Sunday, August 24, 2008

My Switch to a Mac: 3 Things I Find Most Useful As a Grad Student

I’ve been a PC user all my life, but in June, I got my first Mac, a black MacBook. It immediately became my primary computer and my overall experience has been rather positive. Right now I can’t see myself switching back.
There are many great features in OS X, and also some downsides (why is Office so bad?!), but here are three features that I’ve found to be most useful so far as a grad student:

1. Preview For PDFs: Using Mac’s built in Preview app is like driving a Ferrari after riding a bike (Acrobat or Acrobat Reader). Adobe does a lot of good things, I’ll admit, but making programs that take an eternity to load is certainly not one of them. For a grad student that has to open papers in pdf format all the time, the slowness of Acrobat can be more annoying than getting email replies from professors, especially when you’re in literature search mode browsing through a bunch of papers in a given sitting. Preview, on the other hand, is lightning quick. You can highlight text and screen capture images just as easily as Acrobat as well.

2. Quick Look: Imagine being able to peer inside a huge variety of file types, super fast, with a click of a button. That’s Quick Look. When you are looking for a particular paper inside a directory with tons of them, for example, and the filenames aren’t clear enough, what do you do? Certainly you can start opening them one by one, but that quickly turns into a mess. By the time you find it you can have 10 to 20 files open. With Quick Look, you just browse into the directory, hit space bar, and you have an instant preview of the pdf, and of course you can use the arrow keys to scroll through all the other files in the directory to find what you’re looking for. Think of Windows image preview for more than just pictures, and with the ability to scroll through the whole document; I’m talking PowerPoints, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, even movies. You can even click play on a movie in Quick Look and watch it right there. This is one of those features that after using it for a day, you wonder how you made due without it.

3. Time Machine: Backing up files regularly is the thing everyone knows they should be doing but aren’t. Here to solve that problem is Time Machine, the slickest little backup program I’ve ever seen. Backing up with it is so ridiculously easy that if you have it and aren’t backing up your stuff, you deserve to lose your data. Harsh, but you seriously don’t have an excuse. How easy is it? Well, basically, you don’t have to do anything. Once you designate a drive as your Time Machine drive, it backs stuff up for you every hour automatically. If your drive is an external hard drive that is not always plugged in, it automatically starts backing up the moment you do plug it in. Leaving your back up drive plugged in during a particular class or group meeting is a great way to never be behind. And this isn’t the kind of backup you’ll only use if your entire your hard drive fails. It’s not all your files stored in one huge compressed dinosaur of a file. It backs up your entire computer, as is, so you can browse through all your backups and find just one file if you need to. Serious convenience.

What do you find most useful on your Mac? (other than Quicksilver. Yes, I have it. Yes it makes me feel like Merlin Mann.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

How to Act Productive Tip #13: Start Late

A lot of productivity folks like to tout the advantages of starting early. “Get started on your projects early!” they say, citing reasons like reduced stress and better performance. More surprisingly, so many people aspiring to be more organized and more productive also say similar things, “If only I hadn’t started so late!” If only they knew, those poor bastards.

Truly productive people don’t start early, they start late. People that don’t have enough to do start early. Productive people have so many projects on their plate at one point that they simply can’t start early. Starting early is an insult to your own productivity. It’s an open declaration that you have no drive, no motivation, and little promise of achieving anything worthwhile. Clearly, you have nothing better to do than start on something that’s not due for a while. Starting early shows desperation for wanting something to do. It’s the equivalent of calling a girl the next morning after getting her number only the night before. Please.

Beyond avoiding being pathetic, starting late has other upsides. First, the best ideas come under severe time pressure. When it’s 4am and you have to make that big presentation in the morning that you just started on a couple hours ago that you’ll come up with the brilliant ideas that will impress the audience. Second, when a project ends and you tell people you barely started it a few hours ago, you look a lot more impressive than if you told them you’ve been working on it forever. You’ll get responses back that are chock-full of admiration, such as “Wow.” Lastly, starting late leads to other productive-person characteristics. When you start late you often have to skip meals, work through vacations and weekends, get very little sleep, and get from point A to point B at lightning speed. In this way, starting late is in effect a gateway drug of acting productive: it leads to the good stuff. Thus, it can be argued, it’s one of the most important characteristics of a productive person.

So the next time you’re handed a project and you have the urge to get started right away, resist it, sit on it, start late.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Who is Brave Enough to Work the Night Shift?

Photo by: josef.stuefer

I’m sick of working during the day. I’m sick of email, I’m sick of dealing with “productive” people that haven’t eaten or slept in a year. I’m sick of running into friends when I should be working and I’m really sick of instruments being booked when I need to use them. I’ve been sick about these things for a while now. I seriously feel I spend way too much time at work trying to be productive instead of simply getting things done. I want to spend less time working, so I figure I should cut out the crap.

A Recent Story

Recently, I was forced to use an instrument from 9pm-2pm to do the measurements I needed and was amazed at the results. That afternoon I went home early, ate dinner, went to the gym, watched a couple episodes of the office, packed some food for the night and went to the lab. Then I took my measurements. When data was being collected, I opened up my email as I often do, no new email. I checked some websites, no new stories. I checked my Facebook profile, no new activity. When it was time to eat my food I heated it and ate it by myself. No one to talk to, which kind of sucked, but I was also back to my work in 20 minutes. When I was done, I went home, went to bed, and slept in until 10 or 11am. No sleep loss, and sleeping-in guilt-free was oh so wonderful.

The next day when I was processing the data I realized how much stuff I had gotten done the previous night: The measurements were taken very systematically, and I took meticulous notes on what was going on. I spent 5 hours in the lab doing this work, and I thought to myself, how long would this have taken if I did it during the day? Clearly the whole day. Lunch would have taken at least an hour. Other grad students coming in and out of that busy room would have added more down time. Responding to the constant stream of daytime emails would add more. Pretty soon, the 5 hours of lab time at night would have summed up to a whole day of measurements. That’s another 3 or more hours, more than 50% more time I would have spent “working” or “in the lab” instead of sleeping, eating, cooking, at the gym, watching a movie, staring at the ceiling, what have you.

This got me thinking, what if I worked at night most of the time? Why aren’t I doing it? What are the pros and cons? I’ve been thinking about this and blowing it off as crazy talk for months now; something a “productive” person would do, “I worked all night last night!”. But the idea keeps coming back. I wouldn’t work more, I would in fact work less. I wouldn’t sleep, I’d merely shift my hours. I could be more creative if I had longer blocks of uninterrupted time. I wouldn’t be interrupted by stupid email as often. But there are still cons that keep preventing me from doing it. It seems horribly anti-social. It would cut back on random collaborative opportunities. What happens on the weekends when it’s time to hang out with friends on a normal schedule? When would I go to places that are only open during the day? Isn’t this something a weird person would do?

A (Partially) Nocturnal Schedule

So I thought of a possible sleep schedule and tried to answer some of these concerns. I’ve settled on sleeping from 5am-1pm as a good option. Below are some of the obvious concerns listed above and my answers based on this possible schedule.

1. What about my social life? Get ready to be the life of the party. 9pm-2am will be like midday for you, so no more of that yawning followed by the “Only 11? Wow, I’m getting old!” joke that is so overused it makes me want to throw up in my mouth.
2. What about research or work collaboration? This should be just fine with the above schedule, you’ll consistently be meeting with people in the afternoon.
3. But the library is closed for much of my “day”. That’s correct, and at that time, everywhere else is quiet.
4. I need to go to the gym, the store, the Laundromat, mechanic, etc. And now you can go in your “morning”, which is smack in the middle of the day, so you can miss both the regular morning and evening crowds. Oh I’m getting jealous of this one just thinking about it.
5. But I work best in the morning. If that’s really the case (and not just that the morning is the only uninterrupted time you get) you may want to think about how the answers to these questions would change if you used a noon-8pm sleep time. Questions 2-4 seem to be fine, with most need-to-do-during-the-day tasks being shifted to the morning (your evening). The only problem I see is if you are also a party animal, then, in regards to question one, you would have to drink in your morning often.


Now, let’s crank a few more numbers just to see the pay off. It’s unrealistic to think you would be a whole 50% more efficient just because you worked at a time when most distractions were non-existent. Let’s be more conservative. For most people, it’s also unrealistic to think that you are wasting less than 10% of your time on distractions or pseudo-work like answering email. So let’s, on average, put the efficiency gains at around 20%. How many hours does that give you for more important things like reading obscure blogs, sleeping, or learning Mandarin? For a 50 hour work week, that’s 10 hours saved. Ten hours! You might as well throw in Cantonese while you’re at it. If you even cut back our efficiency estimation to 15%, that’s still 7.5 hours a week you didn’t previously have. And, the kicker for me is that is 7.5 hours that is normally spent on crap, busy work, acting productive. In fact, if you’re think you’re one of those productive people that is working 60 hours a week, a 20% efficiency improvement translates to 12 hours - basically a day. This doesn’t take into account other immeasurable advantages that include increased focus, less stress and thus the opportunity for more creativity. You may even start loving your work again.

Who is Brave Enough?

Now, the obvious question is, why don’t I put my money where my mouth is and do it and report on how it went? Well, I’m kind of scared. Of what? I don’t know. Perhaps of my non-tenured advisor freaking out that I’m not around all the time. Or of being scared of the night (I’m not joking, I seriously have had this fear since I was a kid). But the more I think about it the more I am inclined to try it out for a week or more. In the meantime, I want to ask you if you have either done something similar before, and if so, how it went, or if you want to try it out and report on your findings on Grad Hacker. It would be wonderfully exciting for me and the rest of the readers.