Managing time like a pro (according to machines)

Have you ever felt like you always run out of time? Like 24 hours a day isn’t enough for you to get everything done?

Well, I grew up in a place where I was surrounded by a bunch of tasks since I was in my early age, at home, at school, and at uni. It got worse once I unlocked a new phase in my life: My professional career!

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. – Annie Dillard.

I watched ted ed years ago titled how to manage your time more effectively (according to machines) by Brian Christian. The Video tells a story about how Nasa’s pathfinder spacecraft is procrastinating. Keeping itself fully occupied but failed to do its most important work, transmitting iconic images on mars back to earth.

What is happening? It turns out there is a bug in its scheduler. Even computers get overwhelmed sometimes like a human do!

But my favorite part is the story of the Linux operating system programmers in 2003. Linux would rank every single task in order of importance, even sometimes spending more time ranking task than doing them.

Can anybody relate? As a human, some of us just doing the exact same thing! Spending 30 mins to write on a to-do list but can’t get anything done by the end of the day. To be honest, I’m doing that too!
Do you know what happens next? the programmer’s counterintuitive solution is to replace this ranking with a limited number of priority “buckets.” It caused the system to be less precise about what to do next but more than made up for it by spending more time making progress.

In real life, insisting on always doing the most important thing first could lead to a meltdown, a.k.a MLEYOT. So at some point, I love to do my task randomly because sometimes, giving up on doing things in the perfect order is the key to getting them done.

Another insight that emerges from computer scheduling concerns the most prevalent features of modern life… Interruptions.

When the computer goes from one task to another, there’s a context switch process. Bookmarking its place on work, moving old data out of its memory and new data in. The insight here is that there’s a fundamental trade-off between productivity and responsiveness.

Getting focused on one task to get it done means minimizing context switches. But being responsive means reacting anytime something comes up. These principles are fundamentally in tension. Recognizing this tension allows us to decide where we want to strike that balance. Obviously, the solution is to minimize interruptions.

Like when I receive an email from a co-worker that doesn’t require an urgent response in one hour. I will continue working on my current task until it’s done and move to reply to a bunch of emails in my inbox.

Actually, in computer science, this idea goes by interrupt coalescing. Rather than dealing with things as they arise, the system groups this interruption together based on how long they can afford to wait. The idea of interrupt coalescing triggered a massive improvement in laptop battery life in 2013. As with computers, so it is with us.

Of course, adopting a similar approach to daily life might allow us to reclaim our attention. It may give us back one thing that feels so rare these days in modern life: Rest.

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