Will MacAskill on his ‘Eat That Elephant’ routine, learning from successful people, and the diminishing marginal returns of time spent working [blog cross-post]

by lynettebye 10d9th Oct 20192 comments

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This piece is cross-posted on my blog here.

Productivity is a hot topic in effective altruism. We’re all trying to effectively move toward our goals. Many of us have theories about what works to accomplish big goals. But are these intuitions right? Do they actually work?

One way to check is to ask successful people how they get things done and then work backward from there. You probably know the kind of person I’m talking about - people who just seem to get stuff done. Did you ever wonder how they manage to accomplish so much? What do they do differently?

Now here’s your chance to be a fly on the wall. I interviewed effective altruists about their productivity habits to give you an inside peek into how they accomplish cool things.

Each interview will highlight one EA, often someone with leadership experience or someone other EAs recommended as excellent in some particular area. You can take your own views on how much weight to put on each interviewee's experience.

Obviously, personal differences matter. You probably won’t want to copy any one person exactly, but comparing across the upcoming interviews can give you insight into patterns that might be worth trying. You can use these interviews to learn new tips, find experiments to try yourself, or just satisfy your curiosity.

To start off, I’m joined by Will MacAskill, Associate Professor in Philosophy and Research Fellow at the Global Priorities Institute, University of Oxford. Will helped start the effective altruism movement; he co-founded the Centre for Effective Altruism and 80,000 Hours. He also wrote Doing Good Better - Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference.

Today, Will shares his advice to copy successful people rather than try to figure it out from scratch, at least when you’re doing something new. According to Will, this method has helped him do everything from publishing a book to winning the Fulbright Scholarship.

You can read the full transcript below for more, including:

  • Why he’s skeptical of explicit modeling of costs and benefits when prioritizing
  • His Eat That Elephant routine
  • Why he doesn’t think it’s valuable to work ten-hour days
  • His biggest weird hack for producing output that once made him work 100 hours in one week
  • Why he founded Giving What We Can rather than following a traditional academic path
  • How he includes intrinsic motivation in his prioritization

Highlights

“Copy the good things and anti-copy the bad things. Appreciate, to begin with, you probably won't understand why the things are good or bad. And then after the period of copying, you will start to get some understanding of what are actually the good things and bad things….

Why did I write a book in the first case? The core reason really is my aim, which I had thought about a lot, to be a Peter Singery sort of figure. He writes books. Other people in this class write books, so I'm going to write a book. In fact, I did do explicit modeling of costs and benefits, which made it look a lot more equivocal on whether it was worth the time. I'm glad I went with just going with what successful people do, because the modeling was shit. Looking back now, it totally got wrong where most of the benefit of Doing Good Better came from, and I think that's systematically true.

Another case would be applying for scholarships, like the Fulbright. So I paid my way through grad school through a combination of nine scholarships. And the Fulbright, for example, I just contacted people who'd already got it, asked them to send me the materials, copied it quite closely, and then just did well at getting the scholarship. Lots of the things they look for were just things I would have never predicted if I hadn't gone and got information. Like, they care about international security. It's like, okay, well, whatever. They have this set of criteria, and you just kind of optimize for that. I think of it a bit like being a machine learning algorithm, where without even doing symbolic reasoning, you're just like, ‘I'm just going to chuck myself at the data, and copy things that work’.”

“What used to be the case was Eat That Elephant, where I just have one thing, the most important thing, and I spent all my time on that for something like two weeks. I let all my other priorities slide. And then I managed to get through that elephant. Then I'll have a couple of days where I cope with all of the other things.”

“Maybe, let's say the first three hours are like two thirds the value of the whole eight-hour day. And then, especially if I'm working six days a week, I'm not convinced the difference between eight and ten hours is actually adding anything in the long term.”

“The biggest weird hack is definitely, or was, making commitments to others. So I'd sometimes do this on Facebook. And then I started making commitments to people who ate meat. Where, if I didn't produce a draft or some other commitment I set myself, I had to give them 50 pounds that they had to spend on boneless chicken thighs. That would be extremely motivating. You know, you spend a lot of time not doing anything, and then it would just be like a switch. And I did pay out. I once paid the person I made the commitment to 100 pounds. I worked over 100 hours that week and didn't succeed. I had just set too high a thing. Yeah, but I worked like 100 hours.”

Full Interview

Note: This transcript was edited for clarity and length.

Lynette Bye: What are the most important things that you do for prioritization, for choosing what to work on?

Will MacAskill: I'll definitely say I don't think of myself as a model for research productivity. So emphasize that quite hard. I guess I think all the time about what I want to be doing every year. In the future, I have a very long-term plan. In broad strokes, I've got the rest of my life planned out. Then every year I assess how the previous year has gone and think about the next year. But then most importantly, every time I finish up with some major projects, then I'll spend a period of weeks or months thinking, "What's my next big project?" And then on the more fine-grained level, every couple of months, I form a plan for the next few months.

Lynette Bye: I'm guessing that there's a lot of difference based on how you do this, if somebody is trying to implement similar things. So I'd be curious to hear what are the details when you're going through this week- or month-long period deciding what next to take on? What specific activities do you do? How do you think about this?

Will MacAskill: It's relatively informal, but I'll have some ideas or views about different things I could do. I often write up those plans, and then I'll just get feedback on it from people I respect. I have a lot of conversations with people with differing views on this. There's no algorithm at that point, I just try and get many inputs, and then it all just churns up in my system one. Then I come out, hopefully, with some gut feeling about what I want to do. I kind of trust that gut feeling, and I feel good about that stage. Because if I'm doing something over a two-year period, like the book I'm working on at the moment, you've got to be intrinsically motivated.

Lynette Bye: How much do you estimate how long it would take, what kinds of effort it would require, how draining that feels, what you expect to get out of it?

Will MacAskill: I do think about how long it'll take, and, you know, form a plan, see if it fits with other life things. I'm moving a little bit more towards placing less weight on how long things take, because everything takes way longer. So instead I'm just going to order things on how important they are, not thinking so much about how much time they take, and just do the most important thing, then the second most important thing. Maybe that takes way longer. But the thing that I want to avoid is, "Oh, this thing will only take a week. So I'm just going to do that." No, if it takes a week, it takes a month, and now you're also committed, and other people are going to want to talk to you about this.

Lynette Bye: Okay, so if you're just doing the most important thing, how do you decide what that is? You have this list, you're ranking them, you've gotten some feedback.

Will MacAskill: Yeah, the kind of inputs are like, "What's my comparative advantage? What things can I do that other people can't? What do I think are gaps in the community? What are the options available to me?" Normally, at the idea generation stage, I have some people pitching me to do things. Some of that resonates, and some of it doesn't. And then also, "What would I be excited about doing?" And then the aggregation is just this mulling over, over a period of weeks or months basically. How does it fit into my long-term plans? A few years ago, I spent quite a long time on "What should my long-term aim be?" and I kind of made the bet on being a Peter Singer kind of thing.

Lynette Bye: What things went into that process? You've done a lot more early in your career than most researchers do. What kinds of things do you think enabled you to make these kinds of weird moves like starting charities?

Will MacAskill: That wasn't really very well-reasoned. I mean, setting up Giving What We Can and what followed, I saw that as a kind of sacrifice of my academic career for what I thought was morally right. The motivation at the time was more, “I have this deep moral tension. Here, I have this opportunity to do this good thing, and I'm just going to start doing that.” I was much more just thinking about what good can I do on the margin, rather than some grand plan.

Lynette Bye: Yeah, it does feel like you were thinking outside of the current bubble of "I'm an academic, I just write papers".

Will MacAskill: Yeah, for sure.

Lynette Bye: Was there anything that you did, like back-chaining or reasoning about the world, that led you to do that more?

Will MacAskill: No, as it happened, things ended up going well, from an academic perspective. Actually, EA helped out somewhat in the end. But at the time, I just thought, you know, "I have what I want to do, which is being this philosophy academic, and that makes an impact. But I just morally can't do that. I should do this other stuff, and so I'm just going to start doing that.” And it's taking over and probably that's me, you know, sacrificing my academic career. There wasn't some long-term game plan at that point. I have a bit of a bias as well. If an idea takes me, I just kind of have to do it. I've gotten better at mitigating that over time, because I don't have time and I do lots of things shittily, which is bad.

Lynette Bye: And how do you arrange your workday? Are there some number of hours that you would normally work on high priority stuff or on more exploratory opportunistic stuff, etc.?

Will MacAskill: Yeah, so my previous style was what I called Eat That Elephant, which is kind of like Eat That Frog but much bigger. What used to be the case was Eat That Elephant, where I just have one thing, the most important thing, and I spent all my time on that for something like two weeks. I let all my other priorities slide. And then I managed to get through that elephant. Then I'll have a couple of days where I cope with all of the other things.

Will MacAskill: I'm now just not able to do that. I think just too much breaks. I think that just does mean that I'm less productive than I was at that time. But that still feels unresolved. So what I do now, in theory, and I was doing this for the period of a few months before I got had some health problems, was the first three hours a day, but certainly two hours, I do writing and research. Then if I can continue in the afternoon I would. If not, I'll have meetings and emails and read and other things.

Lynette Bye: And you found that those three hours or so a day of focused work...

Will MacAskill: When it was going well, I can easily get most of the value of both research and writing time, and other time.

Lynette Bye: Got it. And this stopped going well just because of health stuff.

Will MacAskill: Yeah, I developed chronic migraines. And that was the issue.

Lynette Bye: Yeah, that sounds like a reasonable thing.

Will MacAskill: I'm going to try and get back to it. Yeah, I've got six conferences back to back, then when I stop, I'm going back.

Lynette Bye: And when you're doing the eat the elephant routine? How much were you working per day on the one big thing?

Will MacAskill: Maybe ten hours a day, or something.

Lynette Bye: Ten hours a day of focused writing and research?

Will MacAskill: I mean, there'd still probably be a couple of hours of random stuff per day, typically. And it's not always writing or research. It kind of was with the book or with my thesis. But it could be applying for jobs; academic jobs was another elephant. But typically, it was mainly focused on that. For sure my productivity drops a lot later in the day, but it's typically good in the morning and worse in the afternoon.

Lynette Bye: Did you notice diminishing returns for working ten hours a day compared to three hours a day, for what you could get done in the first three hours?

Will MacAskill: I mean, huge. Huge for sure, yeah.

Lynette Bye: Do you have an estimate of what that difference felt like?

Will MacAskill: I think probably ten versus eight hours, all things considered, it's not clear they're valuable at all. Maybe, let's say the first three hours are like two thirds the value of the whole eight-hour day. And then, especially if I'm working six days a week, I'm not convinced the difference between eight and ten hours is actually adding anything in the long term.

Lynette Bye: Yeah. Jumping back a little bit to your presentation routine. Were you ever explicitly modeling out what benefit you expected to gain from things when deciding what was most important?

Will MacAskill: No, I'm kind of skeptical of explicit modeling, so I do a bit. When I'm trying to do well at something, where that can be quite broad like be Peter Singer or it can be narrower like get the scholarship, I prefer to see what things are done well, what things are done poorly. With my Doing Good Better book, what things are done well at this thing, what things are done poorly. Copy the good things and anti-copy the bad things. Appreciate, to begin with, you probably won't understand why the things are good or bad. And then after the period of copying, you will start to get some understanding of what are actually the good things and bad things.

Lynette Bye: How did you go about that process? What were some of the things that you did try copying and how did that go?

Will MacAskill: With Doing Good Better, every chapter I wrote, I just had The Tipping Point on one side and Freakonomics on the other, and I’d look at the structure of the book and how it works. They’d feel kind of similar, and I'd copy it. Like, why did I write a book in the first case? The core reason really is my aim, which I had thought about a lot, to be a Peter Singery sort of figure. He writes books. Other people in this class write books, so I'm going to write a book. In fact, I did do explicit modeling of costs and benefits, which made it look a lot more equivocal on whether it was worth the time. I'm glad I went with just going with what successful people do, because the modeling was shit. Looking back now, it totally got wrong where most of the benefit of Doing Good Better came from, and I think that's systematically true.

Will MacAskill: Another case would be applying for scholarships, like the Fulbright. So I paid my way through grad school through a combination of nine scholarships. And the Fulbright, for example, I just contacted people who'd already got it, asked them to send me the materials, copied it quite closely, and then just did well at getting the scholarship. Lots of the things they look for were just things I would have never predicted if I hadn't gone and got information. Like, they care about international security. It's like, okay, well, whatever. They have this set of criteria, and you just kind of optimize for that. I think of it a bit like being a machine learning algorithm, where without even doing symbolic reasoning, you're just like, “I'm just going to chuck myself at the data and copy things that work”.

Lynette Bye: That’s basically what I'm trying to do now with all these interviews, which I get tons of data on what people are currently doing.

Will MacAskill: But you need to talk to people who are bad. Talk to people who have totally failed at research productivity even though they're really smart. Because otherwise you just get a silly biased sample.

Lynette Bye: Okay. What other things do you think that you do that really impacts what you accomplish on high valuable output?

Will MacAskill: The biggest weird hack is definitely, or was, making commitments to others. So I'd sometimes do this on Facebook. And then I started making commitments to people who ate meat. Where, if I didn't produce a draft or some other commitment I set myself, I had to give them 50 pounds that they had to spend on boneless chicken thighs. That would be extremely motivating. You know, you spend a lot of time not doing anything, and then it would just be like a switch. And I did pay out. I once paid the person I made the commitment to 100 pounds. I worked over 100 hours that week and didn't succeed. I had just set too high a thing. Yeah, but I worked like 100 hours.

Lynette Bye: How did having these incentives feel? Did it feel restrictive? Or oppressive? Or was this just very motivating and works great for you?

Will MacAskill: It's kind of high variance. 80% of the time, it's just like, "Oh, cool. Okay, you just switched that switch, and now you're just working." But if you get the commitment wrong, you can get really down.

Lynette Bye: And it seems like you've moved more away from this model now, what changed?

Will MacAskill: Of the commitments? I'm thinking about doing it again actually. Because I'm just not really producing. I’ve got so many Google Docs. I've got all these ideas and these long thoughts, and I never do the last mile. So I am actually thinking of making a commitment, starting after these conferences to produce something every week. But I'm nervous about it, because maybe I won't succeed. I'm trying to figure out if there are ways I can do it with a carrot instead of a stick, which would be better for my mental health.

Lynette Bye: And when you are trying to do it more self-motivated without the commitments, do you try and do things that are more like goal setting or motivational in that way that would make up for that?

Will MacAskill: Yeah, deadlines are a big thing. Often, I have external deadlines that are very motivating. Sometimes it's push-based. But the thing is, that's best for like notes. Where you’re like, “Okay, I've just got some idea, I'm going to write it up.” That's partly why I've got so many notes, and so few written up things.

Lynette Bye: And how do you do your daily planning, however you decide what you're going to work on that day?

Will MacAskill: Yeah, so I have a weekly plan. I try and bundle non-research stuff onto a couple of days. In theory every week, I think about what I’m doing over the next week, probably doesn't happen every week. It happens every couple of weeks on average. I'll have some understanding of what I've got to do in the next few months, and I revisit that relatively regularly.

Lynette Bye: For each day, do you set a plan like "here's what I'm going to do this day", or is it just "here's the list of everything I need to do, work through it as you wish."

Will MacAskill: More like the latter. For a while, I was really into the Getting Things Done system, and one of the things I liked about it was just that you don't have this daily set list, you just got "these are the things I need to do soon," and you just work through them. I think if I had something that's like, “I need to do this every day,” then I just set too many and fail every day.

Lynette Bye: Any other particular things that you found that seem to really matter?

Will MacAskill: So probably two I'd mention. The most recent and most powerful is caffeine and theanine. Where it used to be the case that caffeine was very bad for my writings, the theanine just smooths it out and I now drink a lot more caffeine. That's revolutionized my life. I'm just a lot more alert for most of the day, and it seems to be good for writing. The second, creatine, has this big effect on my life. It makes me more alert. It makes me happier. It makes me more active, perhaps slightly more aggressive, makes it harder to sleep, makes me have less attention to detail. So it's this weirdly big effect. Always has been. So I need to use it sparingly. It's good if I want to get a lot done, but not if I want to write something.

Will MacAskill: I think being in a good mental state is important. If you're stressed out or sad, research is weird. Like with emails, you're kind of always at the same pace. It's maybe a two X difference from shit to good. Whereas with research, it can be like 100 X or something, and that's very different.

Lynette Bye: What things are most important for you being in a good mood?

Will MacAskill: Exercising, not being in some sort of personal conflict with someone, sleeping well. Sleeping definitely more than eight hours, closer to nine, is good. Eating plenty of plants, socializing, not working too hard. Correcting bad cognitive cycles, like beating yourself up. Caffeine actually.

Lynette Bye: Is there a baseline, like you need this much exercise and then there are diminishing returns?

Will MacAskill: Yeah, three times a week or something. It's been bad if it's less than twice a week. Beyond three times a week is nice but not essential. Needs to be intense, and 20 minutes or more.


If you'd like to improve your productivity, you can sign up for a free 30-minute fit call with Lynette to explore coaching.

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