Are you thrashing?

By Mitch Milam | Productivity

Oct 09

One of the things that many of us are affected by, whether we know it or not, is what we in the computer industry call “Thrashing.”

Thrashing, as defined by Wikipedia, is:

In computer science, thrashing occurs when a computer’s virtual memory subsystem is in a constant state of paging, rapidly exchanging data in memory for data on disk, to the exclusion of most application-level processing.[1] This causes the performance of the computer to degrade or collapse. The situation may continue indefinitely until the underlying cause is addressed. The term is also used for various similar phenomena, particularly movement between other levels of the memory hierarchy, where a process progresses slowly because significant time is being spent acquiring resources.

The physical workings of the computer operating system and the human brain are really not that much different and the outcome is exactly the same: Loss of productivity.

How can you tell if I am thrashing?

For me anyway, thrashing manifests itself by the inability to perform any meaningful cognitive work. I feel sluggish and tired, and have a tendency to “work” while producing absolutely zero output.

I ignore my task list, the things that I have committed to have accomplished for the day (or time period), etc.

Instead, I just “do work.”  Look at my blog stats, read email, look at twitter, draft some marketing material; whatever it might take to keep myself from working on things that I know are more important.

Your mileage may vary, but if you have ever sat down at your desk and looked up three hours later and realized that you had done none of the things you set down to do.

How do you stop thrashing?

Well, the very first thing you need to realize is that you are actually thrashing. Seems pretty simple, but it is actually more difficult than you would expect. Sometimes I can go quite a while before I realize what I am doing, unfortunately.

When I find myself thrashing, the first thing I do is to get a change of scenery. That could mean going for a walk around my office building, or around the block, if I am working from home. Or, if it is close to lunch or dinner, I’ll just leave the office.

For some reason, it also helps me to “get out of my own head,” which I do by making phone calls and talking to someone else so that I can clear my head and shift my thoughts off of whatever it was that got me unfocused.

Naps are also great for resetting one’s mental state. A 20 or 25 minute break does wonders for me.

Again, everyone is different so you’ll need to try a few things to see what works for you.

What causing thrashing?

I’m not totally sure but for me, it either boils down to mental or emotional exhaustion, or simply being overwhelmed with all of the work I have to do.

Restarting your work

When you once again sit down to work, I would suggest that you pick the one thing that is the most important of all of the other things on your task list and just focus on completing that one task.

All of the other tasks will wait, and you can evaluation what happens next, after you have completed the first one. The key is to not rush back into the felling over overwhelming that you may have been experiencing.

Tools and techniques that help

The most useful tool I have in my toolbox is the Pomodoro Technique, which is just a timer that allows you to break your work up into small chunks of focused time.

I use an app on my phone for my timer, but anything will work.

You will see a wide range of times that are suggested or used by people, but again, you’ll need to experiment to see what works best for you.  I use 45 minutes of concentrated effort with a 15 minute break that usually involves a physical activity such as a walk around the building or something.

During my 45 minutes, I ignore all forms of outside disturbance: email, phones, Skype, chats, etc. I handle all of that during my 15 minutes of “non-work.”

I’ll probably talk more about this technique in a later post, because it is so valuable.

In conclusion

Thrashing is something that happens to the best of us but it is up to you to learn the best techniques to change your behavior in a way that works for you.


About the Author

Mitch has been in an IT consultant and entrepreneur for over 30 years.