Too Many Projects, Not Enough Brains

Jul 7, 2013

After reading a blog post on how clutter affects our lives, I gave some thought to how having too many things to think about simultaneously affects our brains.

Recently at my programming job I had a Monday where I needed to work on 4 iOS apps at the same time. I had to update an internal app to support a changed webservice, remove some changes from one of our iPhone apps because of a webservice fix made them unnecessary, figure out how to build our iPad app to be analyzed for PCI compliance and continue work on our new universal app. By the time I got home at the usual time (never overtime of course), my brain was wiped out.

In addition to working on these four apps I had to interact with the rest of the universal team, answer emails and questions on all these projects and other things happening including leftover issues from our datacenter move. Doing this much in the same day doesn't happen all the time but being the answer guy on so many fronts sometimes just gets overwhelming.

Throughout my long career there have been many occasions where I could focus singly on one project and other times where this type of insanity was the norm. The difference after so many decades is that even if the brain is still able to do the multitasking and juggle so many somewhat unrelated tasks the toll on the body is much deeper. I think younger people might be able to handle this a little more but ultimately any brain can only process so many varied cycles no matter what age you are. Sometimes it seems like your brain has a task switching limit; once you cross that limit your ability to manage goes to hell.

I think it's related to working overtime even if you are doing just one project, the ordinary switching from design to coding to testing/debugging to communicating in a single day has a time limit as well; adding unrelated work to the burden just speeds up hitting the wall.

Trying to balance several projects worth of coding at the same time is a little easier if they have at least something in common; in my case everything is in Objective-C although the four codebases from that day were all wildly variant. It means you have to reorient your brain each time you switch since the code is designed, written, organized (or not) and configured differently. Add to that constant interruptions as people ask questions or need to convey something or just office noise and your one brain has a lot of difficulty maintaining quality work.

I almost always take a nap when I get home. Rarely do I have enough left in the tank to work on my personal project at home. Writing a blog post is even hard. Sometimes I resemble a non-sentient vegetable.

I wonder if we will ever find a way to expand the brain's capacity for work of this nature? People who are not programmers wonder what we do all day and it's hard to explain how difficult this kind of work is on the brain. Brains came about because it was an advantage for humans to be able to plan and adapt to situations but I don't think early humans had to make so many competing decisions on unrelated subjects while balancing a huge amount of knowledge. Programming today is way more complicated than it was in my first job, the amount of knowledge and experience needed to do one thing much less multiple things is crazy. I often wish I could plug in a brain expander.

Not everyone I work with does so many things at the same time but some do and it's clearly easy to have something go wrong. Our products live 24 hours a day and mistakes can not only cost us money but ruin someone's travel. I can't imagine doing a job with so many competing projects where mistakes could kill someone! I don't think our brains are so advanced to be overwhelmed and still function perfectly.

Take a multicore CPU and give it so many heavy threads to work on that all of the time is spent task switching and no time is left to do anything useful. Your brain is the same. Overload it with enough work and you will crash.

Now I do drink a little coffee (generally two-three cups per day) and I take 5000 MG of B12 as well (which seems to makes things a little clearer) but on days like the four project day I am useless that evening. I can't imagine any more how someone could do this and work 80 or 100 hours a week though long ago I did spend months like that sometimes. Today I refuse to.

Google Glass is an interesting addition to vision but what we need is BrainEnhancerPlus though I expect the downsides might make it not worthwhile!

It's funny that since I started programming as a job in 1981 the constant mantra was that programming would get easier, more automated, and maybe even replace programmers altogether so that anyone could do it. Yet all I've seen is that it keeps getting harder, we keep being asked to do more but the brain is still essentially the same.

Just thinking about this makes my brain hurt.