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On Thrashing

by David Brock on July 15th, 2016
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Thrashing, at least in the manner I’d like to discuss, is actually a very technical term used by computer scientists and IT people.

From Wikipedia:  “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. This causes the performance of the computer to degrade or collapse greatly. 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. Thrashing can be caused by several factors, which can include lack of RAM, too many programs being run, or programs that may have issues with memory usage and memory leakage. Some programs may have higher working priorities than others, which can cause thrashing as well.”

In the grand old days of mainframe computing, I loved it when my customers’ computers were thrashing.  It meant I could sell more memory, perhaps more disk, or even a mainframe upgrade; each of which meant millions of dollars in sales.  Today, we see the same thing on all our devices, whether it’s our smart phones, tablets, or laptops.  Things start slowing down, we get frustrated, the simple solution is to just start closing the dozens of web pages we may have open or closing some applications.  Every once in a while we go an upgrade our devices, adding more memory, a faster processor.

From technical and pragmatic points of view, the problem with thrashing is that no work gets done.  At least the work we are paying for with our devices and apps.  When the device is thrashing, the work it is doing is actually bringing data in and out of it’s short term memory, not doing the work we want it to do, like showing us cool stuff on Instagram, looking at Snapchats, tweeting, updating our Facebook status, checking things out on Tinder (oops)—oh and doing some research on our customers and prospects, preparing for sales calls, updating our pipelines, managing our calendars, sending emails.

The device is “doing work,” just not the work that produces results.  When you are looking at it from the outside, there’s a huge amount of activity.  IT Sys Admins, can give you endless reports about the activity level in the system, but still, no work–at least the stuff we want is occurring.

It turns out the human mind works very much like our devices.  It has short term memory and long term memory.  Without going into a lot of the science, the short term memory is where the work, at least the things we are doing right now gets done (other parts of the brain keep us breathing, our hearts beating, and all the other mundane things about keeping us alive.)  Our short term memories can only process and do 2-3 things at a time.  When we start overloading it with information and data, like our devices, it struggles, it starts “paging” and thrashing.

If we concentrate or focus, we minimize this, ignoring all the distractions and focusing on the two to three things that matter at the moment–like driving or engaging our customers in great conversations.  Our brains try to ignore all the other stuff that’s going on.

When we don’t concentrate and focus, when we let try to do everything at one time—hmm, this is beginning to sound like multitasking—our brains can’t handle this.  They start thrashing or getting no work done.

It’s incredibly deceptive.  In one sense, we feel a sense of accomplishment, there is a huge amount of activity, but when we step back, there’s not a lot of work being done.

We experience it every minute of every day, at least when we are awake.  It’s those alerts we see out of the corner of our eyes,  beeps, chirps or vibrations coming from our devices (last count, the average person has 3.2 devices).  It may be from our phones, watches, Fitbits, tablets, computers.  Just the sound distracts our brain for a moment.  It “pages out” the stuff we were working on processes the signal from our device, then “pages in” the stuff we were working on—but we’ve lost a bit of focus and concentration.  Multiply that by the hundreds of times it happens to each of us every day—hundreds of moments of distraction, paging out, paging in, refocusing, moving on……

Like computers, we get overloaded and overwhelmed, we start slowing down, shutting down, becoming unproductive.  While physically we seem active, we are doing things, the brain is protecting itself and us from Cognitive Overload.

Ironically, technology is the culprit, where it’s normally the solution.  We have apps to help us be more productive, apps to help us be better informed, apps to help keep us up to date, apps to help us network with our colleagues, apps that remind us of critical things or next steps, apps that tell us when someone we want to talk to has take an action on our content, even apps that shut down and quiet the other apps to help address cognitive overload.

The ease with which we can add to the noise, perhaps calling it content, exacerbates the problem for us, our customers, and out markets.  The never ending battle for attention, causes us to mindlessly add more volume and quantity, contributing more to the overload we all face.

We struggle to deal with this, and the market for these ideas has exploded.  Time management is one of the hottest topics for books, blogs, articles, and apps.  Googling it produces 102M results.  We hear of people taking Digital Vacations, it appears 46M times in Google.  Respected journals like HBR, newspapers like New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, all have endless articles on “Mindfulness.”  Companies like Google and others offer seminars and training on Mindfulness, Google mindfulness and you get 39.7M results.

All of this is a recognition and reaction that each of us is dealing with cognitive overload.  Rather than making us more productive, better informed, more knowledgeable, we are actually thrashing and getting less done.

What do we do?

Well actually, recognizing that this is happening, and that no one (at least in today’s business world) is immune to it.

As leaders, we need to focus less on “more.”  We need to look at radically simplifying our work processes.  We have to stop more things than we add–a good starting point is for every new initiative, project, tool you implement, at the same time you must stop two other things.  We need to rethink what information we really need and how we make it available to our people.  We need to rationalize our sales and marketing stacks to understand what is really needed and helps people with their work–not just what is fashionable.  We need to leverage analytics–but carefully–so it filters more than adding volume and quantity.

As individuals, we need to “shut down,” figuratively and literally.  Recently, I met with a talented marketing executive.  A year ago, she carried her phone and notebook computer into meetings, working both while “participating in the meeting.”  In this recent meeting, she carried a paper notebook and pen.  Turn off computers and devices in every meeting.  When you are working at your desk, work on one thing and shut everything else down (sometimes I think of the “good old days of DOS” where you could only run one application.  Schedule “think time” into your daily agenda.  Don’t cheat by having a device–just think, focus on what you are trying to do, what you need/want to do, and what you should do about it.

Our customers face the same cognitive overload–unfortunately, we contribute a lot to that.  Watch for my next post where I will address:  Thrashing And Buying.

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