View Full Version : Getting single-threaded
09-01-2010, 02:41 PM
A lot of times I become what programmers call "single-threaded" - I work down my Next Action list in a linear fashion, and when something important is undoable, I get blocked. For example, say my action list for context "home" includes "put out grease fire in kitchen", "do laundry" and "alphabetize bookshelf". Putting out the grease fire is obviously critical, but I've already called the fire department and can't do anything until they arrive. Meanwhile, I could still make productive use of my time by doing laundry or alphabetizing my books, but I'm single-tracked, focused on the grease fire.
Has anyone seen any interesting blog posts on the psychology of this sort of priority inversion, and how to avoid obsessing on the temporarily-undoable tasks? They're not really in a different context, unless I make a temporary context for "home waiting for fire department" and move everything from "home" into that...
09-01-2010, 03:34 PM
Here is a somewhat related post from a blog I really like: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000022.html
Hey, you mentioned the programming analogies! I really agree with the "work on one thing at once". I think forced multi-tasking is WAY overrated by managers. It is just about always counterproductive IMO.
09-01-2010, 06:42 PM
Technically, if you've already called the fire department, the next action goes in your "Waiting For" context (waiting for fire department). You have done the action needed at home so it no longer belongs there.
I think it is fine to be single-threaded, but if you come to a next action that is "not doable" in your current context, then I would have to question why it is there at all. Everything in my home context should be something that I can do when I get home. If I can not, then there must be a different action that I didn't realize.
09-02-2010, 04:47 AM
A lot of times I become what programmers call "single-threaded"....
Start at the bottom of your list and work upwards? Honestly this sounds like good ol' procrastination and to me and I find sometimes the silliest little trick works to sort it out. If i get a block about my lists, I find printing them out, re-ordering them Z->A rather than A->Z, or even printing the list out in colour rather than B&W can sometimes give me a little jog. i wont even bother speculating about the psychology of this, I'll just take it at face value.
I think it is fine to be single-threaded, but if you come to a next action that is "not doable" in your current context, then I would have to question why it is there at all.
There could be lots of reasons why you can't do something on your list. You may not have time right now; you may go to call someone but they're out to lunch but will be back later that day; you may want to put some more washing in but you've got no room for drying yet; you may be in the office at the computer but only one person can log into a particular piece of software at a time, and so on. If this happened regularly you'd have to think about how you managed them and whether the lists were the right place, but from time to time it will happen.
09-02-2010, 05:40 AM
I think graphicdetails is right - once I've called the fire department, the next action in "put out grease fire" (which is a project, not an action!) should be "wait for fire department". And that goes in @Waiting For, and away it goes.
So it's not a process problem - it's a thinking problem. I'm not looking at my list for the next thing to do, because my brain is stuck on "but the kitchen's on fire! Don't do anything else!" Hmmm. Maybe it's a classic psychic RAM problem, and it's really about "trusted lists".
09-07-2010, 09:39 AM
To play along with your metaphor, it sounds a lot like a code smell to me.
I'm only guessing at the underlying cause, but I would guess that it might be related to the common but non-compliant approach of assigning only one next action to every project. With that approach, if that one next action gets deadlocked, the whole project grinds to a halt, but for artificial reasons.
So the question becomes: are there really no other next actions possible on this project right now? Maybe there isn't, but I suspect those projects don't lead to that nagging sensation that something somewhere should be getting done.
09-12-2010, 07:46 AM
I, for one, would love to see the look on firefighters' faces when they show up at a house only to see the homeowner folding laundry or alphabetizing books. :-)
I'm pretty sure that in the grease fire analogy, there would be something else you could do ABOUT the grease fire. That would allow you to continue in the single-threaded mode. You may not put out the fire, but you could be corralling children, pets, or belongings away from danger; or clearing any furniture that may interfere with the firefighers' walkway; etc.
In other words, there may be actions to do if you are single-threaded and want to stay that way (for whatever reason). You don't need to Wait For anything.
On the other hand, if you want to be multi-threaded then, you would want to pick an item that can be done with little attention because your attention will likely still be partly diverted (due to the emotional investment).
In an abstract sense, you would like to be able to 100% drop your attention from Waiting For the firefighters and focus all of your attention on some new item, like Review script additions for latest sitcom pilot. In the real world, there are some distinct disadvantages to being able to drop and shift your focus THAT well. You don't want, for example, to get so absorbed that you don't notice the grease fire in the first place.