Resource starvation

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So you’ve avoided the perils of attention-depletion and capture. Good job. Now you need to avoid starving yourself.

With multiple processors, modern computers are able to do a bunch of things at once, but sometimes that’s an illusion. Instead, a computer’s processor divvies up its time across multiple threads1. If all threads have exactly the same priority, then each thread has a chance of doing some work.

But let’s say that for some reason, one thread has a slightly higher priority than all the others. Then it has the opportunity to do more work than the others, and if it’s using a shared resource — depending on a number of factors — other threads won’t be able to do any work. We call this resource starvation.

So it is with our own time. We can see this manifest in our daily lives, feeling stressed and exhausted.

Some productivity wonks suggest, “Get the most important thing done first thing in the morning.” Ok. Now, what if that thing takes hours and hours? At what point are you supposed to move on to something else? Never mind the depletion discussed earlier.

Which isn’t to say that you should totally ditch that most important thing: it’s just that, as Dan Ariely points out in Manage Your Day-To-Day (library), when you’re consuming time, you need to understand the opportunity cost of what you’re giving up.

So be measured about how much time you’re spending on each activity, even if it is urgent and important, and make sure you give time for everything else, even the seemingly unimportant and not urgent rest and recreation.


  1. How to even explain what a thread is to the layperson? Even the Wikipedia’s entry on the matter is a little abstruse. So imagine you’re at the border to another country, where there are several lines of people, but only one officer to checking everyone’s passports. No one can switch lines. The officer points to one line, and checks the passports for several people. Then they point to another line, and check the passports for some more. And so forth. In this case, the officer represents the processor, and each person in line an instruction. Thus, each line is a thread.