Archive for category: Time management

The Mighty Pen

January 11th, 2009 by james

I’m not much of one for New Year’s resolutions. The way I see it, they only set you up for disappointment and self-admonishment sometime in mid-February. But that said, there is a value to assessing where you are in life and setting some “aspirations” for the future.

For example, last year I started to keep a diary. At the time, I only wanted to try it out and see if I had anything worthwhile to say. I was reading my great-grandfather’s journal at the time – he managed to keep it going for 50 years – and I thought ‘Maybe I’ll at least be able to write down a few historic bits of news’.

Of course 2008 was full of excitement, with the US election, the rise and fall of oil prices (I’m an energy geek), and the economic meltdown. But now a year on, I find I’m still writing in my notebook at least once or twice a week, not to record the news but for the simple acting of writing with a pen.

That may sound a bit odd – not least considering that I’m writing this on a computer – but it’s worth thinking about how we actually record our thoughts. There’s been a lot said about information overload and I think how we go about writing has a lot to do with our ability to process information.


Thinking on what you will do after retirement? Think again!

November 24th, 2008 by jose

If you are like most people in the academia, you place a lot of value on security and benefits. You also have great plans for that day when you retire and have time to… well, have a life :) .

Jack Cheng has a superb post on how much you can expect to live and use that free time you have earned:

Picture an average American who decides to stop working at the age of 65. Got it? Now guess how many years he’ll have to enjoy his post-retirement before he passes away.

I’ve asked this to a bunch of friends and coworkers over the last two weeks. I’ve heard answers like “15-20 years” or at the very least, 10 years. But none of those is even close.

The actual answer? 18 months.

Scary. Being a workoholic doesn’t sound that good. Sorry to post this in a productivity blog :)

Ending Adolescence earlier and the obsession with productivity

November 13th, 2008 by jose
== Summary ==

Image via Wikipedia

BusinessWeek has an interesting post on how adolescence could be a failed social experiment and we should let 13-yo kids take adult-level responsibilities.

While the idea is good, I still find it troublesome in a society that works more than ever and has less spare time even when technology should provide abundance of resources otherwise.

The idea of rushing kids into adulthood does sound a bit like getting them to be productive as soon as possible. What happens then with those years where you experiment and test new things? While they may appreciate the new-found responsibility at first, long-term consequences of this decision are unpredictable. Will we have less creative people? I for one didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life at 13. If adolescence was a social experiment that enabled upper-class to take their kids out of sweat shops, then removing adolescence will land them into a new "intellectual sweat shop" environment. Take China for example. Kids (only kids!) are under a lot of pressure to be the very best at some specialized domain from very early in life. I would be surprised if this has no consequences. As Cal Newport wrote, there’s a general obsession with productivity that seems to be preying on our youngest. And then, the feared academic crisis.

So we translation from physical sweat shops to intellectual ones.  How is this better? We seem to bring our children into a world where most of us are time-poor, even though there is a (theoretical) abundance of resources since the industrial revolution.

Most people accept laughable payment for their time (that includes academics). So time is the scarce resource. During adolescence, we are granted an oasis of time -that in retrospective, may feel wasted-. Do we want to rush teenagers out of it?

Magnificent post of project management, and why Google does it right. More on why untested claims work

November 8th, 2008 by jose

Steve Yegge has an insightful post on the Agile programming methodology from the perspective of a googler. Why is this important to academic productivity? Well, most of the things he talks about are related to our previous conversations on why it’s hard to measure productivity, and why people buy into fads about it. For example:

How do we know it’s not more productive? Well, it’s a slippery problem. Observe that it must be a slippery problem, or it all would have been debunked fair and square by now. But it’s exceptionally difficult to measure software developer productivity, for all sorts of famous reasons. And it’s even harder to perform anything resembling a valid scientific experiment in software development. You can’t have the same team do the same project twice; a bunch of stuff changes the second time around. You can’t have 2 teams do the same project; it’s too hard to control all the variables, and it’s prohibitively expensive to try it in any case. The same team doing 2 different projects in a row isn’t an experiment either.

This is also true for academic productivity. So this leaves me in a conundrum. No matter how much we want to find a theory of productivity and test it empirically, nobody is going to seriously do it because it’s impractical. So we are doomed to have a ream of blogs (yes, like this one) talking about it.

Note that contrary to Steve’s case, where companies cover their failures instead of publishing them, we do have some public log of successful behavior (i.e., scientists do have a track record). We lack the (large?) set of things they tried and failed at to achieve their publication.

Well if you can’t do experiments and you can’t do proofs, there isn’t much science going on. That’s why it’s a slippery problem. It’s why fad diets are still enormously popular. People want fad diets to work, oh boy you bet they do, even I want them to work. And you can point to all these statistically meaningless anecdotes about how Joe lost 35 pounds on this one diet, and all those people who desperately want to be thinner will think "hey, it can’t hurt. I’ll give it a try."

This explains why Steve Pavlina gets so much attention. It aims directly for things that people want to believe work. No matter that testing the claims would be either impossible (falsability is good, remember?) or impractical. This kind of reasoning works for anything that is sold online with a long sales page that cites some spectacular successes and a few ‘testimonials’.

GTD is on that list too, by the way.

Surprised by how good the writing is in Steve Yegge’s posts? I am too, but don’t be. It looks people who have spent quality time on functional languages develop super-human writing skills. (note: I have only two observations here :) ).

Note: the post gives a lot of detail on how life is inside Google, and how an academic department may not be that far off. Food for thought.

Pavlina’s book review: Personal Development for Smart People

October 24th, 2008 by jose

Summary: I didn’t like the book, and won’t go into detail here; instead I marvel at how many people read, believe and act on things that are completely unsubstantiated by any evidence. But that only shows my naivety: it seems that most of the world outside science -and some inside- works that way.

Who is Steve?

Steve Pavlina is a top-100 blogger and a personal development guru. He has done several impressive things like majoring in Math and CS in three semesters, trying polyphasic sleep for 6 months, and testing several extremely demanding changes on his habits like eating raw food only. 

In my view, the field of personal development feels scam-ridden. It preys on people who may not have the strongest will. So the title "Personal development for smart people" feels tonge-in-cheek (Oxymoron?). I’m sure many readers, with an empirical bias, may be bothered by all the new-agey chat out there that passes for advice (with no solid evidence backing it up). Now, is Steve different? Is this book better? The answers are no, and ‘maybe, I don’t know what else is out there’.

Problems with his method: Who in the academia should be doing Steve’s job?

One thing that bothers me is that Steve’s book uses no references whatsoever. He claims to have read most self-help books, but does not acknowledge any specific ideas from them. If all the ideas in the book are new and his, then I’m very impressed -I wouldn’t know-, but that seems unlikely. Again, I’m sure self-help books are all like that; making reference to other people’s ideas in a way you can track them down, as sensible as it sounds, remains a signature of the academia.