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Threaded Thinking

May 25th, 2015 | Posted by pftq in Essays | #
     One thing I've come to notice is my thinking style tends to be much different than most when it comes to planning or managing how to pursue multiple tasks.  Some have suggested I think very linearly when much of the world is moving towards nonlinear or multitasking, but I'm not exactly the person one would consider tunnel visioned or laser focused nor is it accurate to say I only do one thing at a time.  Instead, it's more like I plant the seeds of each of my tasks in a way that allows me to shift my focus to other things while each continues in the background.  If you're familiar with business terms, it's like balancing lead time, where one does the things that just need to be started but not tended to for a while so they can be returned to later.  If you're more familiar with engineering terms, it is like pipelining to have multiple things done at the same time, not by having multiple processes but by having one process that works on other tasks while waiting for one to finish.  The difference here is I'm not just taking tasks that have existing lead time but reconstructing even the ones that don't so everything can be run in a streamlined manner with minimal idle time.  Sometimes I get criticism for being too "shortsighted," that I don't pay enough attention to something that might happen next week, but it's because there's something that needs to be done by today or even tomorrow, for which there will not be a next week if not given full attention.  Other times, I am described as being too hands-off or aloof, yet those same individuals would constantly be surprised at how much I have things in control even after knowing me for multiple years; it's because I can see what needs my active attention and what just needs a push, some careful planning, before it gets itself off the ground and takes care of itself.  There's no reason to watch an egg until it boils; you will hear it when it does.  Sometimes people are so obsessed with giving their 100% at everything, they don't realize when they can give 10% to something and still get the same thing 100% result.  More importantly, it then frees you with the extra time and attention span to get multiple things done at once or tie them together in the bigger picture to create possibilities that weren't there before.

     It's very different from the multitasking that I often see from others both linear and nonlinear.  I'm not trying to focus on multiple things at once, even if across a longer time frame I am doing multiple things, nor do I lose sight of other events that are happening while I'm focusing on any one task. For those who understand computers, the best analogy is that I'm like a computer with one core but a huge amount of RAM, whereas others tend to have a large number of cores but a low amount of RAM.  It doesn't mean I don't do multiple tasks.  I just do them one at a time.  I switch between tasks but at any given time am giving my full attention to one as opposed to dividing my attention among many.  At the same time, my lack of focus on other tasks does not mean I forget where I'm at when I return to them, which is an important distinction to those who get caught up in any one task they're focused on.  To extend the computer analogy, it would be like if I had a single core but with efficient threading, where the core switches between multiple tasks to give the illusion of multitasking but never actually does things simultaneously.  The catch of course is that I need that freedom to switch between tasks, and I need to be focused enough on the task I am performing at any one time to both make sure it succeeds as well as set it up to run in the background without my attention when I do switch.  I cannot literally do multiple things at once and have them all do just as well if my attention is divided, hence those who observe this from me and do not actually understand what I am doing would on first impression just bucket me as a tunnel-visioned linear thinker who misses the big picture, one who specializes in one thing or never has more than one thing on their plate, when in actuality I've probably spread myself across more areas than anyone else I've ever met.  The computer with many cores but little RAM, on the other hand, would do many things at once but keep "forgetting" where it was at on each task if things ran too long or skip over things that are assumed (aka guessed) to be unimportant because they literally can't keep that much at once in memory.  While they may excel at doing many things at once on raw ability, they struggle with more complicated tasks or planning out a multi-step course of action due to that limited depth of memory.  That shapes the way they see the world as well as what they deem actually possible; to them, some things you can only learn through experience as opposed to actually being able to think it through, while other things will always be dependent on chance or fate.  And then there is the computer with one core and no threading, which probably isn't even aware of the existence of other courses of action until it's done with the current one.  It's sort of like the person who wastes 10 years going down the wrong path before waking up and realizing he should have taken the other.  The issues with this tunnel-visioned manner of thought should be obvious, so from this point forward, I'll mainly be contrasting my approach against nonlinear thinking styles.

     A problem I often run into with those in the many-cores-but-low-RAM group is they would try to do many things but can't think very far ahead or maintain much of an attention span for any one thing.  Often that person may not realize that the hundreds of things they're doing do not actually lead in any way to the goal they set out; the cause and effect chain is completely missing.  They just hope that they cast a net wide enough that at least something they're doing gets them there.  It's like playing against a chess player who sees all the possible moves on the board but can't think more than 2 steps ahead of any move they're about to make.  For me, however, I opt to think through one task from start to finish, go down the rabbit hole so to speak, before switching to another.  Yet, when I switch back, I will still remember where I left off.  So while I don't pay attention to all the moves immediately, I eventually get to them all after thinking through thoroughly the possible consequences of each and weighing them into one decision.  I may not see a hundred steps past each possible move, but I can see with enough depth and understanding to know what's possible and what's not on that path and to know how that path will interact with others down the line.  Something like this is most prevalent in conversation, when I can often remember and cite the original context of the discussion hours in when most others often can't remember more than the last 3 things said, let alone the context of the overall conversation. The more frustrating extension of this is when the conversation would go in circles because of the inability of the participants to tie new points to the original topic as opposed to just what was most recently said.  It's like watching someone go in circles trying to solve a maze due to only remembering the last 3 locations visited (and often in isolation rather than stringing them together into an actual map of where they're going).  I see this manner of thinking most with those who consider themselves more "analytical" or statistics-oriented.  Rather than actually walk through all the steps of cause-and-effect to explain why something happens, they would either point to correlated observations or some extremely macro-level statistic that "empirically proves" an observation.  It's almost as if they use research statistics as a crutch to compensate for their own inability to actually walk through the simulation mentally; they simplify the world into a bunch of heuristics and shorthands, observations paired with statistical significance, so that these simpler one-step relationships fit in memory.  Going back to the chess analogy, rather than actually think any number of moves ahead, they just memorize the best moves to make in any board configuration (again, a one-step thought process instead of many).  They cannot remember or break down the why, the chain of events in between A and B that actually happen, but they can remember the stats or that it was "proven" that A leads to B.  To them, the mere memorization of these relationships *is* the why.

     The uniqueness of "threaded thinking" is especially apparent when it comes to visualizing cause-effect or mentally simulating many things happening at once.  Some might know me for being a pretty heavy gamer in real-time-strategy games (Age of Empires, Starcraft) back in my early teens; these kind of games effectively require you to keep track of hundreds of things going on at once, an empire's economy as well as its warfare and literally what each and every solider individually is doing in battle.  You are forced to use threaded thinking here because you as a player only have one screen, one mouse, one point of focus at any time.  You have to be able to reasonably know the next 4-5 moves that might happen off of any decision you make, so you can turn your attention to something else.  What you end up doing is getting the ball rolling on hundreds of threads without actually watching them all through; you just know what each of those threads will end up doing in the back of your mind.  Yes, things will fail at times, but it is your job to plan out your decisions such that for anything that might happen along the way, there are checks and triggers in place for the situation to take care of itself without your attention, and only when necessary will it pull your attention back.  It's not so much about predicting the next 4-5 moves or even the next hundred moves as much as whatever you set forth having an automated course of action to handle any situation that arises with or without you.  This is all the more true when you are actually designing games and levels so that quite literally your scripts have to be operating without your supervision to beat other players.  Real life is arguably the same way.  As much as people would like to believe in multitasking, you as a person can only ever be in one place at any time and physically really ever doing one thing at a time no matter how much you interleave your task list.

     This habit of being able to manage hundreds of threads but with the efficacy of virtually being there with full attention on every thread is especially key when trying to build, create, or invent.  Taken abstractly, you essentially fully understand each and every piece of a construct before zooming out to then see how they all interact together as one whole.  Because for each and every piece you've already seen what it'll do in any scenario at least 4-5 moves out, once you zoom out, you can see how the overall whole behaves for the next 4-5 moves with every possible interaction between its pieces.  This is in contrast to the more conventional multitasking, many-CPU-but-low-RAM mindset where a person would essentially throw paint on the wall to see what sticks.  Often they have no idea how the pieces would interact together until they actually set things in motion and observe.  They may do many things simultaneously but cannot see past the very next consequence of their actions.  

     This becomes especially frustrating in conversations on inventing new algorithms or discussing practically anything with many moving parts.  A question I would frequently get is how I can assume that individual pieces once put together would create the overall bigger picture I describe.  The inquirer often is trying to pinpoint the one condition or trigger that enables everything else, when in actuality and arguably most things with emergent properties, there is no such one enabler.  As the saying goes, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; you cannot understand the whole by simply breaking it down into its individual parts and trying to find the most important one.  There is really no way to explain a process if the other in the conversation quite literally cannot see past the first move on the board across each piece.  Your point is that if these 10 pieces on the board each act accordingly, their combination will produce a result just through sheer cause-and-effect simulation in mind, but the other would ask how that is possible when each piece alone cannot attain the overall result of the group.  It's like trying to explain how to cook a great tasting meal to someone who just pulls apart the ingredients and says each ingredient alone does not taste that good.  It's like trying to explain that assembling the pieces of a car together correctly will make it move, only for someone who insists it's impossible if the individual pieces to the car themselves cannot move.  I've actually had a similar such conversation before where I was pretty much describing the mechanisms of how a car works, but it wasn't until I actually pointed out that the device was essentially a car that the other would accept it was possible. They memorized the fact that a car moves, but they cannot break down why nor recognize the pieces leading up to it.  If they were in charge of creating the universe, they would never get past turning atoms and electrons into molecules, let alone create life.  Quite literally, if they have not themselves assembled and observed the pieces working together as you describe, they cannot see it in their mind.

     As some can probably tell by now, I'm not a fan of trade-offs.  I don't see any reason why any strength you have *has* to be paired with a weakness.  I'd rather be neither laser-focused but tunnel visioned nor multitasking but scatter-brained.  Sometimes people seem to forget it's possible to be well balanced and actually in control even when you're not around.  Too frequently, I see the complaints that if you expect someone to focus, they cannot be expected to keep track of everything else going on and that if you expect them to keep track of the bigger picture, they cannot be expected to do any particular thing very well.  It's almost like people have forgotten that you can actually just do things *better* and not have to always sacrifice one thing for the other.  Moreover we seem to forget that it is actually possible to intentionally cause things to happen as opposed to just throwing paint on the wall and seeing what sticks.  Many people may depend on trying things out randomly to generate ideas, but it doesn't mean there aren't people who actually can see how things come together before putting that thought to action.
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Responses

  1. AtakanTE said,
    May-30-2016, 10:18am

    I always thought multu-tasking as most people conceive of it is overrated.  As you describe here, you need to be able to give your undivided attention to those things that really matter (or things that need to be tested out), but you also need to be able to quit doing so and jump on to the next important task skillfully.  That actually has an inherent trade off management component in that you have to develop a heuristic to be able to correctly determine the moment the expected utility of continuing to work on the task at hand is exceeded by positive returns on spending the same energy on the next important task.

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