I have a phobia that prevents me from operating at my full potential. It isn’t athazagoraphobia (the fear of forgetting) or atelophobia (the fear of imperfection). I also have no fear of looking up (anablephobia) or of peanut butter sticking to the roof of my mouth (arachibutyrophobia).
In fact, I haven’t been able to find a name for my phobia and as you can tell I started with the A’s and worked my way down. My phobia is fear of being interrupted. Obviously this hasn’t crippled me in any significant way, but I consistently find myself not working on my most important task because I’m afraid I’ll be interrupted. I put them off until I feel like I won’t get interrupted. In the past I’d wait until late at night and then start on the important tasks that required concentration. This worked for awhile, but now that we have a daughter (who is an early riser) it doesn’t work out as well and I’m trying to protect more of my evening hours for being with family.
As I’ve thought about it I’ve come to the conclusion that certain tasks require an expensive shift in thought in order to get refocused on the problem. There is an analogy to this in the world of computers and it is called “shifting context”. When a computer is multitasking, it has to shift back and forth between the state required to handle one particular problem and the other problems it is multi-tasking. There is a special type of memory called registers that basically dump directly into the processor. Whenever the processor has to shift context, the computer must reload the registers with the previous state of that task so the computer can resume its process on that task.
This shift in context requires overhead. Two equivalent tasks, will not complete in multitasking as fast as they will complete in sequence. This is because of the overhead of changing the context back and forth. Unlike humans, computers can perform this shift in context very rapidly. The whole myth of multitasking comes from not understanding the difference between how computers and people shift contexts.
Expensive Context Shift
Once interrupted it requires an expensive (in terms of time) readjustment to get back to work again. The biggest area I encounter this is in programming but it happens in other areas as well. I was reading an interview with the founder of Delicious yesterday. He started the project while working full time at another job. When asked how he handled both simultaneously, he said that he kept his code organized so it was easy to focus on a very small part and make a change. That allowed him to make progress even if he could only give it 15 minutes per week.
Granted, this won’t work with every type of project, but it is a good thing to consider. If you suffer from fear of interruptions, it may be an indication that you can better organize your work process in order to minimize the expense of an interruption.
WebObjects is a web framework that was designed to let programmers really focus on what they are trying to accomplish instead of focusing on how to make the framework perform. It had a well designed simplistic graphical interface to represent information from multiple sources in a way that could be understood much faster than looking at multiple files of code. When interrupted, it was always easy to get back into a WebObject project because the time to shift back into a complete understanding of the code at hand was minimized.
With other programming environments this has been less the case–primarily because they lack the intuitive and simple graphical display that WebObjects had.
Minimizing Shift Expense
The other day I was doing some calculations for maximizing the solar efficiency of a house and I realized that I was using the approach similar to WebObjects programming to help minimize the risk of interruptions. looking back at my notes, I see that in addition to doing the math, each calculation has a sketch showing exactly what was being calculated along with the result. Even now, I can look at the page and immediately jump back into a particular point in the process. If I had simply done the math in a spreadsheet without the sketches this would not be possible.
If you have projects that require a lot of time to shift back into context, look for ways to minimize the expense of the context shift. Here are a few ways to minimize the expense of an interruption:
- Keep your files and resources organized so the time spent finding this is minimized.
- Keep your computer desktop organized for a particular task. If you are going to be working on something that requires an expensive context shift, close all unnecessary programs and open just what you need. This will make it easier to get back into the project if interrupted because you won’t have to determine what relates and what doesn’t.
- Keep your physical desktop organized for the task in the same way.
- Draw pictures. A sketch can help you quickly remember where you were in the process. It is common for something to take 10 minutes to understand again by looking over text that can be easily grasp in 30 seconds looking at a diagram or sketch. I find it is useful to work with a blank sheet of paper in front of me to use as a brainstorm pad. If I get called away and return, my notes and sketches are right in front of me to help me get back to the same “state” I was in when I left.
In the ideal world there wouldn’t be interruptions while working on something that was hard to restart again. Admitting that this is never going to be the case lets us focus on creating an environment to minimize the expense of interruptions.