Category :

Unscheduling

One extremely unusual productivity tip recommended by Marc Andreessen (The Pmarca Guide to Personal Productivity) and Arnold Schwarzenegger is unscheduling-that is, not keeping a schedule in any way, shape, or form and just doing whatever seems most important or most interesting at any given moment. This seemed like a lot of fun, so I’ve been trying it for the last two weeks with great results. Other than a few social events, I have basically left my days unplanned, or planned things at the last minute possible-for example, I went to New York in order to go apartment hunting last Wednesday and planned my entire trip the day before. I’d planned to stay for 4 days, but found an apartment and rather than stick around, I just booked a ticket back the same day.

The results have been great.

Advantages:

  • Flexibility. Unscheduling lets you easily change plans when circumstances change or something interesting comes up. Since I didn’t have a lot of plans in New York, I was able to cancel and go back to Cambridge on a whim. This Monday I decided it would be fun to visit my friends in the Bay Area, and booked a flight for Thursday.
  • Room for Experimentation. From previous experiments I know that the sleep I get while traveling is less than half as efficient as normal (Sleeping Better). So when I went to Manhattan last Wednesday, I simply didn’t sleep that night and made up for it over the next few days. This would have been hard to do if I’d had commitments in any of those evenings or mornings, but since I didn’t I was able to essentially sleep 12 hours a day until I’d caught up.
  • New Projects. Unscheduling makes it really easy to take on new interesting projects as they come up. For example, I’ve been working with several people on developing career advice for effective altruists. Since my schedule has been open I’ve been able to dive right in, talk to a bunch of people, do a lot of research, spend a lot of time thinking about the problem, and we’ve already produced a few useful conversations out of it: A conversation with Satvik Beri . The best part is, this has only been going on for about a week and we’re already seeing results!
  • Large chunks of time. If I want to spend several hours reading a book, doing Math, or just thinking about important topics, I’ve been able to. Unscheduling means being able to spend several hours on something on a whim, which is much harder to do in day-to-day life. Being able to spend a long time on whatever comes up is highly useful, two hours spent on a project is at least three times as useful as one hour. You’re able to keep all the details in your head rather than trying to recollect them later. And there are definite energizing momentum effects: when you have an idea and are able to bang out an early version in a few hours, it’s a lot more inspiring and fun than having to wait two weeks to even start, then spend half an hour a day, etc.
  • Thinking. Though I mentioned it above it’s worth repeating-having unscheduled time means you can spend a lot of time on things that aren’t immediately useful, like reading a lot and thinking about long-term plans. A few effects from the time I spent thinking are already showing: I’ve come up with some very creative solutions to getting problems solved (and shifted my focus from “solving problems” or “doing things” to “causing things to happen”), and I’ve developed a method for learning from experts much faster than I did before (which might make its own post later.)
  • Drastically Improved Focus. Since I’ve basically been doing whatever I most felt like doing at any given time, focusing has been much easier-and I already had very good focus. But when you don’t have to worry about appointments or meetings coming up, it’s easy to put all your energy into whatever seems most interesting at the moment, then switch when you feel like working on something else.
  • Higher energy. When I have a free schedule, I tend to sleep in multiple shifts: about 6 hours at night, and about 90 minutes during the afternoon. This works really well in terms of maintaining energy and focus. I’m able to give it my all during the mornings because I know I can take breaks whenever I want, whereas in a 9-5 schedule I don’t have that luxury. Similarly I’m much more productive in the afternoon because I can just rest when I’m tired, rather than having to plow through my slow periods.

Disadvantages:

  • Higher prices. Buying plane tickets at the last minute is expensive.
  • Coordination costs. If you’re not maintaining a schedule, then coordinating with others becomes very difficult-for example, it would have been very hard for me to run my game nights without planning them in advance. Other than large events, this hasn’t been a major problem for me, but it would be an issue if most of my work was cooperative-i.e., it would be very hard to maintain daily check-ins without a schedule.
  • Discipline? It’s very hard to establish daily habits without any routine in your life. This hasn’t bitten me yet, but it would make it hard to e.g. start going to a martial arts class. It’s also hard to work on things that don’t seem critical at the moment…but if a task isn’t important or interesting, then maybe you shouldn’t be working on it in the first place.

Things that seem like they should be disadvantages, but haven’t been: 

  • Long-term, strategic planning. It seems like an unscheduled life would keep you from thinking months or years ahead, but this hasn’t actually been my experience. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about long term plans and having strategic conversations with my friends and other highly competent people. And once you have a sense of what needs to happen, doing the right things at some point is much more important than planning the exact order in which they happen.
  • Doing enough work. Before starting the trial, I was worried that I might just end up spending all day reading comics and surfing Quora. That didn’t happen, on the contrary I’ve done significantly more useful work than when I’ve had a job or external schedule.
  • Finding things to do. With no job and no plans it seemed very possible that I would just end up bored. Fortunately that didn’t happen; I’ve spent plenty of quality time with my friends, worked on interesting projects, done a lot of studying, and planned out some very useful things such as a completely new approach to learning from experts or solving new problems at work.

Next steps:
The improvement in productivity has been staggering. Normally after a big life change I am emotionally exhausted and have a hard time accomplishing any work, but this time I’ve actually been substantially more productive than my baseline.

Normal full-time jobs tend to force pretty rigid schedules, but I’ll be working at a startup so it might be possible for me to incorporate some elements of unscheduling into my work life.

The most important components seem to be large chunks of unscheduled time, and taking naps. Time when I can spend a few hours on whatever seems most important, work with others as problems come up, etc. is much more effective than time when I know I’ll have a meeting in an hour. Luckily this seems to be almost automatic at small companies, e.g. it’s practically never necessarily to plan meetings ahead of time.

What about taking naps? I don’t know. I’ve always been most productive at companies where I was able to take naps, but it generally has a career capital cost-taking naps makes you look lazy or unmotivated if people don’t already believe you’re a hard worker. So perhaps I should wait until I’ve established credibility to start doing this one. Another alternative would be to try to time my schedule so that I take naps at ~6 PM, which I’ve done before, although it wasn’t quite as effective.

Categories: Career, Creative Chaos, Focus, Intelligence, Learning, Uncategorized

Thinking Unthinkable Thoughts

Right now, today, we can’t see the thing, at all, that’s going to be the most important 100 years from now.” – Carver Mead

A few days ago I found out most people see images in their dreams. I never have.

This isn’t particularly surprising, because mental imagery has never been part of my life experience. I don’t visualize. I failed Geometry. I can barely read maps. In fact, my visual abilities were tested below the 1st percentile-low enough to be considered mentally handicapped, if it weren’t for my other mental abilities.

In short, there is a huge range of thoughts I simply cannot think.

Yet oddly enough, very few people have described me as mentally handicapped, though perhaps they’re just being polite.
I’ve survived life just fine. Thanks to GPS, I don’t constantly get lost. Thanks to mathematics, I don’t need to visualize a bouncing ball to calculate how fast it falls. And by associating people with their voice, my inability to recognize faces becomes almost irrelevant.

Through abstractions and technology, I manage to survive-even thrive.

Yet…what are the odds that visualizations are the only thoughts I cannot think?

What are the thoughts that humans, today, simply cannot think?

…obviously I can’t answer this question. But I can tackle a related one: how do we learn to think thoughts that are unthinkable today? Or alternatively, to compensate for being unable to think those thoughts?

Abstractions provide one method. Without modern notation, describing something as simple as the equation x^2 + 10x = 39  took 5 sentences-more than 75 words![0] Quadratic equations went from being a major challenge for the best Mathematicians to a concept taught in Middle School math courses. Can you imagine how difficult it would have been to develop the quadratic formula in these conditions? And how much harder it was to evaluate cubic and quartic problems?

Finding patterns in the data we want to understand, and developing abstractions and jargon in order to chunk these concepts into smaller bits is invaluable. Even if jargon increases the cost of communication, it may well be worth it to come up with terms or notation for every common concept, in order to expand the reach of available thought.

Good abstractions need to do more than just condense a certain class of data-they need to reveal its structure in useful ways. It’s damn near impossible to do long division using Roman Numerals!

Using others’ abstractions-“standing on the shoulders of giants”-is incredibly valuable, though relying on the abstractions without the underlying detail can leave you trapped and unable to adapt. By all means steal ideas-but be prepared to throw them away when something better comes along.

Piecemeal perception provided by tools is another. I can’t understand directions by reading a map, but I can get from point A to point B using a turn-by-turn GPS. And once I’ve traveled the route a few times, the directions make sense and I no longer need to rely on the GPS.

Similarly, I can’t rotate a Rubik’s cube in my head, but I can certainly rotate it and see what happens in real life.

Increasing the speed of feedback is another way to use perception to think better thoughts. Spend 10 minutes practicing giving speeches in front of a mirror, and watch how your body language improves dramatically.

Decreasing reliance on short-term memory is another general principle that lets us think more thoughts. One impact of writing is that it lets us wrangle through complex issues that far exceed what we can hold in our heads at any given time.

So this suggests a list of actions for anyone looking to improve their ability to think new thoughts:

  • Go through the details of important material in your field-don’t let yourself read summaries of summaries. Find the raw truth, and come up with several different patterns and ways of describing it.
  • Make your thoughts concrete. This can mean writing them down, or creating a program or even an excel spreadsheet-the point is that getting material out of your head makes it substantially easier to manipulate.
  • Find the pieces of feedback that would be incredibly helpful, but come slowly or rarely. Figure out how to increase the rate and quality of the feedback you get, whether through tools or processes.
  • Develop simulations and constantly improve the quality of the medium you work with. In the programming example above, don’t just write programs-work on improving your ability to write programs that clearly express your thoughts, such as by learning new programming paradigms (functional, object-oriented, imperative, and constraint-oriented programming are good examples) or new IDE styles (such as light-table.)

[0]: Notes on “Media for Thinking the Unthinkable”

Categories: Focus, Intelligence, Learning, Productivity