Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Archive for August 2018

Productivity Notes to Past-Me

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I’m not the most productive academic out there, but my improvement from the start of graduate school 9 years ago is huge. I used to chronically procrastinate, saving problem sets and studying for the last minute and so not spending enough time on them to do well. I spent most of graduate school stressed about how I should be working more and worrying about failing out (which I almost did 3 times).

Now I’m able to publish several papers per year while teaching 3 classes and chasing a toddler, all with much less stress and anxiety. What happened?

Honestly, part of it is likely just a few more years of brain development together with a kind of work that I find more enjoyable. But think another part is the discovery of some tricks that would have been helpful all along.

1. The idea that you should be working 80 hour weeks is actually harmful. 30-40 hours is plenty if it is quality time. Rather than thinking you should be working all the time and feeling bad when you don’t, set specific realistic goals (solve these problems, or write this section, or work for 3 hours) and be happy when you accomplish them and ready for more the next day, setting up a virtuous circle. The classic “work smart, not hard” advice applies.

2. A lot of “working smart” is finding ways to avoid or minimize non-crucial work. You want to have clear medium-term goals (like pass this class, or get this paper to a journal) and figure what the most important proximate step is to accomplish it. This sounds obvious but it is amazing how much work does not proceed in this manner. For coursework, the most important proximate step is usually doing problem sets; if you are spending your time doing something else like reading the notes/textbook this should be because you think it is actually the best way to solve a specific problem. Reading blogs is definitely not work.

Right now, I have a paper I want to get published. If that’s going to happen, it must be submitted to a journal; for that to happen, I absolutely need to update the background/theory section to indicate how I expect the variable of interest to affect the dependent variables. There are all kind of other things I could do that I could call “working on the paper”, like reading more of the literature or running more regressions. Doing those things might improve the paper 10% but only the background/theory section is going to bump it from unpublishable-at-a-legitimate-journal to publishable, so that’s what I’m going to start with (and possibly, end with; I have other things to get to).

3. Related to this, the Pareto Principle is everywhere- there are just so, so many situations where putting in 20% of the effort gets you 80% of the way there. A big part of what “working smart” means is to figure out what that 20% is and always do it, and do it first; then to figure out what is the 80% of the work that gets the last 20% and do it second or possibly not at all.

4. This is probably a good time to talk about exercise. You think you are “too busy”, but you’re wrong. For one, in the long-run exercise up to at least 1hr/day is a free lunch because it puts you in a mental state that improves your productivity that much (the same thing applies to 8hrs/night of sleep). And yes, you should be thinking about the long-run and not just the next deadline; there is always a next deadline and you’ll be at this for a lifetime. Also, the Pareto principle goes even further with exercise than it does with most of the rest of life. You don’t bother lifting weights because you imagine you need to spend 1hr/day in the gym to make a difference, but actually 0.5hrs/WEEK is enough to make huge improvements if you’re doing it right and consistently.

5. You’re reading a lot less than you used to, with non-fiction books going almost to zero, because it feels like reading is using the same mental muscles that work/school does. I’m reading more non-fiction than ever, largely because I’m not reading but listening (audiobooks). You have this vague prejudice against them, thinking that you don’t absorb the material as well this way. This might actually be true, but think Pareto- better to absorb 80% of all the books I’m listening to than 100% of the zero books you are reading. Lots of free audiobooks at the library, now downloadable to your phone. E-books on the phone also provide a higher quality of distraction than e.g. social media.

6. I know you want to hear about software, since that seems like the easiest thing to change, and in some way’s you’re right. The combination of Google Calendar and Workflowy has made me much less likely to totally forget about things while also reducing stress somewhat (I’m not worrying about what I’m forgetting to do). The challenge is to remember to enter events and deadlines into the calendar as soon as you hear about them, and to remember to check it every day for what’s happening; this is hard at first but soon becomes second nature. The same applies for to-do lists in Workflowy, which is also a great way to take notes or keep things like paper ideas (I now have 11k words worth of paper ideas stored in there; coming up with ideas might sound hard now but once you start reading the recent literature and going to conferences you’ll get plenty). Workflowy is free to use, but charges $5/month for a pro version, which you’ll only need if you actually find it super useful. Which makes this a good time to talk about money…

7. You’re super-cheap, which isn’t a bad thing generally but is pretty dumb when it comes to anything likely to enhance productivity. Think what better productivity means for your expected lifetime income and happiness. Anything that could detectably improve it is likely to be quite valuable, whether that is software or coffee or books or proper climate control. Think- if it were logistically and ethically possible to buy outputs like higher grades or more papers, wouldn’t your willingness to be huge? Now, there are all these inputs that are easily and ethically available that will probabilistically raise those outputs, so shouldn’t your willingness to be be an appreciable fraction of that huge number? Also, if you’re such a fan of Milton Friedman, maybe you could at least 10% act like the Permanent Income Hypothesis is true.

8. Some things just work differently for different people or different types of work. I feel like there has to be a lot you can learn from how Eleanor does what she does, but 2018 me still hasn’t figured that one out.

Overall though, it does get much better, keep at it.

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