2020-07-11

Thrashing

Thrashing is a term in computer science used to refer to ‘pretty much any situation where the [computer] system grinds to a halt because it’s entirely preoccupied with metawork’¹.

Like computers, humans also have limited resources (memory, attention, willpower) and can get stuck trying to remember every task, prioritising between tasks or switching between tasks.

I see myself thrashing alarmingly frequently, such as working in a distraction full environment and never making meaningful progress on my task at hand, or sorting a cupboard and being unable to hold every item in my mind to be able to decide where to start.

The solution


If you find yourself thrashing, arbitrarily pick a task and commit to completing it. Don’t do anything else, not even prioritising (which is hard). If you are going to complete every task eventually, it is not too important which order you do them in and so prioritisation is a poor use of time.

To prevent thrashing, minimise your resource use on anything other than your task at hand:
  • Write down any to-do as soon as you think of it, and use prompts to elicit to-do list items.
  • Keep your physical space tidy (a messy environment is a to-do list in itself).
  • Keep your digital space tidy: use fewer browser tabs, have fewer desktop and home-screen icons, and minimise or turn off notifications.
  • Plan your time or order of tasks in advance, and reevaluate your plan no more than a pre-decided frequency.

¹Algorithms to Live By, Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths [highly recommended]
5 Tristan Cook: Thrashing Thrashing is a term in computer science used to refer to ‘pretty much any situation where the [computer] system grinds to a halt because it’...
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