Spare Cycles and Multi-Tasking

Tejvan Pettinger - "Cycling"

Constant interruptions kill productivity, but the take away from this should not be to become a hermit. Hermits may be very productive but they lose touch with the rest of the world. When they emerge with their hermetic results, they find that humanity has moved on. That their results interest nobody, that other people have already produced better results, and worst of all, that they have lost the friends that they used to have who would have listened to them regardless of these other downfalls.

That was a rhetorical example; simplistic and extremist, but I believe that the same effect exists at a more restrained and subtle level. The longer you leave your communication channels closed, the more forcefully the effect manifests. While this illustration was negative, there also exists a positive corollary.

The duality of information and physics manifests in science fiction mainly from the physics side. We see the changes to the world, the fantastic technologies and the rocket-ships, but underlying and enabling this lies the transfer of information. This has swept into public conciousness recently with the popularisation of the notion of an artificial-intelligence singularity. Less extreme is simply the shrinkage of the scales involved in information transmission. Transistor sizes shrink, timescales of cycles shift ever smaller, and network capacities and packet latencies reduce again and again.

It is reduction that makes this more interesting than a growth phenomenon. In the equations that interest us with regards to information these shrinking quantities lie on the denominator, and we all know what happens when you divide by zero! Ha-ha, of course the very notion of dividing by zero is absurd and there are physical limits preventing this from manifesting. The asymptote is tempered by asymptotic forces in the numerator. Still, currently the trend applies - at least philosophically.

While transmission speeds are reducing technologically, how are they faring interpersonally? Will we experience a personal renaissance in human-to-human interaction? Some of us may, but not all. Some people like to handle communication like a batch process. This can be observed as a total void of correspondence for extended periods of time, followed by bursts of ideas, replies, and requests. Other people acquiesce to all incoming messages. They reply immediately, and whatever task is currently occupying them plays second fiddle to the immediacy of the message vibration-alert.

There are “brutal-batchers” and “meek-interuptees”, and I’m sure many others who like on the continuum between, but what about “spare-cycle schedulers”? The two personalities have been portrayed analogously to operating-system task-schedulers. The third model that I’m picturing is identical to the batch system, except for an additional attribute of scheduling communication windows for points where NOP cycles occur in the batch tasks.

It may be possible, but I believe that it must be at least exceedingly rare that someone can work on a task 100% for extended periods of time with no gaps. These gaps are sometimes filled with total inactivity - staring out the window, the closing of eyes and day-dreaming, doodling on a piece of paper… This kind of inactivity is valuable. It is a form of rest and rejuvenation. However, there is a second use of the idle time between useful cycles during a batch-task. This can be seen as quiet frustration and occupation seeking activities of no acknowledged value. Here is the time where I would suggest you partake in cycle-reclaiming communications.

Communication itself can still be a batch-process. The most important and reasoned forms of communication should still follow this model, since covering serious subjects flippantly would do more harm than good, but there are certain kinds of communications that are extremely low-overhead and still very valuable. These are the classes of correspondence that should be considered for scheduling to spare cycles:

  • Receipt acknowledgement (since channels are fallible, this is valuable)
  • Subject survey (for the people who need to know the broad strokes)
  • In transit (batched tasks that are being looked at where a complete response is not ready)
  • Predictions (simple estimates, even if they are non-finite such as “this could take a while”)

How do you know if you are you suffering the consequences of the batcher or interuptee? The ideal way that you would know if you’re suffering negative batchterisms is that people would simply tell you. Unfortunately most people hate confrontation and this is unlikely to be made so explicit. Instead of this, you must look for the effects described in the context of the hermit. Missed opportunities, lost friends, and lack of interest in the communications that are finally sent out. The interuptee has an easier time identifying their plight - Constant frustration at the lack of ability to concentrate over the stream of incoming interruptions, feeling subservient to the outside world rather than its master, and a pang of fear that deeper meaning is slipping by unaccounted for.

If you feel that you might be the victim of these communications mindsets, then try the spare-cycles approach. You may find you pay a very low cost for a very high reward.