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Productivity and performance hacks - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Productivity and performance hacks [Jun. 5th, 2011|11:47 am]
Arvind Narayanan
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In the last few years I've adopted several behavioral 'hacks' that have been life-changing, and some which I've learnt about recently and show strong potential of being life-changing.
Each of these has been tremendously valuable (except the last category which I have yet to practice seriously). In monetary terms: a lifestyle change that increases my productivity by 10%, under the simplifying assumption that it eventually translates to a commensurate increase in income, is worth millions of dollars in lifetime earnings. (I'm just trying to derive a quantitative lower bound on the benefits; a lot of the gain is obviously nonmonetary.)

This suggests that rationally, I should be expending a huge amount of effort trying to learn about more of these behavioral changes. And yet my current expenditure of effort is zero—I've learnt about all of the above serendipitously.

How can I fix this?

[User Picture]From: jliyi
2011-06-06 03:21 am (UTC)
Wonderful methods you listed. If only I didn't stop looking for ways to improve productivity... I have yet to find something that works for me. Perhaps you have heard of Benjamin Franklin's schedule. Being an early riser doesn't work for everyone, including myself. Regardless of the preferred time to work, it is a neat idea to divide time into blocks. The very least I hope for is that we can work for two or three hours without any distractions within each block of the time. It makes me realize there is actually enough time in a day to get many things done.

I tried the Standing Desk for several days back in January. I put up a small chair on my desk. I guess I did it the wrong way with bare feet, because my heels couldn't sustain it at the end of the day. I definitely want to try again. Standing is also a form of exercise... I agree with the previous comment regarding the flexibility we have in colleges/universities. Having regular classes only makes it a little better. That being said, maybe it all comes down to having a sense of purpose to keep one going. I'm still working to get into habit of doing abstract thinking, widen focus and step back once in a while. As of now, too much time is spent idling away doing the same thing.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-06-07 01:26 am (UTC)
The key to the standing desk for me was to realize that I'd never be able to do it for hours at a stretch, which means that being able to easily switch between standing and sitting is crucial. I put a coffee table on top of my regular desk, a low-tech solution that has worked rather well (when I'm sitting the laptop goes under the coffee table. This way I never have to move any furniture.) I'll post pictures at some point.
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[User Picture]From: tomtomtomtomtom
2011-06-06 04:28 pm (UTC)
About six months ago, I was sitting at my favorite coffee shop1 reading an article about standing desks and wishing I could have one in my office. Then I looked up, saw an empty seat at the bar, and set up shop there. Now I spend all my working time at the bar of the coffee shop. I barely go to my office, to the mild resentment of my officemate, who is tethered to his computer and would prefer to sit at the unused desk next to the window.1

Speaking of favorite coffee shops in New York, how often do you come here? I believe we've had an outstanding plan to meet up for coffee for about five years now. I'll be in SF at the end of the month, want to meet up?

1. Much to his delight, we're switching desks next week.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-06-06 05:44 pm (UTC)

I haven't been in NYC in years, unfortunately.

Email me when you know your plans. Thanks.
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From: quantumelixir
2011-06-12 09:45 am (UTC)
I've come back to this post more than once now, and tried almost everything you've said here (except for the learning techniques). So, thank you for this! Judging by the effectiveness of the items on your list of performance hacks, I also ended up reading the Checklist Manifesto today. My reactions are somewhat mixed though; while it's clear that a checklist helps in tackling complexity in a surprising number of places, I'm still unable to find out legitimate uses for it in an academic setting, like in the case of a graduate student for example. The closest I could imagine was making a checklist for reviewing papers, which is still not directly relevant for the student.

I'd be interested in hearing how you use checklists effectively.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-06-12 06:32 pm (UTC)
Good question. Academia is probably one place where checklists aren't so applicable—maybe because there's little penalty for mistakes? ;-)

We used checklists in my (former) startup all the time: to roll out a new version, to provision a new server, and for several other tasks that require getting a number of details right. I expect I'll do some software engineering at some point in the future, so I'm looking forward to putting checklists into action again.

I also use them in my personal life: I have one for travel. Without my travel checklist, there's always at least one thing I forget to do or pack, and it can be very costly. There are one or two other personal use-cases that I can't talk about.

But as for academia, I've been meaning to make one for the paper submission process. There's a bunch of simple things to check—anonymization if necessary, spellcheck (it's sad how often one forgets this), fonts and page numbers, and a few others. It's in my head though.

Making checklists is not the only way in which that book impacted my behavior. There are many broader ideas:

- Never trust your intuitive feelings about a matter of detail if you have an easy way to verify it. You might 'know' that the frozen dinner you eat every night is 500 calories, but maybe it's 800 and you misremembered. Check the label to make sure.

- Augment your memory by writing everything down. My work area is covered in whiteboards, and among other things I've got notes for all the research-related stuff I'm writing at the moment.

- When doing any skilled task repeatedly, seek to distill wisdom. I'm doing this now for serving on Program Committees and giving talks.

Hope that helps!
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From: jake7891
2011-06-19 10:27 pm (UTC)
> Augment your memory by writing everything down. My work area is covered in whiteboards, and among other things I've got notes for all the research-related stuff I'm writing at the moment.

What tools do you use for this?
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-06-19 11:16 pm (UTC)
I don't think I understand your question :-) It's just whiteboards and marker pens.. but I'm guessing that's not what you meant.

[Edit] To clarify, the research notes I was talking about.. are on the whiteboards. Perhaps that's what caused the confusion?

Edited at 2011-06-19 11:17 pm (UTC)
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