Your own space | | DJS

Your own space

Very many people run their own tiny fiefdom directly to help themselves. 

Starting again at the individual level, if you are concentrating on a task then you have in some way built a space in which that concentration can occur. At home you may call this your study and at work this may be your office or your workspace.

We do this—making a space our own—also with tasks that don't require concentration. I learned long ago that mowing the lawn requires the dog to be elsewhere; in a sense, I couldn't do the job efficiently with the dog present. I could choose to do the job with the dog present, but the result was different: in a way I was trading doing the task with the dog as company for doing it a bit slower and perhaps with more attached fun.

A job such as getting homework done (and I'm now thinking of school work rather more than domestic chores) is both slower and less effective (the quality of result is down) if done with distraction. So I would never do schoolwork in front of the television and I'd work to music only if the music was there to cover distractions such as other noise. I far prefer to work in silence, if that can be achieved. But to do any of these, I need a space in which to work. If this means I must share a space with others, then it must also be recognised that 'work' requires mutual understanding of what 'work' is, how it is achieved and how behaviour of one party can assist or diminish the work of another. In short, we need to be allowed a private space, even if only within one's own head.

If you're incredibly efficient at your job, or just some aspects of it, then you really don't want that to be interfered with, so you work—consciously or otherwise—to protect that space., The space might be physical, such as doing work with the office door closed, or working when the office is largely empty, or by doing the work elsewhere and even at home. 

The private space may only be in your head, but that requires external stimulus to be avoidable, so you can tune it out. If you cannot do this, or if circumstances make that not possible, then there are consequences. These include that the task cannot be done, or that it takes very much longer, or that it is not done well. Many of these results are unacceptable and, even if that is the best you can do under the circumstances, that may still be not good enough, in which case the circumstances need to change. Such as do the task at a different time or in a different location. Which is another way of saying that you need a space in which to do the task.

We produce the same effect, of the protected space, even when we're quite bad at a task. The manager that is hard to talk to, who doesn't listen, who demands conformity (and especially to something that exerts a petty control of no consequence to performance) and so on. We do it ourselves, such as when we spend time at a desk but are, if we are honest, not at all productive. These issues are pursued in other chapters (I hope; reference).

So, let's suppose you've found a way to have a space for a task. This is not enough in itself to cause the task to be done well, in terms of completeness, quality or in quantity of resource used (time, especially). The internal discipline that makes you 'get on with' a task is to do with a range of things with terms such as enthusiasm, necessity and self-determination. If this is the only opportunity you have for this task, then another of Parkinson's laws applies,  the one that says the task will expand to fill the space available. In this case the Busy Person that you may hope to become makes the task fit into the space available, because the resource (time and opportunity) is recognised as limited.  Downside of this Parkinson's law, that emphasises that the job expandsshrunk to fill the space. The Busy poerson makes it fit, by raising their productivity, or their effort level, so that the job is  to fit the available resource.

[side issue here of the economists' concept of opportunity cost] 

[explore Parkinson's Laws and explain or give sub-titles to those used; might be footnote only, but necessary]

It doesn't take long for the value of Your Own Space to become apparent. The trade-offs are patently clear; an interrupted session may mean more tasks are attended to, but usually the interruptions have overhead in the sense that it takes time to return to the interrupted task at the previous level of concentration. This can be turned to good effect on occasion—you need a break, you welcome the interruption, you can see (added) value in the interruption occurring—but it often requires experience in the task being done (such as doing the monthly accounts) to recognise the benefit.

There is an discussion to air here about linear and parallel processing. The idea of Your Own Space points to linear processing; the resource (time, opportunity, space) is available so it must be used for a single thing. Parallel processing describes the occasion where several things occur at the same time and, in computers that do parallel processing, technically they have more than one processor working simultaneously. Very few of us are capable of doing several things at the same time, though many of us can do very similar things at the same time. Think of playing the piano: one reads music, chooses which fingers to use where, places those fingers in the right place without looking at the keyboard and also manages to listen to what is occurring, all at the same time. But we are not so good at, say, playing an unfamiliar piece and at the same time listening to news on the radio.

So what we do that looks like parallel processing is what in IT is called multiple processing, where we give a slice of time to one task and then move rapidly to another. 

Aside: Howard's Chinaman. I was working in Cambridge and we were trying at the time to find ways of explaining the various possible process arrangements to people entirely unfamiliar with computing. The boss (Rob Howard) said he had a vision of a frantically busy little man inside the box (hence the Chinaman, a small busy person now not acceptable labelling as Chinese) trying very hard to keep up with the many demands being made, such that the  perceived solution was to give everyone a minimum response time. The result was that all those demanding service were being served, even if perhaps that service was slowed by demand. At the time, late 70s, this went down very well; a laugh at the image was evidence that the concept was understood. These days we might move the idea to a delivery system, one of those that shows you that your order is progressing, as if you are the only and very valued customer, while clearly the system is serving many customers simultaneously. This is multi-processing.

These days we talk about bandwidth and are not at all sure what we really mean by that. Explanation.

Multi-processing has its uses and its place. It works well well for us as individuals when concentration can be switched between tasks without cost to those tasks being temporarily ignored. That means that each subtask can be moved to some increment of completion and picked up from that point. In turn that means that there is some sort of pointer in place that shows where each task has reached and that it is sufficiently easy to understand that the next tiny increment of task can be undertaken with virtually no further cost. When that recognition time rises to a significant value, this subtask is no longer suitable for multiprocessing.

Thinking of school homework, would you do one question of a Maths exercise and them move to a single sentence of French translation, and then add a sentence to your current History essay? If you would, is this efficient working? Why do you think that? Can you produce argument that supports such a strategy? Would you care to experiment, or is that unnecessary? 

As a subsidiary question, which of those three homeworks would you do (or would you have done) first, and why? Some of us would choose their favourite, some would choose the one finished soonest, the one they least or most want to do. I'd pick the one that had the most reliable finish time and, if there was more than one of similar reliability, I'd do the one I wanted out of the way (behind me) sooner. I'd always leave any open-ended work to the last, since that was going to take up an unknown amount of time and might well run until running out of that resource. So my strategy was based on levels of bother, if you like, by measuring the stress attached to a task. All the homework was going to get done anyway, but by exerting order I could maximise the result for the time available and minimise the add-on effects. 

Maybe the most important aspect of this is that i can explain my process. You don't have to agree with me at all, but if you don't have a process, I suggest that you are not working efficiently. If you cannot identify your process, you have no evidence that you have thought about it, whatever you claim.

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