Principles of Time

Time is the only commodity that matters (Randy Pausch). So how do we best use it?

Working on the right thing.

  1. You must be passionate about what you’re working on. Not sure if you’re passionate about it? Use the F*ck yes or no rule. If you haven’t found what you’re passionate about yet, keep looking (Steve Jobs).
  2. There are several benefits here:
    • If you enjoy it, it’s no longer work. It’s play. Don’t you want to play?
    • When you’re not passionate, you’ll take the easy way out. But when you love what you’re doing, the ideas pour out of your head, you’ll actively seek ways to improve, and you just can’t stop thinking about it. Passion can be difference between mediocre and exceptional work.
  3. If you’re doing it just to get an easy paper, you started at the wrong place. You probably won’t talk about those papers later anyways. If you think that you will regret doing something if you don’t get a paper out of it, that’s a red flag.
  4. Quality of research heavily outweighs quantity. One conference paper is better than five workshop papers. One good conference paper is better than three marginal ones.

Optimize work time.

  1. Your time is the only thing that matters and must be protected at all costs. First, you must measure it in terms of deep work, because that’s when you actually added value.
    • As Cal Newport suggests, you should log your deep work hours on a calendar next to your desk. Block off time on your calendar for deep work.
    • Begin deep work with a ritual such as refilling your water, closing the door, and clearing your computer screen. Use sensory cues such as lighting a candle, listening to your favorite playlist, chewing gum, and putting on your thinking cap. Your phone should not be in the room.
    • Isolate each task and make sure the objective is clear. When I can do this successfully, usually I win.
  2. Your job will inevitably also require shallow work (e.g., email, administrivia, fixing formatting to make your paper fit in the page limit). Don’t use your deep work hours for this; in fact, you can do this on a separate laptop in bed, in the couch, or on your phone while using the toilet.

Avoid these things.

  1. Meetings should be only for weekly check-ins with your advisor or getting to know someone better as a person. One meeting can blow an entire day of work.
  2. Regulate your email usage, and only reply to email when something bad would happen if you don’t.
  3. The biggest attention suckers to avoid (for me):
    • Re-reading old email or slack conversations.
    • Spending too long composing an email.
    • Re-reading previous papers or text that I’ve written.
    • Applying to jobs and positions that I’m not actually interested in.
    • Admiring the LaTeX compilation and nice-looking figures.
    • Looking at people’s LinkedIn or Google Scholar profiles.
  4. Say no more often. Will something really bad happen if you say no?

Optimizing non-work time.

  1. Some activities depend on other people and can’t be planned. For example, you have to adjust your tennis schedule based on the weather, or you have to wait for your brother to get home from work to eat dinner together. You can schedule a period in the day that is less structured, and have several non-work activities to fill up that time such as reading a book, playing piano, or organizing your computer files.

Energy and focus.

  1. You should also consider your energy since that will highly correlate with whether you can enter a state of deep work.
    • If you want to sleep, go sleep. You will make a lot of mistakes if you’re tired, and it’s just not worth it unless you have an immediate deadline (how did you get yourself in that situation in the first place)?
    • Do not waste energy on things like thinking about something that happened at work or a rude email your co-worker sent. Meditate it off.
  2. Make sure you eat well, sleep enough, and exercise. Your goal is to be successful over your career, not this month, and you need sustainable habits. It’s OK to not meet a short-term goal that you’ve set, if it means you’re increasing the probability of hitting your long-term goals. Steven King attributes his success to his healthy body and healthy marriage.
  3. Avoid activities that could get you sick or injure you. Both are bad not only because they take up time but because of their negative effects on attitude and mental health.

Mental models.

  1. Compounding effects
    • Small improvements compound over time.
    • Play the long game.
  2. Poker
    • Making the best decision based on expected value over the long run.
    • You can do everything right but end up losing.
    • Even if you put a lot of money in the pot, sometimes you have to let it go before you lose more.
  3. Thinking about opportunity cost.
    • Before spending time on something, think about what you could have been doing instead.

General life advice from others.

  1. Randy Pausch
    • Be the first penguin. Take big risks.
    • Don’t complain, just work harder.
  2. Cal Newport
    • Fixed schedule productivity: imposing an arbitrary time constraint could force you to adapt within the limits.
  3. The TechLead
    • You are the CEO of your own life. Take ownership. You have nobody to blame but yourself.
    • Make sure what you do in the evening aligns with the goals that you have.
    • Success is a lonely road, whereas failure is a crowded highway.
    • Four core assets: time, health, energy, money.
  4. Mark Manson
    • Bad values: pleasure, material success, being liked by everybody, not being alone.
    • Good values: honesty, innovation, vulnerability, curiosity, creativity.
  5. Paul Graham
    • Meetings kill an entire day of work. (Maker’s vs manager’s schedule.)
    • School teaches us to hack bad tests. Don’t hack the system—focus on doing good research.
  6. Simon Sinek
    • Success in the long run is achieved by continuous improvement, measured against oneself.
  7. Captain Sinbad
    • Break down goals into five big moves. My five big moves: work with the best people, ask creative questions, design rigorous studies, code efficiently, and communicate my work clearly,
    • Cultivate what the ideal you would do.
    • Figure out your life’s key result areas and craft a routine around them.
  8. Andrew Kirby
    • Think about death. Your life could end at anytime. Are you going to waste a day?
    • Imagine a dark you, a shadow which represents your potential. When you’re doing work and want to check your phone, dark you isn’t doing that, he’s getting ahead on work. When you don’t want to go to the gym, dark you goes.
  9. Jean Liu
    • Life is supposed to be hard.
  10. Eddy Chen
    • Focus on your cicle of influence.

PhD/research advice from others.

  1. A Survival Guide to a PhD by Andrej Karpathy.
  2. 10 Tips for Research and a PhD by Sebastian Ruder.
  3. How to Pick Your Grad School by Tim Dettmers.
  4. Questions to Ask a Prospective PhD Advisor by Andrew Kuznetsov.
  5. How to be a Successful PhD Student by Mark Drezde.
  6. Advice page by Luna Dong.