Reflections on those “productivity hacks”

  1. I read somewhere that “nobody on their deathbed regretted not working harder” or something like that. I’m not quite on my deathbed yet, but if I have any regrets right now, I wished I had worked hard more regularly when I started out as a grad student.
  2. As a result of only realising the value of puttting in regular hours of hard work in the last few years, I have had to overwork to try make up for the lost time.
  3. By overworking, I mean to put in long hours daily for an extended period of time. It is well known now that beyond a number of hours, productivity drops, until you’re just sitting at your desk, brain dead, trying to make a little more progress when you’re really just wasting your time.
  4. There are occasions when it’s necessary to scramble and put in a few late nights for a sudden deadline, or with unexpected developments. When stress and long hours becomes the norm, however, I have felt my health deteriorate, even though I’m quite the young man.
  5. Beyond repercussions on health, and perhaps also not having the time for loved ones, etc., overworked scientists would not have enough time for contemplation. This is quite crucial for developing new ideas, trying to delve deeper into apparent results, synthesizing complex patterns, i.e., for doing better science. I suppose this applies to other kinds of work or even personalities; the more you enjoy creativity or reflection, the more you need time to contemplate.
  6. I think an optimum for myself is to work continuously for 2- to 4-hour sessions twice a day, before and after lunch. At such a pace, I can tick off one to four items on my to-do list in a day. My ideal is to work like this for six days a week. I hope this will be the main rhythm for the next two years at the University of Queensland.
  7. And so another habit I wished I had when I was younger was to wake up and start work early every day. The ideal day starts a first work session at 8am and stops at lunch. After lunch, the second work session stops at about 5pm.
  8. Some say never to check your email the first thing you do when you sit down at the desk. It’s good advice, but I usually need to refer to email contents and their attachments to tackle my tasks.
  9. And then there is that advice to go through your Inbox only twice a day: once before lunch, and once before you knock-off. Again, pretty good advice. But since I’ve begun to try not to check my Inbox so regularly, I know my boss has complained to others that I seem to have become tardy. But I think I’ll stick to it still. In fact, I’ve turned off the auto-sync on my smartphone’s email widget to save on data volume, but it has had the added advantage of reducing the impulse to check and reply emails immediately. (Nonetheless, my boss’ advice to reply all emails that are directly addressed to us as a matter of politeness, is gold.)
  10. To-do lists are an understated tool; to-do lists scratched out with pen and paper even more so. All the task-list apps I’ve tried have never been quite as satisfactory. There is something about putting a tick beside or crossing out an item that boosts morale and gets you ready to tackle more. To-do lists also help to direct my attention to looking for those particular emails I need first, rather than scrolling through from the top which inevitably means I would start answering some non-urgent emails.
  11. Everyone procrastinates, and the tendency to procrastinate ebbs and flows; I just need to learn to work around the ebb and flow. I’ve reflected before on how to-do lists help to do this.
  12. A physical notebook is another tool that, so far, withstands the onslaught of 21st century technology. I use my notebook for mainly three things: (1) listing out to-dos; (2) scribbling thoughts during meetings and from listening to presentations; (3) sketching ideas and thoughts when they suddenly come especially when diagrams are better than paragraphs. Pen and paper, for most of us, even like me who was never particularly good at drawing, beats the keyboard and mouse in speed and flexibility. A notebook compiles these papers for easy reference. Right now I’m trying to use up all those notebooks I’ve accumulated in the past years that came as gifts and freebies in various forms and sizes; the obsessive-compulsive in me would like to have a series of standardized notebooks in future.
  13. For big tasks, such writing a manuscript from scratch, I need a dedicated period of time without distractions. I need about a week to analyze a fair-sized set of data and produce the necessary tables and graphs; and another week to write after all the results are ready. If I get into “the zone” in this period, I usually stop answering emails and spend my time reading journal papers rather than newspapers and Facebook; I usually feel like I’ve just emerged from a cave at the end. If I don’t get into the zone, it takes longer.
  14. Preparing a presentation, if the graphs and content are ready, takes about two days. Revising a manuscript takes two days. Reviewing a manuscript takes half a day at least.
  15. When I was a naive conscripted army clerk or a committee member in a university club, I rather enjoyed meetings. That was because I didn’t have to prepare anything, and just walked into meetings to shoot my mouth off. As a manager, if meetings are not to become a waste of time for the whole team, one has to spend some effort to prepare in advance. For even simple meetings, such preparations can take about one or two hours.
  16. And so I’ve taken the advice to schedule as many of my meetings as I can in the afternoons, usually about 4pm when desk-productivity is low. The time after lunch would go to preparing for these meetings.
  17. Without meetings, I can either choose to go home early before the rush hour, or hand around until after. If it’s after, the time can be best spent checking journal content alerts, reading, or going for a run.
  18. With fieldwork, everything goes out of the window for that day, no matter how early I get back to office. But, as I’ve reflected before, at least once-a-week fieldwork is necessary, I feel, for a botanist to not start becoming out of touch.
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