Monday, May 11, 2015

Morning routine: small habits, big changes

As I enter the clinical years of medical school, time will be limited due to the hectic schedule (up to 80 hours per week), and time will often be out of my control. I expect this to drain my willpower. How do I ensure I continue to take care of my health, relationships, and personal goals?

The solution is to create consistent routines that turn activities like exercise and organization into habits.

I developed my morning routine over the past 4 months while finishing up my PhD thesis. The routine is intended to build momentum for the day and make me focused and relaxed. It already kept me sane while preparing manuscripts for publication, presenting at national conferences, and writing that 210 page dissertation. 

Time to share it.

Staples of my morning routine

These habits survived a dozen rounds of experimentation. They will be the core of my morning routine for a long time.

1) Clean up and de-grog: When I first get out of bed, I'm groggy. I used to dislike cleaning up my home, because it is mindless. It got cluttered quickly. Solution? Clean up when I'm groggy- just one section of the condo. This takes no mental energy, but gets me active and wakes me up. When fully conscious, I look around and get both joy and focus from the uncluttered living space. The small win, so early in the morning, brings easy motivation.

Lesson: look at problems in your own life, and pick habits that help you solve them.

2) Speech warm-up: I used to stutter and not articulate my words properly. A regular routine of practicing speech (I use alliterative poems) gave me the confidence for the next step: a lot of public speaking. This mostly fixed the problem, but I still do the habit to warm-up for the day, and to remind myself of my continuing goal to become an articulate and clear speaker.

Lesson: use morning routines to remind yourself of personal goals and warm up for the day.

Decide ahead of time exactly what the routine entails

3) 7 minute bodyweight workout: short, super-intense workouts are highly effective. NYTimes posted one anyone can do, but I found a far more intense version on Fitocracy (BURPEES). Don't be fooled by the short time interval- I'm dying by the end of it. For a challenge, just go faster. By this method, I can truly work out every day, no matter how busy I am.

Lesson: well-designed habits dispel the excuse "I don't have time."

I also listen to motivational videos while working out. Serves as a timer, motivates me, and reminds me of principles that help me solve life problems. Here's one of my favorites that teaches the power of habit.



A morning routine is endlessly adaptable to meet one’s changing life needs, so I continue to experiment with it. 


1) Make my bed. Never did this before, but I easily tacked this on to my established cleanup routine.

Lesson: use habits as triggers for other habits

2) Write for 30 minutes. Where do you think this article came from? Consistency.

Lesson: morning routines make side projects possible on a busy schedule

3) Meditate. I’m using meditation to train the ability to re-direct my attention at will. Unproductive rumination about something that makes me angry, sad, etc. severely hampers my effectiveness and happiness. Re-focusing my attention should prove invaluable in any tough situation. I use the Headspace app.

How to experiment:
Last time, I wrote about a dangerous trap when trying new things. Don’t simply collect a list of useful-sounding habits and string them together into a morning routine. You must prioritize taking concrete action on them, and see for yourself if they are useful to you.

But how you do choose a habit to take action on?

Pick 2-4 habits. Try them all once, immediately.
The ones you like, commit to them everyday for 7-10 days. Discard the others.
The ones you still like, commit to them everyday for 1 month. Discard the others.
After 25-50 days, it’s a habit (exact time depends on the habit)

Find a way to visualize your progress.

At any point in this process, use your experience (what worked, what didn’t, and why) as feedback to identify other potential habits to try (again, try them as soon as you find them).

Warning: for the 1-month commitment, note that internal resistance occurs around 7-14 days, making you want to give up. During this period, motivation disappears (motivation is an emotion, and emotions are always temporary), and the habit is not yet ingrained. Your brain will come up with excuses like “I don’t have time” and “maybe what I'm doing doesn't matter.” Don’t give in at this point- otherwise you’ll never deliberately build any habits at all.

More than just the habit

Bonus!!! Because of my speech warm-up, I find myself subconsciously working on my articulation throughout the day. This reminds me to pay more attention to others, and I feel a frequent impulse to smile, make eye contact, and listen to others. My morning workout reminds me to use occasional free time to go cycling or hit the gym. After a small morning clean-up for 4 months, I felt ready for a major overhaul: I gave away 60% of my possessions, and adopted a new organizing strategy that is both easy and beautiful.

You are what you do frequently. By doing things everyday, you change how you view your own identity. You no longer feel constrained by your current situation, personality, and weaknesses. Thus, the mental benefits far exceed the direct effects of daily action.

In summary, a morning routine allows you to:

  • Feel in control of your day
  • Target specific problems in your life
  • Remind yourself of personal goals
  • Warm up for the day
  • String habits together as progressive triggers
  • Dispel the excuse “I don’t have time.”
  • Gain confidence to make bigger changes in your life

All this, by expending minimal time and willpower. What are you waiting for?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Art of Trying New Things


During grad school, I fell in love with trying new things. I saw the power: I was a fat kid who had never run more than 3 miles at a time, and thought “I’m not a person who works out.” Four months of half-marathon training, and now daily exercise is integral to my identity. I used to have social anxiety and now I give seminars on networking. Every time I deliberately sought out new experiences that seemed impossibly outside my comfort zone, they completely changed how I think, act, and value.

In practice, there were sprints and crawls in my self-development during grad school. Often times, I dreamed of trying new things, but my life pretty much stayed the same. Goals went nowhere. I got discouraged, and in darker days I blamed my environment or people around me for holding me back. Any life-changing sprints would always fade back into a soul-sucking crawl.

Clearly, I was falling into a trap when trying new things. Finally, at the end of my PhD, I figured it out. When did I sprint and when did I crawl? The determining factor: whether or not I applied the Ultimate Rule.

 The Ultimate Rule for successfully trying new things:
When you encounter something new you can try, you only have three choices: 
1)    Do it immediately. 
2)    Schedule it for a specific time in the next 1-3 months. If it is not accomplished by that deadline, do Option 3. 
3)    Discard it and forget about it. 

Option 3 is hardest. You may think it’s foolish. You may have trouble letting go of the dream of trying it. Or you may simply be used to accumulating ideas you don’t do anything about. All three applied to me. But now I know: Discarding and forgetting goals is the key to accomplishing goals.


The trap

Let’s consider the basic anatomy of trying new things:
Step 1: Discover that this new thing exists
Step 2: Decide to act
Step 3: Act
Step 4: Learn from action

It’s easy to do Step 1 over and over and over again. For some reason, this step is really addictive. That’s the trap.

The world is filled with new things to try. Just look around you, or at the Internet. Bucket lists. So many books and Internet articles! Juggling! Ukulele! People skills! Lucid dreaming! Rock climbing! Memory techniques! So many countries to travel to! Thousands of hobbies! So many skills that will open so many doors! I put these on a list titled “Someday/Maybe.”

A “someday” list feels like the right thing to do. I thought, “Gotta dream big, right?” After all, it energizes and motivates me. Good thing, right?

Wrong. It’s a drug. It’s a hit of energy and motivation.  It’s getting a reward without doing anything. Your brain gets addicted to reading and dreaming about cool things to do, which is fun and easy. Actually trying new things is scary, and your brain will rationalize putting it off with “I don’t have time right now” or a similar excuse. After all, you already got your hit. If “someday” is an option, then “someday” will become the default choice.  

What’s worse, you’ve gathered all this information about new things to try. It’s floating around in your brain, it’s bloating your to-do list, and now you have half-started hobbies strewn around your home. You constantly see all this clutter, and every time you see it, you are forced to say, “I’ll do it someday later.” The “someday” mentality is self-reinforcing, and now you’re trapped by your habits and your environment.


Discarding goals is key to accomplishing goals

So Step 1 is the problem (discovering new things). How do you consistently get to Steps 2 and 3 (deciding to act, and then taking action)? You must make it a habit to implement the Ultimate Rule. Again, you either try the new thing immediately or schedule it for a specific time. If you fail to do this, you MUST drop it and forget about it.

Get a clean slate as quickly as possible. You have a lot of goals floating around in your head, and reminders of goals strewn around your home. These will clutter your mind. If you have a lot of things on your bucket list built up, delete them all now. If you have a guitar you haven’t played in years, get rid of it. If you have 20 unread books on your shelf, donate them now. All at once.

Then, face reality. “Someday” is a myth.

You will never “find time.” You have to make time for personal growth. If you want to run a marathon, is it worth clearing space in your schedule to train? You WILL need to say no to your buddies going to the bar, you WILL need to sacrifice sleep to get other work done, you WILL need to sacrifice other hobbies.

Trying worthwhile new things, by definition, should take you outside your comfort zone. You WILL have to fail many times, because that is how you learn. If you want to learn a language, you WILL need to commit to speaking no English for set periods of time. And you WILL embarrass yourself stumbling over words. This is emotionally draining, and you MUST be willing to fail and deal with frustration.

Apply the Ultimate Rule and decide once and for all whether to take action, by doing something new immediately or scheduling it. What is this really worth to you, and is it worth re-organizing your life for it?

If the answer is no, forget it. Discard it. Simply don’t think about it. You don’t want the thought of “someday” to paralyze you.

If the answer is yes, then this very act of deciding between taking action and discarding has forced you to clarify the value of the activity. If the answer is yes, then you will see this new venture through to the end, no matter what. You will make time and energy for it. Force yourself to act, the only thing that will ever make a difference. Nothing will stop you from becoming what you want to become. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

2014: Twelve Habits of Creativity

Previously, I wrote about my Outreach Habit, how I pushed through difficulty, and how it changed who I am. It garnered enough interest for a follow-up post. And indeed, this year I created a spin-off of the Outreach Habit: career workshops where grad students and post-docs made concrete progress on their own careers, available here and described by a participant here

And the Outreach Habit was just Phase One.

Creativity is like any other skill. It can be deliberately practiced and improved. Importantly, one can’t just read about how to be creative and then be creative. People sometimes want tips and tricks (i.e. shortcuts and magic bullets), but you actually have to actually implement creative techniques yourself, figure out what works for you, and make it a habit to think creatively. The only way to build a habit is through concrete action - doing it everyday.

Creativity doesn’t “just happen.” It’s not spontaneous (though it can feel like it in the moment). It’s not waiting around to be inspired. And it's certainly not out of your control (though it is partly out of your conscious control).

With this in mind, I dedicated each month of 2014 to a different Habit of Creativity.

Creativity is simply this: Taking things that already exist and connecting them in new ways. This doesn’t just happen by itself. To do this, five basic ingredients need to be cultivated:
1) Raw material. Obviously, you can’t connect things you don’t know exist. This is why I did my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge in 2013- to maximize exposure to ideas.
2) Actively engaging with ideas. You can’t expect creativity to "just happen.” There are specific ways to wrestle with ideas.
3) Relationships. I personally like to be by myself and think, but adopting other people’s viewpoints is the fastest way to look at the same old boring thing in a different light.
4) A creative environment. Daily routines, schedules, work space, etc all need to be tinkered with. This will be different for different people, but trial and error is always required.
5) Deliberate skill acquisition. Skills create opportunities to access and cultivate the four ingredients above.

Each Habit of Creativity is targeted at one of the above ingredients.

Monthly Habits of Creativity 

Just like the Outreach Habit, I strived to practice a Habit of Creativity every single day for 30-50 days, using the Mini-Habits method. When I fell off, I got back on as quickly as I could.

These targeted my specific weaknesses. If you want to develop your own Habits of Creativity, you can try mine out, but don’t adopt them wholesale. Instead, be creative...

I’m not going to explain these in detail. Instead, I’ve included links to what inspired the habit.

My 2014 Habits of Creativity:
    January: Outreach
    February: Read scientific papers daily
    March: Learn to draw... using Inkscape vector graphics. Required myself to to post one new drawing everyday on Facebook. Also used this to generate all the figures for my 1-hour presentation on my thesis work. 
    April: Empathy
    May: Write down 10 ideas
    June: Journal
    July: Active recall
    August: Learn programming in R (continued until November)
    September: Deep work rituals
    October: Mind mapping 
    November: Morning ritual to promote clarity of thought and stay focused on my most important work. Includes journaling, exercise, and reading
    December: Evening ritual dedicated to building relationships


Interested or Skeptical?

Below are some common responses I got to my Outreach Habit, likely relevant to rest of my habits.

A common response: "Wow, that sounds like it took a lot of time. I wish I had that kind of time."

“I don’t have time” is a bullshit excuse. You just need the right plan. The Outreach Habit took 10 minutes per day.

Another common response: “Wow, you were really motivated to do that. How did you inspire yourself everyday?”

“I’m not feeling motivated” is a crutch. You don’t need inspiration to take action. Most days I did not feel motivated. Action leads to motivation, not the other way around.

Another common response: “You’re so extroverted! I wish I could do that” or… “That sounds like faking it and not being yourself..."

“I’m not that type of person” is irrelevant. You can become that type of person. I’m still an introvert, by the way. Being around others is exhausting. But that doesn’t mean I can’t reach out to others.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Outreach Habit: 50 consecutive days of doing something I'm bad at

The Goal

Every single day for the first 50 days of 2014, I forced myself to do something outside my comfort zone. And that's how I ended up having drinks with the vice president of a powerful company.

~The Outreach Habit: Everyday, I must make contact with one person that I otherwise would not have.~

Completion rate: 100%, tracked on Lift.

This usually entailed cold e-mails to people I don’t know. I wrote to the blogger Philip Guo telling him how much his article on grant writing helped me write my predoctoral fellowship, and he got back to me immediately and posted my message on his blog. I wrote to a graduate school dean proposing a collaboration- we start Monday. I got the new President of the University of Michigan to agree to speak to the MD/PhD program within 24 hours of the announcement of his selection by the Board of Regents. I also contacted dozens of alumni and other professionals to organize a series of career panels.

The Outreach Habit also included going up to a speaker after a talk. At a conference, this led to an e-mail exchange with a professor comparing data to assess the potential for a collaboration.

I suppose you could call this the Networking Habit, but I also want to get better at keeping in touch with old friends. Therefore, I wrote up a New Year's update blurb complete with photos and sent them to my friends. Many reciprocated. On really busy days, sending a quickly-modified blurb to another friend I hadn’t seen in years was a good, easy default.

Difficult Skills = Worthwhile Skills

Why did I choose this habit?

Answer: because it’s hard. Really hard.

Or at least it's hard for me.

First, I just spent the last year maximizing my personal productivity, cultivating my ability to focus, and cutting out distractions. I wanted to focus on my science and my work. With that mindset, other people are distractions.

Second, when I started out, I had no idea how to make these meaningful, productive exchanges. The problem was that I was not used to putting myself in others’ shoes. If I was this person, why would I want to engage with this person who just sent me a random e-mail?

Solution? I tried to make these exchanges meaningful, not worrying about how incompetent I was. Once I made the decision to reach out to a particular person, I forced myself to come up with more and more reasons to make contact. I researched the person online if I didn’t know them. I thought about my own goals and what reasons they would have for wanting to help me out. I thought about each unique person and crafted an equally unique connection. With this information in hand, I could craft a meaningful (yet short) e-mail with a meaningful outcome.

But I didn’t give up just because I sucked. I wrote e-mails that were terrible and got no reply. I’m pretty sure I offended some people. I made some embarassing mistakes during public speaking events that resulted from this outreach habit. But that is part of the process. I only stuck with it because I knew that failure is actually just feedback to help me improve. This is the “get better” mindset- all that matters is that I improve. When I hit an obstacle, that’s life asking me, “are you sure you want to change?"


Habits Change Who You Are

A week ago, I wanted to see if I truly made Outreach into a habit. So I ended this habit plan and archived the goal on Lift. 

What happened? I began seeing outreach opportunities everywhere.

I heard that the vice president of a major company was coming to the university to give a talk on careers, and I immediately pulled up her e-mail address on LinkedIn and sent her a cold e-mail asking to meet for coffee. Within 1 hour of realizing she existed, I was on her schedule. We ended up having drinks for 3 hours and bonded over intellectual discussions and hilarious personal stories.

I now encounter very little inertia when e-mailing a random big-shot and ask for a coffee meeting. They almost always say yes. I’m meeting with a Principal at Boston Consulting Group this evening- I only e-mailed him yesterday.

Given that I used to suffer from social anxiety, it’s still a little hard to believe how comfortable I’ve become at making rapid and effective connections with complete strangers. How easy it is reach out to people who I’ve been feuding with or neglecting. And how fun it is. 

It also opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. I can only reach a certain level of productivity working alone, no matter how much I improve personal skills like focus and time management. I can’t wait to see what I can make with others, working together.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Want more autonomy at work? Here is the first step.

More on balancing productivity and relationships! Again, I’m writing a lot of this for myself.

This series of blog posts was partially motivated by a reader’s question about defending one’s time while also maintaining relationships. It’s an important question, but there’s an important nuance. Yes, it is critical to defend your time and say “no” to a lot of things- even to your boss. But make sure you are effectively managing and utilizing what free time you already have before you start asking for more.

In fact, utilizing your current free time more effectively is key to obtaining more autonomy later on.

Rule #1 can be summarized as: Schedule dedicated time to invest in your relationships and your ability to build relationships. This solves a lot of conflicts.

Rule #2: The First Step: Gain others' trust by proving your value and honesty

On value

There is a fantastic interview in Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. It’s worth repeating. After graduating from college, a young woman named Lulu takes her first job. It's a mindless, boring job pushing buttons to test for software bugs, and she doesn’t have much control of what she does and when. She just follows orders from an unending parade of micromanaging bosses.

While defending one’s time and acquiring autonomy is critical for taking control of one’s work life, it would have been a mistake for Lulu to start doing that immediately. Instead, she used what little autonomous time she did have (mostly her free time at home) to build skills above and beyond her job requirements. Instead of watching TV, she spent countless hours learning how to code on her own, and re-write the company's underlying computer system.

Eventually, she figured out how to automate the company's entire bug-testing process, saving it a ton of time and money. No one asked her to do this. Her bosses were impressed, and she was given a major promotion heading up a new software automation division with lots of responsibilities that probably had her working 80 hours per week. At this point, Lulu was really valuable. So she decided to demand a 30-hour per week schedule to reserve enough time to focus on her side projects. They couldn’t say no- they needed her.

Therefore, if you feel constantly harassed by external responsibilities, a micromanaging boss, and other demands, don’t just try to fight them or avoid them (or worse, complain). Increase your value by any means necessary and then you can negotiate your time commitments on a more equal footing.

Now, PhD students are given a ton of autonomy and then must learn how to use it effectively. I didn’t need to “earn” it like Lulu did. However, the pattern still holds. Early on in my PhD, my boss would give me a project with specific goals and I’d work on them. If I didn’t fulfill them (which happened a lot early on), it would be a problem. I had other project ideas, but I honestly didn’t know how to execute them, so my boss’ ideas came first.

I started coming up with solutions that my boss hadn’t considered. I delivered surprise results. I took note of what areas my boss was not focusing on (rigorous statistics, bioinformatics, automating common lab tasks), and dedicated time to learning how to do those things. Today, it’s pretty clear my boss is happy with my progress and fully trusts me to figure things out on my own. His ideas are now (very helpful) suggestions, not requirements. 

Every PhD student has the time and autonomy to build skills above and beyond what is immediately required for the project they are given by their boss. If a corporate indentured servant like Lulu can find time for it, so can PhD students.

Book recommendation: Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You. Lots of good stories like Lulu’s. 

On honesty

Being trusted is more important than being liked. So don’t be afraid to piss people off. Don’t go around pissing people off on purpose, but if honesty necessitates some uncomfortable words, go ahead. 

If someone else is causing you problems, the solution is simple: talk to them about it. Don’t complain, and certainly don’t write them off as inept or uncaring. If someone else is demanding too much of your time, make sure they trust you and don’t just think you’re lazy for saying “no.” If you prove your honesty first, they will believe you when you say you are too busy.

Just like defending your time, don’t go overboard with this immediately. If your boss has some major flaws that are hurting your company, don’t walk into your her office and start criticizing her management style, unless she is already very open to feedback.

Instead, start small. If someone says, “I love New York!” and you really dislike New York, don’t be afraid to say, “Being in New York City makes me want to blow my brains out.” Even if this person greatly outranks you. Most people are secure enough to not take offense at a trivial preference like that. The very fact you are disagreeing with them shows them that you are telling them the truth. Of course, don’t be unnecessarily mean about it, but don’t be afraid to be polarizing.

Then, move up. Be open with your criticisms of your organization’s plans. Be open with what you support and don’t support. Even if your boss started off squelching feedback (I hear this is a common issue in the corporate world), but if you’ve built up trust, you can always get to the point of full honesty eventually.

Finally, note that neither of these things, proving value and proving honesty, requires you to get more free time first. You just have to do it. And it will open many doors later on.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Time to re-evaluate how I build relationships and interact with others

This has been on my mind the entire month of November. It’s something I've put aside for a while. Therefore, I am talking to myself in this post just as much as I am to my readers.

Some context: my previous experiments developing focus and batching potential distractions were meant to increase the time and energy spent on what is important but not necessarily urgent. This includes building skills, exploring ideas through reading and moving my project forward. In other words, striving to produce quality results and increase my ability to produce quality results.

Just one problem, which a few readers noticed.

You have to take control of your schedule to make time for the important. Your schedule cannot be constantly subject to external demands, or else they will fill up all your time and you will have no time to nurture yourself.

To do this, you have to defend your own dedicated productivity time. We live in an interdependent world and in most jobs you have to do things for other people. You have meetings you must attend. You must report your progress. Other people will make unreasonable demands of you because they themselves are under pressure.

So if you make yourself unavailable and don't respond to people's requests immediately (something always presented as urgent but is of highly varying importance), that might piss other people off if you don't handle it properly. Rule #2 from my last post may be especially hard for others to understand.

But the issue goes deeper than that.

"Important but not urgent" also includes one more big thing that solves this problem: investing in relationships.

Apply newfound time and energy to investing in relationships and your ability to build professional and personal relationships

It should be no surprise that conflicts occur when people don’t trust each other and don’t know each other well.

Rather than waiting for conflicts to occur and then frantically trying to resolve them before they put your relationship at risk, why not try to prevent them from happening at all? If you’re trying to protect your time from other people’s demands, you’ll be on much better footing if there is mutual trust and understanding.

But it’s not easy. 

To state the obvious: Building solid relationships requires you to invest your time getting to know them on a "deeper" level," something which requires dedicated, focused effort. Just as it takes unbroken focus to move your project forward or develop a new skill, it takes undivided attention to cultivate a strong relationship. 

So schedule time for it. And don't be afraid to sacrifice your schedule for a person you care about.

So… how does one actually go about building solid relationships?

Personally, I find cliches like “be nice” or “be yourself” or “think of others” or "be a good listener" to be extraordinarily unhelpful. They are too general to tell if you are actually making any progress. It’s also easy to be a good person a few times, and then stop thinking of others because you just assume what you do is “good” because you’re a “good person.” It’s called moral licensing.

Getting better

Disclaimer: I've focused on just a few concrete things. Clearly, this is an incredibly complex topic, and there is infinite variation and variables in how relationships are built. There’s a lot more I could do, but I needed to select just a few I could focus on.

High-value activity #1: Listening with the intent of identifying what the other person considers important, especially if you aren’t (yet) interested.

Caring about what they care about immediately builds trust. Not sure if you understand their priorities yet? Say you think this person is emotionally attached to a gardening hobby. The next time you see them, are they genuinely complimented when you ask them about their garden?

So imagine that person e-mails you, “Could you do X for me?” But you know that this person cares about Y a lot more, and you are in the position to deliver Y more easily than X, you can offer that instead.

High-value activity #2: Deliberately practice eye contact and other signs of listening

If eye contact is uncomfortable, practice making it comfortable. Another example of listening is never pulling out your phone to check e-mail while chatting with someone. Are you able to comment on what they are talking about that shows you are processing what they say? Even if you don’t care about the topic, you can 1) still practice, so it comes naturally when it matters and 2) build trust with this person.

Feedback mechanism: it’s not a bad idea to carry around a notecard and make a tally mark for every conversation where you make good eye contact. It’s critical to know if you’re actually making progress compared to yesterday.

High-value activity #3: Re-think how you perceive other people

If you think someone else is unprofessional, uncaring, unethical, a straight-up asshole, incompetent etc., don't just write them off as such. Certainly don't talk about them behind their back.  Complaining just makes you feel helpless. If you think they aren't listening to you or responding to you, try to understand WHY they aren't. Most of the time, you will discover you two simply aren't on the same page. They don't have the same information as you. If you want them to put in the effort to change their behavior, you should at least consider putting in the effort to see their point of view and then make a more effective presentation to them as to how and why they should change.

I have freed up a lot of time and energy through focus and batching. I came pretty close to simply picking up a new project and getting more work done, but I realized there’s something more important to invest in: people. Note that these “high-value activities” require full attention, and are enabled by the time freed up by enhanced productivity. I can’t resist pulling out my phone during a conversation if I’m constantly worrying about my work.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

My Most Productive Month Ever: Some Secrets

Hi all! Just a quick update. This has been my most productive month yet (in my life), so I'll share my thoughts.

Back in June, I wrote a lot about:

1) working on my most important projects in focused, distraction-free 90-minute intervals
***2) batching together less-important tasks so they don't become distractions while I'm trying to get actual work done
3) preserving time for daily habits

Since my last post, I've taken #2 to an extreme, through a process of experimentation. I also have updates on #1 and 3, but I will save that for a future post.

The result can be summarized as three rules:

Rule 1: Schedule as many small tasks as possible on "Batch Day"

Batch days are perhaps the most useful innovation in my schedule. I pick the day of the week I have the most meetings/appointments and tell myself, "I don't need to make any progress on my research that day." Instead, I get all of the little things I need to get done out of the way for the week. This includes personal errands: laundry, clearing out my e-mail, shopping, cleaning, organizing, bills, etc. It also includes all the little tasks around lab that I need to do on a regular basis, favors I need to do for other people, and generally any task that takes time and energy but not much thought.

Essentially, anything that does not move my project forward gets stuffed into this single day per week.  These days end up being PACKED and I have no trouble exhausting myself by the end of the day. I usually don't finish everything, so I end up doing some "batch" tasks towards the end of other days of the week.

My time tracking for moving my project forward vs. all other tasks. Note that I only mark down time in which I am fully focused on the task at hand. Just being at work does not count for anything. My philosophy is work harder, not long.
This is intended to avoid letting these small tasks interfere with my research. They are extremely dangerous because they feel like productivity, so they can easily be used as an excuse to avoid making progress on my projects. Whenever such a task gets presented to me during the week, I put it on the list for my next batch day (which may be up to 6 days later) and go back to work. I only do the task immediately if it takes less than 2 minutes or if it is extremely urgent.

Unexpectedly, I'm now far more on top of my responsibilities than I was before. Because one day per week is specifically designated for small tasks, I rarely procrastinate on them. When someone asks me for something, I can tell them I will do it next Wednesday. And it's easy to deliver.

Rule 2: Schedule meetings only for the busiest day of the week.

Look at the schedule below. If someone wants to schedule a meeting, I will reply as follows:
"Thursday is best. If that doesn't work, I might be able to do Monday at 11am or 1pm, or Tuesday at 8am."

To concentrate on my work and do it right, I need long stretches of time to focus. Therefore, Wednesday and Friday in the schedule above must be protected at all costs. Switching between projects or tasks is the best way to lose time in the day.

Rule 3: Check priority e-mail once a day after finishing my work, and the rest of my e-mail once a week.

Checking e-mail is the best way to lose focus. Therefore, I designate a specific time in the afternoon AFTER I've finished my most important tasks for the day to check e-mail. Even then, I only look at and respond to things that make it into my priority inbox. Once a week, usually on batch day, I will quickly process my e-mail and reach Inbox-Zero in about 30 minutes (including responses and small to-dos).

On processing:
I never leave an e-mail in my inbox after looking at it. I immediately do one or more of the following:
     1) delete it
     2) archive it
     3) add event to my calendar
     4) add task to my to-do list (usually on my batch day list)
     5) write a note to myself and file it properly
     6) respond as succinctly as possible

About Me

MD/PhD student trying to garner attention to myself and feel important by writing a blog.

Pet peeves: conventional wisdom, blindly following intuition, confusing correlation for causation, and arguing against the converse

2013: 52 books in 52 weeks. Complete
2014: TBA. Hint.

Reading Challenge 2013

2013 Reading Challenge

2013 Reading Challenge
Albert has read 5 books toward his goal of 52 books.


Albert's bookshelf: read

Zen Habits - Handbook for Life
5 of 5 stars true
Great, quick guide. I got a ton of work done these past two weeks implementing just two of the habits described in this book.
The Hunger Games
5 of 5 stars true
I was expecting to be disappointed. I wasn't.