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 fifth post covers prioritization, including “How do you decide which projects to pursue?,” “How much of your time is allocated top down versus being in more reactive mode or just following what's exciting?,” and “How do you prioritize/plan your work?”
How do you decide which projects to pursue?
Pay attention to feeling crappy about a project
I think the main triggers are just very introspective and emotional. If I'm feeling crappy about something for a long time and just notice that I'm sad, I try to notice and think pretty hard about whether I should drop it. I don't think I've been able to find more early-stage or more objective triggers so far.
Have lots of potential projects, follow the exciting ones
At any given time, I have a lot of threads of things I'm interested in that I'm vaguely reading up on in the background. I think I'll get interested in stuff through either talking to someone else about their work and then some idea that comes up in conversation, or I'll be reading something and some question will occur to me.
Often I’ll have some gripe about something that's been published. Often the way some question or curiosity that comes up in my mind is, like I read something that some academic or someone in the community has put out, and I'm like, "That doesn't seem right." I just have a lot of different things that I've spent some amount of time thinking and reading about.
Then every once in a while I feel like I need to actually finish something, or I get a lot of positive feedback from people, like, "Oh, this thing actually seems important or useful or cool," and that point I'll maybe buckle down more on the thing and there'll be more of a conventional research process.
Iterate in small steps
Honestly, a lot of these things are not things that necessarily get a binary, “Yes, it's definitely going to happen” decision. It's more of a process; I learn a little bit about it, and I'm like, "Oh, yeah, I should continue to pursue it." And then I learn a little bit more about it, and I'm like, "Okay, I'm gonna continue to pursue it." A lot of them peter out, because they don't work for some reason, like that the project is just not very tractable, or more likely in my area: projects just fall through, funders fall through, you know, or the government says, “Hey, you can't do this project,” or something like that. So it's more like an iterative process of continuing to pursue things until I find some reason to not pursue them anymore.
For small projects, vet it and then commit to seeing it through
I typically find I'm more prone to the error of quitting things too early versus sinking a lot of sunk costs into things that aren’t very valuable. I think it’s partly owed to the fact for typically the things I work on are not massively large most of the time, so it's a sense of like, “oh, if you're already halfway through then continuing is maybe two weeks of your time” or maybe less than that, in fact. It will be good value of information.
I find myself more often regretting things I didn't follow through on rather than things I kept going with that I shouldn't have. The former is much more common than the latter, so I tend to do an initial exploration perhaps to just vet it. If it does, then I try and commit pretty firmly to seeing it through to some (hopefully planned out in advanced) end product. I still have a fairly large number of half-finished products on my back burner, but I try to aim in that direction even if I err from it.
Likewise, I find I tend to work better with fewer projects rather than more of them. Ideally one at a time, which is not usually very feasible. Instead, I try a one-in-one-out policy, with a set number of very large projects. I try to not add another one to the list until I've taken one off it, which again, doesn't always survive first contact, but it's better moving in that direction.
Trial and error
Definitely trial and error.
For events, one rule of thumb I found really helpful is someone suggesting when you're invited to an event, imagine that it's tomorrow or the next day, and think about whether you'd be excited to go to it, which I think is a really good filter for “If this were actually about to happen, would I want to do it?” It's pretty easy to say yes to an event that's a month away because you're just not really thinking about it and then end up feeling frustrated by it.
At the moment, I'm honestly in the mode of just trying to say yes to more writing things. At the moment, I'm being fairly indiscriminate about that. As I said, trial and error. I may need to scale that back. I definitely had the experience for a little while of being involved in some writing project and during the project, feeling pretty uncertain about whether it was worth it and finding various aspects frustrating or whatever, and then after it was published, being super, super glad that I did it and thinking that it was pretty obviously worth it in retrospect. I've tried to dial up my willingness on those things.
Then for the ongoing time commitments like X number of hours per month or something, it depends on the thing. I try to think about how often in the last month or two I felt I had no free hours versus feeling I had a little bit of slack in the system.
Explore way more ideas than you could follow through on
One thing that I think Allan [Dafoe] does really well, which I think is a cool way to research, is he always has a running list of research ideas, way more than you could ever get done. I think the thing that he does is he spends some amount of time chipping away at some of them, like more than he would actually be able to follow through with.
Then by this process of light experimentation-- It's like you're actually delving into the idea and trying to understand it a little bit better. Maybe writing up a couple of pages on it and getting into the mode of actually investigating it. I think that gave him a bunch more data about whether this was a project that actually had the legs that he thought it could have, whether it felt pleasant and fun to work on too. I think that light experimentation across a wide set of ideas is a pretty informative thing, at least for him or as a researcher like him to be able to choose ideas from there.
You have a lot of options – you don’t need to cling to this particular one
A thing that I have found very helpful is to be like, "I am not married to my project. I'm not married to this idea." Other ideas will come to me and other projects entirely I could do and be helpful. That is really, really valuable for pulling back from the temptation to rabbit hole. I think rabbit holing often comes from a feeling of like, "Oh, I have this idea, it exists. I've been seeking and seeking and now here's the thing and I can sink my teeth into it." Being like, "I don't need to sink my teeth into this, it's not the only one. I don't need to cling" is quite valuable.
Zooming out to check whether this is the most important thing
It feels extra important to try to do more zooming out and thinking like, "Is this still the main thing that I should be working on?"
I think an example where I didn't do this at all well was when we were building a forum for Giving What We Can. We were trying to build a forum that was exactly of the kind that we wanted, and it ended up really blowing out as a project. I hadn't managed a tech project before. We were still mostly volunteers, and it ended up taking many months and just totally wasn't worth it. It didn't end up being used very much at all. I think that's a case where I hadn't properly zoomed out and been like, "Okay, how important actually is this, and at what point should we pivot away from working on this, even if we put quite a bit of time into it?"
I think it probably would have looked like doing more of a minimum viable product. I think we considered this at the time and our worry was that a forum only works if you get enough people on it.
I might have tried something like a Google Group with some different threads and then sent that around and been like, "Do people want something like this?" I guess something that was quick to build and could immediately see whether people were using it.
I was building a model of how the future progresses: “What are the key points? What are the key problems? What are the key decision points? Where's their leverage to affect the future?”
That was a small part of it, really. Then there was also: “Okay, how does AI work? What does the future of AI progress look like? What are the different problems people are concerned about? How do they relate to each other?”
Really, most of this looks like building an internal model for what powerful AI systems will look like and also, to a lesser extent, how, if we have powerful AI systems, they will be used. As that model got more refined, it became relatively obvious where the intervention points were and what the theory of change for different interventions would be.
So, I don't think the theory of change was ever very hard. It feels like the difficult part was having the model in the first place.
How much of your time is allocated top down versus being in more reactive mode or just following what's exciting?
It’s important to balance inside view excitement and outside view importance
I think, at least for OpenPhil research, it's very helpful to have humility about whether your research ideas are going to be valuable and take a lot of input from other people about that and be really willing to shape your original idea into something other people are on board with too.
It's a flip side of the arrogance about “there are lots of ways I can contribute.” I think that's good and arrogance about “this idea I had is really great and I have a vision and I want to do it” is less good. Even though, like I said before, having energy and an inside view for something is pretty valuable for getting a bunch of stuff done.
Mostly go with the flow
I sometimes do some time tracking for myself to see where my time is going and make adjustments based on that, but overall, it feels more go with the flow.
Long term top down, day-to-day intuition-driven
It's definitely a lot of fairly intuition-driven, I think. I review some things every six months and do a whole life review every 12 months. At a minimum every 12 months, I'm trying to step back and think more systematically about what types of things do I think I should be prioritizing more or less of. On a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, it's pretty rare that I am using some kind of explicit, quantitative estimation.
Streamline all the levels of goals, but still have flexibility
My current process is at the highest level, I have a big annual review thing that I do. That includes a bunch of reflection and also includes a bunch of goal-setting. The goal-setting that I do there is not super-specific. I've mostly learned with time that my goals end up falling out of relevance in various ways anyways. I've gone more for directions rather than goals, at least at that level.
Every quarter, I have quarterly goals, and those get pretty specific. I try pretty hard to tie those into the annual directions. I think it's helped me streamline things, like tie all the levels together a little bit more.
Then I do monthly goals, I thrive off those. I don't really do the weekly goal thing. That's because I've tried and things end up just changing a lot more. I have a rough plan for the things that I would do. Then I make sure I square those to my monthly goals, roughly, but I don't get too stressed about that.
Also, somewhat recently I've been leaning a little bit more into doing things that feel like the thing that I'm most excited about doing at the time, rather than the thing past-me said I would do today.
Explicitly choose high level goals, but leeway to follow intuitive steps toward them
I think I tend to naturally prefer explicit reasoning. In particular, I like to have some sense of why I'm doing things. I think there are also definitely things that I do that are more intuition-driven.
This year, my highest level learning goal is developing a stronger sense of having specific opinions on complex hard things and figuring out how to develop specific opinions on those and have fewer things where I'm just like, "Ah, I don't know, it seems complicated and hard, I have no view on that." I think that overall goal, I have a pretty concrete explicable case for, "This seems pretty important" and also, I use it a bunch at my job and it seems useful in various ways.
Then one of the ways in which I plan to work on that is write down some of my views. I've been writing them down quite a bit in the form of blog posts so far for the EA forum and I think I have much less of an explicit sense of why that's an appealing way of doing them.
For example, why the EA forum as opposed to writing more for the 80K blog or whatever? Is it really worth writing them up in a way that's publicly shareable rather than writing them in Google Docs myself?
Anyway, that feels like a subpart of the goal that's much more intuitively driven and now I just feel like I'm going along with it and being like, "Well, it seems like I feel a pull to that" and it makes it easier to do this higher-level thing if I'm writing a post for the forum because I like the idea of doing that. I'm just going to do that.
Leave free time to follow inspiration
I feel like usually, what I'm doing is doing a bunch of generically useful stuff like reading papers, executing on some projects I've already chosen, and waiting for inspiration to strike. Inspiration can come in the form of me just thinking and coming up with some idea, or it can come up by me reading a paper and being like, "Oh, man, that's cool, but they should have just done it this way. It would have been way better. What do you know, I'm going to do that." It could be reading someone saying confused things about some topic and being like, "Wow, that is confusing. Let me not be confused about that anymore" or talking to someone-- Lots of ways that inspiration can strike. I think a lot of my strategy is, make sure you always have free time to do things when inspiration strikes.
How do you prioritize/plan your work?
Does this unblock a bottleneck?
I think the heuristic that I use for a day-to-day prioritization thing is “Is this going to unblock a bottleneck?” Like am I the main bottleneck here? If so, am I the next thing on the rung that is stopping this thing from moving ahead? Then I mostly use that as a filter for prioritization.
I try to do a yearly review. This year, I did the 80K career process plan rather than the usual overall personal development one. The general gist is have a whole bunch of prompt questions, some of which are asking questions like what do you really enjoy now that maybe you want to do more of? What do you not like that you want to reduce?
Also working from the other end of like, "What would you like to have done if you were looking back in 10 years' time?" That kind of thing. Then also looking at different areas of life like, "How is this area of life going? What might I want to change?" I guess another thing I find useful about the yearly review is I feel like there's a surprising number of things where you just put up with friction in the system without fixing it. By thinking through lots of different areas and being like, "Is there a way I can improve this area?" You can come up with stuff.
For example, for me, this year I often have Zoom calls because COVID, would like to have them in the sitting room where Leo can easily play, but my internet was pretty bad. On any one day, I basically can still have a video call. It's not optimal, but it's fine and so I was just putting up with it. Then over my annual review period, I was like, "Wait, are there concerted things that I can do about this?" Turned out yes.
Have one main focus
I think I naturally feel very unsure about how much I should be doing lots of things. Because maybe then you can get the lower-hanging fruit on lots of different things versus being focused on one thing. I think 80K just has a strong institutional norm of “Make sure you focus” and I think that's my preferred way of working anyway. I like having multiple things on, but I like having a sense of what the main thing is.
Then also, I think I tend towards a like "Oh, but maybe I have this obligation” mindset and it's quite useful to have a sense of like, "No, I have one focus, I have a job. I'm not obliged to all the other things also."
I think it's in particular in the space of businesses that are aiming to grow really fast and really successfully. Y Combinator pretty heavily pushes that you should care about focus. You should have one metric that you are aiming towards. You should all have a plan that you are executing on. That kind of thing. I think it's basically that, that 80K is modeling itself on a startup because it's trying to do something very ambitious and would like to be scaling its impact pretty fast. To do that well, it seems like focus is important.
Time tracking weekly plans
Weekly plans. Which is just every Monday morning usually but sometimes afternoon. I like, "Here are all the projects I have. Here are the next steps on them. Here are the ones I intend to do this week. Here's the amount of time I'm budgeting for them. Here's the amount of discretionary or free time that I'm leaving alone."
Then the subsequent week, next Monday I will go and check Toggl, tally up all my predictions, see how much time I actually spent on all of them, and aggregate them into a few categories and then look at how much time I'm spending across categories. I think it's just been very useful both on calibrating on how long things take and just giving me information about what I'm spending my time on, which I don't think I could've told you that properly beforehand.
Enjoying the interview? Subscribe to Lynette’s newsletter to get more posts delivered to you.