Getting to the bottom of things

In the article Neo-Amish Drop Outs, Kevin Kelly shares a quote from Donald Knuth explaining why he (Knuth) seldom reads email.

Rather than trying to stay on top of things, I am trying to get to the bottom of things.

Getting to the bottom of things — questioning assumptions, investigating causes, making connections — requires a different state of mind than staying on top of things. Deep thought is difficult when you’re frequently interrupted. It’s just as difficult when you anticipate being interrupted even if the interruption never comes.

We don’t task switch nearly as well as we think we do. We think we can switch instantly between tasks, when in reality it takes at least 15 minutes to recover our thoughts, and that’s if we were doing something relatively simple. With more complex tasks, it takes longer.

When I began to understand this a few years ago, I asked a colleague how long it takes her to recover from an interruption. She said three days. I thought she was exaggerating, but now I appreciate that it really can take a few days to get into a hard problem.

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3 comments on “Getting to the bottom of things
  1. Jim Archer says:

    Thanks for focusing on a very real challenge of the modern workplace. The fact that people can get in touch with you immediately via e-mail does not equate with whether or not they should get in touch with you immediately. The instant access capability has contributed in part to the emphasis on the urgent as opposed to the important in time management. Digging into the data to determine what is happening often requires uninterrupted time — something that is all the more needed when the data do not support generally held hypotheses or in fact seem to contradict generally held hypotheses.

  2. Senthil says:

    I quite agree that for deep and a thoughtful work, it requires very less context- switching of minding, focus from any real and anticipated distractions. We get into that ‘zone’ seldom only and we try to get there by long hours of work.

    IRC’s always puzzle me as how developers are able to stay there while doing work. Pardon me, I visit IRC ( mostly #python and #python-dev) only when I have questions and I want to discuss things.

    At office, I kind of close my emails and IMs.
    With respect to emails, I think allocating specific timings can help plan better.

  3. Austin says:

    I have found that to get truly deep thought done, I need to get away from my desk and office all together. I’ll wander along outside, or find a spot at the local college library, and mumble to myself while working through the logic and data on notepads. The process can take days or weeks, but when I’m finally ready I sit down and am able to basically write all the code in one spell. When I get away from this method, my error rate goes way up and I often code myself into corners.

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