How to Manage Your Time More Effectively According to Machines

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.

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Lesson Article

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 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 feel so rare in modern life: rest.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think it’s possible to balance productivity and responsiveness when it comes to modern life?
  2. How do you prioritize tasks?
  3. How do you organize your day to maximize efficiency?
  4. Do you think it is important to minimize interruptions?
  5. What tactics do you use to reduce context switching?
  6. How has learning about the computer science of scheduling helped you in your own life?
  7. Do you think it is beneficial to group tasks into priority buckets?
  8. Do you believe it is important to give yourself time to rest and reclaim attention?

Lesson Vocabulary

NASANational 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.

PathfinderA person or thing that first makes a journey, or discovers a route or destination. – Example sentence: My grandfather was a pathfinder who explored uncharted territories in the Amazon.

MarsThe fourth planet from the sun, a terrestrial planet with a thin atmosphere. – Example sentence: The first human mission to Mars is planned for the year 2030.

SchedulerA program or tool that allocates resources and time to specific activities or tasks. – Example sentence: The scheduler ensures that all tasks are completed by their respective deadlines.

CPUCentral Processing Unit, the main computing component of a computer. – Example sentence: I just upgraded the CPU in my laptop and now it runs faster.

Operating SystemA set of software programs that manage the hardware and software resources of a computer. – Example sentence: Windows is the most popular operating system for personal computers.

Quadratic-Time AlgorithmA computer algorithm that completes a task in a time proportional to the square of the size of the problem. – Example sentence: Quicksort is a popular quadratic-time algorithm used to sort data.

PrioritizingTo organize and arrange by relative importance or urgency. – Example sentence: It is important to prioritize tasks in order to get them completed in a timely fashion.

InboxA place where incoming electronic mail is stored. – Example sentence: I like to check my inbox first thing in the morning to stay on top of my emails.

LinuxA family of open-source Unix-like operating systems based on the Linux kernel. – Example sentence: Most web servers are run on the Linux operating system.

Priority BucketsA system of organizing tasks according to their importance or urgency. – Example sentence: I like to use priority buckets to ensure that more important tasks don’t get lost in the shuffle.

InterruptionsSomething that interrupts or disrupts a process or activity. – Example sentence: I can’t focus on my work when there are too many interruptions in the office.

Context SwitchThe process of storing and restoring the state of a process or thread in order to switch to another process or thread. – Example sentence: The context switch takes place when the CPU switches from executing one process to another.

ProductivityThe rate at which goods or services are produced. – Example sentence: Productivity has increased significantly due to automation in the workplace.

ResponsivenessThe ability to act quickly and effectively. – Example sentence: You need to be responsive in order to be successful in this role.

Interrupt CoalescingThe process of combining several interrupts into one, which is then handled as a single interrupt. – Example sentence: Interrupt coalescing helps to reduce system latency by batching multiple interrupts into one.

NotificationsA message, sound, or icon indicating an event. – Example sentence: I get notifications on my phone whenever I get an email or text message.

EmailsMessages sent electronically via the Internet. – Example sentence: I prefer to communicate with my colleagues through emails rather than phone calls.

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