The Mind has Inertia

When I’m preoccupied with a task, it expands in my mind taking up whatever space it needs so I can comprehend, to the best of my abilities, its different aspects. Not only do I see details I may have missed otherwise, but I’m also plain faster. Attending to tasks and solving the relevant problem is therefore a matter of focus and attention; the more I have, the better I operate, both in terms of quality and speed.

So I am puzzled and even slightly alarmed by people who juggle many tasks at the same time. To be honest I don’t understand how they manage it. But I do see these alien multi-taskers around me all the time. They operate. They are functional. And there seem to be no obvious deficiencies in their approach. It’s simply that I don’t understand them. In my eyes, while they go about their business, they look like a cross between a circus performer and a magician.

The amount of time it takes for me to switch contexts, i.e., fully transfer my attention to another task, is proportional to the amount of time I have invested in the first task. It also matters a lot whether I have completed the first task or not. Switching contexts when I’ve left the first task hanging in an unnatural state is very hard. Thoughts and ideas from before linger, cluttering up my mind, and polluting the space I need for the second task.

To me it hardly comes as a surprise that context switching should be hard. I can imagine our brains to be roughly organized like a computer when it comes to memory–moving bits from main memory to the CPU cache is going to take time. And without having assembled all the relevant pieces of data, computational power alone is useless. This model of context switching explains why, even in the midst of a large task requiring deep thinking, we can still make ourselves a cup of coffee, have a short phone conversation, or pay some recurring bills. These fringe tasks don’t require us to bring forth as much data as brute computation. We can continue to perform them robotically, i.e., without much consciousness, while maintaining our focus on the larger task.

So we do have a memory bandwidth, and it’s not a whole lot. However we don’t have a simple way of referring to this concept when we interact with others. Most often the message is lost in a curt “I’m busy now” which is not unlikely to be misinterpreted. Maybe saying that the mind has inertia is a better substitute?

One particularly visible aspect of the fact that my mind has inertia is that people I know may receive a reply from me to their text messages or emails, sometimes days, or even weeks, after they were sent. Often this is not even well correlated with the length of the initial message. This may seem to indicate that I’m just lazy or even worse, inconsiderate, to not take the time to reply to a short message—a task that seemingly doesn’t require much data to be brought forth, even assuming I’m preoccupied with a difficult task. But I’ve found that the length of message has nothing to do with the task it comes to represent. Short messages can refer to complicated tasks. So somewhat perversely, sometimes when I’m busy, important messages end up getting delayed the longest.

Perhaps in such situations a longer clarification to my friends and family would have been appropriate.

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