Regaining Focus in Product Teams

17min • 11 December 2023
100% human-written

Disclaimer: As the title suggest, this post is written from a product team perspective. It works best for engineering and product teams, but the core principles should also apply to any kind of team that solves complex problems.

Besides people management, a big part of my job as an engineering manager is making sure that my team is productive and creating value. This includes many aspects such as proper planning and shaping (new tab), proactive communication or simply unblocking them as fast as possible. But, in my opinion, the most important aspect of all is creating an environment that actually allows them to be productive and getting things done.

When I started my career as a frontend engineer, I spent approximately 90% of my work days on concepts, architecture, coding and documentation. This allowed me to hyper-focus for multiple hours entering a so called "flow" state - the holy grail of productivity.

Unfortunately, that number shrank year after year and I soon found myself spending more time in meetings than actually working on the various things that get discussed there. In addition, tools like Slack and Teams made it ever-simpler to skip meetings entirely and just message your colleagues directly, creating even more distraction. On top of that, this effect usually accelerates the more senior one becomes due to experience, knowledge and responsibilities.

At this point, you might think I hate meetings and instant messengers, but quite the opposite is true. I indeed believe that one should question every meeting to begin with, but there're good reasons why meetings exist as well. With products getting more and more complex, so do the problem we're trying to solve. Good meetings and communication therefore play a crucial role in highly effective teams. This is even more true in fully remote teams that are becoming more popular ever since the covid pandemic.
But, everything comes at a cost and sometimes these costs are profound and yet mostly hidden from outside.

The Hidden Cost of Context Switching

When we switch from one task to another, we essentially shift our attention. This process is called context switching. We do it constantly. First we text a friend, then we write a note and finally we prepare our lunch. Each transition requires us to switch context.

The same happens at work. An engineer might code for an hour, then attend a 40 minute meeting and eventually go back to coding. Every time we get a Slack notification and quickly answer it, that also involves context switching.

Side Fact: Multitasking is actually a very extreme form of context switching. Every time you pretend to multitask, you're in reality just switching context at a super high frequency. Stay tuned for my article about multitasking, but if you continue reading, you'll already understand why it doesn't work.

But why does context switching matter? Remember that I said everything comes at a cost? Context switching makes no exception. The cost varies greatly ranging from a few seconds for simple tasks up to more than 30 minutes for more complex tasks. A study at the University of California, Irvine found that it takes 23 minutes on average.

Let's briefly look at the most important factors:

  • Complexity: Each task has a different level of complexity. Switching from chopping vegetables to cooking noodles is way easier than going from a meeting to coding a complex feature. I like to think of context as the entries in our working memory in the brain. All the knowledge and variables required "in memory" to fulfil a certain task. In order to chop a potato, I only need to know how much chopped potato I want and how to actually chop it. In case of a complex feature, I need to know all the requirements, the full concept and architecture, data flow, logic, all involved files and so on. It takes much more time to "load" that into my "memory".
  • Similarity: Sticking to the vegetable example, switching from chopping potatoes to chopping carrots is easier than going from peeling potatoes to chopping them. Using the analogy of context as our working memory from above, the more similar two tasks are, the more variables can be reused from cache.
  • Interruption frequency and duration: The more often you get interrupted the harder it is to get back to the original task. A single Slack notification might not be a big issue, but if you get bombarded with messages that require immediate action - even if it only takes a 1 minute to answer - this can cumulate quickly.

Of course, there are many more factors including environmental factors, mental state, individual and biological differences or an individual's stress level, but since I can't directly influence those as a manager, I'm going to ignore them for now.

I would argue that most engineering tasks are generally more towards the upper end of the spectrum when it comes to complexity. They usually require quite some mental preparation to really get going. Adding constant distraction and interruption via instant messengers, phone calls or emails further increase the cost.

Another big problem: The cost of context switching is usually hidden.
Looking at a calendar, we only see the meeting slots, but we don't see cost of context switching there.

Real-World Example

Imagine an engineer working the typical 8 hours daily, starting at 8am with lunch at noon and closing time at 5pm. Without trying to be too exact, here's what a typical week for an engineer in a product team might look like:

Doesn't look to bad, right? A couple of meetings, but mostly free time.
Let's visualise the cost of context switching real quick.
For the sake of simplicity, I will use an average of 10 minutes for switching into meetings and 20 minutes when going back into focus mode. Numbers are rounded.

Note: The calendar is using 20 minutes slots everywhere because otherwise the layout breaks, but all the calculations below will use the 10 minutes before meetings.
By the way, if you know a tool or maybe even built one that calculates and visualises the cost of context switching for popular calendar apps such as Google Calendar, please share it!

Perceived Distribution
32.5h Focus Time
7.5h Meetings
Actual Distribution
25.5h Focus Time
7.5h Meetings
7h Context Switching

Looking at the distribution, context switching accounts for a mind-boggling 15% of our total weekly working hours! To be clear, that doesn't mean that it's wasted time, but it means time not spent in an optimal condition.
And yes, if one starts at 7am or 9am in this specific case there's less context switching, but then we also have to keep in mind that this is a simplified example. In reality, you have all kinds of distractions requiring quick attention shifts as well.


Knowing what the cost of context switching is, let's take a closer look at how it impacts our work day.

  • Reduced productivity: The more often we need to switch tasks, the more time we need to switch context and thus the less productive we are. This is probably the most obvious one and already clearly shows from the example above.
  • Reduced quality of work: Frequent interruptions and task switching can lead to more errors and lower-quality work, as continuous context switching doesn't allow for deep, focused attention on a single task.
  • Increased cognitive load: Context switching requires the brain to reorient its focus, draining cognitive resources. This can lead to mental fatigue, reducing the quality of work and the ability to make sound decisions.
  • Increased stress and burnout: Constantly switching between tasks, especially in a high-paced environment, can increase stress levels. Over time, this can lead to burnout, affecting both professional and personal life.
  • Loss of focus and flow: While the previous ones are detrimental already, this for me is the most important one of all. It directly impacts the first three and passively influences stress and burnout as well. Especially tasks that are complex and require full cognitive capacity are affected by loss of focus. Deep work and the state of "flow" – where an individual is fully immersed and focused on a task – are disrupted by context switching.

Recommendation: Read the book Flow (new tab) by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (new tab) if you want to learn more about this elevated state of consciousness.

Regaining Focus

Now that we know about the cost of context switching and its impact, let's explore possible solutions to regain focus and increase team productivity.
As mentioned above, just cancelling all meetings and muting all notifications is not a good long-term solution. Luckily, there are other ways to reduce the cost without disrupting the overall efficiency.

Note: The following solutions are obviously not the only ones there are. They're the ones that worked for me and my team. I'm not including techniques that individual team members can do such as timeboxing or pomodoro, but once again focus on the aspects that I as a manager can influence.

Direct vs. Indirect Communication

We already discussed that proper communication is key to success in modern product teams. After all, that's why we have all those meetings and instant messaging and everything.

Talking about communication, we can divide it into two separate groups:

  • Direct: Communication that happens face-to-face and in real time. In our work context, that's mostly meetings and phone calls.
  • Indirect: Communication where respond times vary greatly. Common examples are E-mail, messengers or letters.

Generally speaking, indirect communication can help you to reduce cost of context switching by allowing your team to follow their very personal communication schedule. That's great for most non-critical things such as progress and status updates, feedback or general questions.

Note: Needless to say that abusing indirect communication can lead to the opposite. Using it for time-critical things or repeatedly pinging someone can cause huge amounts of stress and pressure, disrupt their flow and create the urge to constantly check their messages.

On the other hand, direct communications in the form of meetings can be much more effective and efficient when it comes to critical things, brainstorming, planning, retrospectives or 1:1s.

I don't want to go to far into the details here, but both types have their pros and cons respectively and it's crucial to evaluate and optimise your ways of communication from time to time.

For example, one quick win could be replacing dailies with async status updates instead. After all, that could save 2 hours in our schedule.

No Dailies Distribution
27.5h Focus Time
7.5h Meetings
5h Context Switching

Optimised Meeting Schedule

We just learned that we can't eradicate meetings entirely, because they're simply better suited for certain topics. But, we've also seen in the previous example that meetings can have a huge cost. In the worst case, we have to switch context not only once but twice.

One way to mitigate that cost is to optimise your meeting schedule. The goal is to maintain long, uninterrupted blocks of focus throughout the day. Therefore, meetings should ideally be placed at the beginning or the end of such a block so either first thing in the morning or last thing at the end of the work day. Additionally, the lunch break marks a common divider or our modern work days.

Looking at the example above, we can see that there're quite a few scattered meetings that also create some weird gaps with only half an hour of free time in between meetings. Let's see how the calendar would look like after optimising the schedule:

Optimised Distribution
29.5h Focus Time
7.5h Meetings
3h Context Switching

Important Note: Optimising your meeting schedule can lead to consecutive meetings. Generally speaking, that's not a big problem because switching from a meeting to another meeting is usually easier done than going back and forth from coding to meeting. Still, research by Microsoft (new tab) clearly shows that our brain needs breaks between tasks. Make sure to plan for at least 10 minutes of break between each meeting!

In theory this works great, but if you ever worked at a company with more than three employees, you mostly likely know how hard scheduling meetings can actually be. Different time zones, cultures, personal preferences and attendees from multiple different teams, departments and stakeholders often make it an impossible task. That's where the next solution might come in handy.

Focus Days

Even though we already optimised our schedule reducing the cost more than twofold, that unfortunately only accounts for "scheduled" context switching time. There's still one big cost remaining which is all the unplanned distractions. On average we spend around 90 minutes on instant messengers with countless interruptions hindering our flow.

To tackle that, I want to introduce the most drastic, but also single most effective solution that we've tried for our team. We call it focus days and it's pretty much what you'd imagine it to be: entire days of uninterrupted deep focus work.

The idea is simple. Free your schedule, block your calendar and auto-decline all incoming meetings, close your messenger and fully emerge in your work. This allows you to organise your work and schedule based on your very personal preferences for maximum flexibility and comfort. The goal is to enter flow state and really get some done.

Applying that idea, our schedule could now look even more condensed.

Note: This is once again simplified and only one of many possible ways. Always remember to add appropriate breaks in-between your meetings.
Try to fit meetings around slots that can't easily be moved such as guild or all company meetings.
Extra Tip: If you're working in an office, especially if it's a crowded and loud one, it might help to work from home to better focus.

Tuesday and Wednesday would be full on focus days with most of Friday as well and due to the optimised schedule in general, we even have big focus blocks on all the other days as well.

Now, obviously, this is easier said than done. There are a number of challenges and it's crucial to tackle those before jumping headfirst into focus days. It is not only important to guarantee success, but also to make sure that your team is able to really extract themselves from day-to-day responsibilities.

Proper Planning

Uninterrupted focus work is only possible if we know exactly what each team member is going to work on. Everything needs to be planned out properly and all the open questions should be answered. No further communication and collaboration should be required. This also includes late changes to projects. Make sure to have a proper change management workflow at hand.
Ironically, to have meeting-less days, we first have to have a bunch of meetings to plan for them.

Effective Communication

Most teams do not work fully isolated and therefore it only makes sense to include and inform every stakeholder as well. Make sure to communicate your focus days ahead of time and explain to them how and why you do it. This helps to reduce friction and set expectations.

Emergency Coverage

Last but not least, there's always things happening that we can't fully control such as production outages or critical bugs. For such occasions, it's good to have a proper plan in place before it happens. Ideally, you set up a way of communication that's outside of your usual workflow. For example, if you mostly use instant messengers, you might use E-mails.

Alternatively, you can assign one team representative that keeps track of emergencies. Similar to an on-call schedule, that responsibility should rotate so that everyone gets to enjoy the benefits of focus days in equal amounts.

Even better if engineering manager and product manager share that responsibility and only reach out to engineers if they need additional help.


At Carla, we've been incorporating all of these solutions into our ways of working. We've started to use an async Slack integration called Geekbot (new tab) to replace dailies and try to optimise our meeting schedule according to our lunch breaks.

A few months ago we then finally tapped into the idea of focus days which really changed the way we work. It certainly requires some discipline and preparation, but the results are great.

We spend less time in meetings and switching context and more time focusing on deep work and getting things done. Our team delivers more results and thus gets a lot of appreciation and praise from stakeholders and colleagues alike. It helps us to structure the week and have a more predictable schedule which also helps with estimations in general.

And the best part? Not only does it increase productivity, it also increases motivation and satisfaction, because ultimately we're here to work on interesting challenging problems, not to sit in endless meeting.

Last but not least, it also gives me some structure and focus time which is highly appreciated. Transitioning from an individual contributor to a manager was quite a shift in terms of flexibility and number of meetings. I can only speak for myself, but I assume the same is true for product managers and designers as well.


We learned about the hidden cost of context switching and how disruptive and brutal it can be. Research shows that context switching is a huge productivity killer and that todays work environments are more prone to it than ever before. We talked about the detrimental impact it can have and finally explored possible solutions to reduce that cost and regain focus.

I believe that especially focus days can be a great tool that drastically boost your teams productivity as long as they're executed properly.

Final Thoughts

This article focuses mostly on regaining focus.
Certainly, there are many more aspects to successful and productive teams.
I only looked at it from a productivity perspective and completely ignored other reasons to have meetings such as socialising and team building exercises.
Always remember that we're working with people, not with robots.
Efficiency is not everything.


Thanks to my wife and my friends and co-workers Lara (new tab) and Chris for reviewing this article! Credits to all the great researchers and authors that explored context switching, flow and everything else related to this article!

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