The Peek behind the Curtain interview series includes interviews with eleven people I thought were particularly successful, relatable, or productive. We cover topics ranging from productivity to career exploration to self-care.
This third post covers “What is most important for your productivity?”
You can find bios of my guests at the end of this post, and view other posts in the series here. This post is cross posted on my blog.
What are the most important things you do for your productivity?
Keep checking in with your high-level goal
I think it really comes back down to writing down and rewriting down and thinking about the high-level goal of the project. Having something that's an easy handle, that's like a sentence or two, and just checking in with myself a lot about where I'm at with respect to the high-level goals. Writing something every month about like, "I did this last month and what was the goal? Have I moved toward the goal or not?"
Start by breaking the task down
One thing that's really helpful for me is just small-scale planning. When I'm starting a task, write down a list of the things that I would probably want to do. Just having that be clear helps a lot.
I have a checklist and every day when I sign off, I will write every single one of my projects and email them to my boss letting them know status on all the projects. When I was in college, I lived on a checklist. Every day I had the checklist that needed to be completed that day. It makes it so that I don't drop the ball.
Decreasing anxiety over things. Because I feel like there's this vicious cycle a lot of people get sucked up in, where if you're really anxious about something, you're focused on the anxiety and assuaging the anxiety rather than on the work that you need to do.
Internalize that procrastinating only makes aversive tasks worse
I think I've gotten better over time at doing what needs to be done that's not easy or particularly enjoyable, and finding out again and again that it's all better if I tackle it head-on rather than trying to put it off for as long as humanly possible.
Similar to being a recovering introvert who always thought going to a party was a terrible thing to do yet always, every time I went, both enjoying it and then on reflection going, "Wow. I definitely make the right call there." Regretting it when I decide not to do so.
I guess over time I've learned that the sense of aversion usually fades after I actually start doing the aversive task. It's not fun, but it's okay. A sense of relief after you've done it and gotten it off your plate. It seems like worth doing rather than maybe like spending a week or two weeks or two months going, "Oh man, I need to do this. It's even worse since I haven't done it for this long." Getting stuck in that sort of cycle.
Financial penalties for work within your control
I use Beeminder. I had to put in the initials of the person that I emailed, and it kind of just, "Why don't I aim for five emails a week?" I was trying to hit more than five. It was only counting on what I could control, which was emailing. It doesn't matter if they don't respond, the fact is I emailed. I do it as well to cap my Facebook time. I do it as well to keep my unread inbox below 75.
Track if your week actually moved something forward
It's like, "Was there something that I was able to take the time for this week, and that moved forward significantly somehow," which can look like lots of different things. It could be strategic planning for CSET or it could be working on a specific research project and having time to write or other things like that. It usually feels pretty clear to me if I'm looking back on a given week, like, "Did I just juggle all the balls I was supposed to juggle and keep them in the air somewhat okay or did I actually move forward on something?"
(Mostly) quit social media
I have basically quit social media, except I do sometimes use Twitter for work purposes. It's actually good for networking, oddly enough. Being mostly off social media is also better for my mood.
One thing I do that helps set these deadlines a bit artificially is that every morning before starting to work I identify the main things I want to accomplish that day. It might not be everything that I want to get done, but the most important ones. I have a running routine with my partner where every day we ask each other what we want to do that day before wishing each other a productive day.
Have a routine. Or don’t.
I am probably typically more productive with a routine, so I try and keep a routine. But occasionally I find that I just hit this flow state and I just want to keep working for several hours or several days on this topic. I just keep on going, and I haven't worked out how to balance out the two or whether I should double-down on one strategy versus the other one. Currently, it’s a bit of a mix and therefore, to some degree, a bit of a mess.
Quit dithering, pick a task
If it's a sense like, "Oh, my gosh I have ten different things I could do, which one do I do?" I often find that arbitrarily picking one and focusing on it for the next two hours, seems to be a good way of avoiding getting too scattered.
There's this optimizer's curse trap of like, "Oh, is this most important thing right now? Should I be ordering these tasks?" It feels, at least to me, that the overhead of trying to find this optimal order is sufficiently unpleasant and takes enough time, that you are better just doing something really dumb. Like, just picking one and trying to do it. Both because it may have been more efficient, but also -- if you are feeling scattered and like, "Oh, man, what I do now? I could do this, I could do this." -- maybe a sense of success like, "Hey, I've done something today. I've done this thing. I've cleared that off my plate. That's great." Might then get you out of a rut. At least I’ve found that, on occasion.
Match work to current capacity
I think the thing that I'm responding to most of the time is whether I have the right energy levels and the right headspace to do a particular kind of task. One bit of my productivity, which I wish I was better at, is being able to consistently have a clear brain and decently good levels of energy and that just currently isn't the case. Sometimes there's particular pieces of work which require me to have an unusually clear brain, and I just wake up sometimes and that's not the case.
That's most of the things that I end up responding to. It's like in the morning, I'll look at the plan for the day and I'm like, “Do I feel like I have the right capacity to be able to tackle this thing?” Then if I don't, then I end up working on things that are a better match for what I can do that given day.
Be realistic about your situation
So much productivity advice assumes you're not responsible for anyone besides yourself, and isn't realistic at all for parents of young children (or seems to be written for people who have wives who handle everything.) I've found Laura Vanderkam's writing and podcast helpful because she's the only productivity writer I know who has five children. She really emphasizes time tracking to know where your time is going, which I've done for short stints. Jeff and I have periodically tracked all our time for a week because we know women often end up being responsible for a lot of "second shift" type work of managing the household. Usually he's actually the one pulling more weight in terms of work hours, commute, housework, and childcare hours, but at least we know that and can figure out if we're ok with how things are divided.
I fill out a form once a week about what I accomplished in the last week and what I plan to accomplish in the next week. Then my manager will see that. If she sees that I haven't done any of the things, then it's embarrassing. I definitely am motivated by, “my manager will know that I did not do the thing that I said I was going to.”
Setting up a call with someone to discuss something and then being like, "I have to finish this draft so that they have two days to review it before I call because it's scheduled."
Co-working and my treadmill desk!
And Habitica (but I think that might be because I like rainbow coloured pandas WAY more than other people)
Weekly review that scaffolds other habits
I think this weekly review and plan is a big deal for staying on top of stuff and making sure that I'm getting the highest priority things done plus I think it's a good framework for adding other things on.
I include in that, things like having a life development goal each week. Last week's one was meditate in the morning at least once because I had paused meditating a couple of months ago and think that actually that would be useful to take up again. The week before, it was do some dancing in the morning. Having that kind of framework means that I can add in these other habits. I just have a way of immediately getting myself to be more likely to do them because I write them down there and then Niel sees whether I did them or not.
Work unless you actively decide otherwise
I have this very weird productivity style where the default thing that I do is “work until there is a reason to not work.” Then I allow lots and lots and lots of reasons to not work. It is a pretty common experience for me for someone to be like, "Hey, Rohin, do you want to play a board game?" in the middle of working. I'm like, "Yes, give me five minutes to wrap up this task and then I'll play." I had no plans to do this at the beginning of the day.
One objection I can imagine is that people would find it very stressful because anytime they wanted to do anything that was not work, they'd have to weigh up the consequences of like, "Oh, man. What if I did one more hour of work versus watching this TV show," or something. That would be stressful. I would really not like the system if that's what I was doing. In my case it's more like I ask myself the question, "Hm, do I feel like doing this?" Then if the answer is, yes, I do it.
One thing that happened when COVID happened, we started quarantining and paradoxically I started having more social opportunities because our house is fairly big and now they weren't having social things with their friends outside the house. There was just a lot more socialization but in the house. I think it did temporarily lead to a dip in my times. Then in my weekly review, I was like, "Okay, I've done quite a bit of socializing. I feel like I've wanted to do a bit more work." I just slightly internally rose the level at which I was like, “This is the bar that needs to be met in order for me to do something.” It's still usually a question of like, do I feel like doing this? Which is a nice-easy question.
One really nice benefit of this. You just never are scrolling aimlessly through your phone because you have to make an active decision to do that because by default you're working. That's just not a thing you do anymore unless you actually want to do it. Plausibly some people would want to like scroll through Reddit for half an hour. You can choose to do that. I just personally never choose to do it or very rarely choose to do it.
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My guests include:
Abigail Olvera was a U.S. diplomat last working at the China Desk. Abi was formerly stationed at the US Embassies in Egypt and Senegal and holds a Master's of Global Affairs from Yale University. Full interview.
Ajeya Cotra is a Senior Research Analyst at Open Philanthropy where she worked on a framework for estimating when transformative AI may be developed, as well as various cause prioritization and worldview diversification projects. Ajeya received a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from UC Berkeley. Full interview.
Ben Garfinkel was a research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at the time of the interview. He is now the Acting Director of the Centre for the Governance of AI. Ben earned a degree in Physics and in Mathematics and Philosophy from Yale University, before deciding to study for a DPhil in International Relations at the University of Oxford. Full interview.
Daniel Ziegler researched AI safety at OpenAI. He has since left to do AI safety research at Redwood Research. Full interview.
Eva Vivalt did an Economics Ph.D. and Mathematics M.A. at the University of California, Berkeley after a master’s in Development Studies at Oxford University. She then worked at the World Bank for two years and founded AidGrade before finding her way back to academia. Full interview.
Gregory Lewis is a DPhil Scholar at the Future of Humanity Institute, where he investigates long-run impacts and potential catastrophic risk from advancing biotechnology. Previously, he was an academic clinical fellow in public health medicine and before that a junior doctor. He holds a master’s in public health and a medical degree, both from Cambridge University. Full interview.
Helen Toner is Director of Strategy at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET). She previously worked as a Senior Research Analyst at Open Philanthropy. She is a member of the board of directors for OpenAI. Helen holds an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown. Full interview not available.
Jade Leung is Governance Lead at OpenAI. She was the inaugural Head of Research & Partnerships with the Centre for the Governance of Artificial Intelligence (GovAI), housed at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. She completed her DPhil in AI Governance at the University of Oxford and is a Rhodes scholar. Full interview.
Julia Wise serves as a contact person for the effective altruism community and helps local and online groups support their members. She serves on the board of GiveWell and writes about effective altruism at Giving Gladly. She was president of Giving What We Can from 2017-2020. Before joining CEA, Julia was a social worker, and studied sociology at Bryn Mawr College. Full interview.
Michelle Hutchinson holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Oxford, where her thesis was on global priorities research. While completing that, she did the operational set-up of the Centre for Effective Altruism and then became Executive Director of Giving What We Can. She is currently the Assistant Director of One-on-One Programme at 80,000 Hours. Full interview.
Rohin Shah is a Research Scientist at DeepMind studying methods that allow us to build AI systems that pursue the objectives their users intend them to pursue, rather than the objectives that were literally specified. Rohin completed his PhD at the Center for Human-Compatible AI at UC Berkeley and publishes the Alignment Newsletter to summarize work relevant to AI alignment. Full interview.
The interviews were done in late 2020 and early 2021, and may no longer accurately represent all of the guests’ views.
The following quotes have been cleaned up and condensed from the original interviews, and then checked with the original speaker. Quotes have been grouped by common themes, but not necessarily the question they were said in response to.
These answers were given during spoken interviews, usually without preparation, and transcribed. You can view many of the full interviews to see the quotes in context and read more about the guests’ experience and perspective.
Nice! I'm wondering what others people's answers are.
Mine is a little bit different and doesn't have much to do with indvidual productivity, but how to coordinate with others. It applies more to people working in tightly interconnected teams. (And I do not master this skill myself).
minimize waiting for other people
If I don't move forward with (especially bigger) things at work it is often because I need to wait for someone else.
Avoid being dependent on others as much as you can. Come up with workarounds. Ask your access and permissions as early as possible.
But when you inevitably do need something from someone, don't be afraid to ask, and don't don't don't procrastinate it. Be clear in what you ask them and why. When you finally got the a time slot with a busy person, be well-prepared so that you can ask and discuss everything in one session. Respect your colleague's time and priorities - they might be juggling many balls and yours is only one of them.
Be reliable yourself and avoid that others need to wait for you - treat others the way you want to be treated. If it's many times the same person that you need to wait for, discuss it with your manager, the person themselves, or the team (whatever is most appropriate in your situation).
Don't beat yourself up if you're unproductive because your most important task is on hold. If you need to wait for a short time, take a break instead or do something simple, rather than switching to another complex task.
Today I woudn't have gotten anything done if I didn't find out a way to insert my test data into the database myself rather than wait 2 days for my colleague before they have time to prepare me an interface.
(Crossposted from local group slack where someone else shared a link to this article)
Edited for more context.
Thank you for posting this.
I want to direct more attention to Decreasing Anxiety. If these observations and pieces of advice were weighted, I would expect reducing one's anxiety to be near or at the top.
Many environments and activities within the EA-sphere (e.g., research or grant-making) are quite stressful, and operating continually in these environments can lead to burnout or the consequences of anxiety.
Here is a simple reminder of the activities that are fundamental for flourishing (and for reducing anxiety) as a human:
Though seemingly obvious, many people in Western civilization (especially the USA) routinely fail at these things.
Thanks a lot for sharing this, I really enjoyed reading the post and will be implementing some of the tips!
Thanks for sharing. I'd emphasize that good sleep is underrated!
On having a routine, or don't - I really like this advice. I feel we would benefit from having a default routine that we've set once and then don't have to repeat the decision for. This could be a morning routine or what to order for lunch. Even though its a default, you can make it intentional the times you choose to override it like when you override a setting on your phone. This allows for exploration and whimsy while the other 80% of your choices are alleviated by having the default.
On working unless you actively decide otherwise - I don't think this applies as well to general situations. I have found there is a benefit to time constraints on a task so you focus more deeply on it rather than assuming you have 14 hours in the day to do it. It also forces prioritization so you eliminate distractions like emails which can take up your most productive hours and also make you feel "busy". Also Josh Watzkin talks about being able to turn your peak state on and off so you can control your energy. Ultimately I think it will depend on what type of work the person has to do so I think it warrants each person to consider if they can be more effective by leveraging constraints.