Thrashing

Students ask:  What should I do when I keep working and working, but I don’t seem to get anywhere?

Thrashing is a term borrowed from computer science, referring to what happens when a computer’s virtual memory is over-used. The process of shifting information into and out of main memory (a.k.a. paging[1]) consumes disproportionate resources, impairing performance severely. 

This is arguably analogous to a psychologist’s view of human ‘processing’, with a distinction between ‘working memory’ and ‘long-term memory’. The efficiency of reasoning (‘processing’) is governed by having access to information in working memory, and by how effectively that information is ‘chunked’[2] in memory, and hence how much information is accessible.  Researchers ‘thrash’ when they are overloaded, reducing their ability to process effectively, so that their concerted efforts don’t appear to yield progress.  Unlike computers, ‘thrashing’ in people is exacerbated by emotional responses, including anxiety or fear of failure.

So what to do about it?

First, be able to recognise it…
…then, make a change.

Recognition:

Thrashing is the sensation of ‘working at working’ rather than ‘getting work done’.  As researchers, we get into this state when we are bogged down, with too much information to manage, too many tasks to complete, and often a lack of clarity about what matters most.  Recognising – while avoiding an emotional reaction – that one is not making progress is an important skill.

Change:

Thrashing does not improve by persisting with the same routine.  In fact, persisting can make things worse. So, change is needed.  A colleague of mine, a ferociously productive professor of ‘guru’ status, used to take a walk as soon as he detected himself thrashing, even if it was only to get up from his desk and walk around the building.  My productivity increased as soon as I followed his example.

What interventions tend to help?  Change is needed at different levels: 
1. immediate (to break the cycle);
2. beyond-this-moment (to shift into a more productive frame); and
3. longer term (to help avoid or at least moderate thrashing in the future).

Here are some suggestions about how to stop ‘thrashing’. (It’s not an exhaustive list, so if you have a way of dealing with it, why not leave a comment?)

1. Break the cycle:

  • stop – take some time for yourself
  • change mode – shift from writing to reading, or from reading to hygiene, or from research to cooking…
  • change setting – e.g., go to a park or a café café – there’s a reason so many authors hang out in coffee bars, and it isn’t just for free wi-fi
  • take a walk – get away from the problem, stretch your limbs, improve your circulation – and allow your mind to shift to background processing
  • exercise – taking a break and shifting from mental to physical activity can be mentally liberating
  • have a conversation – this is a form of mode change that often shifts blockages; whether it’s a quick chat with your supervisor or with another student, or a bit of amusing banter with a friend, a conversation can provide an insight or a reassurance that makes all the difference

2.  Reduce the immediate load – make the work more tractable

  • narrow the focus — use a ‘divide and conquer’ approach to split the most important tasks into smaller, more easily accomplished sub-tasks)
  • switch to a simpler, achievable task — working on another task for which you are more likely to meet your objectives not only gets you thinking about something new, but provides a sense of accomplishment that will help your self-confidence. When you have succeeded there, return and reassess your first task.  (I often run two tasks in parallel, so that when I get stuck on one, I can shift across and make progress on the other.)

3.  Develop practices and awareness that will help in the longer term

  • mindfulness
  • building in time for regular exercise
  • find your ‘something else’ – as a colleague once phrased it, ‘You need two passions in order to complete a PhD, and only one of them can be your research.’  Having ‘something else’ to turn to provides useful contrast and relief.

Changing tasks to occupy your attention with something other than the immediate problem allows the mind to do some  ‘background processing’ of that problem.  Sometimes the initial break is enough in itself to let a solution surface, an understanding to coalesce, or an alternative approach to pop up.


[1] “The term thrashing denotes excessive overhead and severe performance degradation or collapse caused by too much paging. Thrashing inevitably turns a shortage of memory space into a surplus of processor time.” (p. 915 in Denning, Peter J. (1968). “Thrashing: Its causes and prevention” (PDF). Proceedings AFIPS, Fall Joint Computer Conference33: 915–922. Retrieved 2012-02-15.)

[2] Miller, George A. (1956). “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information”. Psychological Review. 63 (2): 81–97. doi:10.1037/h0043158

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