Thursday, July 27, 2006

Computer Science & Work

I realized today that one of the things that bugs me about my job is that my workflow resembles a bad kind of data structure (in the computer science sense).

Many jobs resembles a queue - when you receive new work, it goes to the back of the line, to be handled after current work is done. In some jobs this is literally true, like if you check groceries or work on an assembly line. For other jobs, it's true because nothing that you do is of specifically high priority, so you just process things as they show up.

Most office jobs probably resemble a priority queue - a line in which the order is determined by priority. If an assignment comes in that is higher priority than one you already have, it goes in front of that one. This can require some effort to keep track of, but it's basically functional.

But my job resembles a stack - a structure that is "first in, last out." Oh, in theory my job is a priority queue like it should be, but in fact, it always seems to happen that whatever I am asked to do needs to be done right now, even before the thing I was given to do right now a few minutes ago. I think the main person who gives me work does not mean to structure it in this way, but has kind of a short attention span, so that's how it works out. It means I am continually interrupted in the middle of one task to start a new one, and have to battle to get back down the stack to all the unfinished projects that are waiting.

It makes me a little nutty.

In regular life, tasks that appear as a stack are very hard for me to get started on. What I mean are things where your thinking goes like this:

I need to do a load of dark laundry. Oh, but first I need to gather up all the dark laundry. Oh, but first I'll have to mend that pair of dark pants I wanted to have in that load that are in the drawer. Oh, but first I need to disassemble the chest of drawers so I can get that drawer to open. Oh, but first I need to get my tool chest back from the neighbor who borrowed it.

I tend to give up somewhere around the third "oh, but" and just not do the task. (My example is a little silly, but sometimes household tasks do present in this way.) I don't know if everyone is like this, but the fact that I'm like this makes it even harder, I think, for me to deal with my job in a productive way.

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