The Truth About Task Switching: Why You Are Damaging Productivity With Every Switched Task & What to Do Instead

Have you sent Slack messages, scrolled social media, or completed random tasks while in a Zoo35m meeting? Yeah, so has everyone else. 

In an era of instant gratification and hyper-productivity, multitasking and its counterpart—task switching—have become acceptable in our everyday lives. 

Task switching is the process of shifting our focus and attention from one task to another, to another, and back again. It’s essentially ‘bouncing’ between multiple tasks rather than focusing on a single task to completion. 

Task switching is often confused with multitasking. But multitasking is about focusing on two tasks at the same time—which tends to erode productivity

The question is, does task switching do the same thing?

In this article, we’ll explore task switching and its implications on productivity—particularly for those working in sales, who are juggling multiple activities at once.

So, if your business is striving to improve day-to-day operations—listen up. Small improvements in task management can lead to sizable leaps in efficiency.

The Science of Task Switching 

Task switching is scientifically defined as “when a task is voluntarily or involuntarily interrupted in order to pay attention to another task.” It has been studied for various reasons. For one, the ability to quickly switch tasks and alternate focus is considered the pinnacle of the human brain’s executive control—and something that separates humans from other animals.  

For another, task switching impacts our everyday lives—and humans want to maximize their work productivity and focus.

Neuroscience studies have found that frequently rotating between tasks incurs something called a "switch cost." This cost causes study subjects to perform tasks more slowly and with more errors when compared to single-task focus. Certain types of preparation can reduce switch costs—but they do not eliminate them completely.

Common Myths About Task Switching

The fact that humans can switch between tasks while working toward a goal is an amazing thing, regardless of the quality of output. But the studies tell us this: The brain’s working memory is better utilized when focusing on one thing at a time.

Many people misuse the term task switching, or overestimate their ability to do it well. Here are three of the most common misconceptions you need to be aware of.

Task Switching = Multitasking

Both terms involve managing multiple tasks at once, but they are technically different on the basis of how the brain handles these tasks. Multitasking is handling multiple tasks simultaneously (like calling your friend while cooking dinner), whereas task switching is shifting your attention from one task to another in rapid succession. 

Studies have shown that most humans can’t actually multitask—in fact, only 2.5 percent of the population can. Instead, most of us are simply task switching.

And there’s one more term you should know: context switching. It’s similar to multitasking and task switching, but it focuses on the context where your brain is working. As you may guess, context switching isn’t great, either.

Task Switching Enhances Productivity

If you haven't studied the task switching paradigm, it’s easy to think that quickly switching between similar tasks enhances your productivity. You are stirring multiple pots, and moving more deals toward closing, right?

In reality, you are paying the "switch cost"—and probably don’t even realize it. There are different types of "switch costs," which I’ll cover in a minute, But odds are, there will be a reduction in overall productivity when compared with singular task focus.

Remember the last time you were in a flow state? I’ll bet your task performance was so great because you zoned in on just one thing at a time.

Everyone Pays the Same Switching Cost

I’ve heard people say, “I’m really great at multitasking.” I always silently disagree. First, productive multitasking simply isn’t possible for the average person. And second, they were probably task switching—not multitasking.

But this is true: Some people are better at task switching than others. 

Factors such as personality traits, cognitive ability, level of expertise, and mental fatigue can influence the "switch cost" that each individual incurs in productivity loss. So, really, you may or may not pay (and display) the same "switch cost" as your coworker—which makes the practice harder to identify and evade.

The 4 Costs of Task Switching & How it Affects Salespeople

Task-switching costs affect us all, but salespeople are particularly hard-hit in a professional sense. The day-to-day sales grind demands strong focus, time management, emotional fortitude, and relentless drive. Here is how task switching takes a toll on those key areas.

1. Time Cost

When switching tasks, your brain needs to pause—albeit briefly—to shift gears to the new task. What appear to be insignificant pauses between significant tasks accumulate into more lost time than you would think.

2. Cognitive Cost

Constantly shifting between tasks tires the brain. It makes it difficult to focus your attention on the issue at hand, and reduces overall task performance. This is a tough pill to swallow for salespeople. Why? The job naturally requires varying similar tasks throughout the day, juggling phone calls, emails, data entry, and sales objections

It’s not easy to avoid task switching. But diving deep into each task, one at a time, will improve your performance—and your brain.

3. Emotional Cost

The emotional cost of frequent task switching is often overlooked. But the impact is real. Consistently switching tasks can cause frustration and overwhelm, sucking the joy out of work. 

Salespeople do better in a positive emotional state—jiving with customers and maintaining motivation. Where there is an emotional deficit, you might rub customers and coworkers the wrong way, and lose some deals in the process.

4. Stress Level Cost

Chronic task switching can provoke a state of distraction, making work more challenging and stressful than it needs to be. Salespeople are already stressing over quotas and worrying about commissions. The addition of task switching could push stress levels through the roof—and cause burnout. 

So, before you switch tasks, consider the impact. Why not finish what you started, enjoy that life-giving checkmark on the do-to list, and save yourself the stress of coming back to it later? 

6 Strategies to Thwart Task Switching and Skyrocket Your Productivity

Now that you’re disillusioned about task switching, you probably need to find other ways to boost your sales productivity. Here are six strategies you can adopt that will help kick task switching to the curb.

1. The Pomodoro Technique

Inspired by a tomato-shaped timer ("Pomodoro" is Italian for tomato), the Pomodoro technique requires you to work on a task without interruption for 25 minutes, then take a five-minute break. After three or four cycles, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes. This method of task cuing sets a clear end point to your current task, and tells you what to do next.

The "Pomodoro cycle" can help fight off interruptions and promote deep work. This will minimize task switching and the productivity drain it creates. 

Pro tip: Turn off phone and laptop notifications during your Pomodoro cycles—you can check them during breaks.

2. Time Blocking

Time blocking is simply scheduling (or blocking) time slots for specific tasks throughout the day. These time blocks create a structured workflow that reduces task switching. Because when you know what you’re supposed to be working on, you’re less likely to shuffle around to multiple different tasks. 

Here is a basic example of daily sales activities in blocks of time: 

  • 9–11 a.m., Prospect for leads
  • 11–11:30 a.m., Check & respond to emails
  • 11:30–12:30 p.m., 1:1 meeting with Logan

… and so on.

3. Task Prioritization

If every single task is equally important, task switching will become more appealing—or even seem necessary. By ranking your tasks from most important to least, you can visualize what most needs the attention of your prefrontal cortex.

Having clear priorities and a list to work through helps to minimize distractions. And it reduces the urge to switch to the next task before completing the current one. 

4. Single-Tasking

The opposite of multitasking, single-tasking devotes all of your cognitive processes to a single task. You work on that one task until it’s done—or until you have reached a predetermined stopping point. You can even set up task cues, signals that tell your brain it’s time to move on from one task to another.

Throughout the multitude of scientific studies, it has consistently been found that focusing on a single cognitive task is far better for the brain’s executive function than task switching or multitasking.

5. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation 

Getting your mind in a good spot can stop it from bouncing around so much. Utilizing mindfulness and meditation techniques has been proven to help with focus and attention. What better antidote to doing too many tasks than doing none at all? 

Incorporate meditation into your daily life, and see how it affects your focus and productivity at work (and at home).

6. Use the Right Tools

The right sales tools (like your CRM) can help to improve focus. They get you the information you need to complete tasks faster and more efficiently, while streamlining your workflows to improve the quality of your ‘flow states.’

There are many sales productivity tools to choose from, and each provides a different benefit for a different kind of sales team. From supercharging outreach to automating scheduling to tracking analytics—there is a tool out there with the features you need to be more productive.

And that tool can help you beat this dismal fact: On average, sales reps spend only 35 percent of their day selling. The rest is wrapped up in other activities—and, more than likely, task switching.

Here’s how Close can help you avoid task switching and stay focused and in your flow state:
  • Use the Inbox view to see all incoming communications from prospects, and respond to them.
  • Use Smart Views to prioritize the right leads, and then use the Power Dialer to start calling them.
  • Never miss a meeting—you’ll see all of the context you need inside Close, plus you can start and run your Zoom meetings from the Lead View (no need to switch apps!)

Cold Email Templates Close CRM Demo

The Future of Task Switching: Distraction, Automation, and Saving Time

Technology has distracted the workplace. Permanently. And it’s not going to get any better. The workplace is evolving, and companies must provide tools to help people cope with distractions—while also reducing tedious tasks via automation. 

Here’s how the future of task switching in the workplace might just shake out.

Technology: The Source and Solution of Distraction

Email notifications, instant messages, and other buzzing apps constantly interrupt our flow, inhibit deep work, and instigate excessive task switching. 

However, there are also tools and techniques (mentioned above) designed to prevent task switching and boost productivity. And in the future, we will likely see more clever workflow apps built to fight these distractions and improve time management, focus, and task prioritization.

Here are a few that already exist: StayFocusd, Focus, and Noisli, just to name a few.

Automation to Overtake Task Switching

Automating routine and repetitive tasks is a game-changer for task switching. It helps us reduce the urge to switch tasks by eliminating the boring ones and allowing for more focused work. 

For example, Close allows salespeople to automate their outreach tasks. This way, they can focus on building customer relationships and solving problems—instead of rushing through the tiny, unexciting tasks as quickly as possible.

Automating the small things paves the way for salespeople to focus on the tasks that demand their expertise. This trend will only continue to grow (hello, AI).

Uncertain Scales: The Pros and Cons of Automation

Automation is amazing. It reduces the quantity of tedious tasks, prevents task switching, and boosts productivity. It can help a salesperson preserve their cognitive load for important activities—while getting more done in less time. 

However, there are drawbacks. Over-reliance on automation can erode our skill sets and push us out of practice on key competencies (such as writing kick-ass outbound sales emails, better than ChatGPT). We might also forget the foundational aspects of how things work and even lose sight of true customer interaction—which is bad news for iteration and sales growth. 

It’s important to stay connected to the tasks we automate—while still enjoying the benefits. 

The future will require us to strike a balance between technology and automation. We can overcome distractions, automate boring tasks, and become the most productive version of ourselves. But let’s not forget how to do things just because the computer does them for us. 

Conquering Task Switching: The Endless Battle Against Our Productivity Drain

Cognitive science proves it: Task switching and multitasking aren’t the productivity boosters you thought they were. In fact, they’re increasing our sloppiness and decreasing our mental strength.

You wouldn’t text and drive, would you? (The correct answer here is ‘no’.) Task switching while driving reduces focus—and gets really dangerous. Your life isn’t on the line with sales, but the same principles apply.

Fantastic salespeople focus on high-value tasks all the way through, rather than jumping around. So, are you ready to reduce task switching, regain cognitive control, and push your productivity into overdrive? 

I’ve already touched on sales productivity tools. So, why not take Close for a spin? Our CRM is designed to be all-in-one and user-friendly. Automate small tasks so you can focus pon what matters: solving customer problems and closing deals.

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