On Effective Procrastination
Three essays in one. This essay originated as a facebook post and a followup response.
Working Hard v. Accomplishing
For years, I was of the school of thought that one should perpetually work as hard as they are able. When I was as Ph.D candidate at the University of Delaware, I TA'd a class fo 20 hours a week, spent 30h a week in a lab doing research, took a full load of classes, and spent up to 13 hours a day (6 or 7 days a week) working with Stephen Balaban on a startup called Baybo Labs. This works out to around 16 hours of work a day. Every day. The remaining 8 hours of each day I would do homework, eat meals, study, and sleep.
Had I loved the research I was doing, this might have been sustainable. My intent was to study artificial intelligence, machine learning, and computational linguistics (i.e. natural language processing), however the professor I wished to work with was on sabbatical and I instead landed in a Software Verification lab. I did love the researchers I was working with, but if I was going to invest 6 years of life into a research topic, I needed to be infatuated with it.
As the expression goes, "Something had to give". And Sahil Lavingia, an entrepreneur an designer whom I respect, helped me decide what came next when he launched an extremely similar product (gumroad.com) to the marketplace Stephen and I were working on -- the same week we had planned to launch. Our thunder was slipping away by the minute.
Suffice to say, 1954 days ago, instead of studying for my symbolic logic test, I was up with Stephen until around 5am, getting ready to launch: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2418388. A few hours later, immediately after completing my exam, I shook Vijay Shanker (the teacher and my advisor)'s hand, thanked him for his guidance, and informed him, the department, and my research lab that I needed to take leave to focus on this startup.
For the next six months, I lived in Stephen's basement in Vermont, working every hour I could. Within a few months, we had received an offer to join an incubator program in San Francisco, had meetings scheduled with venture capitalists, and had somehow parleyed all these situations into a 15 minute meeting with Paul Graham of YCombinator at his house (this was after having previously been rejected -- spoiler alert, we got rejected again). I took two bags with me, booked a next day flight to SF, and have been in SF since.
During our talk with PG, he mentioned a company called Hyperink was working on a similar product and had found product market fit. Stephen and I had really powerful technology (a graph transactional system, a marketplace, an affiliate system) and were awfully confused about building a focused product. Six months later, we took a gamble and found ourselves going through the messy process of mergers and acquisitions to join forces with Hyperink. And things didn't slow down.
Over the next year and a half, I spent more than 30 days sleeping in the Hyperink offices, working 12+ hour days, 7 days a week. I was of the school of thought that if I was going to bet everything on a startup, that I should work as hard as my body would let me. And things did go well, we went from a few sales a day to the thousands. I watched the platform I engineered grow to tens of thousands of paying users. I also got pretty sick a handful of occasions.
The two co-founders of Hyperink were very different. Kevin Gao, our CEO, was very efficient, strategic, hard working, focused, and a great manager + salesman. The other founder, Matt Lee, got things done, had a great eye for product and design, and put in as many hours as I did. Kevin knew how to run the marathon. Matt and I sprinted the marathon and got sick a lot. There were days I felt a bit frustrated when Kevin left at 7pm while Matt and I sat up at 4am, pushing to get a feature done in time for a partnership deadline. But then I'd watch Kevin during advisor meetings, cool and composed, and it dawned upon me just how important it is to be able to "turn on" at any moment and be on top of your game. I'm reminded of the book "Founder's at Work" where, after a three-day all-nighter, Max Levchin fell asleep at the table while Peter Thiel closed a big deal.
Procrastination: A Necessary Evil
In my essay On Friendship, I have a section titled "Start With Your Peculiarities" which describes how to select friends. I talk about my peculiarities; my dislike of trivia (and my dislike that I, like everyone else, like media) and my OCD-level of intensity towards life. I was starting to realize that procrastination was something of a necessity, though I would often feel guilty, anxious, and bad when I took breaks. When I say bad, I mean taking a break which I knew I needed would through me into a legitimate spiralling depression. Pound for pound, playing [expressing myself through] music was and is one of the most effective ways for me to decompress. Though all the while, like a light unable to turn off, I'd internalize the time I was wasting and feel bad. I'd often feel so bad, nearly all the music I composed was minor and dismal.
As an aside and a metaphor (I'll defer to "words" of a musician who expresses herself more elegantly than I), I remember recently watching an NPR tiny desk concert (I love them) and encountering Julien Baker's live performance which affected me profoundly. It's possible she's a masterful performer, understands her demographic, and that her mood is contrived and or all part of a well rehearsed act (yes I am perhaps as cynical as Diogenes of Sinope), but (I'd like to give her the benefit of the doubt, be vulnerable, and even be fooled, and admit) her performance hit me like Dorian Gray forced to confront his own portrait; it's one of the rare times I can remember vicariously experiencing the sources and circumstances of my music, genuinely in another's performance. Being presented with a potent reminder that others too feel the weight of the world upon their shoulders, irrespective of how trivial these underlying burdens may seem, makes me feel both less and more alone -- and in both respects grants me temporary solace.
It wasn't until I read Aaron Swartz's essay on productivity (which I was hoping would teach me how to accomplish more) that I came to terms with procrastination as a necessary evil and began rethinking how I could procrastinate most effectively. Since then, my music has changed a bit, and I spend a lot more time rock climbing, writing essays, and I feel less bad (having realized that such feelings impact my productivity). Some of my thoughts on productivity and managing my intensity can be read in Amplifying Productivity through Environment and Curbing Your Enthusiasm.
The original essay
"Be More Productive" (Aaronsw Raw Thought) -- This is one of my favorite essays which I haven't revisited in about a year.
Take Home: "Time has various levels of quality."
Why should you read this essay? Aaron Swartz was both a deep thinker and a disruptive agent of change. In the former capacity, he was exceptional at controlling his personal feelings when writing. He felt, to do otherwise would be a disingenuous, an injustice to time spent attacking the problem. As a result, his writing and problem solving yields real insights, unique perspective, and demonstrates a rare quality of being able to address the elephants in the room, as opposed to pushing his own convenient agenda. At least philosophically, it resonates with me that his efforts were "Causa Scientiae", though I think he struggled to reconcile his two (or maybe more) selves (the thinker and the actor).
Aaron's essay, "Be More Productive" is an important read for a few more specific reasons than his general scientific and colloquial writing style (i.e. he writes for himself and makes great attempts at not disillusioning himself). This essay is not a one dimensional introspection on productivity. Aaron predicts why people (or himself) would read this essay, gets to the root, and offers a dialog for coming to terms with reality (including effective procrastination and spending time with cheerful people) -- not a contrived reality which sells copies of some "be happy and mindful" mentality, but necessary coping advice born from a perpetually depressed activist who carries the world's burdens on their shoulders.
Additionally (not that I have to convince anyone) Aaron is qualified to offer productivity advice by virtue of his convictions and success working on Dr. Richard Hamming-style [a field's most important] "Hard Problems". Aaron's writing reflects constant (re)evaluation, not only of his interpretation of the world's most important problems, but [on a meta level, also subject to this evaluation were] his methods for evaluating the measurable importance of these problem and frameworks for accountability, motivation, and making impact. But this principle/theme of re-evaluation supersedes the confines of essay, as Aaron leaves us with a provenance trail of many of his works, thoughts, mistakes, feelings, readings, and writings, offering us profound insight and a comprehensive/holistic view into the workings of a productive, bright citizen of the world.
Besides offering us coping strategies, insights of a thinker who's been in the trenches, actionable strategies for being more productive, and reminding us to question the assumptions surrounding our problems, the essay immediately yields the above life lesson: "Time has various levels of quality" and invites you to explore the claim's consequences.
Bret Victor has a popular talk called "Inventing on Principle". His principle is, "creators need an immediate connection to what they create". Aaron Swartz embraced a similar principle: re-invention. It can be paraphrased as: "Instead of finding ways to massage existing pieces together to craft a perfect solution which supports every edge case and consideration, imagine what the optimal, minimal, stand-alone solution looks like and code it." He wrote something similar about his and Anand's project web.py: "The goal of web.py is to build the ideal way to make web apps.".
The principle plays nicely with Albert Einstein's principle: "A scientific theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler". It also aligns nicely with Larry Wall's (creator of perl) wisdom which reminds us that "Using a simple tool to solve a complex problem does not result in a simple solution."
Don't take this to mean Aaron felt everything should be built from scratch (I don't think he or I feel this is some "catch all" solution), he just happened to be able (smart enough) to build solutions quickly, avoiding red tape, and choose to work on small, manageable problems with big impact (an approach advocated by Richard Hamming in, "You and Your Research") which happened to align nicely with this approach.
I try to maintain a similar list of principles and life lessons, but my main one is more mission oriented: that researchers of the world need a way to navigate paths through knowledge. And that we should be honest and ethical, but not shy away from finding paths of least resistance, or resorting to "getting it done ourselves" if need be. I try to curate and organize as much as possible (as opposed to create), work and publish in public, and leave provenance trails and annotations where I can. The biggest opportunity I see is creating/manifesting technological frameworks which bake these principles, at a protocol level, into my life (as opposed to banking on my ability to be mature and accountable).
Here are some problems I think are important. They necessitate (recommend) specific avenues of research, such as learning about the brain, of human biology/chemistry, graph theory, information retrieval, semiotics, the web, artificial intelligence and natural language processing, and others.
- How can people be more productive while they wait?
- How do compatible people discover each other and connect?
- How can people communicate more natively / share thoughts losslessly? (I mean, like, brain computer interfaces)
- How can information be persistently preserved (Information Retrieval: Access, Redundancy)
- How do you measure/find the best research on a topic?
- How can we better view or explore how things are related?
- How can we make services interoperable?
- How do you discover a new topics of interest?
- How can we quantify of level (breadth and depth) our understanding?
- How do we get more experts to create/curate seminal indices/reviews of an industries state (or advancements)? There's too much disparate information. How can we percolate and recombinate important research together at scale? Crowd sourcing / human computation? Developing rubrics (expert systems) or identify models for achieving this programatically (via AI)?
"I think you should always be questioning [...], I take this very scientific approach attitude that everything you've learned is provitional, that it's always open to recantation or refutation or questioning"
"Everything is built on something else [...] there's no completely new creative thing if only because if you wrote something completely new, nobody would understand it. [...] imagine if every word you used, you had to call up the person who came up with that word [...] you'd never finish a sentence."
How to Procrastinate Effectively
- Get it all out of your system at once
- Make sure the activity has a clear beginning and end, like a book -- not a never-ending video game
- Set clear boundaries between fun activities and work
In response to Michael Noveck
I could not be a professional musician. I am not good enough where I could play whatever I enjoy, and thus being forced to align with listener's interests would ruin music for me. It's one of the things I like to do privately (music is a form of safe encrypytion which allows me to express/speak my feelings aloud and have plausible deniability about what I am trying to say). I need to do it (get things off my chest, achieve a stable state) in order to do good work as a Citizen of the World.
As per my life goal; my purpose:
One of humanity's most limiting factors is the speed by which we access the right information. Today there exists too great a volume of texts for one to manually process in their life time (i.e. there's too much to learn). It makes it very easy to miss discovering a text which could change our life, or belief system, or understanding. This problem is exacerbated by unpredictable variable quality of these works (i.e. we haven't sufficiently explored mechanisms for surfacing useful content, improving and merging explanations, organizing what's available).
I believe we as a society have need for cartographers of knowledge; that structured, linked data, paired with domain expertise (e.g. wikipedia) and augmented with programatic intelligence, can help humanity and machines identify [shortest] paths through our knowledge. Such a directed [set of] path(s) represents a digital curriculum. A new form of media which poses what books might be if one could seamlessly and instantly navigate between.
Explore many crevices and angles of this train of though here: https://michaelkarpeles.com/mission