Scattered thoughts on context switching

Dots connecting, tendrils receding, sine waves oscillating

Halle was interviewed by Anne Helen Petersen for a piece she published this week about navigating and building personal boundaries in the workplace. The expectation that an employee molds themselves to fit a company — and stretches themselves to fit into as many nooks and crannies as possible — is so deeply ingrained that it’s nearly impossible to notice it’s happening.

“I was in a year and a half long Honeymoon phase, and I bent over backwards to be more accommodating. And I was 100% rewarded and encouraged to continue this behavior.”

For the striver, every new responsibility you add to your plate is a validation of your worth and choices. Your identity becomes intertwined with your volume of work. Every process in your domain is one more reason your employer can’t afford to fire you.

And it’s so tied up in our conceptions of professional self-worth that anything short of 100% productivity feels like failure. Being busy as a status symbol becomes the benchmark.

But who really gets to set that benchmark?

I recently took on a leadership role at a startup that calls for near-constant context switching.

We hate context switching here at Automatter. But in this role (and many others) it’s unavoidable. I’m working on a handful of projects that all pull on similar skills and are under a coherent umbrella, yet differ enough in their substance and the stakeholders involved that I need to reorient myself multiple times per day.

That reorientation requires real effort. I am not joking when I say I can physically feel interruptions. I have never felt so seen as I did when I learned about Tendril Theory:

I take care to get in the right mindset every time I need to switch gears. I use a variety of tactics:

  • I go for a walk

  • I open a window

  • I move from my desk to the couch

  • When I get my own office next month, maybe I’ll crank my desk to a standing position. (If you’re reading this and you work for an electric standing desk manufacturer who will send me a free one, please for the love of god save me from the hand crank. I will post or write about your product.)

I am not 100% productive. But I already feel effective.

My colleagues (including the CEO) value and compliment my work even though I have yet to ship my first big deliverable. I am able to raise ideas, point out issues, and propose solutions. I am putting more on my plate, but I am not currently running to catch up. I am ramping up gradually.

And yet… I’m not ready to let go of the belief that this is somewhere between luxurious and lazy. That I’m only properly productive if I’m behind or booked solid. As if my work in particular neither requires nor benefits from unstructured processing time.

Kevin Yien’s brief piece on Sinusoidal Thinking hit at just the right time for me. It takes about two minutes to read the whole thing (so definitely read it) but here’s the thrust:

In mathematics, sine waves help graph periodic oscillations. While they are commonly used in applications such as signal processing, I have found them to be an effective mental model for context switching.

The reality is that more complex roles have higher amplitudes and higher frequencies (i.e. maximizing the integral). Whether you are a director managing several teams or a senior individual contributor working on a large project, the amount of context switching you experience will monotonically increase.

This is bad, right?


This is a feature, not a bug.

[Y]ou can now connect dots and identify patterns faster than before — and in some cases connect dots you would not have been exposed to in the past. This is how you can turn context switching from a hindrance into an asset. 

After I read Kevin’s piece, I read it never feels like the right time by Ava (a.k.a. @noampomsky).

Expecting things to feel right is a trap because it means your actions are dependent on some arbitrary set of conditions you’ve decided is necessary in your mind. But you don’t actually need to wait to act—your supposedly “essential” conditions are probably made up.

I once read this great blogpost that used the analogy of keeping your inventory low. The author used inventory as an metaphor for things that you’re currently waiting on, the preconditions that need to be fulfilled before you act. For example, I want to hear about back this job before I apply for others. Or I need to lose weight before I wear this dress. Or, I need to have closure from my crush before I can move on and start dating other people. To be clear, sometimes the preconditions are real, but often they aren’t and you don’t actually need to wait for X to happen before you do Y. One way of keeping inventory low is to set self-imposed deadlines: if I don’t hear back in a week, I move on. Or you could just decide that the precondition doesn’t really matter.

(I am in the “I want to hear back about this job before I apply for others” photo and I don’t like it.)

I read these two passages in conversation with each other. The tactics I take to reorient myself are how I rapidly stow my “inventory” before I engage with something else. But in executive-level roles, you gain an outlet that you don’t get at the entry-to-mid individual contributor level. The act of cataloguing that inventory is now part of the job.

The rapid context switching and updating can (with the right communication norms and tools) build institutional knowledge. Your best peers understand this because that’s what they do in their jobs too. And the best companies know that interlocking webs of executives who work together and make a habit of connecting dots are more likely to surface new opportunities.

“Hustle” is a loaded word. Too often, it’s used to conjure the worst things about work — absurd expectations of connectivity and responsiveness, long or unbounded working hours, manically-detailed note-taking systems or calendar optimization algorithms — and turns them into a culture worthy of glamor. When someone uses the term without irony, I don’t take it as prima facie evidence of anything, but I also don’t give them the benefit of the doubt. My guard goes up.

But I also like to separate the toxic culture of GaryVee zealots from the generous meaning of the word. I don’t believe hustle is something you can force.

To me, it’s about serendipity. It’s a belief that opportunity could be anywhere and that this justifies going places, doing things, or talking to people who do not immediately contribute to some traditional measure of productivity. It’s not “work 12 hours a day,” although there is some level of always being in standby mode when you’re not explicitly working.

If you get real joy and real rewards out of connecting one dot to another dot, there’s no reason you can’t do that as the dots arrive. And they don’t always arrive on your schedule.

Progress begets progress.

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