How I Manage ‘Thinking’ Time

Earlier this year, I asked what you’d like to know about how I get things done. I received many interesting requests, more than fit in a single post. So, I’m covering aspects of my setup in separate entries. This is the first of the series.

Rather than start with a tool or method, I’ll address a question asked by Andrea Tanzi:

Why start here? Tools come and go, but time is a constant. It underlies everything else. ‘Thinking time,’ as Andrea put it, is an especially limited resource. There are so many demands on our attention!

By ‘thinking time’ I mean focused time — i.e., moments when I can advance my work, learn, and write without distraction. The aspiration: to move things along by entering a state of flow. (A good book on this is Cal Newport’s Deep Work.)

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My Personal Information Ecosystem

I love learning about how other people get things done. (It’s one of the motivations for my podcast.) In that spirit, I’ve decided to share how I work. It may come across as self-indulgent, but perhaps it can also give you ideas.

In February, I mentioned on Twitter that I was working on a post about my ‘production function.’ (Tyler Cowen’s wonderful phrase.) I asked what you’d like to know about my setup, and several folks replied with angles I hadn’t considered.

As I outlined what I wanted to cover, I realized there’s too much for a single entry. So, I’m breaking it down into several shorter posts, which I’m also planning to post as tweetstorms.

This is the first of these posts, which will serve as an index. As I write more, I’ll add them here, calling out emerging patterns. (And integrating your feedback, so please let me know what you’d like to learn about.)

Here’s what I plan to cover:

  • Tools and techniques for personal information management
  • Software and hardware for better thinking
  • Frameworks and approaches for better time management
  • Whatever you’d like me to explore (let me know!)

My personal information ecosystem is constantly evolving, so I expect this to be a ‘living’ post. I’ll edit it to reflect how things change. For now, stay tuned.

Cover image: Detail from one of Benjamin Franklin’s virtue charts. Credit: Franklin’s Way.

Possibilities for Greatness

I’m starting a new project. It’s exciting and a little scary. I’ve written before about the rush of energy I get from starting something new:

The beginning of every new undertaking has a particular type of energy. An open-ended sense of possibility. This energy allows us to step into an uncertain future. There’s a challenge ahead and we don’t know exactly how things will turn out — but we have wits, some knowledge, some structure, and tools.

The energy-of-beginning is important to getting things rolling, but we can’t linger in it. We need to get to work; to become productive. For me this means establishing near-term goals, work practices to achieve them, and habits that allow the work to become part of my daily routine. The quicker this happens, the easier it is to replace the energy-of-beginning with the energy-of-generating.

These paragraphs capture a key aspect of the beginning phase of projects, namely, the exciting release of energy. But they miss something just as important: how scary the beginning can be.

Where does the fear come from? I can name several aspects of the anxiety I feel right now. However, as I think about it, the fear comes down to a single word: insecurity.

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Conformism ↔ Independent-mindedness

From an insightful essay by Paul Graham:

There are some kinds of work that you can’t do well without thinking differently from your peers. To be a successful scientist, for example, it’s not enough just to be correct. Your ideas have to be both correct and novel. You can’t publish papers saying things other people already know. You need to say things no one else has realized yet.

[…]

There’s room for a little novelty in most kinds of work, but in practice there’s a fairly sharp distinction between the kinds of work where it’s essential to be independent-minded, and the kinds where it’s not.

The essay delineates the distinctions between conformism and independent-mindedness and spells out some things you can do to develop independent thinking. (Mr. Graham is a fine thinker and writer; his essays are well worth your attention.)

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Beginner’s Mind

As you progress in your career, you’ll get better at what you do. At first, you’ll bumble around. After a while, you’ll become (merely) competent. Eventually, you’ll be an expert in a few things. Finally — if you persist — you’ll develop mastery. You’ll face different challenges at each stage. (Of course, there’s no guarantee for any of this. Among other things, you’ll need ability, focus, persistence, and luck.)

Early on, a lack of real-world experience is a problem. This inexperience may be aggravated by a head full of ideas you’ve picked up from books or professors (such as myself.) Inexperience + certitude = bad decisions. When you’ve achieved some level of competence, distractions become a challenge. You may grow disenchanted with your original path or enticed to switch tracks for extraneous reasons. You start to long for a change. Perhaps a management track seems the most viable way to advance. And you may be right — but then you’ll have to develop different skills.

Let’s say you stay on track and become an expert. Then you’ll face a different challenge: experience + certitude. In some ways, this is more dangerous than not knowing what you’re doing. Now other people listen to you, and it’s harder to admit you’re wrong. You have a reputation, which you feel compelled to defend. You stop paying attention to particulars. You find it harder to empathize with less knowledgeable people. What’s worse, new projects start to look like “another one of those” — so you’re tempted by shortcuts. Work becomes repetitive; practice becomes mindless or a chore. Quality suffers.

What to do?

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Reevaluating How We Use Social Networks

Home-bound for three weeks, I’ve come to rely on the internet for social interactions with anyone except my family. Now more than ever, I’m thinking about the role information environments play in my life. Some are helping make things better, and others, not so much.

Among the helpful ones, I count the information environments that are essential to my work: Zoom for synchronous communications and Slack for asynchronous ones. I’m a longtime user of Zoom, but the lockdown has nudged me to learn somewhat obscure features that make it more valuable to me. I have some concerns about Zoom’s privacy and security policies, but overall I’m satisfied with the system. Slack is something of a mess (I often have trouble finding older stuff or orienting myself within threads,) but the company is working to make it better. And in many ways, it’s an improvement over the most obvious alternative, email.

Both Slack and Zoom are environments that enable private social networks. They make it possible for people to collaborate remotely in (relatively) small groups. These days, most of my interpersonal interactions happen in either of the two. But not all; I’m also spending more time on three big, public social networks: Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. I’ve been using these places for a long time, but the lockdown is leading me to reevaluate how I use them.

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Relief in Philosophy

We are living in a period of VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. There is tremendous suffering in the world as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. People are ill, some terminally. Many of us have been working from home for over two weeks now, with all the stress that implies. Some haven’t been working at all, which is even more stressful. Nobody knows when the situation will change for the better.

I’m fortunate to be healthy and busy at the moment, but that doesn’t relieve my anxiety about the future. Spurred by my conversation with Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz, I decided to revisit Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. As I’ve noted before, I give priority to sources that have stood the test of time. Few are as timely in our current crisis as Meditations, which was written almost two thousand years ago. Towards the end of the second book, Marcus Aurelius makes the following observation:

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Real Mastery

Yesterday, as I was winding down from a busy week, I learned of the death of someone who influenced me greatly: Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart. As with so many other nerds of my vintage, Rush’s songs — and especially their lyrics, most of which were written by Mr. Peart — are key to the soundscape of my formative years. I never met Mr. Peart, although I did have the privilege of seeing him play live. Nevertheless, I consider him a model of integrity and mastery, someone to emulate.

It’s clichéd to highlight the geeky teen appeal of Rush’s (early) sci-fi themes. Instead, what drew me to their songs was their advocacy of self-agency. For someone brought up as Catholic, this stance — exemplified by the song Freewill — was shocking and refreshing:

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The Golden Age of Learning Anything

Last weekend I did something I’d never done before: I reupholstered a chair. Here’s a photo of the final result:

Unfortunately, I don’t have a “before” photo to share. But take my word for it: my efforts improved this chair’s condition significantly. Before this weekend, it was unpresentable. Little fingers love to tug on tiny tears in vinyl until they become large, unsightly tears. Alas, it’s cheaper to buy new reproductions such as this one than to have them professionally reupholstered. But my conscience doesn’t let me throw away an otherwise good piece of furniture because of a fixable imperfection.

I’m sharing my weekend project here not to seek your approbation. Instead, I want to highlight that we live in a time when we can learn almost any skill on the internet. I learned to reupholster in a couple of hours through a combination of websites and YouTube videos. I researched and ordered the required materials on Amazon. It took some effort on my part, but it was worth it. I’m surprised at how well the chair worked out, given it was my first time.

As we head into a new year, I keep seeing pundits on Twitter claiming “big tech” is ruining everything. Of course, the real world isn’t as simple as these folks render it. Sure, there are negative aspects to our current large tech platforms — but there are positive ones too. The ability to pick up new knowledge and skills anytime at our own pace very cheaply is among the positives.