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Project switching friction

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Steve Pavlina's post on "dynamic planning" touches on something I've been thinking about lately: the friction caused by switching contexts or projects as you move from one action to the next.

During the first five years of my company, I worked from home. Any employees worked out of their own homes as well. In January, we finally made the move to an office space, as we were interested in building a more closely knit team environment, and also wanted to move the business to being more of a "job" than a total lifestyle.

Not having too worry about it for so many years, I have been a bit dismayed by the inefficiency of going to and from the office, even though the office is one mile from our house. One trap I've fallen into and am trying to correct is that I tend to have about an hour of unproductive time before leaving for the office. While I'm having coffee, I'll check my email and get a feel for the landscape of the day. This sounds harmless enough, but knowing I'll be leaving for the office soon creates a mental barrier to really completing any actions. I might respond to a few messages, but I know there isn't enough time to get drawn into any significant tasks, so I seem to be going through the motions without really getting anywhere. I'm thinking it might be better to just head straight for the office (we can make coffee there, too) so I can jump right into "work mode."

The other new element to all of this is simply dealing with files. Working from only one place is really simple in terms of file management, because everything you need is on one computer. Now I have to copy things back and forth using my USB key drive. It doesn't take that long, but it's an additional element of friction, and if I happen to forget something, it means an extra trip to the office or home.

What Steve is addressing, however, is the more pervasive friction that occurs any time you switch projects. There is a boot up time associated with reloading the tools, notes, and mental glue whenever you go to a different project. To me, the load time increases relative to how long the project has been inactive. If I worked on a project yesterday, today I'll be able to reload it pretty quickly. If it's been two weeks, getting back into the flow of the project is going to take longer. This seems especially true with code, as my own code will start to seem foreign to me if too much time passes.

I have marathon pushes on particular projects, where I will work an entire day or even several days on only one project. This is usually to meet a deadline. There's no doubt that this is great for getting a lot of work done with minimum switching friction. But in general, I don't like having to do this, because this great progress on one project means the load time on all my other projects is going to be increasing. If I only had three to four projects, I could get into this great flow on each every few days. With lots of projects, I want to keep all of them moving, even if this hinders big chunks of significant progress.

Part of what I like about the concept of the next action is that it can reduce some of this friction of switching projects. The next action is a bookmark, a shortcut to get you back into the fray of a project without having to go back and think, "now, where was I on this project?" every time. There will always be some friction, and I think there is a potential for software to help in this area. I must admit, however, that thinking software can help is usually a danger sign! I've found the best steps forward usually involve modification to mental models or systems and the software is in the background as a mere tool. Still, I can dream, can't I?

If the bookmark to the next action in a project could be expanded from a simple one-line note about what's next to the actual state of your tools and notes as they were when you last were on a project, it seems that would reduce a lot of friction. It would be great if, with one command, your project notes come up, your code editor comes up with the relevant files loaded, the email you were drafting is right there again, etc. In other words, the computer's state is tied directly to your mental state, and multiple states can be saved and reloaded at will. Sure, you can accomplish some of this with a well organized system of links, shortcuts, notes, etc. But I think tools have a long way to go in this regard.

So, in the meantime, I am trying to consider all the mental or physical ways I can reduce friction between switching projects, contexts or actions. Even if the reload time is only a few minutes or even seconds, reducing it can only give you that much more time to actually be productive on projects.

Posted by murt at 3:32 PM

1 Comments:

Blogger Jeff said...
I met this eccentric inventor once who was a little more than well off. He was full of great ideas and shared several of them with me that he's used on his path to success.

The one that this post reminds me of is that he would buy a separate desk for every project he had. The idea was that everything related to a particular project would be stored in or on the desk as he worked on them, so that coming back to a project was as easy as walking up to a desk and scanning what was left on it.

Now, since most computer windowing systems use the common metaphor of a desktop, this idea could pretty directly apply, right? Virtual desktop switching could accomplish the same thing if they were persistent between power cycles...
4/30/2005 7:38 PM  

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