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Tips \ Feb 17th 2018

What Is Context Switching and Is It Killing Your Productivity?

Whether you write content, UX, marketing materials or technical docs, you’re probably juggling several projects at once, maybe for various teams, and certainly with different deadlines and levels of urgency. In fact, you’re probably context switching many times a day, whether you realize it or not.

So what’s the best way to handle multiple projects?

As a writer, you have to be creative and bring your best self to the blank computer screen. You could tackle each task start-to-finish and then move on. Or you might be the kind of writer who spends a few hours on each assignment daily or blocks off specific days for every project.

What is context switching?

Context switching is the latest buzz word in project management circles. Adopted from the world of technology and computing, it basically means stopping one process to start another. When a computer does this, it stops a process at a certain point so that another can be run. Once the second process is at a good stopping point, the original process is resumed at the point where it was stopped. This is essential for operating systems to be productive and efficiently process tasks.

But what about people? Let’s be clear: context switching is different from multitasking. Most people agree that multitasking does kill productivity, as it means performing multiple tasks simultaneously. Context switching, on the other hand, means working on a task, not completing that task for whatever reason, and moving on to something else while fully intending to return to the first task.

Does switching contexts improve our productivity?

Among project management experts these days, the answer seems to be a resounding no. In many project management articles, context switching has been called one of the worst productivity destroyers of the work day. Those are pretty strong words.

But what does this mean for us as professional writers? What do you do when you hit a brick wall or the dreaded blank page? For many writers, moving on to another project is a great way to stay inspired and feel productive.

Why, then, do so many project management experts discourage context switching? They claim that the loss in productivity doesn’t justify switching contexts. Projects and tasks should be completed before the next ones are tackled. Some project organization apps even go so far as to set up tracking so that you can only work on one task at a time. The more committed we are to finishing one task before tackling the next, the higher the chances of getting that task done on time. We don’t have to spend time mid-project ramping up on another project or task. We can keep to the same context and not lose time re-familiarizing ourselves with something we worked on previously.

But is this also true for writers?

Firstly, writers are natural note-takers and our jobs rely heavily on us being able to tackle a project in steps, tracking what we’re doing at every stage. Documenting is our job so we can and should document what we’re doing and what we’re learning. If we have to drop something for another more urgent or important task, we should be able to pick up where we left off without sacrificing productivity and having to ramp up.

Secondly, many of us work with several teams simultaneously and don’t have the luxury of telling one, “Sorry, can’t context switch so, although your development or marketing manager has time to discuss the project today, I can’t talk to them until I’m finished with this other task.” As writers within organizations, we have to depend on others to get our jobs done and their availability is often our business. We sometimes have to be able to drop what we’re doing so that we can catch that one person who has the missing piece of information for our article, or product flow, or video script. In a perfect world, we’d be able to schedule all our meetings per task, get one done and then move on to the next, but we just don’t work in perfect worlds.

Lastly and most applicable to writers, what about creativity? Some writers need to live in their project and thoroughly be entrenched to get it done. If you’re that kind of writer, then context switching may not be for you. But what if you’re the kind of writer who thrives on dealing with multiple projects and feels that your creativity is enhanced by learning and dealing with different things throughout the day?

We sometimes find that we learn something new for a project that leads us to think about doing something differently for another. While switching contexts may slightly diminish our productivity in that moment, it can enhance the quality of our overall work. And what if we find ourselves at a standstill, because of writer’s block or because information we need from someone else isn’t forthcoming? It’s great to be able to move to another project – even one that may not need our immediate attention – because it helps us feel productive and gives us more focus.

So is context switching a productivity killer or enhancer?

The truth is that it depends on many factors, including:

  • What kind of writer you are and how you work best.
  • Whether you work with one team or several, and how they prioritize their work.
  • What kinds of deadlines you face and who sets your priorities.

We could go along with updating those project tracking boards, but in reality keep our options open and our contexts switchable (but shhh, don’t tell your project managers!).

Annie Landa Rosen
By Annie Landa Rosen
Technical Writer & Editor

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