Don’t finish that!

5 minute read


(Teaser photo from here.)

More philosophizing! This time about time management. The title is a bit misleading, but let me explain what I mean. I’ll give some context first.

As one progresses through various levels of studenthood, starting from kindergarten and going all the way through PhD, a monotonic trend is that a smaller and smaller fraction of your time is taken up with structured classroom activities, and a larger and larger fraction with ``homework’’ of some kind – the specific nature of it obviously changes over time, but the key feature is that there is not generally a specific time or sequence in which these tasks need to be completed. Said another way, the further you get, the more power you have to manage your own time.

As Uncle Ben said, with great power comes great responsibility. Personally, I adore the flexibility afforded by the lifestyle of a senior grad student (or now, postdoc, which isn’t that different). If it’s a completely gorgeous morning and I don’t have to be at a meeting, I can take off on a bike ride and nobody minds. But, like many others, I sometimes struggle with how to co-optimize my happiness with my productivity under this scheme, and occasionally struggle with feelings of guilt about whether I could be more productive without sacrificing happiness (the agonizing over which contributes to neither productivity nor happiness, as it turns out).

I’ve tried to internalize some general principles around this optimization, which include:

  1. Knowing what time you do your best thinking (for me, it’s the period starting 1-2 hours after I wake up and ending 4-5 hours after) and jealously guarding any uninterrupted stretches of time in that window for the really intensive intellectual tasks in my research.

  2. (corollary of 1) Saving tasks that don’t require as much mental bandwidth (e.g. responding to emails, filing for reimbursements, etc.) for other times, in particular those annoying short slots of a few tens of minutes that occasionally develop between other obligations.

  3. (corollary of 2) Stack meetings! Stack them into blocks as long as your attention span will allow. This helps to create more of the high-quality time mentioned in 1 and reduce the amount of low-quality time mentioned in 2 (there’s always too much of it anyway).

  4. Exercise 1-2 hours after lunch. I often experience a dip in energy or straight-up sleepiness during this time, and if my schedule allows, I’ve found it’s a great time to get my workout in. The gym is less crowded because the people who come during lunch have left, but the people who come after work haven’t arrived yet, and I return to my desk feeling mentally reinvigorated and, if I don’t have meetings, often get an extra 1-3 hours of “high-quality” thinking time as a result.

I’ve generally been pretty good at implementing these principles. The one I fail at most is being disciplined about #1. I’ll sit down at my desk first thing in the morning with every intention to make real headway in debugging some problem or implementing a new functionality in my code, but then I just want to make myself some tea and read a couple of the newest arXiv posts while I drink it, and then suddenly it’s two hours later and I’ve skimmed a few papers and responded to a bunch of emails but gotten no real work done in my highest mental-firepower time of the day!

So now we come to the title of the post, which alludes to something I’ve recently realized, which could potentially be referred to as a “life hack,” as trite and so 2013 as the term may be. This was fueled by the realization that the fundamental problem that leads to the wasting of the quality hours I just described is that in general, there’s a much lower activation energy to read a few emails than to dive into some big, potentially amorphous research task. And seeing the unread badge count of my email client decrease gives me a little endorphin boost as if I’m actually being productive! It’s so tempting!

Answer: Leave research tasks in an unfinished state.

What exactly do I mean?

Often, I’ll stop working on something when it comes to a nice, sensible stopping point. This seems logical enough. I’ve finished some semi-self-contained task. But this is what creates that high activation energy to come back to the work! Usually, the logical stopping point is the one where I’ve finished every subtask that was an obvious next step, and figuring out what makes sense to do next will take some real mental heavy lifting. The prospect of which might be quite daunting!

What I’ve started doing recently is forcing myself to stop research tasks at a point where I know exactly what to do next. The exact form it takes depends on the particular nature of the task I’m working on, but as an example, recently I’ve been working on building an implementation of Crystal Graph Convolutional Neural Nets in Julia, so typical next steps might be implementing or testing the next feature. When I finish for the session/day, I make sure I know exactly what test I’m running next, or if the next thing is to write more code, I’ve written comments that create a detailed outline of how I’m going to write that particular function.

This has actually been minorly life-changing in terms of lowering that activation energy to jump right into research work in the morning or whenever I happen to return to my desk, so I felt the need to share it with whatever tiny audience I might have here.

Over and out for now!