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  • Brendan Stec

When You're Overwhelmed, Stop Thrashing

Hermione: Stop moving! Both of you! This is Devil's Snare. You have to relax. If you don't, it'll only kill you faster!

Ron: Kill us faster? Ohh... now I can relax!

– Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)


If you've been working from home over the last few months, like me, the following scene is familiar to you:

Hunched over a laptop, fighting dull lower back pain, you absorb a deluge of emails, phone calls and Zoom meetings. Your phone is exploding: it's The New York Times, Twitter, or Bloomberg pricking you with the latest outrage: the festering pandemic, tumultuous social unrest, or financial volatility.

You have family you are trying to support, friends you're trying keep in touch with, and a portfolio of investments your fumbling to manage.

Put simply: you have a lot going on. Everything seems to be demanding such a big piece of your attention. But your conscious mind can only process roughly 120 bits per second. You can only be stretched so thin. And you can only juggle so much at once before you drop everything.

Have you ever been so overwhelmed with everything you need to do that you can't even choose what to do next, let alone get any real work done?

This isn't a problem unique to humans. It can happen to computers, too. It's called thrashing.

Thrashing happens when too many processes compete for a fixed amount of the computer's memory resources, and the computer grinds to a halt just trying to keep track of them all.

Sound familiar?

Now, computers are in fact built to multitask, and they almost always do it well. They can alert you of new emails, run several instances of Microsoft Excel, and support your 15+ tabs on Google Chrome, day-in and day-out. To store the information for these active processes for quick, easy access, the computer leverages its fast memory instead of the slow hard disk storage.

Here is the catch: this fast memory has only so much capacity. This means it's possible to reach a point where all of the tasks a computer must do won't all squeeze into memory, forcing it to spend precious time switching information in and out of memory to make room instead of doing the actual tasks.

When a computer is thrashing, all of its computing resources get eaten up in the metawork of merely prioritizing tasks and managing the computer's memory, and there's nothing left to actually execute the tasks themselves.

You may have found yourself thrashing before because you were overloaded with tasks. You spend 20 minutes just trying to write down everything you need to do. You start responding to emails, and then realize you should probably put your laundry in the dryer. You get up to do that, and then remember you have a meeting in 5 minutes, and will you be able to get back to your desk in time? You're doing all of this "work" but not really getting anywhere.

If you find yourself thrashing, the best solution is to try less.

According to Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths in their book Algorithms to Live By, this means (1):

Don't spend your precious minutes trying to figure out what is the optimal thing you should be doing. Just pick something and stick with it.

For example, don't sift through each email and then try to figure out what which one is the most important to respond to first. Respond to the emails randomly, or in the order they came into your inbox.

In short, accept that when you're trashing, it's better to just do things in the wrong order or in a slightly sub-optimal way than nothing it all. It's the overload of metawork, the preparing, organizing, scheduling, and optimizing, you need to avoid.

Of course, the best way to eliminate thrashing is to prevent it from happening in the first place. In computers, we can avoid thrashing by simply cranking up the memory in the hardware. Unfortunately, we can't quite do that to our brains.

Instead, we have to learn to say no. Reduce what's on our plate. Eliminate some side projects.

After all, there is no award for Busiest Person of the Year. Or Most Emails Sent in a Day. Or Most Lifetime Metaphorical Fires Extinguished.

The voice that tells us to take on more than we can handle is really the voice of our inflated ego. It tells us that we're invincible or a machine, and that we can't turn down opportunities because we have to have it all.

With some humility, we can understand: of course we can't have it all. We have fixed cognitive resources, and more importantly, fixed time on this planet.

And that's time that shouldn't be spent thrashing.


“To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”

– Seneca



(1) Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths (2017) (pp. 123-124)

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