Improving the world can be challenging work, and there's a lot of it to get done. So how can we make sure that we're happily productive, rather than burned out or inefficient? In this workshop from Effective Altruism Global 2018: San Francisco, Lynette Bye outlines useful processes and offers general advice.
A transcript of the workshop is below, including questions from the audience throughout, which we have edited for clarity. However, for best results in following along with the workshop, watching the video is more likely to be effective. You can also read this transcript on effectivealtruism.org.
Hello and welcome to the workshop. I'm Lynette, and I'm a productivity coach with EAs. My focus is on helping improve the productivity of EAs and hopefully, through that, have more impact on the world. I got into this via studying psychology at Harvard and then doing research on self-control at the University of Pennsylvania and wanted to make that more applied and hopefully more of a direct impact.
Today, I'm going to be going over some of the techniques that have worked really well with my clients. Some of these may be new to you, and if you've read a lot of productivity stuff, some of this may be familiar, but I think it will still be valuable to go from hearing about it to diving in and practicing it today, which is the goal of this workshop. Think of the analogy of hearing about push-ups, thinking they're cool, versus doing push-ups. Today, we're going to do push-ups, except the easy kind where you type on your laptop.
To start off with, you'll have an opportunity for you to form accountability partners if you're interested in that, and then go into a bunch of practices on splitting tasks in a way that will reduce aversion and procrastination, and getting hands-on experience doing that. To get started off with this, can you boot up in your mind some projects that you'd like to do over the next couple of months? Take a second and think of a big project that's important to you.
With that, I want to start with an overview of why I think that these techniques work, and set up the framework for how to use these in your daily practice, with the ultimate goal of having this be a habit that you can do consistently.
One very common misconception I hear is something along the lines of, "I wish I was a more productive type of person." It's this assumption that productivity isn't fully in our control. It'll often sound something like, "I wish I was in the mood to be productive, and I'm just not." I think with this, an important step is to change that framework just a little bit. Many of you may already have this, where you're instead thinking about productivity as something that's a combination of strategies and skills and practice, and putting it with that framework. I'd like you all to try and adopt that mindset for this exercise today, if it doesn't happen to be the one you have already.
One really common thing is that you have a big goal. It's this big, one single task and someone would be constantly saying, "Okay, I need to get started on this because this is important and I care about and I want to finish this goal." Then, they don't do it. Often, people will think that they're weak or lazy or just generally not productive. I think this is what feeds into that mindset, but I think that there's this other part here, this partially subconscious, partially conscious part that's something like, "It's a big task. What if I can't do it? I don't really have a plan," and it's this big ugh field that forms an additional barrier making the goal harder to do.
From there, the really common response is just like, "Ah, I don't know if I can do this. I don't want to think about it." Consciously or unconsciously, the decision gets made to just do it later. The present version of you kind of likes this. Your future you absolutely hates it. A little version of you that exists tomorrow still has to do it. They're stuck then, still faced with the same task. Essentially, this is like being the mean boss to your future self. It's saying, "Okay, just do this," even though the current you doesn't want to do it.
What I'm trying to suggest is something like a partnership between these yous, where the you today is preparing this goal for the future you, so the future you will be kind back and do the task tomorrow, or later today. I actually think that this is a particularly useful separation because when you're trying to break down the task at the moment when you're doing it, it often has this additional ugh field, where if you can separate these two in time a little bit, it will sometimes relax that. And when this happens, all of the rest of you, these little strings of people going forward in time, are happy because they don't have to worry about that task anymore. It's changing this from mean boss to yourself, and hence unhappy employee to yourself, to a partnership to make your future self happy.
One suggestion of how to do that, is to take your big goal, this big boulder, and explode it, and instead of this one, monolithic, huge goal that's hard to do, you're left with smaller pieces, which feel a lot more manageable. Also, doing this can take an ugh field around a project, and make it a lot smaller, because instead of this whole big "I'll fail this project," what you're doing is these little sub-components. The parts of your brain that don't like uncertainty and don't like fearing that they might fail think that there's a much better chance that they can succeed at this than at this whole thing right now.
Again, it's like this is the mean taskmaster you, where you're just dumping this goal on your future self. What I'm trying to do is have you break it down as the present you, for the future you, so you're handing the future you these nice little packages. I want to pause real quick, see if this makes sense to everyone or if there's any questions so far. Anyone would like to ask questions or clarify, just stick up your hands and the people with mics will bring you one.
Question: In this model, you still have the initial task of breaking it down. If you're in a mindset where you feel like, I just don't want to do this, doesn't that extend also to the task of breaking it down? To frame it another way, what's to stop my current self from just pushing off the task of breaking it down to the future self?
We'll get to two parts of that. The part so far is that you're not trying to do this all at once. So I'm suggesting you break this up a little bit, if you suspect that that would happen, so you're just doing the part of breaking it down right now. For that part, it's a first step. It will often feel less aversive, instead of trying to both break a task down and also do it all at once. It's also something that can be better planned and fit into your schedule in the routine times, like here's your time to go about doing this, and I think once you make a habit of it, this step stops feeling as aversive and starts feeling more natural.
Before the first step, it's like breaking this task down already to make planning its own step. I'll work with a lot of clients who say, "Hey, this seems familiar. I've heard this before." And then they come back the next week, and they're like, "Wow, it actually worked." What I'm trying to do is to start today that process, that cycle of putting it into practice and seeing that it works, so that your brain doesn't find it aversive and hopefully gets to a point where it finds it exciting. That would be ideal.
For the other part, when I think of an ideal planning structure, I think of something like this where you have top level goals and then consistent parts where you look at the level above it, make plans, and trickle those down, so that what you do each day is directly linked back to your top level goals. In this case, those will be those projects you booted up in your mind today, those things that you care about completing in the near future.
Today though, we're just going to focus on this step. This is just a little taste of what I would normally do with a client, but since we have an hour and not several weeks, it works best to do a little chunk. This one is really well suited as an initial planning phase to get that ball rolling, to get started on making this a habit with granular enough detail that you can still break down tasks into little bite-sized chunks, but also a high enough perspective that you're making sure these are tied back to your goals. With that, before we start the experiment time, I want to check for more questions.
Question: How accurate do you expect your first breakdown of the task to be?
I think it depends. I see a variety of outcomes with people when I'm working with them one-on-one, so I expect that that will be true in this audience as well, but I think that the experience of starting to do it and then refining on that a bit is like a good way to get the ball rolling, to dive in and see what it feels like, and then from there, you can apply that to life outside and keep iterating on it, but starting with this is like… I think it's actually a pretty good way of starting to get that taste.
To set up the frame for this, we're about to dive into the part where you guys start doing your experiments, so if you have laptops, pull them out now. If not, I suggest finding something to write with, either a phone or a notepad if you have them available.
Part of what we're going to be doing is setting up a weekly planning habit, something for you to try out, to see this process iterated over time. I'd like everyone, if they would want to, to be able to have a chance to get an accountability partner here, someone that you can do this with for at least a couple weeks and see how it goes.
Write a little bit about the goals that you booted up earlier, to have those in your minds as you're breaking down what are things you might want to work on over the next month. Just have a couple sentences in here, and I'll give you just a minute or two for this one.
Okay. One quick thing in here, why I'm having you do this all in writing instead of in your heads is that humans are very optimistic about how much stuff they can store in their brains and how much their working memory can process at a time. To me, it looks something like this where your present self is saying, "I will remember it," and your future self says, "Remember what?" This is what we're trying to avoid right now, so by having it done in writing, you can refer back to this later. Basically, as a weekly habit, I'd really say just that you should do it in writing, because doing it in your head typically means you'll forget several of the things, for good or bad.
Now, everyone, just take a couple minutes to plan out, what is the big goal that you'd like to complete over the next week? One big project, one task that'll take a couple hours but is particularly aversive to you. Something that is very important to you that you'd like to do, and you also anticipate that you will be tempted to procrastinate or just not get started on for a while. As a next step, write out all of the sub-steps that can go into your task to break it down.
I generally recommend that these sub-tasks take no longer than an hour, but I basically determined this by, what is a small enough task that it doesn't feel bad to start right now, if you were going to do that? Try and break it down to that level if you can. Now is also the time where you can think about ordering and prioritizing these. So, are these in a process that you could fit well in this workflow? And, are you choosing a reasonable amount to try and complete over this next week? Something very common is we severely overestimate how much we can do. It's commonly called the planning fallacy.
It looks something like this, where we estimate that we can do a bunch of little blocks. At the end of the time, we come up with only a few blocks, and then feel sad. So I'm saying, start out with something more attainable to begin with. Ironically, this actually helps you get more done, frequently, because you have this manageable amount and as you're getting on in the day, maybe you're feeling a little bit tired, but here's what you have left, where if you have all of your to-do list of everything you ever want to get done left, that's going to feel way more overwhelming and not finishable right then.
Let's continue on to the next page. See how you would like to make this a habit. I highly recommend that you try to do this every week for at least a couple weeks to experiment with it. This is just a tiny taste of what I would do normally, but it's a really solid foundation of something to try on your own and experiment with and keep going, and it doesn't take a lot of time, so you can fit it into your week pretty easily. I have the steps in here for how to go about setting this up as a habit that you'll probably continue.
So the first is a trigger. What is going to be your cue for when in your schedule, when in your week to fit this in? Really common times with my clients are something like Monday or Friday where you're either looking back at your week and reviewing it and setting up for the next, or as you get started out in your week on Monday, setting it up and looking back.
Things that I've come across before are, do it right before you go to bed on a particular day of the week, or do it first thing in the morning on a particular day of the week. I have someone who runs home from work, so when he puts on his running shoes, he triggers to review his plan. It's like, what can you use as a cue for, "Okay, here's when I do it?" Probably tied to a day of the week though.
Also, I think it can be fine to do it on the weekend. Frequently, people don't want to be focusing on their work time then, so they'd prefer to have it built into their work schedule, but I personally do it on Saturdays, and I think that that works just fine.
Okay. If you have a trigger, the next step is how you will do this. Imagine very vividly, how you would go through this process. It could be something like what you're doing today, on a piece of paper or even on this form if you want us to keep using it. It could also be something in an app. A couple of useful ones that I have here are Complice, Workflowy, and Wunderlist. I think that both Workflowy and Wunderlist work pretty well for putting in the steps that you want to complete over the next week, so you just have this list that you can check each day. Complice works well for daily planning if you want to add that in at some point. I recommend starting with just the weekly if you haven't done that already, as a keystone to build up and make it easy to get started, though.
Once you have a plan for how you're going to go about doing this and complete the plan, then I suggest, what reminder can you set? What outside trigger outside of your own brain will remind you to come back to this? Something like an alarm or a sticky note or an accountability partner work really well for this.
Question: An issue that comes up for me personally is after I set my plan, I struggle with the fact that I have to say no to other plans seeping in or other introductions that may veer me off the plan, so, yeah, what's the strategy for that?
The general recommendation for that that I have is to set things aside if they're not urgent, and work them into your next week plan. If they're urgent or clearly higher priority than what you're working on right now, just revise your plan for the week. Depending on your job, most jobs don't have this come up too often, that you would need to redo your whole schedule. This also relates to the planning fallacy; build in extra time that you don't think you need so you can have the cushion of things taking longer than you think they will, or new things popping up, because that almost always happens. If you have a bit of a cushion, usually that can just absorb whatever little things pop up and you won't need to redo your whole schedule.
I want to do a five-second version of a longer CFAR technique called Murphyjitsu. This is a way of checking whether you expect your plan to succeed and if not, how can you fix it? The five-second version of this is going from the mindset where your brain is like, "Hmm, I made a plan. This seems like it could work. Smiley face. World's good. My plan worked," and instead asking if that plan fails, would you be surprised? This is checking against all the other simulated futures that your brain is producing all of the time. Often, what it turns up is several worlds where it doesn't expect you to succeed. It expects you to fail, because it knows that there's loopholes here that will likely cause your plan to crash.
I want everyone here to just ask yourself, "If my plan failed, if I did not review this in a week, did not come back and do the weekly planning, would I be surprised?" If you're not feeling something close to shock of like, "Oh my word, how would that happen?" then ask yourself why it would fail. What are the loopholes? Are you just going to forget that you planned to do this? Are you going to be too busy and not have time? Think about how you would get around those.
This is just one exercise, but I wanted to get everyone diving in and practicing it. If there's other things that you wanted to discuss, I want to make myself available for questions.
Question: In part of being overambitious with your plans, I think it can be really easy to have like many focuses on what you want to accomplish. Can you describe how you would really just narrow your focus to just say, "I want to accomplish this one thing alone and kind of block out everything else to achieve that goal?"
I have a couple different approaches to this, that depend on the person. The most common one would go something like, narrow down your focuses to the top priorities based on the near-term future that you're working towards, and what would be most important long-term? Is there anything that would be really life-changing, like learning how to code or something for people who want to do that? Then, narrow down what is the most important step over, say, a month. Set one ambitious goal for that, and then set everything else aside. For people who are really struggling with this, we can sometimes even do it on a week scale like, "Here's what you're going to focus on for this week," and really try and set the other focuses aside, try this out, and you can iterate very quickly that way if this is the wrong focus, but that also gives you the ability to do this thing, dive in, and complete something when frequently, the problem is there's lots of these things in progress, and none of them are getting completed or really doing focused work on because there's too much switching going on. You just prioritize like super near-term, basically, and just make sure you accomplish the particular, small task you're focused on.
For people who are particularly struggling with this, I find that prioritizing near-term gets them used to the idea of picking one thing and doing it, and then they can treat that more flexibly as it works for them.
Question: I was wondering if you had recommendations for how specific versus general a project goal should be and how short-term versus long-term, if that has any bearing on what you find people are successful with? Should we make a lot of short-term goals or maybe fewer long-term goals?
I think that it helps to have a broader sense of what your long-term goals are, and I find that that can be very motivating for people, but it's almost impossible to have really specific long-term goals because things change so much. You learn a lot as you iterate. You want to have that flexibility, so I generally make general long-term goals, or specific long-term goals with the stated intention that this is flexible and will likely change, and then very specific near-term goals. And the near-term goals, you have a much higher level of commitment to. It's like, "Here's actually what I'm going to do. Over the next week, I'm really committing to accomplishing this goal." If that turns out to not be the best way to tackle this, I can iterate after that, but I'm not dithering while I'm trying to do the work. Because that mindset of like, "I want to do this, but I am not positive," can often lead to a lot of ambivalence. Committing for a short-term very strongly to a very concrete goal can help a lot with that.
Question: In my job, I'm a product manager, so there's a lot of different stuff I have to do, with multiple levels including strategic, and then just solving bug or something like that. How do you help people prioritize something that they really need to get done in an environment like that?
Yeah. This would be very customized to the particular constraints of your situation, but an idealized case would be something like, you carve out some blocks of time for your really important focused work that you need to get done. Often, this will include things like turning off email. When I'm doing this, I turn all my devices to airplane mode, and I'm just unreachable for like two hours. And then, also times where you batch smaller tasks, like responding to your co-worker's emails or something like that, and you do that all in one batch, which reduces the task on your brain of switching between things, and lets you just more efficiently get through it, and then separating some of these.
A lot of roles like that, where you have to be very responsive, don't have quite that freedom, so sometimes, you can do things like carve a work block on a weekend or at a time when other people aren't working as much, in order to build that flexibility in. It really depends on your personal situation how exactly we structure that, but I usually try and have people to have some focused time, and then some time where they batch admin if there's a lot of that that they have to do. And a lot of that is experimentation of how much time do you need for admin, what times of the day are you most focused, et cetera, and I'll work plans through a setup of testing out what works for them, and then maintaining a habit of implementing that.
Question: Yeah. I was just going to ask, how can we most effectively act as accountability partners? I guess things like, are there particular structures for like how these interactions are supposed to take place and also things like, what are we supposed to hold each other accountable on? Is it things like making sure that you do the planning, or is it like whether you're actually accomplishing the goals that you set out?
Excellent question. I think one really good structure is that you hold each other accountable for meeting every week, and then during that time, you either do the planning together, or have already done it and discuss it in the meeting. You can decide on this. I don't think it really matters that much. And then, you hold each other committed to the task that you want to be, so you mark the things that you're really committing to, to each other, and then you follow through on those together. I think that there's a lot of variation on how this can be. You could have some sort of financial or social penalty if they fail, or it could just be your partner looks at you reproachfully, which can be highly motivating to people. It works.
Question: Say I just finished a very intensive work session for like 15 minutes, and I have 10 minutes before the next 15-minute intensive work session. What would you suggest us to do for that 10-minute relaxed time to relax more efficiently, so we can better prepare ourselves for the next intensive work session?
I think that that's something that works really well with experimentation. Often though, it works well if somebody changes up what they're doing. So like, if they've been sitting, working at a computer, they should get up, move, stretch. Something that will engage a different part of your brain or body than the one that you've just been working on can help spread out the load, basically.
Question: I guess related to the question about how to be a good accountability partner and maybe slightly an awkward question to ask: like, what if your accountability partner isn't very good? How much should you prepare for that?
In my experience, bad accountability partner usually means you don't hear from the person again, in which case, I would suggest finding a new one.
Question: How would one go about finding a new accountability partner?
One option would be to email me. I can't guarantee this would work, but I do frequently have people requesting accountability partners, and I'm happy to keep names in mind. If you do so, I ask that you include your time zone because I found that coordinating someone in India and California is kind of hard to do sometimes. Another option there, if you use Complice, is that there's a thread that you can link to from that that will take you through who's looking for an accountability partner. Sometimes, you can find one on there if you're using that particular app. It works really well. You can also just ask your friends. Sometimes, that actually works really well.
Question: Related to the question about relaxation, what happens if you have like stochastic periods where you're not sure when you're blocked in something? For example, if I'm programming, my code might take surprisingly long to compile, or I might be sending something off a code review and I don't know when they'll get back to me. What should I be working on in the meantime?
I very rarely see situations where people are just like, "I don't have anything to do right now." Usually, there's something you can do, often on more light admin side, getting stuff out of the way if your main project is on hold. It's also really useful to send an email reminder to yourself for when you expect to hear back from these people, so if you are waiting on people, you know when it's the appropriate time to nudge them and that automatically comes into your awareness, instead of waiting for them for like two months and then like, "Hey, how's it going?"
Question: If it's a period of waiting that's anywhere from 5 minutes to 30 minutes, should I be starting another project? Should I be doing the emails? What should I be doing then, when it's not certain how much time I'll have?
I think it really depends. If this is something where you just have a little break, you could do emails. You could use that as your break time instead of the 15-minute timer. I don't think there's one uniform answer for such a broad range of possible things.
Question: What if something comes up this week but you already have the next week planned out?
I generally treat plans as somewhat flexible. When I'm doing the weekly, I have the month planned out, but I have each week that I just plan at the beginning of it, so I can adapt it to what's happened before. For projects where you need to have a bigger timeline to make sure you're meeting some deadline at the end, you might want to see how can you catch up and schedule that with yourself or someone else in order to do that, or you may want to adjust what you have planned for the next week to put off some lower priority things that maybe you can set aside, in order to finish the urgent task that you still have left over. If it's something that wasn't that high priority, you didn't do it, it doesn't seem necessarily important, you can often just not do it. It's one way to filter out what are lower importance things that you shouldn't actually be trying to do.