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My (boring) methodology for Getting Work Done

I often get asked how I manage my time and my general work process, since I seem to get a lot of stuff done.  Unfortunately there’s no big secret, and I don’t follow any general principles religiously.  But here is a description of my general working habits, for whatever it’s worth.  (At very least, this list will be amusing for me to look back N years from now when society, technology, and Ben Goertzel have evolved dramatically!)

  • I spend a fair percentage of my work-time working on stuff I’m really excited about.  Maybe 1/3 stuff that I 100% want to be doing; 1/3 stuff that I wouldn’t do if I were rich but that’s still pretty interesting and fun; and 1/3 boring stuff.  I wish the proportions were more favorable but that’s the reality at the moment.
  • I work mainly from home, which is a very comfortable environment for me (not fancy at all, just well customized for my own particular taste).  A comfortable chair I’ve had forever, nice speakers playing music most of the time, and my parrot a few feet behind me keeping me company…
  • I concentrate pretty hard while I’m working, nearly all the time.  I’m not very prone to mental distraction.  And I have a work environment with few other distractions, except my dog asking to go outside every now and then.  If I’m doing something I like, I concentrate because I like it.  If I’m doing something annoying I concentrate so I can get it over with quickly.
  • I work a lot of hours.  I don’t know how to calculate how many, because I don’t know where the dividing line is between work and non-work.  When I drop my daughter off at school, then on the drive home I’m thinking about AGI or biology or some such — is that work?  Is reading a cognitive science book while lying on the couch work?
  • I don’t waste time.  I try to spend pretty much every minute either doing something useful, or fully enjoying  myself, or ideally both.  I don’t watch TV (except occasional cartoons with my daughter), because that is not fully enjoyable to me, just sorta mildly amusing.
  • I try to be mindful of my own emotional and body state while I’m working, and not let myself get stressed out or have bad emotions (of course I fail at this fairly frequently, but at least I  make an honest effort and usually succeed!)
  • If my  mind or body feels like it, and there’s no extremely urgent reason not to, I get up from the desk and improvise at the piano for a while, or go for a walk.  I probably improvise at the piano (or, usually, electronic keyboard) about 45 minutes per day, and walk outdoors about 30 minutes per day … and on the 50% of my days when  my daughter is at my house (instead of my ex’s), we go to the park and play for an hour or so.
  • Like a lot of other folks, I got some useful lessons from the book “Getting Things Done”, though I don’t follow the recommended system in all its aspects
  • I keep a Task List (text file) on my desktop, with three categories: URGENT, NORMAL and LONG-TERM.  As stuff to do arrives, I note it in that list.  When traveling I keep a similar list on my iPhone notepad (no fancy phone/computer synchronization at this time).
  • If something has to be done by a specific deadline, I note the deadline on Google Calendar; and also make a note in Google Calendar N days before the deadline (where N is the amount of days in advance I think I need to start working on the thing).
  • When I get an email, I either answer it or archive it.  If I want to answer it later, before I archive it I note in my task list that I want to answer an email to person X later.  I don’t want to have an inbox full of emails with ambiguous status (do I really need to answer this or not? and is it urgent or not?)
  • I don’t like chat much, except for with my kids and my girlfriend.  I tend to keep chat windows minimized and not answer chats.  It’s hard to get stuff done when constantly being interrupted by chats.  I like emails far better for work-related communications.
  • When I start a new task, I ask myself “Is it reasonably efficient to multitask while doing this task?”  If the answer is no, I minimize my email and chat windows and ignore them while I do the task.  If the answer is yes, I multitask, and check email and chat etc. in the midst of doing the task.  (I think some folks waste a lot of time due to multitasking in the midst of work that isn’t effectively multitasked.  On the other hand, sometimes multitasking just works great.  The key is to be highly aware of when it works and when it doesn’t, and adapt accordingly.)
  • I play instrumental music in the background while I work; jazz or jazz fusion or classical.  Music with lyrics disrupts my thinking.
  • I badly neglect the maintenance and upkeep of my house, because doing that stuff is much less interesting to me than the work I do!
  • I try to set aside about an hour each day for unstructured out-there thinking about whatever I feel like thinking about — and try NOT to think about whatever my  most urgent current projects are.  Sometimes this is solo or sometimes it’s in a long walk or rambling chat with someone else around the house.
  • I’m usually in the middle of one or two (literary or SF) novels, and 4-5 nonfiction books from various disciplines (maybe half related directly to  my work, half not).  I read maybe 45 minutes a day — usually half in the morning before starting work, and half at some random point during the day.  It’s critical to keep the mind active and thinking about all sorts of things; I recognize the need for focus but I’d hate to become narrow-minded.

5 comments

  1. Thobias says:

    Hello,
    I’m a huge fan of you and your work. I try to read your tweets and blog posts – it’s always inspiring. I also read your books and I’m waiting for next ones. In this post you say that you read a lot of books. Could you sometimes tweet or write here which books are you reading? I read most of the books that are mentioned in the bibliography in “The Hidden Pattern” and I found them very interesting and stimulating and I’m looking for more books that you recommend!

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