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What Humans Can Learn from CPUs About Multitasking

What Humans Can Learn from CPUs About Multitasking

Multitasking

Nowadays, our minds and our computers are very busy, because we have more and more tasks to accomplish in the same amount of time. We are trying multitasking, but it seems human brains are simply not designed to operate that way! When you try to do two things at the same time, you know that is will not work long term, you can only focus on one thing at a time. That said, it is possible to deal with your tasks in a manner that appears simultaneous from the perspective of hours and days. This is effective multitasking, human edition.

We are now in multicore CPU era, but we can still remember the time that we had a single core CPU and yet had a multitasking environment. My old computer was able to play music, do some background calculations, and download a file from the Internet while I was writing a text at the same time. Multitasking operating system on a CPU that can do only one thing at a time: isn’t that exactly what we need? When we look how that has been achieved, there is a great lesson to be learned for humans.

Today, nearly all operating systems support preemptive multitasking, but there were early version of Microsoft Windows that were using cooperative multitasking, which didn’t work well. According to Wikipedia, “Preemptive multitasking involves the use of an interrupt mechanism which suspends the currently executing process and invokes a scheduler to determine which process should execute next.” Let us see what humans can learn about multitasking from that concept.

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Lesson 1: Task switch is costly

What happens when task switch is initiated? We need to save the context with the intention of resuming the task at a later time. Save the context, resume another task, voila! However, it is not that easy for CPUs and it is even harder for humans. Saving context takes time and also CPUs have data cache, which stores recently used data for very quick access and switching the task will need to flush some of the cache entries. It will require some additional time to put that data back into cache. You know it probably all too well—a message pops up on your desktop when you are fully focused and it sidetracks your thought process; some cache entries are gone and it will take you minutes to regain your performance level. Lesson number 1 for humans is task switches are very, very costly!

If you react to pop-ups, enter your social media “just for one minute”, and look into your e-mail inbox every minute or two, you know why your performance suffers: your brain has to constantly save and restore the context and your “cache” is never efficient.

Lesson 2: Time boxes

Preemptive operating systems use a concept of a time slice, which is the period for which a process is allowed to run. An interruption, usually coming from a clock, will initiate a task switch. If you have a PC or Mac, this is how your CPU operates most of the time! This concept works great for CPUs, but it works even better for humans: the “Pomodoro technique” is a great example of that. I set my countdown timer and focus on just one thing. It is so powerful that it revolutionized the working style of many people.

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I have all my data in very efficient cache, so my operation is very fast: I am avoiding task switches, but at the same I am sure that I will be able to accomplish all of my tasks, because my clock will tell me when to stop and/or switch. Every task switch is costly, and timeboxes are a great way to multitask effectively.

Lesson 3: Interval is carefully chosen

When using timeboxes, the main question is what intervals should I use? If it’s too short, we’ll use too much time on task switches, instead of the actual operation. When it’s too long, other tasks suffer. Can you imagine an operating system when task switch occurs every few seconds? That would be very unresponsive and annoying. The actual interval for our operating systems is usually several milliseconds.

With humans, the problem is more complex, because we are also getting tired. We cannot switch every minute, but three hours is also unrealistic; we would be very unresponsive, but also drained from energy at the same time. A good number to start with is “Pomodoro number”25 minutes—but your personal style, energy level, work demands will influence that. Experiment and see what interval works best for you. For CPUs and operating systems, that single number is one of the most important to determine whether it is going to be responsive and have a feeling of smooth multitasking.

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Lesson 4: Interrupt handling

We are constantly dealing with interruptions in our work and CPUs handle millions of interruptions as well. What makes us very different from operating systems is that their interruption handlers are usually very, very quick and they do not require a context switch. You received a phone call, you read an email, you read a short message, and you changed a tab in your browser “just to see one thing”. It was not an interruption; it was a context switch.

If we dealt with interruptions in a similar manner that CPUs, we would simply write down some information, acknowledge that we’ve received it and resume an operation. It’s just few seconds. If it was an interruption, you did not have to switch the context. Do we really need that many interruption sources?

Lesson 5: Priorities

In operating systems, tasks have their prioritieseven interruptions have them. When handling an interruption of priority X, usually all the others with priority equal to or lower than X are blocked. It is a great lesson for us, because in many cases everything is equally important (and urgent!) and this is why we can rarely accomplish anything.

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Summary

Humans are not CPUs. Our life is not about completing tasks effectively. We are spiritual beings; we have passion, emotions, relationships, and abstract thoughts. There is a great lesson that we can take from current CPUs and operating systems, however, and that is to multitask efficiently.

Try timeboxes to eliminate task switches, observe which intervals give you satisfaction and perception of effective multitasking, handle interrupts as interrupts should be handled and write down your priorities. When you think about multitasking, CPUs and operating systems are a great source of inspiration!

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Piotr Nabielec

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

What Is Creativity? We All Have It, and Need It

What Is Creativity? We All Have It, and Need It

Do you think of yourself as a creative person? Do you play the drums or do watercolor paintings? Perhaps compose songs or direct plays? Can you even relate to any of these so called ‘creative’ experiences? Growing up, did you ever have that ‘artistic’ sibling or friend who excelled in drawing, playing instruments or literature? And you maybe wondered why you can’t even compose a birthday card greeting–or that drawing stick figures is the furthest you’ll ever get to drawing a family portrait. Many people have this common assumption that creativity is an inborn talent; only a special group of people are inherently creative, and everyone else just unfortunately does not have that special ability. You either have that creative flair or instinct, or you don’t. But, this is far from the truth! So what is creativity?

Can I Be Creative?

The fact is, that everyone has an innate creative ability. Despite what most people may think, creativity is a skill that everyone can learn and hone on. It’s a skill with huge leverage that allows you to generate enormous amounts of value from relatively little input. How is that so? You’ll have to start by expanding your definition of creativity. Ironically, you have to be creative and ‘think out of the box’ with the definition! Creativity at its heart, is being able to see things in a way that others cannot. It’s a skill that helps you find new perspectives to create new possibilities and solutions to different problems. So, if you encounter different challenges and problems that need solving on a regular basis, then creativity is an invaluable skill to have.Let’s say, for example, that you work in sales. Having creativity will help you to look for new ways to approach and reach out to potential customers. Or perhaps you’re a teacher. In this role you have to constantly look for new ways to deliver your message and educate your students.

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How Creativity Works

Let me break another misconception about creativity, which is that it’s only used to create completely “new” or “original” things. Again, this is far from the truth. Because nothing is ever completely new or original. Everything, including works of art, doesn’t come from nothing. Everything derives from some sort of inspiration. That means that creativity works by connecting things together in order to derive new meaning or value.From this perspective, you can see a lot of creativity in action. In technology, Apple combines traditional computers with design and aesthetics to create new ways to use digital products. In music, a musician may be inspired by various styles of music, instruments and rhythms to create an entirely new type of song. All of these examples are about connecting different ideas, finding common ground amongst the differences, and creating a completely new idea out of them.

What Really Is Creativity?

Creativity Needs an Intention

Another misconception about the creative process is that you can just be in a general “creative” state. Real creativity isn’t about coming up with “eureka!” moments for random ideas. Instead, to be truly creative, you need to have a direction. You have to ask yourself this question: “What problem am I trying to solve?” Only by knowing the answer to this question can you start flexing your creativity muscles. Often times, the idea of creativity is associated with the ‘Right’ brain, with intuition and imagination. Hence a lot of focus is placed on the ‘Right’ brain when it comes to creativity. But, to get the most out of creativity, you need to utilize both sides of your brain–Right and Left–which means using the analytical and logical part of your brain, too. This may sound surprising to you, but creativity has a lot to do with problem solving. And, problem solving inherently involves logic and analysis. So instead of throwing out the ‘Left’ brain, full creativity needs them to work in unison. For example, when you’re looking for new ideas, your ‘Left’ brain will guide you to a place of focus, which is based on your objective behind the ideas you’re searching for. The ‘Right’ brain then guides you to gather and explore based on your current focus. And when you decide to try out these new ideas, your ‘Right’ brain will give you novel solutions outside of the ones you already know. Your ‘Left’ brain then helps you evaluate and tune the solutions to work better in practice. So, logic and creativity actually work hand in hand, and not one at the expense of the other.

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Creativity Is a Skill

At the end of the day, creativity is a skill. It’s not some innate or natural born talent that some have over others. What this means is that creativity and innovation can be practiced and improved upon systematically.A skill can be learned and practiced by applying your strongest learning styles. Want to know what your learning style is? Try this test. A skill can be measured and improved through a Feedback Loop, and can be continuously upgraded over time by regular practice. Through regular practice, your creativity goes through different stages of proficiency. This means that you can become more and more creative! If you never thought that creativity was relevant to you, or that you don’t have a knack for being creative… think again! You can use creativity in any aspect of your life. In fact you should use it, as it will allow you to to break through your usual loop, get you out of your comfort zone, and inspire you to grow and try new things. Creativity will definitely give you an edge when you’re trying to solve a problem or come up with new solutions.

Start Connecting the Dots

Excited to start honing your creativity? Here at Lifehack, we’ve got a wealth of knowledge to help you get started. We understand that creativity is a matter of connecting things together in order to derive new meaning or value. So, if you want to learn how to start connecting the dots, check out these tips:

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Featured photo credit: rawpixel via unsplash.com

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