July 26, 2009 by Lisa Call
The Long To Do List
I’m leaving for South African in a couple days and have a todo list a mile long of things I think I need to do before I go. I’ve found myself getting very little done on that list over the last week even though I had plenty of free time in which to do things. A typical hour might look like this:
- “I need to get my new netbook set up – hm – where is it”. Hunt for netbook, get it started up, realize that it’s a netbook, ie slow so look for something else to do in the meantime. Like…
- “I need to write my studio newsletter, let see – where is that file”. Find the file, get it opened up which reminds me I’m to the section where I need to finish those 2 ACEOs first, so off to the studio I go. A few minutes later…
- “Oh yeah, I was doing my netbook, I’ll just kick off a download then come back to the studio.” So back down to the office where the netbook has to be restarted meanwhile I think…
- “I need to buy a memory stick so I can get files off my laptop onto this little thing before I go – I need to make a shopping list”. So hunt down a piece of paper where the first list was started, and I come across my partial todo list that I’m trying to work on, which reminds me…
- “I need a ride to the airport next week, I bet I can schedule that online”
Which then took almost 2 hours because I’d get only part way through and get distracted with something else and then the session would time out and I’d have to start over. But I did get the super shuttle scheduled, so hurray.
Ack, this is no way to get things done. It’s mostly a way to drive myself crazy. I needed a new plan.
A Bit of Geekiness
I love using computer concepts to describe real life situations. It’s the result of an undergraduate degree plus an additional 4 years of graduate school in computer science. All that time surrounded by geeks, talking about theory, and just surviving school. Or maybe it’s how my brain works, being a geek myself at times.
I’ve always loved the term Thrashing and think it perfectly describes what I was doing.
In computer science, thrash (verb), is the term used to describe a degenerate situation on a computer where increasing resources are used to do a decreasing amount of work. In this situation the system is said to be thrashing.
This is usually because the computer is switching back and forth between different jobs it needs to do and by the time it loads back up all the stuff it needs to work on a job, the time allocated to do that work is over and it moves onto a new job, where again it has to load back up all the stuff that job was using. In the end all the computer ends up doing is loading stuff into memory and it never gets any real work done.
Exactly what I was doing. I had plenty of resources to get stuff done. I was just switching back and forth between them too often and never really got going on anything because I never got past the set up. Multitasking gone wild.
Algorithms to Get Back on Track
Algorithm: a finite sequence of instructions, an explicit, step-by-step procedure for solving a problem.
The solutions to handle thrashing in a computer system can also apply to getting more done for us humans.
In the computer world, a system where jobs are run one at a time, in priority order, does not thrash. Each job has the full use of the entire computer so it is able to complete with no problem.
If you want to get things done, prioritizing your list and work through the tasks one at a time. Put on your blinders and focus. Soon things will start getting crossed off the list.
When I realized I was just spinning my wheels, I stopped what I was doing and relaxed. Then I sat down and wrote down everything I needed to do before I left and lumped them into 3 groups:
- Absolutely must get done
- I really really want to do these things
- Would be nice
Within each group I identified priorities between the different tasks and noted any deadlines. I then started to work on the highest priority items on my Absolutely must get done list one at a time without interruption and made some forward progress.
What I’ve just described is the different between multitasking and doing things one at a time, which is no surprise because thrashing is a direct result of multitasking (and virtual memory but you probably don’t want to know about that). The term multitaksing came from the computer world, although we humans have been doing it long before we invented machines that could do it much better.
The down side to not multitasking is there are a lot of wasted resources when a job is waiting for something, the computer (and the human) just sit around twiddling their thumbs. The other problem is that really big and very high priority jobs can “starve” the rest of the jobs in the system by hogging up all the resources and the lower priority stuff never gets a chance happen.
This is one reason why we multitask, both in real life and on the computer – we want to fill up the down time with stuff and, therefore, get more done. We also have some lower priority stuff that we want to do and so we interrupt that super important high priority thing before it finishes cause we need to attend to other things also.
Much has been written about the horrors of multitasking and how we need to not do this. Sure, there are times when slowing down and doing things one at a time is what’s called for. There are other times when going for maximum throughput is the goal, and hence multitasking is the answer.
So let’s go for healthy multitasking vs. thrashing.
2. Increase Resources
According wikipedia the best long term solution to thrashing is to increase the amount of memory in the computer. I certainly agree, if your computer is slow, toss more memory at it and that should definitely help. What happens is less time is needed to reload all of a job’s stuff into memory when it starts up because it’s mostly still in memory when that job gets a turn to run again.
So of what use is this advice for humans? I don’t seem to have any extra spaces for memory.
What you do have is the ability to delegate. Give the cleaning to someone else to do so you don’t get interrupted when marketing or creating art to go do the dishes or vacuum the carpet.
You can also hire someone to do some of the work inside your business also. Someone to do the bookkeeping, someone to do the packaging, someone to put the hangers on the paintings, etc. You are then free to work on the highest value jobs in your business.
3. Decrease the number of jobs
Another solution to thrashing is to decrease the number of jobs that the computer switches between. This leaves more resources for the jobs that are still getting to run. And it means faster context switches, the amount of time a computer needs to load up everything needed to run a job.
This is how I handled my todo list for my trip preparation. I decided to switch between at most 2 different jobs. So when one became blocked I’d go to a second one, but only between these 2 until one finished. I’d then add in the next highest priority task. I was able to switch between jobs much quicker.
When you are trying to do a million things at once and getting no where, try to do just 3 or 4 or maybe 2 things at once and see if that helps. Your brain will remember better what you’ve been working on when you work on just 2 jobs instead of 18 at once. The result is faster context switches as it’s easier to remember where you left off.
4. Replace programs that are memory-heavy with equivalents that use less memory.
In other words, find more efficient ways of doing things.
- Do you always forget how you do things? Write some notes with your step by step process so you don’t have to relearn it every time you decide to crack open the books.
- Do you forget where you’ve stored things? Maybe you need to revamp your storage systems.
- Are the tools you need scattered through your house? Maybe you can keep them all in 1 place for quicker access.
- Do you forget what you were working on the day before and have to puzzle through it for a while to get started? Try jotting down a few notes before you leave the studio to jog your memory. Some people also stop in the middle of something that is very easy to start back up and doesn’t require a lot of analyzing.
5. Handling Distractions
This isn’t a problem for computers. They pretty much just keep doing what they are supposed to over and over again. Well that is, unless there is a bug (something that makes the computer do something that wasn’t intended).
It’s pretty unlikely that when you click on the Word icon in window that the computer is going to get distracted and open up firefox instead because it would rather go check facebook.
As humans it’s not so easy. Because facebooks sounds like so much more fun than excel some days. And we think “oh just for a minute I’ll check my wall then I’ll come back and work” and next thing we know 2 hours have gone by.
This is where responsibility comes in, as I wrote about a few weeks back. If you take full responsibility for your actions you realize that only you can decide where you put you attention. Do you want to get your next painting finished tonight, or do you want to write witty comments to your friends. Your choice – and also your responsibility.
6. Having Fun
This has nothing to do with computers either. They don’t get bummed out if something that sounds fun but is a lower priority never happens. Creating art and writing a business plan are all the same to a computer.
When I made my todo lists there weren’t a lot of “fun” things on the must do list. To keep from getting burned out on all the work, I’ve been adding in some fun activities from the Would-Be-Nice list. Yesterday I made the time to visit the Denver Art museum for an hour, taking a break from travel preparations.
When you are feeling overwhelmed and feeling you aren’t getting anything done, try just dropping everything and relaxing for a while, or take a walk to clear your mind, watch a movie, have dinner with a friend. Have some fun also.
Do you have any tips for dealing with thrashing? How do you handle the pitfalls of multitasking? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
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