c&p #13: The cost of context switching

Think about a recurring multi-stage or complex task you have to do as a creative. 

Perhaps the craft itself; adventuring to take photos, filming a YouTube video, sitting down to write, readying yourself for a long session at the Wacom. Perhaps it's not about the craft at all; maybe you're building a new website to promote yourself, learning how to do marketing, or networking with new people. 

The things we do as creatives (and as humans, just in general), are complex. And even the most seemingly straightforward of tasks can have a lot of moving parts.

Take my favourite act and craft to do, for example: Taking photos. 

Now the actual physical action of pressing a shutter button is, in itself, a simple task, but the process of going to take photos isn't always as short as it seems to be. 

Yes, sometimes, it's as simple as just grabbing your camera and going for a walk outside and seeing what you get, but for me, more often than not, I'm going to shoot for work, or with a purpose, or for a deliberate practice; all of which require some kind of planning and conscious effort to execute. 

I have to think about what I want to achieve out of the shoot, where I can go to make that shoot happen. I have to research the time to go, the weather conditions I want to shoot in or what's coming up. I have to figure out how I'm going to get there and the logistics. Maybe I have to get other creatives involved, or maybe this one single shoot involves multiple content pieces on multiple platforms.

All before I even get to press the shutter button. 

Of course, over the years, I've gotten better and better at this, but still, every time I want to go out to do a planned shoot, there's a cost, the cost of switching contexts. 

When we're changing contexts and moving from process to process, task to task, there's a slowdown in our levels of efficiency depending on the task. Some tasks require us to do a lot of prep work to even get a result, while others can get going straight away. Context switching can cause our focus to wane or make us forget things in the juggling act of managing all the things.

For example, when I'm going to a new location I've never been to before, researching everything there is to know about a particular place takes significant ramp-up time to start to develop enough domain knowledge about it so that I can think like a local and find things that are off the beaten track. Sometimes this can take me hours, and sometimes, it can take me days, depending on how in-depth I go and how important it is. 

When I'm planning the itinerary, I've faced this ramp-up problem enough times now that I have a template I made for myself that breaks the days down into chunks that are logical to me. This lets me get started much faster and, subsequently, finished faster too. We're talking minutes, not hours.

Even when I'm on the shoot, because I'm such a hybrid shooter now doing both photo and video, there are/have been/and will continue to be, missed moments because I'm fluffing about changing between modes because I want one media type over the other. Also, this mental jiujitsu I have to do every time I want to capture a scene inevitably leads to more mental fatigue or, even worse, poorer quality output on both media types. 

All this is to say that the act of context-switching is costly. Costly in time, costly in effort, and costly in quality. 

The worst part about it is that it's usually so subtle that you don't even notice it. A small slowdown here, a bit of mental jarring there, but over the course of a day or a week, it will start catching up to you.

I've been a lot more sensitive to this lately, so to solve this, I've started thinking about how I can apply the art of batching to my creative work.

I love batching. Doing common tasks together at a common time. 

It means that you set up once and get a lot of the same thing done quickly. No ramp-up or wind-down time, no switching workspaces, no setting up the studio and breaking it down 1000 days in a row.

Best of all, it means that you can focus on one thing at a time, ensuring that the quality remains high.

Some ways I've started to do this are: 

  • Writing all my YouTube scripts on the same day
  • Filming all my YouTube videos on the same day
  • Spending one entire day editing YouTube videos
  • Or, spending one entire day editing photos
  • Writing as many creative&process newsletters as I can in an afternoon in a week
  • Going out to only shoot images
  • Going out to only shoot video
  • Doing all my upcoming trip planning in one day
  • Doing all my comment replying in the same hour for every platform
  • Replying to all my friends in the same hour a few times a day 
  • Doing emails only twice a day, inbox zero once in the morning, and inbox zero once a few hours before bed. 

Building in these batch actions means that I'm zoned in and focused on the task at hand, and that usually means I can do more of it and in higher quality as well. Win-win.

Try it for yourself!

Test out a few regular actions you always do, and see if breaking them down and doing those parts in batches works for you and your creative process better than doing everything from start to finish every time. 

Let's get efficient, creative. 🫡

See you next week.

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