Last updated: The toggle tax: Alt-tabbing ourselves to distraction

The toggle tax: Alt-tabbing ourselves to distraction


Hands down, the most-used function on my laptop is alt-tab. In the perpetual quest for productivity, we’ve designed work to be more distracting than ever. How many times a day do you toggle between apps to complete your work? Seriously, think about it.

The average digital worker (i.e., most of us reading this article) takes just over two seconds to transition their thinking from their first task and recalibrate to their new task. No matter what the task is, or industry that employee works in, this time adds up.

A group of Harvard researchers recently published a study showing that the average Fortune 500 employee toggles between apps approximately 1,200 times per day.

Those two seconds compound into four hours a week or 9% of the work year. That time, called the toggle tax or context switching, is chipping away at  employee productivity and overall wellbeing.

Toggling and high-stress swiveling

If productivity is the goal, then it’s worth noting that the research also found that 65% of employees who made a switch then toggled to another app within 11 seconds.

When someone is constantly refocusing their energy between email, documents, and web interfaces, this causes stress and the release of cortisol. Over time, cortisol-drenched employees will have higher instances of sickness and absence, lower performance, and higher rates of attrition.

Employees in “swivel chair” roles where they’re responsible for collecting data from multiple sources, then submitting them into other programs, toggle the most and are particularly high-risk for stress and burnout.

The fact is, many applications that employees use every day were not designed to integrate with each other seamlessly, and swivel chair employees are the glue holding these disparate systems together.

Reducing the toggle tax 

So what can companies do to cut down on all this toggling so that employees can focus and be more productive?

Start by auditing your processes. What tools are available to your team? Enlist their help to catalog the tools in a spreadsheet.

Perform a time audit to see where and how the team is spending their time. It seems like a chore, but the intention is to take note of the tools that are used the most. And the simplest way of doing this is to have the team track and self-report their time used in each application.

This will provide visibility into where time is spent and which tools are most valuable. Then you can determine which tools are used most, and remove any that don’t provide a clear value to the goals of your team, or are duplicative.

Organizations also should be very choosy when adding new applications to the work environment. And applications should be designed with an eye on seamless functionality.

3 ways employees can filter out the noise 

Because of the nature of digital work, it’s unrealistic to expect employees to stop swiveling between apps to bring the toggle tax down to zero. But there are steps employees can take to help them focus:

  1. Put away the phone
  2. Choose a productivity method
  3. Train the brain

While phones weren’t included in the research, this time-consuming and tempting piece of technology is usually within one foot of most adults at any given waking moment. Between the constant texts, Slack and Twitter updates, and Instagram stories, it’s all too easy to lose time on our phones.

Make the phone less accessible by putting it in a drawer or leaving it in a different room. When it’s not realistic to physically detach from the phone, turn “Do Not Disturb” on to limit notifications whenever possible.

Next step: organize the workday to improve productivity. Time blocking, task batching, day theming, and time boxing are all uniquely effective ways to plow through tasks and maintain focus for specific amounts of time. It takes practice, but it’s amazing how much more can be accomplished through strategic organization.

Last, embrace a mindful approach to each task or project by engaging your work with purpose and attention in the present moment. Mindfulness is simple, but not easy. With practice, it can dramatically reduce stress and increase focus.

Focus exercises can help identify when and how you’re becoming distracted. As a test, read something for 30 minutes and set an alarm to go off at 5-minute intervals. When the alarm goes off, take a moment to notice if your mind has wandered. By self-monitoring your attention, your mind will become conditioned to refocus more easily.

Getting a grip

Toggle tax affects everyone from the intern to the CEO. In our digital world, it’s not going away.

Simply being aware of our wandering attention is the first critical step to increasing focus. Then it’s a matter of adopting strategies that help you to use the time you have most effectively.

HR, better.
Employees, happier.
Businesses, healthier.
It’s time to modernize the employee experience.

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