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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

Author, CEO, Consultant

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Last Updated on April 6, 2020

15 Best Productivity Hacks for Procrastinators

15 Best Productivity Hacks for Procrastinators

Let me guess.

You should be doing something else rather than reading this article. But due to some unknown force of nature, you decided to procrastinate by reading an article about how to hack procrastination. You deserve a pat on the back.

Fortunately, procrastination is not a disease. It’s just a mindset that can be changed, however, here are some productivity tips you need to start getting work done:

First, you need to acknowledge that procrastinating is an unhealthy habit. Not only you’re prioritizing unimportant things, basically, nothing gets done. Still unsure if you’re a procrastinator? Check out this article: Types of Procrastination (And How To Fix Procrastination And Start Doing)

Second, your commitment to change is very important. You should be physically, emotionally, and mentally determined to change this habit. If not, then you’ll just succumb to the tempting lure of doing other things rather than your tasks or chores.

Here are sthe best productivity hacks to improve productivity and keep yourself from procrastinating at work:

1. Give (10+2)*5 a Try

Let’s start with a classic but very effective hack called (10+2)*5 created by Merlin Mann,[1] author of 43Folders.com. Don’t worry. This is not a complicated Mathematical formula you need to solve.

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The (10+2)*5 simply means 10 minutes work + 2 minutes break multiplied by 5, completing 1 hour. It is crucial to stick with the time limits and not skipping work and break schedules. The point of this is for you to create a jam-packed routine of work and break schedules. The result? You will eventually skip your break schedules.

2. Use Red and Blue More Often

Clean your desk and remove things that might distract you. According to a Science Daily study[2] about which colors improve brain performance, red was found out to increase attention to details while blue sparks creativity. Surrounding your workplace with these colors not only benefits your brain, it’s also pleasing to the eye.

3. Create a Break Agenda

List all the things you want to do on your break, be it surfing the web, checking your emails, snack time, taking selfies, Facebook/Twitter—everything.

Like the (10+2)*5 hack, squeeze these in between work time but the difference is you schedule these activities for ONLY 20 minutes. Eventually, you’ll take your break minutes wisely. You’re finishing tasks while sidetracking to doing the things you enjoy.

4. Set a Timetable for Your Tasks

Like any other habits, procrastinating is a tough wall to break. Replace this habit with another habit. When you’re assigned a task, set a timetable for each step. Let’s say you have a big research task. Here’s a sample timetable:

9:00 – 9:10 am – Set up all your tools, browser tabs, emails, coffee, etc..
9:10 – 10:00 am – Internet research
10:00 – 10:45 am – Look through existing files
10:45 – 11:00 am – Break time!
11:00 – 12:00 pm – Outline the research report

Deadlines are the best hack for getting things done. Setting a specific time to finish a task creates time pressure even if the deadline has passed.

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5. Take It Outside!

Do yourself a favor and don’t ruin the comfy vibe of your home. If you need to work on a stressful project, do it in a library or coffee shop. You’ll never finish it anyway. Your cozy sofa and toasty bed will just lure you into napping yourself to doom.

6. Become Productively Lazy

Instead of finding all sorts of ways to unproductively procrastinate, use your habit to look for shortcuts and new ways to finish your tasks. Staple multiple papers at a time or master the 3-second t-shirt folding technique. A strong drive combined with laziness sometimes bring out the productive and creative side you never knew you have!

7. Assign a ‘Task Deputy’

It could be your colleague, your supervisor, or your significant other, anyone who has the unforgiving guts to reprimand you when you procrastinate. You could go the extra mile by paying up unfinished tasks or times you open your Facebook or watch a funny cat video on YouTube. Let’s see how five bucks every time you procrastinate will change you.

8. Consider a Gadget-Free Desk

According to a study by Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, average users check on their phones 150 times per day and having your phone just an elbow away just creates sizzle to this habit.[3]

Removing mobile devices and gadgets allows you to focus on your work without the constant interruption from notifications, calls, and text messages. It eliminates the very distracting ambiance and the urge to unlock your phone just because.

9. Prepping the Night

Before hitting the sack to oblivion, prepare everything you’ll need the next day. This will probably take you 15 minutes tops, saving you more time for coffee in the morning.

Spin class at am? Pack up your gym clothes, shoes, socks, etc. or better, create a checklist so you don’t miss anything. You can also prep your food into containers and just grab one before leaving.

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10. Do a 7-Minute Workout in the Morning

Exercising is proven to increase productivity and stimulate release of endorphin or “Happy Hormones”.

Take a jog outdoors and get warmed up for the day. Don’t feel like running outside? Hop on a treadmilli. It’s a great investment and there are a lot of ways you can use a treadmill like endurance running and metabolism training. On a budget? Here’s a 7 minute, no-equipment needed workout you can do at home:

11. Set-up Mini Tasks

If you’re given a big project, break it down into mini tasks. Create a checklist and start with the easy ones until you finish. Got an article to write? Just start with the title and the first sentence. Or perhaps you have a visual presentation to make?

Spend 15 minutes on your outline, take five minutes coffee break, then finish the first two slides. Accomplishing something, no matter how tiny, still gives you that sense of fulfillment.

12. Create an Inspirational Board or Reminder

I found these mini desk chalkboards from Etsy you can use to write motivating quotes.

Or you know what? Simply write “Do it now!” and stare at it for 10 seconds every time you feel like dropping by on Reddit.

13. Redecorate Your Room

Redecorating my room motivates me to maintain that ‘new’ look for some time until I get use to it and eventually stop. So I redecorate again and again, it became a monthly habit really. Here are some DIY ideas you can do to any room without spending much.

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14. Ready Your Nibbles

You know that trip to the pantry? It’s just seconds away but it took you several minutes just to get your fruit snacks in the fridge. Before starting a task, prepare your nibbles on your desk to avoid zoning out and losing yourself on the way to the pantry.

Bonus productivity hacks you can do at home:

15. Schedule Your Chores

Write down your chores in a weekly basis with matching day and time when you should be doing these.

For the artsy folks, you can create fun chore charts like these or simply stick the list somewhere visibly annoying e.g. mirrors, doors, TV. The trick is listing as many chores as you can for the week and including unfinished chores the following week. Who likes seeing a long list of chores first thing in the morning?

More Tips to Overcome Procrastination

Featured photo credit: Glenn Carstens-Peters via unsplash.com

Reference

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