Human desire is infinite, but resources are limited. And out of the various kind of resources, time is special, because its limits apply equally to everyone, poor or rich. Nobody has more than 24 hours a day.
I have tons of desires and many projects, and not enough time to do them all. I don't know if this is a common problem.
Here is an incomplete list of my current personal goals.
- Extending Pythonbooks, a book recommendation website I run
- Finishing off Real World Deep RL an online course I teach
- Contributing to the meetup groups I help organize: PyMunich and Artificial General Intelligence Munich.
- Releasing my (WIP) Python package
- I am self-studying core CS topics, because, yes, I am one of those programmers who didn't study CS.
- I am also self-studying Artificial General Intelligence.
- Contributing to the rock band I am a part of.
- I wanted to start a blog since a long time. I have written sporadically in the past on Medium and Wordpress, but never managed to be consistent.
- ... (there's more, but I didn't want to bore you)
Of course, this is all in addition to my usual day job. Needless to say, things were already quite bad. I was overwhelmed by my myriad projects and this was affecting my focus and productivity. This led to burnout, without having anything to show for it. After a while, my motivation also started going down and I started a bit of soul searching.
My wife and I are expecting a baby in October. I think it's the prospect of having a baby, and everything that it implies (spoiler alert: less time for your own desires), that put the soul searching in high gear.
- How can I make time for my kid, without sacrificing any of my own personal goals?
- How do I feel less overwhelmed?
- How can I improve productivity?
I know that some of you may be thinking: "you can't!". To make space for something in life, you need to remove something else. To feel less overwhelmed, you need to let go of some of your desires. To improve focus, you need to get rid of distractions. And as the stoic Epictetus said,
freedom isn’t secured by filling up on your heart’s desire but by removing your desire.
However, I am not willing to accept defeat and neither am I ready to let go of any of my desires (yet). So I needed a different kind of solution to my problems.
So what's the solution?
My theory is that overwhelm happens when too many things weigh on my mind at the same time. So here's my solution: Focus on one thing at a time.
Let's say I have 5 projects, and each project has a goal that requires 1 week of work. Instead of working on all 5 projects simultaneously for 5 weeks, I am going to work on the first project exclusively for the first week, the second project exclusively for the second week, and so on.
In each week, I am going to completely ignore everything other than the chosen-project-of-the-week (unless something requires urgent attention).
Of course, this doesn't magically create any extra time. But it stops the overwhelm originating from focusing on too many things and the productivity loss due to context switching.
If things work out, I will be making faster progress on each of my projects, and may find that there is time to fulfill all my desires after all.
As an added extra, this rhythm of work creates easy answers to some of the most difficult questions in blogging (as I said previously, it is a longstanding wish of mine to consistently blog), which are:
- When to blog?
- What to blog about?
When to blog is easy. In the above example, I will blog after each week, before I switch to the next project. What to blog about? Well, that's easy too. I will simply report the work I did on the last project-of-the-week.
This sounds good in theory, but does this solution actually hold any merit? Obviously, time will tell I guess. But I also thought it would be prudent to imagine two people, let's call them Tom and Jerry, debating the merit of the solution. Tom is an ardent non-believer and points out all the reasons why this won't work. Jerry is a strong supporter, and rebutts the points raised by Tom.
I found this to be an illuminating exercise, because it brought to the fore several risks associated with this plan. The conclusion was that this simple idea isn't enough, I need a framework around it to make it successful. More on that in the next section. But now, let's give a round of applause for debatemasters Tom and Jerry!
The following debate is tailored for myself. It may look different for others. The characters are speaking to me, not to each other.
|Tom on why this too will fail
|This plan will fail because it does not eliminate any desires, which is exactly what you need to do. Working on many desires will lead to mediocre results in all aspects in the long run. This will lead to the regret that focusing on one thing might have been easier and more effective.
|While this plan does not eliminate any existing desires, this could also be a reason for its success. Eliminating a desire prematurely may also lead to regret, resulting in unstable yo-yo behavior. These desires are there for a reason after all. You can't just wish them away. It's probably just not the right time to put all your eggs in the same basket. Rather, the right approach at this stage is to explore every desire, and then cutting down gradually in the future, as more data becomes available. Let's not force this and let it happen automatically. However, it still might make sense to have one important project that you always come back to, when nothing else is very pressing. This would lead to the classic T-shape. That thing could be AI/CS related, because working on hard tech/moonshots/research intuitively seems like the right thing for you.
|This plan does not focus on passion and promotes pursuing every desire under the sun. You might feel that you are not spending enough time on your passion in the long run. This would lead to burnout and unhappiness.
|Passion isn't everything. There are other things in life that are also important, such as freedom, money, etc. There are people who pursue passion at the expense of struggling with other things e.g. finance and relationships. Is that good? I am not sure. Is that what you want? I don't think so. Seems too risky to try. However, I agree that passion is important. Therefore, it still makes sense to give your passion (AI/CS) a larger share of time, as you embark forward.
|These repeating periods of singular focus sound like a bad idea. You will get bored working on the same thing. You will constantly be chasing goals, with no room for spontaneity and plan, which is the origin of all creativity. Plus, constant goal-seeking will also burn you out.
|True. You need a plan for when you get bored of focusing on a single thing. It's also important to avoid an excess of goal-oriented behavior, because this probably will indeed take the fun out of life. Thanks Tom! The antidote could be to set very relaxed goals when you focus on passion-related stuff (AI/CS), because that's where you want the creativity to shine. Also, please include breaks AKA periods for chillaxing devoid of goals.
|These periods of singular focus will also leave you disappointed because of your perfectionism. You won't finish what you wanted to finish, and get disappointed, now on a weekly basis instead of a monthly basis. Congrats!
|I have read that there's apparently two types of perfectionism: the bad one and the good one (also called excellentism). I don't really understand the difference. I also don't know which one best describes your behavior. Still, you do take above-average time to complete tasks because you are future and detail oriented. You are also very positive minded. You criminally underestimate how much time a task would take. This leads to disappointment and stess. The solution is to have concretely defined goals and relaxed time boxes, so that you have a realistic chance of getting the job done. Ignoring your future and detail oriented nature and stressful time-boxing is not the answer, because it will lead to the regret that you didn't produce the quality that you know you are able to deliver.
|The singular focus might become obsessive and disrupt important aspects of life like employed work, health, relationships, etc. You do know that those aspects of life cannot stop because of your plan, right?
|Yeah, listen to Tom on this one. You are known to get obsessive and this obsession has disrupted work, health, relationships etc. The solution for not disrupting employed work is to consider it a mini-life where nothing else is allowed to intrude. This is easier to do because your salary depends on it. You can also implement this very plan in your mini-life called employment. That should supercharge your employed work. Health is the more difficult one because it's easier to ignore. You must exercise. You must get 8 hours of sleep. I believe that the way to achieve this is to hold these health-goals at the same level of importance as the project goals. Ditto for relationships, and give your wife a lot of additional attention during the breaks. When you time box your period of singular focus, pay attention to these health and relationship goals. Those are equally important and require time.
|How does this plan prevent procrastination? You talked a lot about focus, and didn't say anything about priorities! I think that without priorities, you will inevitably focus on the wrong things. At some point, some other topic, which you have been procrastinating on, will turn into an emergency, requiring immediate attention. This will derail your rhythm. You will also be overwhelmed trying to handle the emergency. Thus, you will declare that this plan didn't work and start another round of soul searching.
|Hear, hear! You have been known to do exactly this. You need to get better at predicting future events, and acting early to prevent periods of intense stress. For instance, if you spent a few weeks learning about pregnancy and babycare right at the beginning of your wife's pregnancy, you would have had an easier time now. To get better at this, I recommend a calendar to keep track of known future events. I recommend a desire list, where you can see all your ongoing projects at a glance. I also recommend having a queue of semi-urgent topics that come up during a period of singular focus. Consult all these tools when deciding what to focus on next.
Thanks Tom for being so obstinately negative! And thank you Jerry for all the helpful tips. They remind me that ideas are easy to concoct, it's the execution that's difficult.
The various phases of action
Jerry's tips make it easier to fully flesh out the idea. Basically, to make this idea work, I should not be jumping from one topic to another straight away. Rather I need a sequence of phases, each tailored to a manage a specific risk.
Let's see those phases!
- Break: As Jerry said, these are periods of chillaxing between periods of work. In this phase, I am supposed to be a goalless, radarless human, just cruising through the wonder called life. This avoids burnout. I am also supposed to give my wife a lot of attention.
- Choose: During this phase, I should decide which project deserves my singular focus next. Being mindful about this can apparently prevent procrastination and man-made emergencies.
- Plan: During this phase, I should set concrete goals and a relaxed time box. Concrete goals and time boxes keep perfectionism away.
- Work: The time box has started, and it's time to get to work. A blog post at the end is (usually) included.
Excuse me for naming the phases like I have. If I tried hard enough, I probably could have come up with a better acronym, but B.C.P.W will have to do for now.
BCPW in action
The phases called Break and Work are pretty easy to understand. You work hard in Work and party hard in Break. Easy, right?
The other two phases are a bit more involved. So I wanted to flesh them out a bit more.
There are three tools that Jerry recommended for this phase.
- A calendar
- A desire list
- A queue
We all know what a calendar is. For people like me, who suck at maintaining calendars, and like to keep everything in their heads, I would suggest to actually use this time for maintaining your calendar. That way, you don't have to do it every day!
My plan is to sit down and ask myself the following questions.
- Which future events can I already foresee? If I can predict any, I would mark it in the calendar. If I am not sure about the exact date, I would mark an entire period.
- Which personal appointments do I have? Did I commit anything to my friends, family or neighbors? If yes, mark the date or date range in the calendar.
- Any official appointments? Doctors, trainings, and the like?
- Any deadlines? Yes, taxes, I am looking at you!
You get the idea. Basically, I will use this time to go through all aspects of life and try to update my calendar, because I can't be bothered to do this daily.
You can think of a desire list as a notebook with sections. Each section corresponds to one project (present or future). The pages in the section are for writing down ideas as they come.
I tend to get ideas at totally wrong times, such as getting ideas for Project A when I am working on Project B, in my dreams, right after waking up, while showering, you name it. It's useful to have a notebook (or an equivalent online thingy) available to quickly jot the idea down. The pages are not just for ideas though. This is also where I would write down project-related TODO items, as they come to me.
When I sit down to choose a project or topic to work on, these sections filled with ideas and TODOs will hopefully serve as a great springboard.
The last tool is called The Queue. Even when I am focused on a single task, life will happen. Urgent and semi-urgent things will inevitably come up. The queue is for holding those semi-urgent things, which are allowed to wait until I complete the current project-of-the-week, but cannot wait indefinitely.
In the planning phase, the idea is to consult the calendar, the desire list and the queue, and take an informed decision on what to do next. While taking this decision, I should prefer topics I consider my passion (AI/CS), and when possible, try to sandwich this topic between two other topics.
Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy!
I have already selected a project to work on. Hurray! The next task is to define the goals and to determine a time box.
If the topic is a passion of mine, the goals should be very relaxed to allow for spontaneity and fun. Otherwise, it is ok to have concrete and fixed goals.
I don't have too much to say about goal setting, but I'll say this: I think it's important to set small but meaningful goals. Goals should be small, because if I have to focus on the same thing for too long, I will get bored. They should be meaningful, because I want to feel accomplished after finishing the task. Meaningful goals also lead to better blog posts.
It's also important to include health imperatives like exercise, sufficient sleep, etc. in the project goals. This means that if I worked hard and reached my project goals, but neglected my health in the process, the project is to be considered a failure. Thinking like this makes it harder to consider health as an optional extra.
Time boxing is a also a big challenge for me, since as Jerry already pointed out, I am future-oriented, detail-oriented, and positive-minded. This means "I criminally underestimate the time I would need to get things done".
Obviously, I shouldn't rely on my intuition alone to set time boxes. So I prepared a list of pointers that I should consult when I time box the task.
- Check my calendar. The time I spend meeting friends, family etc. won't be available for work.
- Consider my family. How much time do I usually spend with them? That time will also not be available for work.
- There will be days when I will get bored, and would want some time just to daydream, relax and do chores.
- There are chores to be done such as grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning the house, grooming etc.
- I can be sure to encounter small-but-urgent things that will need my attention and time.
- Remember that I mostly work on projects in the evenings. I don't always have high energy at that time of the day, and my productivity may be low.
Hopefully, these pointers will cure my reality-bending distortion that I have all the time in the world to work on my projects, and I will arrive at a more considered and informed time box.
Yet, that's not enough, because my brain has other reality-bending illusions up its sleeve. In particular, it normally ignores the fact that I am very future and detail oriented, and take longer than average to complete tasks.
To counter that, I have invented a simple rule, which has also worked for me in the past. I take the first estimate of the time box and double it. It that's too long to be practical, I halve the goals.
There is one last rule about time boxing. It shouldn't exceed 3 weeks. Any more, and I would start hating the project on hand.
- It's useful to have a whiteboard that always displays the current focus and a few general rules to keep in mind, such as "Did you remember to exercise? If you don't, you'll fail your project goals!". You get the idea.
- It's also useful to have a TODO list for non-project stuff e.g. household chores. When I am bored of focusing on the same topic, but still have some energy, I could get those done.
Edge cases (I will go through this very fast)
- What happens when something very urgent comes up and I have to end early? Short answer: Urgent means urgent. End early, and put the remaining tasks in the queue.
- What happens when the time box is up, but the goalpost is nowhere to be seen? Short answer: It's normally ok to add a couple of days during relaxed times, but no more. If 2 days aren't gonna cut it, then stop. Do a post-mortem immediately afterwards. Save these post-mortems so that you can learn something from it.
- The requirements change drastically as I work. Short answer: Stop working, write the blog post, and queue the remaining tasks, so that they can be estimated better.
That's it for now, folks
My time box for writing this blog post is almost up. The last few sections are just bullet points as a result. Sorry about that.
This blog post is the living proof of a successful start to an interesting idea in my life. Wish me luck and I hope to see you soon.