October 15th, 2008

Thoughts on Context Switching

By James Ellis

Illustration by Matt Owens

Designers like being productive. Context switching is a productivity killer.

Context switching is not multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is eating a burrito while walking down the street and thinking big all at the same time. This is possible only because walking and eating are relatively mindless tasks. It’s the mindful tasks that we have trouble with.

For designers (and knowledge workers in general) the job is all focus — focusing on one thing, then another. Let’s call this task switching.

Task switching isn’t a bad thing. How could it be? But context switching? Yes.

Context switching is changing focus between unique problem sets, each involving different circumstances and details. For the designer this means switching projects.

Computers can do this sort of switching very quickly; Command+Tab whips between worlds of complexity. Context switching for humans? Very expensive. Significant time is required to focus on a subject, recall all of the assorted details, and hold the sum in your brain.

However, once “in the zone,” work happens, hours fly by. The designer is happy.

It’s getting to this highly productive state that remains an inescapable challenge. Being inescapable, the only solution is to say: Today I’ll do this… and that’s it.