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What Humans Can Learn from CPUs About Multitasking

What Humans Can Learn from CPUs About Multitasking
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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

Author, CEO, Consultant

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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