Context-Switching Metaphors for Work-Life Blending

I have previously written about/drawn cartoons about the evolution of work-life attitudes. I also drilled down into the issue within the Gen X framing of ‘balance’ using the surfing, juggling and spinning plates metaphors. Let’s now try and visualize the ‘work-life blending’ framing. Blending inevitably involves very frequent context switching, so we need metaphors for both the blending itself, and for understanding the context switching. Let’s talk about it with two graphics. For the blending, the communications-technology metaphor of time-division multiplexing is probably the easiest one to start with. For context-switching, we’ll use metaphors like unwind and unplug.



Let’s talk multiplexing. You do only one thing at a time: ‘work stuff’ or ‘personal stuff’ and the basic activity pattern of work-life-work-life alternation hasn’t changed. What has changed is that there is more frequent switching (thereby increasing context switching costs), and also the bleeding of life into work, as I pointed out previously. I also suspect there is more variability in the work-effort intensity levels today than before. You get high-variance stress patterns within a week, as opposed to during occasional crises.

But is time-division multiplexing the only one that works? What communications engineers call frequency-division multiplexing maps most to what we understand as “multitasking” or doing more than one thing in parallel. Here there is a gender difference. Men know it cannot really be done. Women think it can. The best we can do is background-foreground multiplexing, where only one activity has “focus” at any given time (high-frequency manipulation, like “typing”), but we can maintain several activities on the backburner (lower-frequency manipulation… “stir the soup every 5 minutes”). This happens to me when I work at home. I am able to cook non-demanding meals (example: pressure cooker) while working. I am able to put work problems on ‘simmer’ while chopping vegetables, if my mind is overheated.

Communications people also talk about code-division multiplexing. This is as close as we can get to true multi-tasking, where one part of our body is talking one language (mouth, English, cellphone), while another is talking another language (hands, stirring, soup).

But most interesting to me is a mode of blending that pushes the multiplexing metaphor to its limit. I often blend work and life by using whatever slack I have on both ends to do things that help me move towards objectives on both ends. Like combining a work+business trip, or prioritizing projects at work in ways that also help me pursue my hobby of writing this blog better. Or angling for projects that help you develop the skills that would otherwise be relegated to weekends. Call that intention-division-multiplexing, to stay within the metaphor.


Whatever blending metaphor you use, it is clear that there will be a lot more context-switching costs. Context-switching is itself a metaphor from computer science, referring to a CPU switching between processes. But it isn’t a good metaphor for our purposes. Here are some meta-metaphors to help us think about context switching.


Curiously, our most common metaphors for context-switching are drawn from the history of technology.

  • Unwind is a reference to the classical mechanical age when clock-making represented the cutting-edge of technology. This metaphor has the benefit of capturing the phenomenonlogy accurately: workday stresses get us “wound up” and we do some stretches or drink some wine to unwind. It is particularly apt because it gets at the random nature of getting “wound up.” Just like the automatic winder mechanisms of pre-quartz watches could be ‘wound’ by random motions, random work events get us slowly wound up. You cannot fight this. The disadvantage is that it doesn’t capture the “warm-up” part of context-switching.
  • Decompress, I suspect, dates to the Great Age of Steam Engines. Again, there is an image of pressure building up as you work. It is at the heart of the title of the novel, Boiler Room. I don’t like this one, mainly because it seems to apply best to high-stress information work, like stock trading or air-traffic control. There is an image of imminent explosive possibilities that the spring metaphor lacks. This metaphor brings in the “warm-up” parts better.
  • Unplug began in the world of music, symbolizing a switch from “on show” performance for a large crowd (electronically amplified instruments) to a more intimate acoustic performance. But I’ve heard people use it to describe more personal context-switching rituals. I like the ‘on show’ and ‘off’ aspects here. Being at work, especially in a people-facing role, is like being on show. Too much of that, and you just want to go away and hide. This one doesn’t work for fast context-switching within a blender-lifestyle. It works best for a serious switch, like a weekend. There is a slight possibility that some people use this as a plumbing metaphor, in which case it is an R-rated metaphor, or potty humor.
  • I didn’t know how to illustrate detox as a blender metaphor. This is the most physical of the metaphors, since it usually implies some actual actions, like going to a spa, doing a fruit diet for a day, or doing some yoga. I’ve only heard women use this one. Men tend to say things like “I need to get outdoors, do some nature stuff.” I think there is a gender difference here. Men really do prefer outdoorsy activities as a way to detox. I don’t really enjoy spas.
  • Off the grid is not really a blender metaphor. It is rare to hear people talk that way even about vacations. It has more in common with the hippie era dropping out metaphor, signifying deep and possibly permanent disconnection from the technological world. But I like this one, and it works increasingly well as we go more mobile. Occasionally, I’ll come home from work in the late afternoon, around 3:00 PM, turn off my cell phone, and take a nap, before doing some more work in the evening. That’s a good ‘off the grid’ for me, though my wife hates it when I do that.
  • A metaphor I’ve only heard myself use is defrag my mind, which I find to be very evocative for when you’ve been doing a large amount of complex thinking in a short time. If you’ve never defragmented your hard drive and watched the little graphic show the red and green sectors clean themselves up, this metaphor will make no sense to you.

The nice thing about these metaphors is that each suggests different context-switching rituals. Unwind suggests physical activity like running, to release tense muscles. Decompress suggests simply doing a few big sighs and exhales. Unplug, in the electrical version, suggests just lazing around (turn the energy off). Detox suggests paying attention to what you are eating and, especially, drinking.

Off the grid is probably the hardest to do. It suggests not checking email and other alert mechanisms. Since most of us today are addicts, that’s pretty hard. It suggests putting yourself somewhere where connectivity is physically difficult, like a camping trip or a cruise. I went on a cruise recently, and the hourly cost of the shipboard Internet access was enough to keep me off the grid. We saw a free email checking station in Nassau that we couldn’t resist though.

Finally, defrag suggests that letting your thoughts settle, and letting go of runaway trains of thoughts is key. For me the way to do that is to tune into a different information source than my own brain. This means TV or a mystery novel. While I am distracted, my thoughts settle and arrange themselves better in my memory.

But none of these metaphors seem to really work for the really high-speed context-switching we need these days. The more frequently you shift contexts, the less time you can afford to spend. Pete Sampras is reputed to have taken his game to a whole other level by learning to deeply relax between games and sets.

I don’t know what a good switching metaphor would be for a true high-frequency blending lifestyle, since our latest technological wave actually suggests that we can never disconnect. Maybe blending comes with an inevitably higher baseline level of stressful connectedness.

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. gregory says:

    the advantage of a good tight series of analogies and metaphors like this is that you get so far into the play of structured concepts that you are in absolutely no danger of bumping into anything that could remotely have any meaning at all. and so nothing to be responsible for. cool

  2. lol :) I’ll take that as a compliment actually!

    I do have more of a tamas-rajas-sattvik approach to this stuff, but even that’s likely too conceptual for you gregory!

    One day, fortified with rum and coke, I’ll probably take a stab at an advaitist treatment.

  3. gregory says:

    actually, i find you smart as hell, heck, however is the way to say that … a really wide-ranging mind, good focus in several directions … somebody i can learn from in such a way that i can find my voice .. in other words, how can i write/speak/think in such a way that i can be understood by people who have a different vocabulary ….

    the quick example, patanjili’s yoga sutras, third chapter, all the siddhis, the powers, that consciousness has …. and it doesn’t take much insight to see that, hey, that is what technology is doing out here in the real world … so, then, the question could come up, if you know consciousness, can you know technology? not the coding, but where it is going to, what it is in emulation of?

    and then there are scientists, who seem to think that consciousness comes from meat, bio-chemical events in the brain … yogis say the opposite, matter comes from consciousness …

    and how to integrate these views from different arenas of investigation is something i am interested in, simply because it seems a need of the times…

    anyway, thanks for your time, enjoy, gregory

  4. >Men know it cannot really be done. Women think it can.

    Did you use “think” and “know” just for the sake of not repeating words or are you of the opinion that it cannot be done, just that women think otherwise while men are already aware of the truth?

  5. @ Abhay; the latter. My poor attempt at ironic-sexist humor for 2008.

  6. Venkatesh
    From a purely communication perspective, I really like the icons and sketches. I wish more business people would use this as a way to express their ideas. Cut down on all the paper and data-crammed sheets!

    I am linking to this article in an upcoming blog posting.
    All the best,
    Warwick John Fahy
    The One Minute Presenter

  7. @gregory, three of my recent reads may be of interest to you. The slim volume of “Bitten by the Black Snake” by the Swiss mystic Manuel Schoch is a gentle introduction to the gist of Ashtavakra Gita, which has been described as brilliantly “succeeding in explaining where the Upanishads stammer and the Gita hesitates” by Chinmayananda whose more comprehensive book on it I am currently reading. An amazing contemporary explanation of vast areas of Indian mythology and vedanta in crisp nuggets is in Devdutt Pattanaik’s “myth = mithya” a Penguin paperpack I am delightfully perusing now.

    @vgr I made a note to recommend myth=mithya to you, especially when I saw his frequent usage of the words “narrative” and “metaphor” :-) His TED video has been a popular forward amongst assorted desis. It is a rare combo of an Indian with content, style and humor (contrast with Nilekani’s TED speech that has some content but…).

    Quite a few times commenters have drawn my attention to some of your early posts and until now, I had a vague hesitation in joining older threads. I suggest a post in 2010 about this phenomenon of very delayed reaction that revives a conversation deemed to have ended (assuming you read and choose to respond to some). What if a popular blogger comments and tracks back to an old post, especially if your views on the subject have since ‘matured’ in a different direction, and which then leads to higher traffic than your Gervais post? Would you be happily irritated?

    • RG:

      Thanks for the myth=mithya reco, will check it out.

      Re: old threads… I guess it is part of the constantly shifting sands of our modern 2.0 “blogosphere of record.” I have no problems reviving threads, but chances are the old conversationalists would have gone by then. Gregory (@gregorylent, if you want to contact him) for instance, was an avid reader at one point, but hasn’t shown up much lately. At the time, I didn’t have the ‘subscribe to comments to this article by email’ option.

      I suspect though, that blog posts, as opposed to wiki articles, are fundamentally time-sensitive with greater/lesser time constants. Even the most timeless piece will likely be difficult to revive. Wikis though, often have flare-ups of renewed debate. My colleagues over at PARC actually built a tool to visualize wiki editing/debates: wikidashboard… it hosts a restricted copy of wikipedia with the dashboard enabled on each page. Historically contentious articles show patterns of editing.


  8. Similar to defrag, but ‘reboot’ captures the cost of context switching: as you run more applications simultaneously, you run out of RAM and need to reboot to freshen things up.

    Interesting to note the trend from computers requiring daily reboots (PC) toward computers that are always on (Mac)