Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Mental Prefetching

by Andre · No Comments

Last week, just to amuse myself, and to squeeze in more writing time, I decided to speed up my morning routine by giving myself no more than 30 minutes from the moment I woke up to complete my entire grooming before heading out the door.

To accomplish this, I had to do things differently. I started laying out all of my clothes and towels the night before, laid the bath towel on the (clean) floor at the edge of the shower door, laid the clothes on the floor right beside the towel, shaved while the water in the shower heated up, used the “scientific bathing” technique presented by the efficiency expert dad in the classic film Cheaper by the Dozen, dried off in the shower stall instead of the bathroom floor, and so on. By the third day, I was completing the whole sequence, from shaving and combing my hair, and even bedmaking, in under 25 minutes. I had to reposition the bed slightly for faster access to one side, cutting my bedmaking time in half.

I noticed that the self-imposed time constraint made me do something different that I’ve started carrying over into the rest of my daily activities. While I was in the middle of one rote task, I would start thinking about precisely what action I would do next. While I was drying off in the shower, I would think about putting on my socks, while I was putting on my socks, I would think about putting on my pants, and so on, so that these would all amount to one continuous action. Since there were no pauses in my action, the routine gained momentum.

When I headed out the door, I would think of precisely what route I would take (I don’t have a routine destination). While I was booting up my computer, I would think about doing my daily review — looking at the calendar and action lists on the Palm Desktop. Once I came across the next action on the Palm Desktop I was going to do, I would continue the review if I hadn’t finished, but I would think about doing the next action immediately after looking at the Palm Desktop. If I was writing a product review, as I was earlier today, I would think about immediately beginning work on this blog post.

The principle is simple: while you’re doing any tasks, take a moment to decide what task you’ll start immediately afterward before you complete the current action.

Web browsers do something analogous to this, called “prefetching.” They cache previously accessed data in anticipation of the user’s future page requests, reducing the need to process redundant data. What I call mental prefetching is the art of making action decisions prior to switching tasks rather making them in between tasks, when the actor is most vulnerable to woolgathering, daydreaming, socializing, or mindless digressions.

With the point made, I’ll go make that phone call I thought about making a couple of paragraphs ago . . .

Tags: Productivity