occurs when you lose focus due to switching from one task to another. It’s that moment between working on a presentation and opening up an email with the subject ‘URGENT!!!!!! Action required!’. And it happens frequently in the workplace—really, really frequently. The University of California found that people switch activities every three to five seconds, resulting in hours of lost productivity.

A Better Strategy: Get to the Flow State

You can think of the “flow state” as the direct opposite to context switching. It’s that delicious feeling when you get fully immersed in a task—so much so, that you’re not even aware of time passing. It can be hard to reach your flow state, and of course, any distraction from switching tasks disrupts it. But once you’re in it, focus and productivity is sky high.

So, how can you reach this magical haven of productivity? Here are a few strategies:

  • Group like with like: As much as possible, group similar tasks together. Block off your day and stick to your schedule as much as you can. Book an hour block in the morning to make cold calls. Write emails to prospects for a two-hour block after lunch. Try to schedule internal meetings in a cluster so you’re not constantly interrupted. I've even seen some rock star reps block dedicated time to connect with prospects on social media to prevent these social selling tasks from turning into distractions (and avoid the ever-present danger of click bait black holes!).
  • Resolve to do one thing at a time: Don’t double book your to-do list! Aim to do one task at a time, and stick with it until it’s complete. Of course, you always need to prioritize your prospect’s schedule so you don’t risk losing an awesome deal, but you should have an understanding of your priorities for the day, and structure what you do so you can meet those goals. Take on projects requiring the most attention when distractions are likely to be low (early in the morning or at the end of the day, for many), and do more mindless tasks like catching up on emails when you have a free 15 minute block here and there.
  • Use tools to minimize context switching: Set yourself up with tools to help you maintain focus and minimize instances of context switching. The more you can stay in the same ecosystem, and avoid toggling from task to task, program to app, the more you’ll be able to focus and produce. (Check out Sales Intelligence Tiles, which were built to keep all your prospecting in one window and reduce the amount of tab toggling in your life!)

While interruptions can sometimes lead to impromptu brainstorms and inspired “eureka” moments, the far more common outcome is lost time and productivity. When you move from one task to another and then back again, you have to remember what you were doing. It’s a big burden on your short-term memory, and not a helpful one. Context switching seems like an easy way to tick items off your to do list in the short term, but long term it can truly throw you off your game.

What are your best strategies for getting to flow state—and avoiding context switching? Share your tricks in the comments!


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