When context switching becomes thrashing

I was having a chat to Kevin Marks on IM this morning, mulling over the idea of pitching an article to Charles Arthur at the Guardian. Kevin said he thought my idea was good, but I mentioned that I really ought to sort out some other things before I get down to writing out a proper pitch.

“That sounds like thrashing to me,” Kevin said. I had no idea what he was on about.

Turns out that thrashing is a computing term, and Kevin defined it as “switching between tasks too quickly to finish any of them”. Wikipedia defines it as “a degenerate situation on a computer where increasing resources are used to do a decreasing amount of work.”

Holy shit. That’s what I do! Seriously!

It’s been pretty clear for some time that as human beings we can’t actually multitask. Multitasking is nothing more than cutting tasks down into slivers which we then interleave, fooling ourselves into believing that we’re doing lots of things at once when we’re really just doing lots of things in teeny-tiny bits, sequentially and very inefficiently. The cost of multitasking should be pretty obvious – every time you switch contexts you incur a time penalty as your brain refocuses on what it was that you were doing the last time you were doing this task. The more you flit between tasks, the more time is lost switching context. That’s related to the whole problem with email – emails interrupt, there’s an interrupt cost, therefore email costs us time (and money).

But what happens when the habits of so-called multitasking become so ingrained that we don’t even realise we’re doing it? When we start context switching so rapidly that our brains don’t get the chance to finish a train of thought? Well, that’s when we start thrashing, alternating between tasks, thoughts, ideas, plans so fast that we can’t get a proper grip on any of them, can’t actually make progress on any of them.

Technology aids thrashing in ways never dreamt of before. If I’m not entirely clear on what my tasks for the day are, then I can spend a lot of time switching between various pseudotasks, sometimes engaging in both true procrastination and yak shaving (doing lots of small and probably unnecessary tasks, ostensibly as preparation for doing a bigger necessary one, but actually as a way to avoid the larger task).

In theory, tools like Omnifocus should help me get over this by giving me a clear idea of what needs to be done next. I love Omnifocus, especially the iPhone application which lets me capture those annoying “Oh, I must remember to…!” thoughts that I have whilst I’m on the Tube or somewhere else where my computer is not. But it has become increasingly clear that Ominfocus is turning into the place where tasks go to die. My list of projects and tasks is absurdly long, and it seems to get longer rather than shorter as things I “ought” to do get added, but never ticked off.

Even if it is turning out to be at least partly a graveyard for tasks, that’s an important function in and of itself. I need to have a place to put those unlikely to dos that would otherwise rattle round in my head and get in the way of the really important things. (Although I also need to learn to delete tasks which are, in all honesty, never going to get done.)

All bets are off, though, as soon as I have a client work to do, because my priorities become externally set and much easier to manage. There’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind and clear out all the dross. This is one of the big challenges of being a freelance, actually. Managing your time when you have clients is much easier than when you don’t.

In the ten years I’ve been freelance, I think I’ve got to a point where I’m pretty good at being self-motivated and, because I don’t have any proxies for work to get in my way (more about which in another post), I suspect I actually am more productive than your average office-goer. I can’t fake working – everything that doesn’t get done today will still be waiting for me tomorrow. This also means that thrashing, yak shaving, procrastination and other such productivity issues need to be mercilessly hunted down and eradicated, because anything that dents my productivity also dents my ability to earn money. That pay cheque, sadly, doesn’t earn itself.

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