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Context Switching: The Ever-Present Productivity Killer

Running a small business is a balancing act: as a leader you need to stay focused on strategic initiatives but also deal with the important day-to-day challenges that arise. You need to delegate and oversee team performance but still execute your own to-do list. You need to do the best you can with limited resources while simultaneously building better systems and infrastructure for the future. You're required to wear different hats and juggle several priorities at once which inevitably leads to multitasking. 

Sometimes you feel like you’re doing a great job and other times you feel like you’re not getting anything done at all. Sound familiar? 

At CognosHR, it’s this challenge that drives us to do the work we do.

Our goal is to make this balancing act easier for our clients by reducing the amount of time they spend on non-core, non-strategic tasks. When it comes to helping small businesses, we know that the small, re-occurring tasks that interrupt your day add up to have a big impact on productivity.

We’ve learned a lot from helping our clients over the years, so we wanted to share our thoughts about the challenges of multitasking and offer some anecdotes we’ve found to be helpful along the way. Enjoy! 

But I’m a great multitasker! My company’s got everything under control now.

Everyone multitasks and everyone is interrupted several times a day. Since this is the norm, we get accustomed to it and often fail to recognize the real impact it has on our overall productivity.

So what is the cost of multitasking? It’s not something that is easy to quantify but it is something we can bring awareness to. After all, awareness is the the first step toward addressing any problem.  

You may even think multitasking is beneficial but every time you switch between tasks -  there’s a loss of productivity. This idea can be tough to accept, especially for ambitious individuals who set high goals for themselves. However, much has been written about the myth of multitasking and the effect that “context switching” has on productivity.  

Context Switching?

Context switching states that every time we jump between various, unrelated tasks there is a hard cost to our productivity. More specifically, according to organizational consultant Gerald Weinberg, adding one extra project causes a 20% loss of your time, adding a third wastes nearly half of your time. And it only gets scarier after that (see chart below).



This is particularly relevant if you’re working at a startup or small business where everyone is trying to achieve more with fewer resources than their larger competitors. Compounding the problem is the ever-growing suite of web-based “productivity” tools interrupting us with “important notifications” throughout the day.

You may not even realize this is happening but think about the last time you were interrupted when you were deeply focused on a project; you had to recalibrate and figure out where you were before going back to your prior task.

According to Todd Herman of the 90-Day Work Year, on average, after being interrupted, it takes 10 to 15 minutes to get back to your previous level of focus or flow state. Every simultaneous task you add to your daily routine eats away at your ability to be productive.

...after being interrupted, it takes 10 to 15 minutes to get back to your previous level of focus or flow.

The good news is that there are several well documented ways to minimize context switching and maximize your productivity. Here are just a few:

  • Theme your days: Creative days, manager days, “Financial Fridays”, “Marketing Mondays,” etc.
  • Clearly outline your tasks for the next day the night before.
  • Limit the number of times you check email and other apps throughout the day.
  • Offload decision making: establish predetermined “go-to” people or processes for answers so you don’t have to expend brain power every time a question comes up.

Your people and the uncertainty of the unknown…

Theming days or blocking off tasks are great ways to boost productivity but they won’t work for all things. For instance, since HR tasks involve people, some tasks will be inherently unpredictable. Different requests arise on different days and if they are related to pay, benefits or a challenging workplace situation, you can’t really tell an employee that you’ll deal with it on “HR Thursdays” so you’re likely to stop what you’re doing and figure it out.

Here are some real-world examples of HR related workplace interruptions that we’ve heard from our clients:

  • An employee walks into your office asking about payroll deductions, “I know I changed something but I’m not sure if it’s the right amount for my HSA” or “when am I scheduled to get my bonus or pay raise?”
  • An employee asks if you offer additional benefits like transit vouchers or 401K matching.
  • A manager lets you know they want to fire a team member and wants to do it sooner than later because it’s ruining team dynamics. This is the first you’re hearing of it.
  • Your new hire comes in with the passport for their W2 and a question about their I9.
  • The person you didn’t hire emails you about an unfair interview process
  • Your employee has questions about when they can make changes to their healthcare plan
  • It’s the end of the day and a manager lets you know she has some last minute changes to payroll you need to deal with right now!

On the positive side, dealing with these matters quickly lets your employees know you care. You give them peace of mind so they can get back to focusing on their job. On the negative, what’s the cost to your productivity and the impact to your business?

It’s this area where CognosHR really helps our clients. In fact, one of the most common things we hear is, “I didn’t realize how much time I was spending on [insert problem from above] until we hired you guys to help. I love that I can offload [same problem] to our Cognos representative and get back to my day. Plus, my employee gets a better answer than I could have given them anyway!”

Closing Thoughts

How much is your time worth? What’s the value of reducing worry or concern and freeing up your mental space? What if you could block off more time to focus on strategy or long-term initiatives like re-evaluating your revenue model or client service delivery?

The way HR or employment-related responsibilities affect your organization may not be as easily quantifiable as the other items on your P&L but they require just as much care, time, and attention when running a balanced and successful business.

When you’re ready to evaluate how you can improve in your daily HR operations, we’d love to help.

Contact us for a free HR consultation, and we’ll take care of the rest!

Running a small business is hard enough, so we’re here to make sure your HR tasks don’t get in the way. Working with CognosHR lets you spend more time on strategic, impactful work and less on the tasks that pop up and slow you down.