Loading up the Head Space

Mon Feb 22 16:59:15 2016

I had a conversation recently with Leigh[1] who is currently preparing a number of PhD proposals in anticipation of studying for her doctorate. From her perspective she was trying to convey understanding about an issue she was having and was curious if I could relate to it. However I knew exactly her issue and it is a common one for a lot of people. It is loading up the head space.

The Issue of Complexity vs Complicated

Before I go further let’s get something stated: Some things are complex and others are complicated.

I’m going to use complicated to indicate needless obfuscation. When a thing is complicated it just means that there is a lot of confusion, hidden meaning, the need for interpretive understanding without logical construction. Think emotions, relationships, soap operas or a Facebook Status - those are complicated.

Complex on the other hand can be stunningly simple in its formative state. A complex situation or problem can be broken down into smaller pieces that have simple relationships. Chess moves are simple as each piece can generally do only one thing. Your DNA is just 4 letters. The game of Go is perhaps a better example than chess containing two colours and very few moves. Most large problems that can be logically deduced are similarly complex as in made up of a large number of simple relationships. These are complex.

Complex is also a state where a great deal of prior understanding is needed in order to understand the issues; to resolve, deduce or examine them.


Back in the conversation it went something like this:

Leigh: “This is really bugging me. Every time I come to the writing of these proposals it takes hours.”

Me: “Why’s that?”

Leigh: “Well I have to reread a lot of the work again,not just mine but the sources, I'm not sure I can explain it but I have to jam all the information back in.”

Me:“You have to load up the head space.”

Leigh: “Yes!”

Me: “Yeah I get that a lot from programmers. When you have a large amount of information, complex relationships or domain knowledge needed to solve a problem.”

Leigh: “It's infuriating as it adds so much time and since I only need it for short periods I have to load and then get rid of it so I can do other work.”

Me: “Yep. They have the same issue.”

So that's loading up the head space. You have to spend an amount of time getting your head into the right frame of reference, you have to load as much as possible so you can solve issues and understand problems or even evolve a system.

Small Tasks

You need to think about the head space when you assign tasks. It doesn't matter if you speak to the author of something or a person new to the system. In order for them to work in a complex system they need to load the problem into their head.

So the task you set might be a small change. It might only take them a few minutes to work on. But give them the time to load their head. And just as important try not to make them context switch as then they may have to start again.

Final Thoughts

I think we all have to do this. When it is complicated there is so much that can go wrong in the head space. When it is complex there is also lot we need to understand. When it is both we are generally screwed.

So give yourself some time when you have a large number of small changes to allow the proper switching of context. Avoid multi-tasking in the same discipline - it’s fine to do manual and mental tasks together but don’t have too many mental tasks on the go. Give your head space more processing room and ram to work with, it’s just more efficient.

[Don't forget that you can join in this conversation by using the comments form or by tweeting at @shadowcat_mdk]


[1] Who is @leighkeating

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