How to Manage Your Time More Effectively (According To Machines).

Video Transcript:

In the summer of 1997, NASA’s Pathfinder spacecraft landed on the surface of Mars, and began transmitting incredible, iconic images back to Earth. But several days in, something went terribly wrong.


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The transmissions stopped. Pathfinder was, in effect, procrastinating: keeping itself fully occupied but failing to do its most important work. What was going on? There was a bug; it turned out, in its scheduler.

Every operating system has something called the scheduler that tells the CPU how long to work on each task before switching, and what to switch to. Done right, computers move so fluidly between their various responsibilities, they give the illusion of doing everything simultaneously.

But we all know what happens when things go wrong. This should give us, if nothing else, some measure of consolation. Even computers get overwhelmed sometimes. Maybe learning about the computer science of scheduling can give us some ideas about our own human struggles with time.

One of the first insights is that all the time you spend prioritizing your work is time you aren’t spending doing it.



For instance, let’s say when you check  your inbox, you scan all the messages, choosing which is the most important. Once you’ve dealt with that one,  you repeat. Seems sensible,  but there’s a problem here.

This is what’s known  as a quadratic-time algorithm. With an inbox that’s twice as full, these passes will take twice as long and you’ll need to do  twice as many of them! This means four times the work. The programmers  of the operating system Linux encountered a similar problem in 2003.

Linux would rank every single  one of its tasks in order of importance, and sometimes spent more time  ranking tasks than doing them. The programmers’ counterintuitive solution was to replace this full ranking with a limited number  of priority “buckets. ”

The system was less precise  about what to do next but more than made up for it  by spending more time making progress. So with your emails, insisting on always  doing the very most important thing first could lead to a meltdown. Waking up to an inbox three times fuller  than normal could take nine times longer to clear.



You’d be better off replying  in chronological order, or even at random! Surprisingly, sometimes giving up  on doing things in the perfect order may be the key to getting them done. Another insight that emerges  from computer scheduling has to do with one of the most prevalent  features of modern life: interruptions.

When a computer goes  from one task to another, it has to do what’s called  a context switch, bookmarking its place in one task, moving old data out of its memory  and new data in.

Each of these actions comes at a cost. The insight here is that there’s  a fundamental tradeoff between productivity and responsiveness. Getting serious work done  means minimizing context switches. But being responsive means reacting  anytime something comes up.

These two principles  are fundamentally in tension. Recognizing this tension allows us to decide where  we want to strike that balance. 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, say, then that’s exactly how often  you should check them.

No more. In computer science, this idea goes by  the name of interrupt coalescing. Rather than dealing with  things as they come up – Oh, the mouse was moved?

A key was pressed? More of that file downloaded? – the system groups these  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  lets a system check everything at once, then quickly re-enter a low-power state. As with computers, so it is with us. Perhaps adopting a similar approach might allow us users  to reclaim our own attention, and give us back one of the things that feels so rare in modern life: rest.

Topics: TEDEd, TED Ed, TED-Ed, TED Education, Animation, Brian Christian, Tom Griffiths, Adriatic Animation, Algorithms, Computer Science, Time Management, Efficiency, Self Improvement.

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