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Context switching when planning

My top ten time management tips

I’m writing a series of blog posts based on my top ten time management favourites – with activities to do plus resources – to celebrate the launch of the new edition of my book on goal-setting and time management. I’ve said so far that you can’t manage time, but you can organise yourself, as long as you:

  • know your values,
  • consider space, other people and context – which I’ve shortened to SOC – as well as time.

I’ve also said that we tend to forget about SOC when either trying to overcome procrastination or when attempting turn up and write regularly – or attempting to turn up and do anything.

I’m pretty sure this is to do with context switching when planning.

What is task switching?

But before I turn to context switching when planning, let me quickly outline what ‘task switching’ means. Here’s a quick explanation but if you want a more detailed approach, have a look at the article I’ve listed under resources below.

It takes our minds a while to collect themselves after switching tasks. You may have noticed this when restarting any project that you do over more than one session. It might take a few seconds – or a few minutes – to remember where you were at and to get back into it. This is totally normal. Because it takes our minds time to adjust like this, it’s been suggested that multitasking is a bad idea.

So, what is context switching?

When you’re planning your time, especially if you’re busy, you’ll have to consider several different parts of your life, each with its own context, during that planning session. Even if you stay on task and focus only on planning without task switching, you still have to context switch in your head. This has implications for the planning fallacy, which I’ll mention in a later post. (Edit: I talk about it here!) But I want to discuss context switching specifically in this post.

Let me explain what I mean with an example.

Context switching

Say you’re involved in writing a novel, childcare and a part-time job. (Feel free to substitute other categories of course – I’ve simply picked things I do.) My ability to spend time doing one has an impact on how much time I spend on the others. Anyone who’s ever scheduled time to do something is familiar with this idea. It’s time management 101 if you like.

Writing a novel, childcare and my part-time job overlap, in that they’re all ways in which I use my time in an ongoing way. I certainly don’t finish one before doing the next. Neither do I perform one of them and then get on with the next – they’re not discrete tasks. Life is more messy than that. These three categories overlap in another way too. They have implications for one another to a certain extent. My part-time job involves teaching creative writing, which requires me to be a writer, and I do a job to bring in money to support myself and my family, for example.

As well as three overlapping circles (Venn-diagram style) this reminds me of a scene from Alan Partridge, which I love because I used to live in Norwich, and know Norwich train station well. Here he is, trying to market his book, when someone asks him the platform for the Lowestoft train. Funny, and an example of context switching.

OK, I digress. My point is that when we’re planning our time, and we have to switch from thinking about, say, getting the next chapter written, to thinking about a work project, or how much childcare to book over the summer, for instance, we’re not necessarily considering how space, other people and context play a part – yes we’re back to SOCs again – especially not at the point where these things impact on each other.

However, when the thing we’ve scheduled (or what transpired instead or as well as) is in progress, space, other people and context loom large!

Mental load is also an issue here because if we’re carrying around thoughts about lots of different responsibilities – or contexts – in our heads all the time, it’s going to stop us from focusing clearly. Edit: this post on mental load and emotional labor – taken from my book Find Time to Write – explains what this means in more detail.

Hoodwinking ourselves into thinking ‘planning’ is one task

Context switching means shifting our attention between different contexts. It appears at first that planning is one task – but we have to think ourselves into the different aspects of our lives, or our different contexts, in order to do it holistically, so it isn’t really one discreet task.

If I have to sit down and plan when to write a novel, what to do about childcare and schedule that around a part-time job, I’ve got to context switch, at least conceptually. To compensate, I have a feeling – I have no proof but stay with me – that our brains prioritise the planning and scheduling side. (For example, I’ll write a chapter on Tuesday morning after I’ve dropped the kids at their guitar lesson and then go to work in the afternoon.) Planning is the task we’ve set them after all! Meanwhile space, humans and context take a backseat.

I’ve switched ‘other people’ for ‘humans’ because I’m including you – the person doing the planning – and human fallibility in the meaning here. You can see that when it comes to planning, these meanings of ‘human’ are vitally important!

The bad news is that we’re usually not only involved in just three things at once. In my book on goal setting and time management, I use the following life categories inspired by the popular coaching tool called The Wheel of Life:

  • career,
  • community,
  • health,
  • hobbies,
  • family,
  • finances,
  • friends,
  • learning,
  • love,
  • spirituality,
  • travel,
  • leisure,
  • social life

They won’t all apply, and you might have others you want to add, but you get the idea I hope. In addition these break down into further subcategories. ‘Writing a novel’ and ‘part-time job’ are both under ‘career’ for me and ‘childcare’ is under ‘family’ – both of these would have other obvious subdivisions. That means that we’ve potentially got 10s or even 100s of things we’re using our time for in an ongoing sense.

No wonder we get overwhelmed!

So, what’s the answer?

Remember SOC stands for:

  • Space – where we do the thing often matters as much as when and for how long,
  • Other people – acknowledging that our lives overlap with those of others, as well as our own role, and human fallibility
  • Context – social, political, cultural, plus our immediate environment.

What we can do about it:

  • Simply cultivating an awareness of space, other people (or humans) and context will help and that’s what the exercises below are intended to develop.
  • When you’re planning, you could take time ask yourself how space, other people and context will have an impact on any of the activities you’re undertaking.

Resources

If you’re interested in a deeper dive, try:

Exercise

  • Instead of planning your time, plan your space for a week and see what happens.
  • You could also try planning your humans. Don’t prioritise time when you plan, prioritise yourself and those you’re going to encounter during your week. Harder, but also fun.
  • Could you at least partially change your context for a weekend? Take a notebook!

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Lou xx

P.S. Here’s the next blog post in the series – on how these ideas apply to the writing life.

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