I have been overwhelmed with busy work for the last couple of weeks. Unavoidably, this has meant shorter emails, fewer follow-ups with collaborators and not as much blogging as I would like. I probably missed a few commitments as well.

However, despite all the turmoil of responsibilities, committees and grading, I still get a little bit of core research done every week. I do have a little secret weapon. It will likely only work with one aspect of your life, but it will work well. It is called “pay yourself first”.

Imagine a typical workday. You look at your schedule and it is crazy. At some point, you have half an hour that you can spend how you want. What do you do? Probably you have 50 unanswered emails, a few forms to fill out, some advice to give out, a grant proposal to review… What these tasks have in common is that they don’t require a lot of energy but they consume time. They also tend to be important for someone else. They are tempting because with relatively little energy, you can reduce the length of your to-do list and immediately feel good about yourself. And someone might notice right away that you did them! These tasks are like candies. You feel good and energetic when doing them, but they drain you out eventually.

Instead, look at what you figured was important in your life. For example, working out, writing a novel or a research paper. Do spend time doing this important work first. I do not mean that you should sacrifice the other aspects of your life, only that in your schedule, you should complete some tasks before the others.

The key insight is to recognize that there are different types of work, just like there are different types of food, and that the order in which you do your work matters. If you eat dessert first, you will never be hungry the meat and the vegetables.

Rationally, it does not seem to make sense. Why would it matter when you work on your novel? But consider that busy work has a way to expand and take up all your time. It is because it is so tempting to work on short-term problems, and there is never a shortage of those.

I suspect that this issue has deep roots. Our ancestors were probably most successful when they worried most about day-to-day issues. We are tempted to do the same.

3 Comments

  1. I find it distressing to try to do “serious work” in half-hour chunks. That’s just enough time to get started’ and then you need to stop. I prefer to block off a big chunk of time, go into hiding with all the stuff I need to do my task (including food), and then not stop until my neck is numb. Yes, I now have a bad neck.

    Comment by Mike Stiber — 11/12/2012 @ 0:54

  2. @Mike

    Of course, long uninterrupted work sessions are much better, but when you have a busy schedule, holding out until you get such a break can mean forgoing your important work altogether.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 11/12/2012 @ 1:05

  3. This is psychology. If you wait for a 2 hours “break”, most likely you won’t find it and you get frustrated. If you are modest and wait for half an hour, you will find it more often and, eventually, when it runs out, you find that what you planned to do next wasn’t that urgent. Then you keep with your task for maybe just another hour. So sometimes you end up with an unexpected 1.5h break, which is rewarding.
    Also, small chunks mean that you may work on the task more than once a day. The time lapses in between might give good insights, and even the task itself might keep in your mind’s background, as if you were unconsciously working on it.

    Comment by Sérgio Pereira — 20/12/2012 @ 9:54

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