Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hyperlinked productivity

My work habits often look like the world wide web. This was how part of my day went today:
- I started the day intending only to work on 2 specific research projects, but after some actual work I got distracted with cleaning out my inbox (which started the day at 1000 and is now 700.)
- Find postdoc announcement with reference to an entity.
- Google entity for clues about whether postdoc was suitable, and discover conference I'd meant to register for, being run by someone I interviewed with last month.
- Submit late-breaking abstract based on the just-rejected paper to conference; register for conference.
- Remember professional organization renewal that's been sitting on my desk since September. By chance, the deadline was today. Renew.
- Run across email for another conference to submit to; submit.
- Make a note about yet another conference to submit to.

The general advice is that if you come across a distraction, you should make a note of it and come back to it. By contrast, my random-walk procedure is the exemplar for how work habits are not supposed to look. I encounter useful things randomly, and when I encounter them, I do them all at once. I generally encounter them in time, but if not, I don't do them.

I will need to reduce this pattern to be more productive, but sometimes it works well. This pattern is what led me to apply to my undergraduate study-abroad program. Early one morning during reading period, I checked my email and discovered a study-away program in my (small/rare) major at Penn State. Such an idea had never before occurred to me, but it sounded really nice. I remembered the existence of a similar program (the only other one) in a European country which again I'd never given much thought to. So I went to that website, took a couple of hours to apply for the program despite being after the deadline, and it truly changed my life. If I hadn't been doing this weird random-walk work habit, I wouldn't have stumbled across this program and been open-minded enough to consider it.

It's not uncommon for people to be productive only with things which are not on their "to do" lists. Everyone jokes that the only way that they get something done is by using it as procrastination from an even more difficult task. As soon as something makes it onto a list, perhaps it seems no longer quite as fun.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The only way that I ever utilize my time productively, is when I have three or so projects to complete at once, generally of equalish importance. I always intend to (certainly!) spend the day working on a particular one, but almost always feel inspired and intrigued by another. I spend the day engrossed in the other project and end up feeling so good about how much work I got done that I do not care that I did not work on the intended task (which is often just a little bit more important/urgent than the other).
Problems only tend to arise when I have deadlines to adhere to, since the more urgent the task is, the less likely I am to work on it!
Here is an interesting essay, written by a successful Stanford philosopher: