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.