Context switching on multiple projects

December 20, 2007

Recently I had a discussion with a client about project estimation and late delivery on recent projects and I advised them that faults in both these areas could perhaps be attributed to context switching costs caused by working on multiple projects at any one time.

I had recently been studying Team System engineering processes and in the book Software Engineering with Microsoft Visual Studio Team System by Sam Guckenheimer and Juan J.Perez, there is a chapter about value-up processes.
In one section of chapter the book illustrates a famous proposal by Gerald Weinberg in his book Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking:

…he proposed a rule of thumb to compute the waste caused by project switching:

No. Simultaneous Projects Percent of Time on Project Loss to Context Switching
1 100% 0%
2 40% 20%
3 20% 40%
4 10% 60%
5 5% 75%

There is no doubt that as a developer working on multiple projects you tend to leak time resources – re-establishing the current state, where you were at, what needs doing.
But the statistics quoted show that this loss is more significant than you might initially think when you go past two projects; it becomes a very big drain indeed.

I believe that one of the integral parts of programming is the fact that you have a lot of information in your head at any one time while you shape your code – wiping this clean as if clearing a whiteboard and then having to effectively having to re-draw it all again at a later date is undoubtedly costly.
A good, well organised developer can minimise this risk so that “writing it up again” takes minimum time, but it cannot be entirely removed.

In The Multi-Tasking Myth blog post from last year by Jeff Atwood (Coding Horror) he goes further to illustrate other forms of “distraction” context switching such as emails and phone calls (there is even a lovely graph!) and he summarises with:

We typically overestimate how much we’ll actually get done, and multi-tasking exaggerates our own internal biases even more. Whenever possible, avoid interruptions and avoid working on more than one project at the same time.

The short of it is that if you are able, stick to one project at a time and spend as much continuous time as possible.
It keeps you far more productive.


One comment

  1. […] For all you developers and freelancers out there, this is a must read, https://foreachbiscuit.wordpress.com/2007/12/20/context-switching-on-multiple-projects/ […]

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