“GTD [Getting Things Done, a productivity method] can lead to thrashing, when the total number of options for doing is enormous.” (Personal Kanban)

My brain started fizzing when I read that, the way it does when you stumble upon something you need.

Thrashing is hacker jargon:

To move wildly or violently, without accomplishing anything useful. Paging or swapping systems that are overloaded waste most of their time moving data into and out of core (rather than performing useful computation) and are therefore said to thrash.
Someone who keeps changing his mind (esp. about what to work on next) is said to be thrashing. A person frantically trying to execute too many tasks at once (and not spending enough time on any single task) may also be described as thrashing.

A computer that’s thrashing chokes up. It’s still running — through molasses. For patches, it doesn’t respond at all. It’s as if you were yelling at someone take out the garbage, chop the vegetables, and scrub the floor all at once. When it happens, the computer needs you to lighten the load by killing some processes — taking back some of your orders — but it’s a battle even to open the task manager to pick what to kill.

Human brains thrash too. Isn’t it hard to stop and think in the middle of a deadline frenzy?

Because I’m always thinking of things to improve, my to-do list is always huge. I gave up practicing GTD some time ago, overwhelmed by the volume of undone things, especially since I had so little progress on the important ones. Work, urgent matters, and chores were taking up most of my time, and I still had to take some care of myself.

Most of what was left for projects went to thrashing. Between a plenitude of options, in some cases, but also in cases where I had to choose between a small number of similar or unknowable options. The devil you know versus the unknown. New systems where you won’t know which suits you better until after putting plenty of time and money into them. They were important, complicated topics, too, so the thrashing and yak shaving combined into the most incredible analysis paralysis.

I spent so much time thrashing that guilt ambushed me over having failed to Do ALL The Things, and over having wasted time thrashing, and caused me to thrash over being hopelessly inadequate. This, dear readers, is why you should avoid giving your children or employees guilt complexes. The wonder is that I get anything done at all some days.

My conclusion from this is that I had better pay much more attention to avoiding — or stopping — thrashing.

One option would be to adopt the kanban philosophy of limiting work in progress. The more tasks, the more task switches, the more switching cost, especially when doing deep work. It’s encouraging to succeed, too, which happens faster when you have fewer projects on the go. I’m going to have to try this out, especially with my projects at home, where there’s a throng of them competing for my attention.

Another step to take is to pay more attention to the emotions bound up in actions or decisions. For example, my decision about how to update my old portfolio site has been delayed by my wanting to hold onto my identity as a web designer. But as a web designer, I’d feel compelled to write big chunks of the site from scratch, even though I’d need a battery of test setups that I don’t have, and would first need to learn HTML 5, CSS 3, and responsive/mobile design, because my last serious study and work in that field was before that entire revolution. Back when I learned it, a hobbyist could roll their own sites with a reasonable amount of work, but that’s not the case today. Today, top-quality web design across screen sizes requires professional grade skill. That means my choices are to

  1. write something outdated or sub-par myself,
  2. do a little tweaking on something built by professionals, or
  3. pay to have it built to order.
  4. bone up on all necessary material, then build it myself

Laid out like that, the right option is clear. I don’t have to feel ashamed that I can’t keep up two quite different highly technical knowledge-based professions.

Emotions often push us towards particular choices. Sometimes they are helping, as in hunches, and other times they are holding us back. Taking the time to understand your options emotionally as well as logically, and choosing based on both aspects, might take less time than thrashing between them.

Whenever you’re thrashing, try to stop and check what processes your brain is running, and whether they’re going to do what you need to do. Maybe there’s a better way or a better time. Or maybe the thing doesn’t need to be done at all.