How Do You Fight Starvation?

Do you know how a computer decides what to do when you’re listening to music while browsing Facebook with a half-written blog post tucked way down your alt-tab order?

It uses a scheduling algorithm, of course. Some little process inside your operating system looks at all the applications you’re running, and decides when to spend some time processing each one.

There are all kinds of different algorithms, optimized for qualities like overhead (how much time the scheduler spends making decisions) and response time (how long an application waits before getting its “turn” on the CPU). Whatever device you’re using right now probably has a very fancy algorithm that has been perfected for over a decade.

Let’s compare this to how we as people manage our time.

It’s very similar, right? We generally have multiple tasks on the go, and we often need to prioritize them and decide where to spend our time.

I clocked some overhead thinking about this the other day, and I realized that if my brain is even using a scheduling algorithm at all, it’s due for a firmware update. I have a serious problem with starvation.

In the digital world, a process is starved when it is given a low priority and there are too many other, high-priority processes stealing all the CPU-cycles. So many important things are happening that this poor, less-critical process is constantly ignored.

Most scheduling algorithms account for this by gradually boosting the priority of tasks that have been waiting for a long time. Eventually our forgotten process gets its chance to shine.

My brain struggles with the boosting.

I’m going to cut myself some slack and rationalize that I’ve been especially busy lately. I was in Europe, then speaking at a conference in Texas, then refinishing a basement, and somewhere in there work got kind of crazy. During that time, I let a lot of things slip through.

“I’ll get to that soon. I just have to wrap up [some feu-du-jour].”

The trouble is, there have been a lot of fires, and the tasks that are still really important and I really want to do them but they’re just not quite urgent enough to ever grab enough of my attention at once have been stagnant for far too long.

They’re famished.

So here’s what I’m going to do: Once a week (for the next little while) I’m going to spend an hour or two feeding some poor, starving task(s) in my to-do list. I can work on anything I want as long as it’s:

Now instead of trying to prioritize some hapless, someday-task, I’m prioritizing the FIGHT STARVATION task. This level of abstraction will (hopefully) stop me from writing off those non-urgent-but-way-awesome tasks as things I can do when I’m less busy — a sun that never seems to rise.

I’m very curious to know how you deal with this. Do you find yourself with starving tasks every now and then? Do you have some clever (or super-obvious) way of feeding them?

Leave a comment

  1. Calendar’s are my friend. Not iPhone calendars where you can’t see everything at a glance, but real paper calendars (the bigger the better). I find if you write down EVERYTHING you have to do for the month (honestly, everything. From “writing Christmas cards” to “ pick up a bottle of wine at lunch” to “dust the mantle”…) then they’re always in your face and it’s difficult for them to end up on the low priority list. The added bonus is that you have the satisfaction of taking a big fat marker to the ones you’ve already done, regardless of how small they are. You can also foresee problems and scheduling conflicts, especially if you calendar has work-related stuff on it.

    Another thing I try to do is to tackle quick things as soon as I get home from work and before I’ve had a chance to wind down. It really sucks but I find most of the things only take 20 mins. or so. Although that leads to putting off dinner, which results in REAL starvation….

    Leah Menard
  2. I know exactly how you feel. In fact that was sort of what my 30 days thing was all about. Getting things done that I know I want (or need) to get done by intentionally setting out time for them. The key for me was to keep any given (low priority) task to an hour or less. I can usually make an hour on any given day, but once a task is knowingly going to take me more than 1 hour, it becomes much easier to push aside.

    Rob W.
  3. Leah, you make a very compelling argument for a pen & paper approach! I’m good about adding important events to my (online) calendar, but I’ve never gone so far as logging all the little things.

    You could very well be on to something! I might have to give that a shot.

  4. Rob, I like the idea of splitting tasks into hour-or-less chunks. In particular, there’s one project I’ve been trying to fit into my down-time that would benefit from that approach. Thanks for your thoughts!

    Also, I miss your 30-days blog! Any plans to start it up again someday?

  5. This works if I can commit to it!

    A physical pen and paper to do list. New things get added on, completed things get crossed off (so satisfying) . If a lot of items are done, and new items are approaching, I rewrite the list. This makes me realize an old task is still around and I should really get to it! The great thing is I can carry the list with me everywhere. So whenever I have a moment I can take a look and cross off something that could get done right then!

  6. For the reallyreally important tasks that you don’t want to put off any longer, I have to tell someone. On *Thursday* I need to … That guilts you into it and you get it done.
    For everyday things, bunching them together helps…ie. a phone call morning gets all the appointments booked, not just one today and then you have the other 3 to put off for another day.
    Also, sometimes just picking a corner of the wallpaper, so to speak, will lead to re-painting the whole wall. :)

  7. Ayesha, I really like that idea. It combines Leah’s physical medium idea with the need to have it always available. I especially like that it forces you to occasionally rewrite the list; this is a feature that would be hard to achieve with a software solution.

  8. Sandy, those are some excellent points! I also find that telling people about things will force me to do them, but I find that only works for smaller things, or things that are really weird or fun.

    Bunching things together is probably something I should do more of. I tend to get really scattered and start several things at once, which takes longer to get any one thing done.

    The wallpaper analogy is a great one; sometimes that first step is the hardest one to take!