Monday, April 21, 2008

How to Act Productive Tip #8: Skip Meals

Photo by: Sashertootie

Here at Grad Hacker, we feel that simply being productive is not enough. What good is your inner, clandestine, productivity, if your bosses, colleagues, and you yourself don't really know the extent of just how unbelievably productive, busy, stressed, in a rush, and
you really are? For these, reasons, each weekend we will provide you with a tip on how to act productive.

It's 7:00pm on a Thursday and you're finalizing a paper for a class with your partner. 7:35pm, you finish it and email it to your professor. You both get up, start packing your things when your partner takes a long sigh and quietly mentions, "Oh I'm so hungry, I haven't eaten anything all day." You're taken aback. It's 7:35pm. Your mind does the math: "If the last time Jim ate was yesterday's dinner, around 6, that means he hasn't eaten for over 24 hours." Suddenly, you feel like a glutton. You continue to think to yourself: "Man, I had that great oatmeal in the morning with raisins and and brown sugar, that killer burrito for lunch, then that half a pbj I made in the afternoon to snack on, and I'm about to go home and eat dinner." You self-conciously feel your midsection to see if it's larger than you expect. Then gluttonous guilt is replaced by feelings of inadequacy: "Am I lazy because I eat so regularly? Oh shit, I even exercise regularly. No wonder I didn't have the highest grade on that midterm." You finally manage to say, "Wow Jim, you haven't eaten anything all day?" Jim then begins listing all the things he had to do today that prevented him from eating and it hits you: Wow, Jim is a really busy, important, and productive person. He doesn't even have time for meals.

Take a lesson from Jim my friends: If you want to act productive, tell people you've been skipping meals. Sure you can actually skip meals, that's what productive people do, but if you like to eat, just eat in private, quickly so as to not get caught, pop some Altoids to get rid of that oh-so-obvious onion breath, and tell people you haven't eaten "in so long". It works every time.

Fine print: Grad Hacker is for entertainment purposes only. The makers of this website are not responsible for adverse health effects from skipped meals, overeating, or overworking.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

How to Act Productive Tip #7 - Obsessively Follow GTD Methodology

Photos by: kadavy

Here at Grad Hacker, we feel that simply being productive is not enough. What good is your inner, clandestine, productivity, if your bosses, colleagues, and you yourself don't really know the extent of just how unbelievably productive, busy, stressed, in a rush, and
you really are? For these, reasons, each weekend we will provide you with a tip on how to act productive.

There's nothing more conducive to getting things done than Getting Things Done. So, productive people get their GTD on like it's going on sale. I'm not talking about generally accepting the paradigms in the book like capturing open loops, processing your inputs, and reviewing things weekly. I'm talking about distinguishing tasks that are @computer-internetwork from tasks better described by @computer-internetfun. I'm talking about making sure next action, context, project, and other lists are with you always on your hipsterPDA or real PDA (if you use both please email me and we can talk about it). I'm talking about making sure the only tasks you do during the day are next actions, not simply actions. I'm talking about making sure each one of those next actions are linked to a context, project, and any other next actions that may be dependent on them. I'm talking about actually having at least 100 manila folders handy at all times. I'm talking about making sure your label maker is within "swivel distance" of your chair. I'm talking about owning one of these. I'm talking about referring to David Allen by his first name, like he's your friend. Or better yet, as "The David" or simply "DA".

The bottom line: If you want to seem productive, you need to get your GTD on, turbo-charged.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Notecard for the Week: Oh yes, it gets better.

Photo by: MShades

I have become obsessed with my notecard for the day: a single 3x5 sheet that carries with it what i need to do today (a very small and realistic number), often a calendar of events (so I know when the free time is that I can do my tasks for the day), and small afternoon/evening mini-tasks and thoughts that come into my head that I need to capture. On a single 3x5 sheet.

After using it for a few months now, I've concluded there are two reasons it's so wonderful:

1. Focus - Don't we all simply want to know exactly what it is we need to do today? I have it written on a single 3x5 sheet.
2. Importance - The tasks written on that notecard are the most critical steps right now to accomplishing short term and long term goals. I know this is true because that is the criteria for a task making it onto the notecard.

In this vain, I realized that I wanted the same clarity of focus and importance for my weekly picture. Why? Because the day is a bit zoomed in when trying to accomplish goals on the month to year scale (e.g. Finish this project and write a paper by summer). Also my advisor thinks in week terms: 'Have this done by next week'. So, as I accomplish my task for a given day, I want that same clarity of focus and importance on my weekly tasks so that tomorrow morning it's damn easy to pick my new task(s). Lastly, it fits perfectly with a weekly review and literally coaxes me to do one every week since I need to switch notecards anyways.

What about Todoist? It pains me to say this but I'm slowly starting to not need it as much. It's still works great for capturing thoughts quickly when I'm on the computer or converting emails to tasks, but with my list of tasks for the week (notecard for the week) and list of tasks for the day (notecard for the day) I almost have no need for a large database of every brain fart I ever had about thinks I maybe should do.

Clarity of focus and importance: Know what the most important steps to successfully finishing your projects are, and focus on them. Don't get distracted by anything else.

I'm finding this philosophy to be invaluable.

Monday, April 7, 2008

How to Act Productive Tip #6: Make Sure "Right Now is a Really Bad Time"

Here at Grad Hacker, we feel that simply being productive is not enough. What good is your inner, clandestine, productivity, if your bosses, colleagues, and you yourself don't really know the extent of just how unbelievably productive, busy, stressed, in a rush, and
you really are? For these, reasons, each weekend we will provide you with a tip on how to act productive.

Right now is a really bad time for productive people. They're really busy and your petty requests are just not what they need right now. Remember this if you want to act productive: right now can never be the best time. Oh and sorry for the tardiness. I know this was supposed to get to you on the weekend, but right now is just a really bad time. I haven't slept in days and had to work all weekend, not to mention through my whole spring break. Hope yours was good though.

If you're so un-busy to where you can just take requests and phone calls from, share jokes with, or in general have a good time with any random colleague, family member, or significant other at any time of the day, you've got some serious soul-searching to do. In the meantime you should learn how to make sure your boringness is not revealed to the world. There is only one rule for this: Make sure right now is the worst possible time for anything. I'm not just talking about tasks; sure most people don't have the time to complete a requested task immediately. But I'm talking about something much deeper.

Right now needs to be a bad time in your life in general. Right now needs to be a temporary period of the most stress you've ever experienced, while you're in search of that one goal that is always just around the corner. You can't have time for a movie, dates, the family reunion, your best friend's wedding. Seriously, if it were any other time, it would be no problem, but right now is just a really bad time. The catch, though, is that "temporary" is in the eye of the beholder. You don't want to just be productive every once in while, you want to be productive all the time, so temporary needs to also be all the time.

Here are some sample exchanges with different phrasings to help you keep your lines fresh. Good luck!

Bob: "Hey you, how's it going?"
You: "Oh man, it's just really crazy right now."

Vanessa: "Hey big guy, me and my friends from the dance team are having a pool party on Saturday night, wanna come? It's gonna be wild."
You: "Oh Vanessa, I would love to...but...I'm just totally swamped right now. Seriously, if it were any other time I'd be up for it."

Or equivalently,

Ryan: "Hey, me and the guys from the soccer team are having a car wash on Saturday. You should come out, we'll have a barbecue going, and I think we'll be going out afterwards. We'll definitely give you a free wash!"
You: "Oh Ryan, that really sounds awesome, but I'm just putting everything on hold for a little bit until [insert some big deadline a few months away] is done."
Ryan: "I understand. Your passion and drive for your work is really admirable and makes you really attractive. So don't worry about it."

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Reading Natural Science Papers: A Method I Swear By

Photo by: a trying youth

Those of who enter grad school in the natural sciences inevitably encounter frustrations with "reading papers." They either seem totally incomprehensible or take forever to get through. When the stars are particularly misaligned, both happen. I've struggled with this for a long time and through talking with my adviser and others' have learned that there is a general system for getting through papers without wasting an entire day, which I outline here in 3 simple points. This strategy has gone through some rigorous training so I'm not going to make excuses for it and say "I hope it works for you." I think it's a good, solid method and should work for just about anyone doing research in the natural sciences. At the same time, I realize the process is one of learning and revising, so I'd love to hear your tips on this subject.

A Caveat for the Young

But first a caveat for those that are just starting to read papers, often those that just started grad school or started research with a group in the late undergrad years. Starting to read science papers sucks at the beginning and there's really no way around it but to keep at it. At the beginning you understand barely anything. There's too much jargon, there may be all kinds of equations you don't understand, you're not clear on what is obvious and what is new in the field, you're not clear on what is important and what is a detail, etc. This is normal. Follow these tips anyways, try your best, pay special attention to the "guess the figures" tip, and keep at it. It will start to make sense sooner than you'd expect.

2 Categories of Papers.

1. Know exactly why you're reading the paper. In my experience, papers in your subject fall into 2 categories: 1) Papers from which you want to extract certain information. 2) Papers that are extremely relevant that you need to read in detail. You read every word of the second type of paper and not every word of the first type. Not heeding the later part of that warning is where most of my time has been wasted. Most papers in your field fall into the first category. And by most, I mean almost all. That makes sense, because if there were a massive number of papers that were so close to what you are doing that you need to read every word of them, you would be getting scooped right and left (scooped = someone else publishing what you're working on before you do). A good strategy for deciding which category a given paper is in is to assume that it's in category 1 and move on. If, as you read, you realize it's very relevant, you will naturally start reading more and more of it and it will fall into category 2. There are only very few papers that fall into category 2. When they do, you know, because you are usually scared shitless that you just got scooped or very excited that you just found out some new, very relevant, information that could really help your project. Category 2 papers are most often ones that you read multiple times.

2. Do the following in order: read the abstract, stop and make a guess as to what the figures will be, look at the figures and captions, read the conclusion, read the introduction if necessary. Minus a few instances where I get bogged down on figures that are interesting for one reason or another, this usually takes no longer than 5 minutes. This is where you get the gist of the paper. The abstract of course should have been read before even downloading the whole paper. The guessing figures step is an extremely handy trick that keeps you engaged. You think "If I wrote a paper with this abstract, I would probably need the following figures to support my claims." Once you do this, each figure becomes a "Yup, of course" or "Hmm, I didn't think of that. Let me think why this is important," and you're 10 times more engaged than if you had kept reading mindlessly. The conclusion is often even more concise than the abstract in stating what about their paper is new and important, and finally, the introduction, should be read if you feel you want more of a sense of context for this work. If you know how the work fits into the larger picture, the introduction is not necessary.

If you feel you've found what you wanted from the paper or what you want is definitely not there, stop here.

3. Move on to discussions of the figures within the text. Know what the most relevant figures to you are, search for where they begin discussing those figures (pdf searching "Fig. 3" or something equivalent works well), and read those sections.

This is all you need for Category 1 papers. If you need to read more, it's probably a Category 2 and it should be obvious by this point. Note there was no mention of the experimental setup and details. These should be skimmed if read at all. The only reason you need to know of these details are when you are comparing your exact experiment with theirs or are working off of their experimental setup, in which case, the paper is clearly a Category 2 and you'll be reading the whole paper probably more than once.

I read Category 2 papers using the same steps above, only after step 3 I start at the introduction and read through the whole thing, skimming parts I just read in detail and understood easily and slowing down at the more interesting sections.

That's it.

What to avoid: Equations, Details, and Reference Chasing

Don't get bogged down in equations. If you really need to know them, you'll get back to their derivations later. The worst thing you could do is start reading the paper from the beginning, word for word, get to equation 1, realize you don't know the derivation, see that it comes from reference 7, look up reference 7, start doing the same thing with that paper and slip down a cycle of never having completed an entire paper because you stop and look at a reference every time you don't understand the tiniest detail. Details are important in science of course, but there is simply too much out there that you don't know to be chasing all the details and all the derivations down the very first time you run into them in scientific literature.

Reading More Papers

I've been using this method (category, abstract, guess figures, figures, conclusion) for months now and it's absolutely dandy. I find I'm exposing myself to more papers now because I know I can get the gist of the paper without wasting an hour. I also don't feel intimidated by not understanding every detail. I used to have this false idea that professors and other experienced scientists understand everything about the papers they read. That's nonsense, of course they don't, that's why papers continue to get published, they're new. I find myself now browsing through Nature and Science magazines' websites expanding my base without feeling stupid about not knowing the details and not wasting too much time. I'm keeping up on the journals in my field a lot more than I used to. And I'm saving massive amounts of time doing literature searches to find information on a specific idea or subject.

What strategies do you use?