I have a wide range of interests. Professionally, I am a mathematician and a computer scientist. This already gives a lifetime of topics of interest; there is far more math than time to understand it all. On top of that I’ve been an avid blogger for almost four years, blogging about my research and other technical topics of comparably cursory interest. I post articles roughly once a week that average about 2,000 words.
But even beyond work I have tons of interests. Artistically, I enjoy art museums, playing various musical instruments, poetry slams, writing stories and reading stories to an audience of friends. I’ve also started learning to draw and paint in the last year. Physically, I like rock climbing and ultimate frisbee. For solo entertainment I love certain TV shows and I play a few strategy video games. For group entertainment my favorite thing to do is play indie board and card games. I’m also in the middle of planning my wedding.
My colleagues have expressed wonder at how I can be so productive. It seems really productive, for sure, when I’m also publishing papers and giving talks and traveling to conferences. But even so, I don’t feel super productive. My productivity mostly seems to follow from some accountability tricks I use and some of my more introverted personality traits.
The first trick is that I publicly document what I do in some way. I get the results of my labor out there, and keep a sort of track record for myself. Here are the examples. In addition to publishing research I blog regularly about it, and on the same blog I write about any technical topic that I get interested in. Even when I don’t blog about a new topic, I commit myself to giving talks in a seminar I run that fulfill a similar purpose. For writing, I have read every complete story I have ever written at a story-reading (not that many), and I have even performed at a poetry slam. My two pieces were about math and programming, and by sheer luck one guy in the front row totally understood both of them. For drawing/painting, I take pictures of everything I make and post them on Facebook and put the good ones up in my home.
These “track records” aren’t continuous. I don’t pretend to draw every day, or even to do research every day, and I certainly don’t keep track of productivity streaks. But they’re deeply embedded in my life. So if I go for a month without drawing anything, I get reminded by the drawings on my walls and that motivates me to sit down and do something new. It also helps that these are small scale activities. Saying, “I’m going to learn the content of this business class in the next two months” sounds naive and overreaching to me. My goals are “find two hours this week to sit down and draw a picture of that teapot,” and, “finish a blog post about anything by Monday.” Once I get into the swing of things I find myself not wanting to stop and usually get more done than I intended. But I don’t force myself. I don’t need to block off weeks of my life to practice and make progress. I just need to be deliberate about focusing on my weak points, whether it’s learning to mix color or understanding some facet of computational complexity theory.
The second trick is to focus my leisure activities on something useful. When I blog for fun, I blog to learn about new concepts in mathematics that I think may be useful in my future research or to document neat techniques to remind myself about later. Similarly, I may recognize in my research that my probability skills are weak, so to buff them up I write blog posts about the methods I need to work on and theorems I need to internalize. Also for blog posts, as well as when I write opinion pieces like this one, I practice my writing skills and build up a reputation. However small my reputation may be, it grows a little bit larger every time I publish something. Creative writing and story telling have indirect but obvious applications to writing research papers; every good research paper tells a story. I even want to start a podcast where I interview famous theoretical computer science researchers, with the hidden goal of learning more deeply about their work and opening a dialogue. Again, this has a component of public display to it.
My other pursuits like drawing, rock climbing, or gaming have no clear relevance. But I still lean toward activities that involve puzzles, strategy, exploration, and creativity. I think they’re more fun, particularly because they exercise different kinds of creative skills. You will never find me running on a treadmill or watching trashy television. That stuff is inherently boring to me and I can replace the end goal (exercise or relaxation) with more productive alternatives. I want to feel like I’m accomplishing or developing a new understanding of something. That being said, if I only do leisure activities for too long I feel like a lazy turd.
A third trick I use is to procrastinate by doing important things. That is, if I have a crucial hard deadline coming up and I’m just not in the mood to work toward it, I justify my procrastination by doing things that are just a little bit less important and more conducive to my mood. The best time to learn a new skill is when you’re not supposed to. To delay editing a paper draft I’ll learn some new math thing or prepare a talk. When I misplace myself in the audience of a boring/irrelevant talk I will blog or do some little research computations in my notebook. My philosophy is that you can’t spend all your time doing important work, but you can always find something productive to do that you enjoy chipping away at. As a result, I have many partially completed projects, but I find plenty of time to work on them until they get finished. Pairing this with documenting what I do means few of these projects slip into oblivion.
One skill that I have been consciously cultivating for the last six or so years are my interpersonal skills. Many people might not feel like this is a skill to cultivate, but I really need it. I was always a bit of a clown, but I flailed at actually developing strong relationships with people. I never liked big parties, I turn off at noisy events like concerts and sports games, and I still struggle with small talk (it’s exhausting!). I just get bored. And it becomes a big problem when interacting with extended family who genuinely enjoy watching a football game and chit-chatting about nothing. Maybe it’s part of my personality that I enjoy productive activities. But rather than recede into my own head, I force myself to practice engaging in these social situations. I don’t become (or pretend to be) a sports fan, but I try to latch on to the bits of conversation I can contribute to and find new ways to contribute. You see, for me improving my social skills is a productive endeavor, so I weight it with comparable importance to math blogging and programming. I don’t think about it so explicitly, but it’s there. It often manifests itself with board game nights, hosting guests, and building up a repertoire of conversation “games” I use when I run out of small talk steam. I even took Alex Blumberg’s online class at CreativeLive about storytelling for podcasts, and I found the interview techniques fascinating and applicable to regular conversations.
A fourth trick that is a variation on that theme: orient social and family time around productive things. Want to learn to make art? Take your spouse to an art studio for lessons. My fiancee and I share some of our best experiences at painting classes or the rock climbing gym. Scrabble is the de facto activity I use to spend evening time with my mother and gives us easy small talk. During every Summer internship I ever had, I started a weekly intern frisbee game to double as exercise and getting to know people. I have to make a point of regularly scheduling events with friends, because otherwise I will happily stay inside with my other pursuits. So I invite people over, provide snacks and paint or a board game, and have learned how to keep a conversation going.
One big caveat of all this is that I don’t have children. I imagine that if and when I have my first child that will change my productivity in a huge way. But that being said, I hope to apply some of my tricks to raising a child. For example, I often see couples bring their children to their climbing gym.
So these are some of the tricks I use. I should also emphasize that I wasn’t always this way. As a teen I played far more video games than I should have, I had the same apathy for learning new things as most of my classmates. It took me until late high school to discover that when I put the results of my routine work and play out there for others to see, that motivates me to put genuine effort into it and it suddenly becomes much more rewarding. And if the reception is negative, I develop the last skill of being receptive to criticism and not sweating the small stuff.