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Communications of the ACM

The profession of IT

Multitasking Without Thrashing

multi-armed goddess, sculpture


Our individual ability to be productive has been hard stressed by the sheer load of task requests we receive via the Internet. In 2001, David Allen published Getting Things Done,1 a best-selling book about a system for managing all our tasks to eliminate stress and increase productivity. Allen claims that a considerable amount of stress comes our way when we have too many incomplete tasks. He views tasks as loops connecting someone making a request and you as the performer who must deliver the requested results. Getting systematic about completing loops dramatically reduces stress.

Allen says that operating systems are designed to get tasks done efficiently on computers. Why not export key ideas about task management into a personal operating system? He calls his operating system GTD, for Getting Things Done. The GTD system supports you in tracking open loops and moving them toward completion. It routes incoming requests to one of these destinations in your filing system:


Peter Corrao

Dr. Denning's discussion relating human multi-tasking to computer thrashing was spot on. As soon as I saw the memory map of figure 1 and working sets of figure 2 I immediately thought of my Outlook calendar! If I think of a calendar as a map of available space to address "active tasks" capacity, the more I try to squeeze in, the more apt I am to enter an unrecoverable thrashing state, particularly if I also underestimate my requirements for context switching between each working set. Food for thought...

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