We don’t actually multitask. We switch-task, rapidly shifting from one thing to another, interrupting ourselves unproductively, and losing time in the process 1. It just so happens that many aspects of our life require managing multiple tasks at the same time, so how to approach it?
One strategy that consistently worked for me has been using documentation to checkpoint each step of a process. Just like in a videogame where the last saved checkpoint can be recalled.
The Backtracking Inefficiency
Similar to a CPU, our short-term memory (STM) has access to a limited amount (around four or seven concepts have been suggested 2) of very quick memory. Everytime we change to a different task, most of the resident concepts need to be flushed in order to load the ones from the incoming task. This is quite taxing by itself and narrowly optimizable, since our wetware is mostly fixed. The biggest efficiency opportunities lie in where these concepts are loaded from.
When working on a task, often we grab several simultaneous concepts, combine them together and generate new ones, which are then added to the concept pool and built upon further. During this process we are faced with these options:
- Option 1. Don’t store our working memory - essentially lose work. Let’s rule out this option.
- Option 2. Progressively store the existing concepts into our long term memory.
- Option 3. Progressively store the existing concepts into an external memory bank, such as a document or piece of paper.
Option 2. works well, but requires significant cognitive effort and often only keeps the most relevant conclusions. If for some reason these need to be re-considered or understood why they were generated in the first place, we backtrack into the seminal thought processes, which in turn will probably require a repetition of previous work.
This is one of the biggest offenders when task switching, because even if we recall the end state of a task (which is hard by itself), a lot of time and energy are spent when revisiting the overall context via backtracking.
Documentation as Checkpoint Mechanism
Enter Option 3.: Progressively store these existing concepts into an external memory bank, such as a document or piece of paper. Although writing in an external memory bank the contents of our working memory can take some effort, the yielded results greatly justify the initial investment:
- Less cognitive load upon re-starting a task
- Backtracking effort is reduced, since it is a matter of reading a document
- Shareable with other stakeholders, which shaves off the time required to explain these concepts
- Task switching becomes smoother and less burdensome
- The documentation’s structure significantly impacts how efficiently it can be parsed and shared. That is a whole new topic by itself.
- Documentation as a checkpointing mechanism is a great way to consolidate personal learnings and reflections. It’s a valuable tool for leveraging life’s experiences to mature and grow. Option 1. is such a waste.