Ben Weintraub

Productivity Redux

10 Dec 2018

And lo! I have completed my first semester of graduate school! The challenges were plentiful, and all that stuff I thought about how easy it was going to be because of my time management tools pretty much went out the window as soon as the trivial assignments stopped, which was right away. There is still hope though, because I’m dumb enough to think that I can still improve on my time management techniques.

Before I can come up with improvement strategies though, it’s necessary to pinpoint exactly where I went wrong. I cannot expect to get to where I want, if I don’t know where I am. Insert mysterious Cheshire Cat quote.

Despite my self-deprecating tone, I think I actually did pretty well on the time management front. I tried to not stay on campus past 6pm, and was generally successful. I found I was able to do this by interleaving work, and not just focusing on the next thing that was due. There were however, several instances where I had to stay past 6pm, and a few times I did it voluntarily. For all of the distributed systems projects, I had to stay up until midnight on the night before to make sure everything was done. In one sense, I don’t mind having to stay up late every once in a while, but also, I don’t want to do it if I don’t absolutely have to. I think there is a path to improvement such that these can be avoided.

As for the voluntary late evenings, in which I stayed until 8 or 9pm (or worked from home until 9 or 10pm), I allowed myself to do it, if I was enjoying the work. Before that point, I had told myself that when I finished working, I was done for the evening. But then we had a few projects that I really enjoyed, and so I made a deal with myself that I would allow myself to continue working as long as I was still having fun. As soon as the fun stopped, I could quit. This felt like a reasonable approach, because doing work you enjoy is certainly less taxing, and so as long as I wanted to keep working, it seemed prudent to let myself get ahead. In practice, there were some unforeseen complications. By continuing to work on my computer, I exposed myself to its bright screen until much later in the evening then I generally prefer. Even with F.lux enabled, it still effects how easily I fall asleep. This is a cost that I pay the next day, and doing it too many times risks changing my sleep schedule. Which, I like my sleep schedule, and I don’t want it to change for a dumb reason like this. The other problem, that is even more pernicious, is that I never really give myself a break from the material. I’ve found that I’m much less time-efficient at solving problems, if I’m only focused on one problem at a time. The time I take to relax when I get home has the effect of letting my brain do some processing in the background, and when I start working again, I move quickly. By working late, I can also feel the darkness of burnout slowly enclosing around me. Relaxing at home gives my brain the rest it needs to keep me feeling fresh the next day. For a stretch as long as a university semester, it’s important to maintain that mental freshness however you can. At some point during the semester, I outlawed working from home after 6 (except in urgent situations). I felt the positive effects immediately, and this will continue to be a staple of my schedule.

I also worked quite a bit on the weekends, this is something I’d like to reduce. Part of it was that, being new to Boston, I don’t have a lot of friends to fill up my weekend plans, and as long as I was enjoying the work, I figured I might as well get more done. I think it’s fine to work on the weekends occassionally, but I don’t want to make it a habit.

So, now for the intersting stuff. We’ve established what the problem is, so what is the solution? The first thing I want to try is maintain a stricter work schedule. I want to end by 5 or 6, everyday. 5 more often than 6. I think this strict constraint will help keep me focused better during the day.

One of the things I’ve been good about is scheduling my time. I make a strict schedule, and I do a pretty good job of sticking to it–making adjustments as necessary. Something that I could improve at though, is breaking down tasks at the start of a project. I’m able to break it down into big chunks, but I have trouble seeing the details that should be implied by the project spec. Understanding these details early on would make accurate scheduling easier. One possible approach could be to write a short (1-2 pages) design spec, where all features are defined as well as the methods for completing them. Once I have the design spec, I will have a better understanding of what tasks need to be done, and can schedule them accordingly. Of course, there will still be unforseen tasks and issues–this technique won’t be perfect–but hopefully it will be better.

These are just a couple ideas to build on what I’ve established so far. I would like to continue to devise new strategies and theories to test out as well, and will continue to explore those in future posts.