Explaining Things To Your Grandmother

Einstein supposedly once said that you don’t really understand a thing until you can explain it to your grandmother. While I think we can all agree that Einstein was reasonably bright this advice, in its unexpanded form, is fairly stupid.

It encourages people to digest shallow metaphors, maybe memorize a factoid or two from Wikipedia, and then confidently expound upon a subject about which they know literally nothing. I’m sure Einstein wasn’t trying to encourage that sort of behavior, but that’s what’s happened.

What this advice really means is that you should have run the fingers of your mind over the 3-dimensional shape of a concepts so much that you have an intimate acquaintance with its lines and edges. You aren’t just trafficking in facile analogies but can generate a whole host of images, anecdotes, and explanations at will, tailoring them on the spot to better connect with the knowledge already contained in your interlocutor’s head. If they have spotty knowledge of the subject you can skip over those places and drop down in any part of the map that’s still a blank.

Making quantum physics comprehensible to grandmother will not be the same as making it comprehensible to a graduate student in psychology. The grad student might be smarter than grandma, or might not, but that isn’t the only issue. Grandma has a radically different way of understanding the world, a whole host of concepts, intuitions, and biases which can help or hurt comprehension, depending on the context.

She might even surprise you and turn out to remember a good amount of that discrete mathematics class she took 600 years ago.

When you can take the shape of quantum physics in your hands, move it around to expose different faces, change the angle of your explanatory light so that it casts different kinds of shadows onto different kinds of surfaces, illustrate concepts with hand-rolled improvised expositions — with the end result being that your grandmother comes away with a reasonably intuitive grasp of this science, then you understand it.

The Ultrapraxists

Thanks to an invite from my good friend Jeffrey Biles I was recently able to participate in a weekend session of Sebastian Marshall’s ‘ultraworking pentathlon‘.

The pentathlon consists of five ‘cycles’, with each cycle broken into two parts: an uninterrupted 30-minute work period followed by a 10 minute break. Before each cycle you ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What do I plan on accomplishing?
  2. How will I begin?
  3. What hazards are present?
  4. What are my energy and morale like?

And after each cycle you ask yourself these questions:

  1. Did I accomplish my goal?
  2. Were there any hazards present?
  3. How will I improve for my next cycle?
  4. What are my energy and morale like?

Additionally, at the beginning of a the pentathlon you ask yourself this set of questions just once:

  1. What’s my first priority today?
  2. Why is this important for me?
  3. How will I know when I’ve finished?
  4. Any dangers present (procrastination etc.)?
  5. Estimated number of cycles required?
  6. Is my goal concrete or subjective?

And of course when you finish you debrief with this list of questions:

  1. What did I get done this session?
  2. How does this compare to my normal output?
  3. Where did I consistently get bogged down? Is this part of a pattern?
  4. What big improvement can I make in future cycles?

So each individual cycle is bracketed with before and after questions, and the whole macro-structure is bracketed with before and after questions. At first glance this may look like it would be very tedious and distracting, but once you get used to it it only requires a few seconds to complete.

Though this is just an adaptation of the familiar Pomodoro method, the questions form a metacognitive framework which confers several advantages:

First, asking questions like ‘why is this important to me’ is a great way to orient towards a task. Once I get focused it’s often not difficult to stay motivated hour-to-hour, but it can be very difficult to stay motivated day-to-day. Reminding myself of why I’ve chosen to work on a project at the start of each session helps to mitigate this problem.

Second, it encourages frequent reflection on the learning process and facilitates rapid iteration of new techniques, preserving those that work and discarding those that don’t. It’s easy to have a great idea for an improvement in your work process but to then to get so absorbed in actually working that you either forget to implement the idea or you implement it but don’t notice whether it actually works.

These are non-trivial improvements. If the mind can be thought of as a manifold with attention and motivation flowing through it like liquids, then we can think of mantras, visualization, and a host of other ‘self-improvement’ techniques as being akin to engineering depressions in the manifold towards which those liquids flow. Simply wanting to form a habit often isn’t enough, for example, so building a mantra stack around the habit is like putting a bowling ball on a trampoline: everything is more likely to drift toward the new default behavior. Ultraworking is a scaffold making this process quicker and more efficient. Good ideas can be tested and their results measured in just a few cycles while you simultaneously probe for larger regularities in your output and get actual work done. It’s great!

The development of the ultraworking pentathlon places Sebastian Marshall squarely in the company of thinkers like Cal Newport and Scott Young (hereafter MYN et al.), whose stratospheric achievement is built on the consistent application of simple, pretty-obvious-in-retrospect techniques. This contrasts with figures like Srinivasa Ramanujan, who was one of the most prodigious mathematicians to have ever lived. By his own account he would dream of Hindu Gods and Goddesses while complex mathematics unfolded before his eyes. Decades after his untimely death people are still finding uses for the theorems in his legendary notebooks.

What can a monkey like me learn from a mind like that? Not much. But I can learn a ton from MYN et al. Because, while these guys are very smart, I’m pretty sure Gods aren’t downloading math into their brains while they sleep, and yet they still manage to write books, run businesses, prove new theorems, have kids, and stay in shape.

As valuable as the Ramanujans of the world are, MYN et al. might be even more valuable. Their bread and butter consists of:

  1. ‘block off as much time as possible to work on hard problems because switching tasks is distracting’
  2. ‘Summarize concepts in your own words because then you’ll remember them better’
  3. ‘Do Pomodoros, but also ask yourself some questions before and after to stay on track’
  4. etc…

Anyone smart enough to read is smart enough to do that. This means that while Ramanujan can do mathematics that twenty other people on Earth can even understand, MYN et al. can raise the average productivity of tens of thousands of people, maybe by orders of magnitude in extreme cases.  I’m not positive that makes their net positive impact bigger than Ramanujan’s, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.

Any group of thinkers that important should have a name, and here’s my proposal: The Ultrapraxists. ‘Praxis’ comes from Latin and refers to ‘action’ or ‘practice’ (think: orthopraxy). I kicked around a few different ideas for this title, but since Sebastian Marshall calls his technique ‘ultraworking’ and Scott Young just published a book on ‘ultralearning’ I settled on ‘ultrapraxist’.

Read ultrapraxy and learn from it; 2017 could be the most productive year of your life!

A Taxonomy of Gnoses

Anyone who was studied a difficult technical subject like mathematics has surely had the following experience:

You wake up at 5:30 in the morning, determined to go over the tricky set theory proofs which looked like hieroglyphics to you the day before. There’s a test over the material later in the week and, with an already packed schedule, it’s imperative that you master this as quickly as possible.

Coffee brewed, you crack open the textbook and begin to go over the proofs. As usual it takes a quarter of an hour for the caffeine and the context to saturate your brain. By the time the first rays of morning lance through the twilight you’ve settled into time-worn scholarly rhythms.

But you’re rediscovering, to your consternation, that studying math rarely produces insights in linear time. After days of fruitless concentration insight could drop from the sky like a nuclear bomb, and there’s no guarantee that two concepts of roughly-equivalent difficulty will require a roughly-equivalent amount of time to grasp. Worse, there doesn’t even seem to be a clear process you can fall back on to force understanding. At least with history you can just slow down, take copious notes, and be reasonably confident that the bigger picture will fade into view.

Not so with set theory. You’ve already come to a step which you simply cannot make sense out of. With your intuitions spinning their tires in the mud of a topic they didn’t evolve to handle, you post a question to math.stackexchange and try desperately to understand the replies. Alas, even several rounds of follow-up questions don’t resolve the problem.

Now you’re just sort of…staring at the proof, chanting it to yourself like a litany against ignorance. You keep going back to the start, working through the first couple of steps that make sense, re-reading the preceding section for clues, reading ahead a little bit for yet more clues, and so on. Perhaps you try stackexchange again, or watch related videos on Youtube.

After ninety minutes of this you take a break and reflect back on the morning’s work. Not only do you not understand the set theory proofs, you’re not even sure what to type into Google to find the next step. If a friend were to ask you point blank what you’ve been doing, you’d struggle to formulate a reply.

And yet…some of the words do seem less arcane, and the structure of the proof feels more familiar somehow, like a building you pass on your way to work everyday but have never really stopped to look at. You have this nagging feeling that something-like-insight is hovering just out of your mind’s peripheral vision. You finish this study session with a vague, indefinable sense that progress has been made.

I call this frustrating state ‘semignosis'[1], and have spent a lot of time in it over the course of the STEMpunk Project. Once I had this term I realized there were a lot of interesting ideas I could generate by attaching different prefixes to ‘gnosis’, and thus I developed the following taxonomy:

  • Agnosis, n. — Simply not gnowing ( 😉 ) something.
  • Semignosis, n. — The state described above, where the seeds of future gnosis are being sown but there is no current, specifiable increase in gnowledge.
  • Infragnosis, n. — Gnowledge which you didn’t know you had; the experience of being asked a random question and surprising yourself by giving an impromptu ten-minute lecture in reply.
  • Gnosis, n. — Gnowing something, be it a procedure or a fact.
  • Misgnosis, n. — “Gnowing” something which turns out not to be true.
  • Supergnosis, n. — Suddenly grokking a concept, i.e. having an insight. Comes in a ‘local’ flavor (having an insight new to you) or a ‘global’ flavor (having an insight no one has ever had before).

Now that I’m sitting here fleshing out this idea, I realize that there are a few other possibilities:

  • Misinfragnosis, n. — Gnowledge you don’t gnow you had, but which (alas) ends up being untrue.
  • Gnostic phantom, n. — A false shape which jumps out at you because of the way an argument is framed or pieces are arranged; the mental equivalent of a Kanisza figure.
  • Saturated gnosis, n. — ‘Common knowledge’
  • Saturated infragnosis, n. — ‘Common sense’, or gnowledge everyone has but probably doesn’t think about consciously unless asked to do so.

This is mostly just for fun. We already have a word for ‘insight’ so the word ‘supergnosis’ is superfluous (although it does sound like ‘supernova’, so maybe I could use the neologism in a story to make a character sound clever.) I doubt any of these terms will be used outside of this blog post.

But I think the term ‘semignosis’ is genuinely important. It captures a real state through which we must pass in our efforts to learn, and a very frustrating one at that. Having the term potentially allows us to do two things:

  1. We can recognize the state as real and necessary, perhaps alleviating some of the distress felt while occupying it.
  2. We can begin to classify fields by the amount of time a student of average intelligence must spend in semignosis.
  3. We can start to think more clearly about how to approach and navigate this state.

The second point is one I want to expand upon in the not-too-distant future, and the thirds is one I’m continually grappling with; there’ll probably be a section devoted to it in the STEMpunk book.

***

[1] Yes, I realize I’m mixing Greek and Latin here. No, I don’t care.

The STEMpunk Project: Eleventh Month’s Progress

This post marks the first time in a long time that I’ve managed to write an update before month’s end! My goals continue to be wildly optimistic; I didn’t finish AIMA this month, but I did get through a solid 4-5 chapters, and in the process learned a lot.

This spread of chapters covered topics such as the use of Markov Chain Monte Carlo reasoning to make decisions under uncertainty, the derivation of Bayes’ Rule, building graphical networks for making decisions and calculating probabilities, the nuts and bolts of simple speech recognition models, fuzzy logic, simple utility theory, and simple game theory.

Since I’ve been reading about AI for years I’ve come across terms like ‘utility function’ and ‘decision theory’ innumerable times, but until now I haven’t had a firm idea of what they meant in a technical sense. Having spent time staring at the equations (while not exactly comprehending them…), my understanding has come to be much fuller.

I consider this a species of ‘profundance’, a word I’ve coined to describe the experience of having a long-held belief suddenly take on far more depth than it previously held. To illustrate: when you were younger your parents probably told you not to touch the burners on the stove because they were hot. No doubt you believed them; why wouldn’t you? But it’s not until you accidentally graze one that you realize exactly what they meant. Despite the fact that you mentally and behaviorally affirmed that ‘burners are hot and shouldn’t be touched’ both before and after you actually touched one, in the latter case there is now an experience underlying that phrase which didn’t exist before.

In a similar vein, it’s possible to have a vague idea of what a ‘utility function’ is for a long time before you actually encounter the idea as mathematics. It’s nearly always better to acquire a mathematical understanding of a topic if you can, so I’m happy to have finally (somewhat) done that.

 

Profundis: The Productivity Project

In 2013 Chris Bailey turned down two enticing job offers in order to spend an entire year trying to become the most productive human in the history of Earth. I don’t think he quite achieved that goal — he has Bezos, Musk, and the late Jobs to contend with, after all — but he did get a lot done, and did us all the courtesy of writing “The Productivity Project” (TPP) to share his successes and failures along the way.

Normally these Profundae consist of a high-level overview of the book along with any musings which I think might be of interest to readers. But Bailey’s treatise is slim, the subject matter is germane to The STEMpunk Project, and I’m clearly drawn to large-scale orgies of learning. So for these reasons I’ve chosen to just review the entire book, one section at a time.

Introduction

Like myself the author is a long-time meditator. When he made the decision to begin his productivity project he was struck by how different it was from the cherished time he spent meditating, and he gradually began to forego his practice in favor of using that time to read or do research. His work subsequently became more frantic and less present, which had the effect of forcing him to realize how important a mindful, deliberate approach to work is.

Further, and more importantly, he realized that productivity isn’t about how much you get done so much as it is about how much you accomplish. Spending ten hours answering emails might make a person feel stupendously productive, and it may even be necessary once in a while, but it’s unlikely to produce as much value as spending half that much time developing an important new idea or product.

Working intentionally and creating value requires managing the three elements of productivity: time, attention, and energy. Having boundless amounts of any one of these things doesn’t do much good to a person who lacks the other two, and as such it’s important to focus on developing all three.

Only with this definition of productivity and this understanding of its constituent parts can we grok Bailey’s insights into the art of getting more done.

Part One: Laying The Groundwork

In chapter 1, “Where to Start”, the author reiterates how important it is to have actual reasons for wanting to become more productive, and he uses a series of questions such as “if you had two more hours every day, what would you do with them”, to try and get recalcitrant readers to probe their underlying motivations.

My answer to these questions is complicated, but I have given the matter a fair bit of thought. At some point in the past, I think when I was still living in Korea, I realized that advancing technology and the inadequacy of our political systems to handle it meant that the world could actually end.

No, I’m not a conspiracy theorist; it’s just that once a person begins to think seriously about recursively self-improving artificial intelligence or biologically-engineered weapons, it becomes difficult not to entertain the possibility of a global catastrophe in the coming decades. I need to learn everything I can, as fast as I can, to play my part in making the future a habitable place.

So that’s my motive for wanting to become more productive. Ch. 2, “Not All Tasks Are Created Equal”, relays the story of how meditating for thirty-five hours a week forced the author to think seriously about which tasks had the highest returns, where a ‘high-return task’ is any task that is either personally meaningful or has a large impact on work. If you use these criteria to choose what to focus on, you’re realistic in your expectations of what you can get done, and you actually accomplish everything you set out to do, then you’ve had a productive day.

How can you decide which tasks have the highest return? After making a list of everything you’re responsible for, figure out what you would do if you could choose only one thing to accomplish in a given day. Now pick just two more things. This list comprises your highest return tasks.

One of the things that struck me when I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs was how ruthlessly consistent Jobs was in applying this technique. In brainstorming sessions he and his team would generate a list of potential new products to work on, and Jobs would finish by ranking them and crossing out everything but the top three.

Ch. 3, “Three Daily Tasks”, continues this discussion and emphasizes the fact that being incredibly organized and efficient doesn’t do you much good if you’re focusing on doing the wrong things. The author recommends sitting down at the start of the day and at the start of the week and making a list of things you would be happy having accomplished at the end of each.

There isn’t a rule which says that this list must only contain tasks related to work. You can also include things like “making the time to call my long-neglected mother” or “have a nice dinner with my girlfriend in which I give her my full attention”.

“Three” is a somewhat arbitrary number — my task list often has five or six absolutely essential items on it — but it does have the advantage of being in a kind of goldilocks zone. Three items is about enough to make major progress on a couple of fronts while being easy to remember and easy to summarize. I found this technique to be very effective, and because of the way I make to-do lists, also very easy to implement.

Ch.4 , “Preparing for Prime Time”, begins by noting that before you can effectively optimize your time and energy you need to get a handle on how you’re using these resources at present.

To that end, the author recommends keeping logs of both time and energy. There are myriad ways of doing this, but perhaps the most expedient is to print off something like a spread sheet, set an alarm every hour, and then make a note of how you’re spending your time and energy when the alarm goes off. If done for a few weeks you’ll get a pretty accurate picture of your energy fluctuations in a typical day and how you’re actually spending your time. This knowledge is essential for aiming your efforts at the places where they are most needed.

Though this practice is tedious and requires discipline, it can’t be beaten in terms of equipping you to make positive changes. And it can also be done for any number of other important variables, like food consumption, time spent sleeping, etc.

Part Two: Wasting Time

As we discover in ch. 5, “Cozying Up to Ugly Tasks”, even someone as productive as Chris Bailey still manages to procrastinate, and for good reason: everyone procrastinates. Though people vary in the amounts of time they waste, surveys consistently find that everyone lets some amount of time slip through their fingers everyday, sometimes quite a lot of it.

Luckily, the people who get paid to think about procrastination have identified a number of ‘procrastination triggers’ which characterize tasks that people are more likely to put off. They are:

  1. Being boring.
  2. Being frustrating.
  3. Being difficult.
  4. Lacking structure.
  5. Having little personal meaning.
  6. Lacking intrinsic rewards.

A good example of a task which has many of these triggers is filing taxes. Watching Netflix, on the other hand, has very few of them. Which one are you more likely to drag your feet on?

With this list of triggers you can devise strategies for facing obnoxious tasks head on whenever you feel yourself procrastinating. A big ambiguous project can be better tamed if you spend an hour planning out subgoals and milestones. Setting aside a few dollars to spend frivolously after every hour spent deliberately working on such a task injects intrinsic rewards into the process.

Additionally, procrastination can be battled by listing the costs of putting a task off, setting a timer to create a hard deadline for beginning a task, and assigning yourself a ‘productive’ alternate task, like sending important emails, to do whenever you find yourself procrastinating on something else. I don’t use this third tactic because I find it fractures my attention too gravely, but others might be able to make it work.

Starting from a discussion of research which indicates that many people treat future versions of themselves in the same way that they treat total strangers, ch. 6, “Meet Yourself…From the Future”, proposes a few interesting exercises for getting to know the person whose body you’ll wake up in tomorrow. You could use a tool like AgingBooth to predict what you’ll look like decades hence, you could use futureme.org to send a letter to yourself, or you could deliberately create a ‘memory’ of a future self that has managed to not procrastinate on some important task.

Concretizing the selves that will confront the challenges of next week, next month, or next year will allow you to make better plans and avoid unduly overburdening them.

Ch. 7, “Why The Internet Is Killing Your Productivity”, needs little introduction or elaboration. Simply put, the internet is vast, interesting, and immediately rewarding in ways that deliberate work almost never is, and is thus lethal to productivity. The best way of combatting its siren song are to disconnect completely. The author describes an experiment in which he began to severely truncate the amount of time he spent on his smartphone by shutting it off between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. One of the first things I do in the morning is disconnect from the internet after I’ve done my wake up ritual and made some tea. It has been tremendously helpful in getting more done with my early hours.

To exercise even more nuanced control over your relationship with the internet, consider building a distraction levee.

Part Three: The End of Time Management

Once upon a time, notes ch. 8, “The Time Economy”, keeping track of time was far less important. People rose in the morning, worked throughout the day, and then finished when the sun went down. Individual cities kept internally-consistent time, but there wasn’t any incentive for multiple cities to sync up.

Until railroads began to spread and connect disparate parts of the country, that is. In 1883 railroads teamed up to divide time across the United States into four zones, a system which was made federal law in 1918. Combined with the industrial revolution, during which millions of people poured into factory jobs where most of their time was spent doing fairly repetitive tasks, this made keeping track of the minute hand crucial.

But most people don’t work in factories any longer, and today it’s harder to make the case that the amount of value one produces is tied directly to the amount of time they work. Instead of focusing on optimizing time — which is still important — it’s better to focus on the bottlenecks of attention and energy.

Two huge insights emerged out of the experiment detailed in ch. 9, “Working Less”. For four weeks the author alternated working a ninety-hour week with working a twenty-hour week and discovered that he got only slightly more done working longer hours, but felt twice as productive. Though it seems wildly counterintuitive, he speculates that erecting the artificial barrier of a twenty hour week forced him to pour greater amounts of attention and energy into each individual task, rendering the amount of work accomplished about the same.

This is a fine empirical demonstration of Parkinson’s Law: “work expands so as to fill the amount of time available for its completion”. I suspect that part of the reason Elon Musk gets so much more done than everyone else is that he can work one hundred and ten hour weeks but, because of freakish quantities of energy and attention, is actually able to move at a quick pace for the duration.

The author eventually settled into working roughly forty-six hours a week, and cites research to the effect that the optimal work week is between thirty-five and forty-five hours. I find that sixty hours a week is about right for me, though I admit I count working out, blogging, language learning, and The STEMpunk Project as work even though I’m not paid for any of it.

Ch. 10, “Energy Enlightenment” is a meditation on the effective use of biological prime time (BPTs), the periods of the day in which you have the most energy and focus. Night owls are likely to have theirs later in the day while us morning folks like to get down to business before the sun comes up; regardless, it’s worth knowing which hours tend to be your best and guarding them ferociously.

Spending an entire week ordering takeout, wearing sweatpants, and not shaving taught the author how important so-called ‘maintenance tasks’ like showering and cleaning the kitchen are to feeling healthy and happy. But as necessary as they are, they absorb an awful lot of time. Ch. 11,”Cleaning House”, addresses this dilemma by recommending that you take maintenance tasks and knock them out on a single ‘maintenance day’. The benefit to this approach is that, instead of fragmenting your attention by doing little maintenance tasks throughout the week, you free yourself up by devoting an entire day to them whenever possible. You can even squeeze a little more productivity out of maintenance days by either focusing on your chores completely, thereby exercising your attention, or listening to a podcast while you work.

I endorse this advice and use it routinely, but I will say as a counterpoint that I often find it energizing to load the dishwasher or run a vacuum over the carpet during my five-minute Pomodoro breaks.

Part Four: The Zen of Productivity

Ch. 12, “The Zen of Productivity” quietly reaffirms how important it is to keep a lean to-do list, both because doing so supports greater mental clarity and because it leaves room in a schedule to deal with the inevitable contingencies that crop up. The next two chapters elaborate on methods for accomplishing this, beginning with ch. 13, “Shrinking The Unimportant”.

Through trial and error the author discovered that the two most effective strategies for spending less time on low-return maintenance tasks like answering emails or sitting through pointless meetings is to first become aware of how much time they’re taking up and then, whenever possible, to set hard boundaries on when you’ll tackle them.

Of course many people simply don’t have that much control over their schedules, but unless you’ve made a prior effort to shrink unimportant tasks there are probably some time hogs which could be slimmed down a little bit.

It’s also possible to use the strategies from ch. 14, “Removing the Unimportant” to completely outsource those low-return tasks which don’t require you to do them personally. Obvious examples are mowing the lawn and cleaning the house, but if you’re willing to pay, a good virtual assistant can also process certain kinds of emails, handle many of the administrative tasks that come with running a small business, do most scheduling, and a variety of other things.

Deciding when to take this step requires that you first do a dollars-and-cents calculation of what your time is worth to you. One simple way to do this is to consider what you’d be willing to pay to buy back an hour of your life. If you’re an impecunious college student an hour of your work is probably worth about $8, whereas if you’re a successful programmer it could be as much as $200. Once you’ve done the math you can decide what can be profitably outsourced.

The chapter finishes with a lengthy reminder that one of the single best ways of reclaiming more of your time is to use the word ‘no’. You should consider wielding this powerful monosyllable not just on obviously low-return tasks but also tasks which are fairly valuable but still don’t make it into the highest-return bracket.

Part Five: Quiet Your Mind

The human brain, begins ch. 15, “Emptying Your Mind”, is built for pattern matching and insight generation, not for keeping track of ever-expanding lists of to-do’s. With that in mind the author endorses a variant of David Allen’s famous ‘getting things done’ system. First, any idea or task which comes to mind is captured in a note taking app and added to a calendar or to-do list when the app is reviewed on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

In addition to a to-do list, the author uses a number of ancillary lists to keep track of important commitment sub-categories. The ‘waiting for’ list includes everything from packages ordered online to money that is owed. Each project gets its own list which contains not just notes about the project in general but, more importantly, the very next concrete action to be taken towards completing it. The ‘worry’ list is similar to the projects list but is reserved for things like deciding where to live next or whether or not to take a new job. By keeping notebooks everywhere — including places like in the bathroom and in the car — it’s possible to capture damn near every thought that comes into your head.

As with almost anything it’s possible to take productivity too far. This occurs when you’re spending more time planning your work than you are doing your work. Everyone’s work flow is going to be unique to them, but be vigilant against spending too much time on thinking about productivity at the expense of actually being productive.

Ch. 16, “Rising Up”, elaborates upon a very powerful technique for seeing the ‘portfolio of your life’ as if from a very high distance. It’s also surprisingly simple: take everything you care about and make a list of six or seven mega categories which captures all of it. The author recommends using ‘mind’, ‘body’, ’emotions’, ‘career’, ‘finances’, ‘relationships’, and ‘fun’ as groups (also called ‘hot spots’), which seems plenty comprehensive to me, but you can devise your own scheme.

If you’ve been keeping to-do lists, tracking commitments, and doing weekly reviews, then starting a list of hot spots should seem like a natural extension of techniques you’ve already implemented. If your daily grind is equivalent to making espressos and chai lattes, then hot spots are akin to sitting down at year’s end to see if your coffee shop is on track to meet its growth and revenue goals.

It may take some time to get all your commitments into the appropriate hot spots, but once you do you’ll have at your disposal a huge map of the terrain of your life, with goals pointing you towards new opportunities and unexplored territory. As with the other lists it’s important to do weekly or at least monthly reviews to make sure you’re capturing everything and making progress on multiple fronts. When you do, pay attention to which areas are ahead of schedule and which are lagging behind and use that to guide your priorities in the week(s) ahead.

Most of us have had the experience of a Eureka moment happening to us while in the shower or absent-mindedly brushing our teeth. Ch.17, “Making Room”, explains that this is because our minds, roughly, have two modes: the diagnostic, analytical ‘central executive’ mode and the playful, peripatetic ‘daydreaming’ mode. In our rush to get more done many of us underestimate the value of simply letting ourselves get lost in thought.

Part of the reason for this is that we fill the cracks in our life with news, twitter, t.v., or podcasts at the expense of having room to roam. While I’m all for using driving time productively by listening to an audiobook, it’s important to carve out space so that your unconscious mind can connect dots and generate insights.

There are a number of ways to do this, including taking walks in nature, going for a long drive, playing a musical instrument, and simply sitting in a room with a notebook and a pen. I regularly use all these techniques and have for most of my life, to great effect.

Part Six: The Attention Muscle

Ch. 18, “Becoming More Deliberate” opens with a quote from one of the most titanic badasses of the Twentieth century, Bruce Lee: “The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus”. Citing research to the effect that most of us only manage to be present and focused a little over fifty percent of the time, the chapter goes on to note that productivity is less about frenetically doing more than it is about doing the right things with laser-like focus.

Taking the scattered light of your mind and making a laser from it requires understanding the machinery of attention, which neuroscientists have broken down into three constituent parts: the ‘central executive’, which sits in the prefrontal cortex thinking and planning, ‘focus’, which is narrowing attention down to a single task, and ‘awareness’, which is a general sense of what is happening internally and externally.

According to a popular saying, ‘the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem’, and ch. 19, “attention hijackers” is a rather dismaying look at just how bad our collective distraction problem is. Statistics gathered by RescueTime point to knowledge workers checking their email and using instant messaging fifty times and seventy-seven times a day, respectively, causing over half a trillion dollars in lost productivity each year. While each micro-interruption may seem harmless, it takes nearly half an hour to fully return to focus afterwards.

So clearly there is an issue, but is there a solution? One is to start disconnecting from distractions. Turn off the email and Facebook notifications on your phone and schedule a set time in which to clear out your various inboxes. Another is to use the “twenty second” rule, where potential temptations are placed at least twenty seconds away from you. It’s harder to compulsively snack when you must get out of your chair, walk into the kitchen, and open a bag of chips, and it’s likewise hard to mindlessly waste time on a smart phone that’s located in another room.

An even more powerful technique is discussed in ch. 20, “The Art of Doing One Thing”. Multitasking feels good because it provides a steady stream of limbic stimulation which over time reinforce it as an automatic, habitual behavior. It eventually becomes difficult to even notice that you’re multitasking at all, which is a shame because most human brains literally cannot do multiple things at once[1], but instead must constantly switch between them. Moreover, multitasking can make you more prone to anxiety and depression, makes you less effective at each task you’re trying to do, and negatively impacts memory. From a productivity standpoint multitasking is an absolute wash.

Luckily focus is a learnable skill, and like many other learnable skills it’s best to start small. Try setting a timer during which you’ll give your total attention to a task, then gradually increase this amount of time. Like progressively adding weight to a bar in the gym, you’ll notice that you’re attentional muscles will get stronger the longer you do this.

Nearly anything can be used as an object of focus. The breath serves this purpose during meditation, but it’s also possible to be mindful while eating, listening to a person’s story, or reading a book.

Ch. 21, “The Meditation Chapter” discusses the relevance of mindfulness to productivity. Like losing weight, getting more done is the cumulative result of thousands of small, daily sacrifices. It’s all too easy to make a grand resolution and then, in the moment, succumb to one of the innumerable sources of distraction the modern world provides. Meditation — which consists of nothing more than sitting somewhere quiet and keeping your attention on your breath, drawing it back whenever your mind inevitably wanders — builds the deceptively simple ability to notice what you’re doing.

Habits are powerful precisely because they’re automatic and require little thought, but this power cuts both ways. Cultivating mindfulness while working allows you to reflect on the value of what you’re doing while more reliably saying no to things that don’t contribute directly to what you’re trying to accomplish.

As with practicing single-tasking, meditation can be undertaken for eighteen hours a day or for much smaller amounts of time. Simply being mindful for the duration of climbing a flight of stairs can have noticeable benefits in your life.

Part Seven: Taking Productivity To The Next Level

The four chapters of part seven stress four different areas of health and wellness which have a serious impact on productivity. Ch. 22, “refueling”, offers two simple rules for eating to have higher energy levels: 1) eat less processed foods, and 2) notice when you’ve become full and then stop eating. Though many of us reach for coffee when we’re tired, ch. 23, “drinking for energy”, encourages us not to forget how important water can be in boosting energy levels. Caffeine, on the other hand, should be used strategically, not habitually.

Exercise is one of the single most beneficial things anyone can do, and ch. 24, “the exercise pill” discusses the author’s experiments with exercise as well as suggestions for starting and sticking to a routine of your own. And while many of us shirk on sleep in an effort to get more done, this comes at a steep cost. Ch. 25, “Sleeping Your Way to Productivity” discusses the ramifications of getting less sleep and suggests creating a nighttime ritual, getting less exposure to blue-spectrum light, utilizing short naps, avoiding caffeine eight to fourteen hours before bed, and keeping your room cool and dark as ways of optimizing the amount of restful sleep you get.

Part Eight: The Final Step

There is nothing wrong with trying to accomplish more; after all, the world is filled with important problems that need to be solved. But if we allow ourselves to become so caught up in this pursuit that we start being too critical of ourselves, then we aren’t going to be much use to anybody. Ch. 26, “The Final Step”, reminds us to periodically disconnect from our to-do lists, journal about positive experiences, and to actively meditate on the things in life for which we should be grateful. The chapter finishes with a discussion of a freak incident in which the author badly broke his foot while on vacation in Ireland. But because he had spent so much time aggressively investing in his productivity, he was able to keep his motivation high and finish The Productivity Project six weeks early.

His is an excellent example for all of us to follow.

***

[1] I say ‘most human brains’ instead of ‘all human brains’ because there is actually some evidence that a very small fraction of ‘supertaskers’ actually perform better when multitasking.

Build a Distraction Levee

There is a vignette near the beginning of Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” which relates the story of a data entry specialist who, fed up with the unrewarding nature of his work, decides instead to learn how to program.

His efforts begin earnestly enough, but he soon finds that he is spending nearly all of his time checking his email, browsing social media, and otherwise throwing vast chunks of his life into the gaping maw of the most spectacularly effective time-wasting device to have ever been built: the internet.

Our intrepid programmer eventually discovers a straightforward solution to this problem: simply shut the computer off and learn from textbooks, taking notes on paper and flashcards with a good ‘ol fashioned pen. As time goes on and his attentional muscle begin to get stronger, he is able to spend five or six hours throughout the day programming, leading eventually to his being hired at a startup.

Turning your computer off or severing its connection to the internet are blunt, effective means of stemming the tide of stimuli competing for the limited resources of time and attention. I call this family of techniques “Distraction Levees” because they work in the same manner as standard levees which hold back reservoir water and lakes.

Disconnecting is a sound strategy, and I recommend you follow it any time you can. But it doesn’t work well when the required resources are inherently internet-based. For example, how should you proceed if:

  1. you’re taking an online programming course which doesn’t offer the option of downloading the videos or text?
  2. you’d like to post the occasional question on StackOverflow, which doesn’t carry as much danger of pulling you in as Twitter or Reddit?
  3. you’re trying to blog about, say, The MIT Project and you want to watch the relevant Youtube videos?

Luckily tools exist which allow the construction of more nuanced, selective distraction levees. These offer the benefits of preserving your attention while also allowing you to accomplish whatever it is that you need to accomplish.

Two pieces of software that are often discussed in the productivity space are Leechblock for Firefox and StayFocusd for Google Chrome. As far as I can tell the two are nearly identical, but since I’m on Chrome I’m going to use StayFocusd as my example.

StayFocusd can be configured to bar access to all websites, bar access to all websites except for a select few ‘allowed websites’, or to allow access to all websites except a select few ‘blocked websites’. It’s possible to set certain days and certain hours during which StayFocusd is active, in case you’d like to leave time open for restriction-free browsing. It can block just certain kinds of content, like videos, while otherwise allowing access. It can even has a setting which requires the completion of a difficult challenge before any settings can be changed, thus leveraging a trivial inconvenience to boost productivity.

This flexibility is powerful. If you struggle to get down to business early in the morning, and your mantras don’t seem to be helping much, let me recommend that you try the following exercise:

  1. Sit down first thing in the morning and decide what it is that you’d like to accomplish.
  2. Make a list of the websites to which you’ll need access.
  3. Using StayFocusd, add all those websites to the Allowed Sites list.
  4. Use the “Nuclear Option” to block access to all websites except those on your Allowed Sites list.
  5. Under “For how long?” select a number of hours. Choose a reasonably large block of time and increase as you get better at focusing.
  6. Under “Starting when?” select “at a specific time” and choose a starting point.

Figuring out appropriate starting points and time spans requires a little basic math. Say you wake up at 7:00 a.m. and start writing an hour later. Since you’re just starting your efforts at being more focused and productive you don’t want to restrict access to the internet for more than two hours. That means you’ll need to tell StayFocusd to activate at 7 a.m. and remain active for three hours, not two, to prevent yourself from pointless browsing before work and falling victim to the Zeigarnik Effect.

Planning and setting up the blocks the night before would probably be better, but I haven’t found a way to get StayFocusd to do this correctly. If I do, I’ll update this post.

Repeated use of this kind of distraction levee will eventually make productive work your default setting in the morning, and you’ll be amazed at how much more you get done.

 

 

 

The STEMpunk Project: First Month’s Progress

Throughout the STEMpunk Project I’m going to try to take a picture each month of the books I’ve read and projects I’ve completed, as sort of a visual metaphor for my progress.

Here’s what I got done in March (and also in the months leading up to the start of the project):

12915032_10207214512534314_36614838_o

I know, I know. The lighting is pretty bad and you can’t really make out what’s being photographed. In the future I’m going to put more effort into to getting high quality pictures, but today I just wanted to go ahead and get this one so I don’t procrastinate and wind up not doing it until the middle of the month.

The books are divided into two stacks, one for “meta” level works on how to learn and reason well, and another for “object” level treatments of computer construction and design. In the future there’ll be many more textbooks in this pile, covering subjects like mechanical engineering and robot building.

That blue thing is a model engine I built near the end of last year as a gauge of how long it takes me to do tasks like that. I’ll probably do another model engine, along with all sorts of other kits, and those will eventually take their place on the table as well.