Quiet Time to Think

May 12, 2015    psychology time-management productivity

Multitasking is a fallacy. Most of the time when we think we’re optimally getting things done by working no multiple tasks or even multiple projects, we’re selling ourselves short.

You’ve all worked with a programmer like this, they’re the person who freaks out or makes a snide remark each time you walk up to them with a question and didn’t “use the proper channels. Put it in an email or a ticket and if you walk up to me again with your problems I’ll…”

Now, aside from handling the situation extremely poorly…this person isn’t completely wrong. Programming takes a lot of overhead to solve complex problems and interruptions can make the difference by a factor of two in how long a given task can take.

Think about an analogy in physical labor, say painting. If you’ve ever painted the interior of a house, you know that the easiest parts are the long flat walls–you just roll away at them. It’s the edges that are the pain in the ass. You’ll spend an hour edging a room and then 10 minutes painting up around them. It’s a lot of work getting the details right.

And so it is with data analysis. If you started with an unlabeled data file, say a simple CSV, you have to invest time in investigating it and just looking at it. You’re there are any relationships in front of you so you need to plot columns against one other and run correlations. Aha, you think you’ve found something and want to take a look further, maybe take a look at how the relationships change when you introduce some non-linearity when…someone comes up to your desk with a question or a request. Of course this doesn’t take the 2 minutes you originally thought it’d take and turns into 30 minutes of rabbit trails and deeper diving into whatever it was that was a problem. By the time you get back to your real work, you’ve forgotten what you wanted to look into next, you’ve lost that moment of insight that you needed to make a breakthrough.

Now, the point isn’t necessarily “Don’t help people out.” It’s anything but that. The point is that your time is inherently valuable and your uninterrupted quiet time alone is even more valuable and cherish-able. You’ll have to work at getting it back in any way you can.

Try out:

  • Setting “office hours” where people can get help from your. (But be careful to always be open to emergency situations should they come up.)
  • Checking email less often–Email isn’t an instant messaging service, it’s a way to implement deferred communication. You’re not doing anyone any favors by responding to emails within 5 minutes it hitting your inbox, you’re setting expectations for others to get instant gratification out of quick jots off to tell you something.
  • Learning to say “No” or “I’m busy.” It’s really okay to tell someone that you’re in the middle of something.