This lesson explores the computer science of scheduling, which can be applied to our own lives to help save time, prioritize work, and minimize interruptions. The article discusses the concept of quadratic-time algorithms, priority “buckets”, and interrupt coalescing which can all be used to improve productivity and reduce stress.
Computer Science Insights into Time Management
In the summer of 1997, NASA’s Pathfinder spacecraft landed on the surface of Mars and began sending stunning pictures back to Earth. However, after several days, the transmissions stopped, and the cause was determined to be a bug in the spacecraft’s scheduler. This bug provided an insight into the computer science of scheduling, which can help people manage their own time better.
The Problem of Prioritizing
The first insight from computer science is that spending time prioritizing work can be counterproductive. For instance, if one checks an inbox and chooses the most important email to deal with first, it seems sensible. However, this method has a problem: it is a quadratic-time algorithm. The programmers of the operating system Linux encountered a similar problem in 2003. Their counterintuitive solution was to replace the full ranking with a limited number of priority “buckets.” This approach was less precise about what to do next, but it allowed the system to spend more time making progress.
Sometimes, giving up on doing things in the perfect order may be the key to getting them done. Thus, insisting on always doing the most important thing first, which could lead to a meltdown, may not be the best strategy. Replying to emails in chronological order or even at random could be a better approach.
The Tension between Productivity and Responsiveness
The second insight from computer science has to do with interruptions, which are a prevalent feature of modern life. When a computer switches from one task to another, it has to do a context switch, which bookmarks its place in one task, moves old data out of its memory, and moves new data in. Each of these actions comes at a cost. Getting serious work done means minimizing context switches, while being responsive means reacting anytime something comes up. These two principles are fundamentally in tension. Thus, recognizing this tension allows people to decide where they want to strike a balance.
The Solution to Interruptions
The obvious solution is to minimize interruptions. The less obvious one is to group them. If no notification or email requires a response more urgently than once an hour, then that’s how often one should check them. In computer science, this idea goes by the name of interrupt coalescing. The system groups interruptions together based on how long they can afford to wait.
In 2013, interrupt coalescing triggered a massive improvement in laptop battery life. This is because deferring interruptions allows a system to check everything at once and quickly re-enter a low-power state. Thus, adopting a similar approach may allow people to reclaim their own attention and give them back one of the things that feels so rare in modern life: rest.
VocabularyNASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a U.S. government agency responsible for the civilian space program and aeronautics and aerospace research. – Example sentence: My brother works for NASA as a spacecraft engineer.
- Do you think it’s possible to balance productivity and responsiveness when it comes to modern life?
- How do you prioritize tasks?
- How do you organize your day to maximize efficiency?
- Do you think it is important to minimize interruptions?
- What tactics do you use to reduce context switching?
- How has learning about the computer science of scheduling helped you in your own life?
- Do you think it is beneficial to group tasks into priority buckets?
- Do you believe it is important to give yourself time to rest and reclaim attention?