Working memory (or operational memory) is a temporary storage of information used for current cognitive tasks. It allows holding and manipulating necessary information while performing various tasks, such as reading, solving mathematical problems, or planning actions.
Limited capacity: typically, a person can hold from 5 to 9 pieces of information simultaneously, although this number can vary depending on individual characteristics and the nature of the information.
Temporary storage: information in working memory is retained only for a short period if it isn't used or transferred to long-term memory.
Active processing: working memory doesn't just store information, it also allows for active work with it.
Complex tasks: In programming, especially when solving complex problems, one needs to hold many pieces of information at once (e.g., data structures, algorithms, task objectives, etc.). The limited capacity of working memory can make this challenging.
Multitasking: Programmers often switch between different tasks or parts of the code. Constant switching can lead to loss of focus and reduced productivity due to the need to "reload" the working memory.
When a programmer is distracted by tasks not related to programming, it affects their working memory, which in turn impacts productivity. Here's how it happens, taking into account working memory:
Filling up working memory: Working memory has a limited capacity, and a person can only hold a certain number of "units of information" in it at once. When the programmer is distracted, new tasks and information fill up this memory, pushing out the information related to programming.
Context-switching costs: After the distraction, the programmer needs to return to their initial task. This requires "loading" relevant information back into working memory, which can take time and effort.
Loss of focus and 'flow': Distraction can break a state of deep concentration, known as "flow". Returning to this state after distraction takes time and can be complicated due to the load of other tasks in working memory.
Risk of errors: Due to the limitations of working memory and loss of focus, there's an increased risk of making errors when returning to the programming task.
Mental fatigue: Constant distractions and the need for frequent task-switching amplify cognitive load on the brain, leading to rapid mental fatigue.
Thus, distractions, especially those not related to the current programming task, can significantly reduce a programmer's productivity due to the impact on their working memory and ability to retain and process information.
Thanks! Stay productive. Don't distract developers. :)