Interview with Owen Cotton-Barratt on Productivity

by lynettebye 21d21st Nov 20195 min readNo comments

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This piece is cross-posted on my blog here.

I’m a big fan of goal setting, explicit prioritization, and financial penalties -- which makes it all the more interesting when someone successfully approaches productivity very differently.

Owen Cotton-Barratt’s approach is certainly different: he rarely explicitly prioritizes, spends a bunch of his time in reactive mode, and stops working on something when the work isn’t flowing. Yet he thinks this works well for him. Owen is the Research Scholars Programme Director at the Future of Humanity Institute and previously worked as Director of Research at the Centre for Effective Altruism.

In contrast to the more top-down prioritization described by Will and Niel, Owen prioritizes by asking himself what's important right now, and picturing the worlds where he does one thing versus another. He says he’s spent enough time explicitly reasoning about what’s important that he no longer needs to do the explicit calculation, since it’s ingrained in his intuitive judgement.

That intuitive judgement allows him to work in reactive mode, which saves time that would have been spent giving meta-level attention to the things he’ll have to do later. He also trusts that judgement enough that when he’s confused or stuck, he assumes it’s for a good reason and either switches to a task that is flowing or stops working to figure it out. In this way, he’s constantly prioritizing on the go.

“When I'm stuck, probably the stuff is less important and so I just will stop doing it. Often the important things will flow, and I'm just trying to avoid spending time on things I'm stuck on.”

He spends a good fraction of his time (maybe 10-20%) meta-reflecting on why he feels stuck (or stressed). He particularly values space to mull over things without distractions from conversations or devices, such as long baths, solo walks, or a “brain splurge” in writing.

“When I feel confused or stuck, I often just take a blank page and a pen, and try to brain splurge on the page, and notice what I'm confused or stuck about. And often in the process of doing that, it like helps me become unstuck.”

Owen guesses that most people could get better at thinking well if they spent time meditating on prioritization. While he’s not sure it’s a good idea, he proposed that people might benefit if they tried working only 20 hours per week for a month, so that they’re forced to ask themselves: "What do I actually most want to do with these hours?"

You can read the full transcript below for more.

If you found this surprising or have questions, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!


Full Interview

Note: This transcript was edited for clarity and length.

Lynette Bye: I'd be curious to ask you a couple questions about your productivity systems. For context, I'm doing some interviews with people to gather different models of how people are approaching things. A couple people requested that they were interested in hearing what you did because it sounds like your productivity system is fairly different from what a lot of people do, yet you're able to produce a lot of interesting ideas. If you want to lay out what are the biggest things for you that you think impacts the valuable output you generate?

Owen Cotton-Barratt: I don't think I have something I would describe as a productivity system. I think I have some principles. The most important things are maybe giving myself space to think. I think that space for things like shower thoughts is often pretty important and undervalued. I think that it could be that a bunch of people would benefit if they forced themselves for a month to be like, "I'm not going to work more than 20 hours a week." Because they would end up doing a bunch of background thinking on how to like, "What do I actually most want to do with these hours?" And that kind of implicit prioritization would end up being both just object level useful for that month, and also, kind of good habit building. I've never actually persuaded someone to try this. I never made a good attempt at persuading someone to try it. I'm not sure exactly whether that it's a good idea.

Owen Cotton-Barratt: I'm slightly using it as a rhetorical device to point to something. But I think that people carving out space to mull over things, without distractions from conversations or devices or books, is like actually quite valuable and somewhat underrated. And this could be like taking long baths, or going on a walk by yourself kind of thing. I think that when I feel confused or stuck, I often just take a blank page and a pen, and try to brain splurge on the page, and notice what I'm confused or stuck about. And often in the process of doing that, it like helps me become unstuck. I could add "or stressed" to that. You know this isn't infallible, but I think that noticing when something feels a bit stuck and trying to respond to it that way is helpful.

Owen Cotton-Barratt: Then I spent a bunch of my time in reactive mode in a way that I think is like reasonably efficient. Because if I'm just reacting to stuff, then I don't need to hold meta-level of attention on it. Like an email comes in with, "Can you comment on this Google Doc?" And I sort of do an implicit pass of, "Does that sound like the kind of thing which is going to be worth my commenting on?" If so, if I'm too booked up, maybe I'll leave it to later. But like quite possibly, I'll be like, "Okay, I'm just gonna open it and comment on it now." And then I'll read through, glance through and start being like, "Does this feel like the kind of thing where I have much value to add?" And if not, I just won't spend much time on it, and if so, I will just do the things which feel like they're flowing. And when I'm stuck, probably the stuff is less important and so I just will stop doing it.

Owen Cotton-Barratt: Often the important things will flow, and I'm just trying to avoid spending time on things I'm stuck on. Sometimes I've had the past experience where I am like stuck on writing this paper. And at some level I'd like think, "Oh, I should be writing the paper," but it's like part of the reason for getting stuck is that a part of me has noticed that, "Oh no, this isn't actually the right goal to be optimizing for here." And pressing on and doing the thing that I thought was the thing to do is slightly wrong, and it would be better to rewrite the introduction or that the whole thing is framed a bit funny. Sometimes it is worth finishing things even when they're not quite the right thing. I think I error in the direction of not finishing things now. But I still think there's something interesting here.

Owen Cotton-Barratt: Sometimes I try to make spaces to give attention to stuff. Like, if I do think something is important, but I feel stuck on it, then trying to work with someone else in the room that I can bounce thoughts off of, and who is in some way gently providing accountability even if there's no explicit discussion of that, feels helpful. There's definitely some bunch of just attending to "Okay, but what's important?" Because important is not necessarily that correlated with difficult. It may well be that the important thing is like, "Oh, I spent two minutes making this email introduction." And in some cases, plausibly that could be the best thing I do all week.

Lynette Bye: It sounds like rather than spending a lot of time doing explicit prioritization stuff, what you're doing is constantly, in the moment, seeing what feels important and following that. Does that sound correct?

Owen Cotton-Barratt: Yeah, yeah, that's correct. Along with trying to give myself enough meta time to unknot things.

Lynette Bye: And does that take a while?

Owen Cotton-Barratt: I mean, partly that's like the going on walks, and partly it's if things feel knotted, try and write it down on paper. It gets a non-trivial fraction of time. I don't know, maybe like 10 to 20%? I actually feel quite confused about how to measure that stuff.

Lynette Bye: Sure. So I'm interested in asking how you developed this intuition for what's important and what's flowing.

Owen Cotton-Barratt: Let me see whether I have any quick thoughts on that. I think I spend time often kind of just picturing the world when I do the one thing versus like the other thing. It's not connecting to abstract, "I've reasoned that this is important, so I should do this." I mean, I think that that kind of reasoning is actually useful, but I've meditated on it long enough that it's integrated with my intuitive judgments, rather than being like that's where the judgments are coming from. That feels like an unsatisfying answer, but I don't know.

Lynette Bye: Do you feel like if someone did spend some time meditating on this, and then really prioritize making time in their schedule for this kind of background thinking, that they would be able to get a lot better in this dimension? Something like thinking carefully, thinking well.

Owen Cotton-Barratt: I have a guess that in a good proportion of cases, but not everyone, they could. But it really is pretty guessy.

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