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How do you submit seven papers in a month? interview with Dan Navarro

March 7th, 2007 by

Dan posted in his blog that he had managed to get seven papers out in the open literature in January. I had to interview him. How do you manage your daily workload?

Dan Navarro: A lot more pragmatically than I used to. I put an hour or so aside each morning to cover the miniature administrative rubbish – it’s not really enough time to do it properly, but I’ve started to realise that most of it doesn’t matter very much, so I can cut-and-paste a lot of things (Incidentally: never throw away a good piece of bureaucracy-speak, like a research profile or a course description. You can reuse it about 10 times before anyone starts to care). I tend to do intellectually heavy things throughout the morning and into the early afternoon. I tend to take a bit of a siesta in the late afternoon – I don’t sleep, but I do switch off a bit (sometimes I do paperwork). I find this makes it easier to do something useful in the evening. How do you prioritise?

DN: Mostly by looking at next week’s deadlines, and by thinking about the probable consequences of missing them. Invariably, there’s more deadlines than I can meet, so I start thinking about who I can afford to ignore for a while. What I notice, though, is that I end up clustering everything. For instance, at any given point in time, there’s usually several biggish admin things to do, none of which is actually urgent (note that this isn’t the opinion of the university administrators, but they tend to think that admin is the core business of a university anyway, and are hence untrustworthy). So I tend to ignore all of them, focusing on the core domains of research and teaching, until there’s a big enough admin pile for it to be worth spending a half day on. The clustering approach tends to be useful for me, because I don’t switch gears easily. How do you schedule your time and use calendars?

DN: I once spent a lot of time trying to come up with a complex management system using various different software packages, but found that none of them helped, and a lot of them actually got in my way. So I’ve gone back to a low-tech pencil and paper diary, and I work on the assumption that everything that I need to care about is in the diary. Any meetings not written in the diary don’t exist, as far as I’m concerned. Again, what I try to do is cluster the meetings as tightly as possible to avoid getting trapped (my favourite trick is scheduling a meeting with a student immediately after the nominal end of a committee meeting – so I’m forced to leave when the paperwork says so), and to stay in the same “headspace”. Whenever possible, I try to keep one or (if I’m lucky, two) days a week meeting-free. However, what I’ve learned is that I can’t tell anyone which days I’ve cleared up. Otherwise someone will inevitably try to insert themselves into that slot, since no-one else values my time as much as I do! How do you plan for the future and manage ongoing projects?

DN: In the big picture, very poorly. I seem to be unable to strike the right balance between long-range ideas and short-range projects. Perhaps as a consequence of the hyperbolic function for intertemporal discounting, I keep neglecting long-term projects in favour of short-term payoffs. At a local level, I think I do somewhat better. For me, what seems to be optimal is letting the environment do the work. The directory structure on my computer reflects the various collaborations that I’ve got going on – when one part of the project is completed (usually after a publication) I move it to a chronologically-organised archive. Any follow-up work starts a whole new set of files. Paper-writing files are usually kept separate from the research project files, since writing tends to involve a somewhat different way of thinking. So every time I open up my computer, it shows me the structure of what I’m working on. In terms of tracking the tasks associated with the projects, I let my email account do the work. Spam aside, my email is triaged. There’s the “immediate respond (or ignore) and archive” category, the “it sits in the inbox because I should probably look at it” category and the “this is actually important, but requires effort” category (which sits in the poorly named “current” folder). The net result is that the “current” folder tends to consist only of those emails that correspond to various research tasks and the occasional teaching or admin thing that requires me to think. Since the emails have good metadata – names, titles and most importantly, dates – it tells me everything that I’m supposed to be working on. Better yet, it’s robust. Because when something slips through the cracks, I invariably get a follow-up email. For the most part this works, but in the long run, the thing that I need to get better at is translating a single long-range project into a collection of short-range ones, to avoid neglecting the big picture. For my most recent grants (which tend to describe the long-range stuff), I’ve started doing this, and they’re working out much better than some of the older ones. How is your work influenced by goals?

DN: I really don’t know. I’m not sure if I have any goals that aren’t boring, pragmatic ones (make sure I finish the grant obligations, etc) or vague, useless ones (new stuff interests me). It’s kind of pathetic, but true, and after asking a range of other people about this, they seem to agree that I’m remarkably free of any explicit goals. That said, it’s interesting to note that again the environment can be made to do most of it for you – my “big goals” don’t actually exist anywhere in my head, but they do get bundled into grant applications, so there are some implicit guidelines that I’ve laid out for myself that way. How do you store and remember new information?

DN: Dunno. I don’t use any particular strategy on this one, so it’s all down to the mysteries of semantic memory. How do you write papers?

DN: Depends on who’s in charge. When I’m not leading the project, I’ll tend to follow orders, doing bits and pieces here and there to try to help out. When it’s my baby, almost every paper starts from a collection of figures that I think are interesting (in a particularly egregious example, one of my cogsci submissions this year manages to cram 11 figures and a table into a 6 page paper). Sometimes I’ve got chunks of relevant text I can cut and paste into the paper too, but other than that it tends to come together by writing bits and pieces to go with each image. The one thing I don’t do is try to figure out the big picture immediately. It rarely comes together like that until the very end. How do you deal with procrastination and manage deadlines?

DN: Pragmatics again. Since I always underestimate the amount of time something requires (a packing and unpacking effect, I guess…) there’s always a bit of a late night scramble to finish things by the deadline. However, since that tends to drain me pretty badly, I usually try to reward myself with some guilt-free procrastination for the next few days. Also, unless there’s some clear reward involved (e.g., refereed conference proceedings, grant dollars), I tend not to bother too much about actually meeting the “deadline”. I think only about half of my paper reviews come in on time, and that’s never seemed to stop the action editor (a) complaining but (b) sending more papers for me to review. Most of them I tend to let it slide for a week if need be. Finally, I tend not to worry that much about procrastination. I spend half my weekends reading, or playing around with data, or just plain thinking about research ideas. So what if I decide to play computer games on Monday? Research productivity comes in clumps – some days you’re shit hot, and other days you might as well be at the beach. The big thing for me is making sure that no-one gets in the way of those productive moments, and allowing myself to go have a beer when my brain is MIA. What motivates you to get out of bed in the mornings?

DN: Coffee. My interest in the higher things in life doesn’t kick in until about 9:15… What is the hardest challenge in being productive in the academic world?

DN: In general, I couldn’t say. I suspect there’s some big individual differences here. I know some people who are unproductive because they never bother to write up the work they’ve already finished, others who get paralysed by the inability to narrow a topic down, and others who can’t manage to stay on top of the endless barrage of teaching commitments and pointless administrata. But for my money, it’s striking the right balance between exploration and exploitation. If you don’t spend enough time exploring new territory, it’s easy to end up in a corner, and you don’t find new collaborators. Without new ideas and new people to work with, your research program dies (or worse, becomes boring).  However, if you don’t exploit your strengths, your rate of publication drops, which affects your research income. Without money and status, you can’t grab the best students or attract industry partners etc, and your research program dies. As an example – my advice to grad students looking for postdocs is to try to find one in your “second area”. If you go to your strongest area, you don’t learn enough new material and can’t bring many novel things to the lab. If you go further down than your second strength, you’ll take too long getting up to speed in your new environment to be truly productive. In general though, it’s hard to stay in the sweet spot. I think I tend to make both mistakes at times.

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