2020 Week 13: Intensity

It has been an intense week. I am in the lab most waking hours working on COVID-19 projects. To make consecutive long days viable, I prioritise hard exercise in down time as I find it helps keep my health (physical and mental) in a good place. My efforts are only possible because the team at ONI is so supportive, be they working beside me at the bench, in the machine shop on the other side of the building, or coordinating supplies from home. It has been exhilarating to be part of a sudden surge in scientific effort, and I have found the wider scientific community to be universally selfless in their willingness to help.

Things to share this week

COVID-19
Again the media is dominated by discussion of the pandemic. I feel torn about adding to that noise, but my thoughts are now focused on that topic and primarily this blog is where I share what I am thinking about. I continue to be concerned that major media outlets, driven by the need to sell advertising clicks, are tasking journalists without the right medical literacy to create content without much consideration for how useful that content is. My suggestion remains: read from sources that specialise in the area, ignore conventional news coverage of the pandemic.
A starting point: WHO Coronavirus Homepage
Check with your local health services: US CDC, European CDC, UK NHS, Australia Department of Health.
Journals for in depth scientific content: The LancetThe New England Journal of Medicine, BMJ, and Nature.

My (uninformed) thoughts
In Week 11 I was not worried. In Week 12 I was hit by exponential whiplash. My resolve is being tested as governments take economies into lock down and hospitals become overrun. In my note on death I commented that although only 5000 had died at the time of writing, the final toll would likely be in the millions. I take no joy in that prospect and I hope I will be proven wrong. That said, I also feel that stating “millions will die” without the context of the millions who already die each year incites fear beyond the reality of the situation. I stand by the importance of seeing this crisis in the context of others happening simultaneously, e.g. climate change, tropical disease, and obesity. We humans have an incredible power to see into the future, but such a limited desire to take the actions the future tasks us with. This pandemic makes me feel that only when the danger is close in space and time are we spurred to act, and this is something I wish I could change.

Collaboration
Nature is running a podcast “Coronapod” and the sentiments from the start of this week’s post are echoed about 15 minutes in; scientists are coming together to help each other.

Hoarding
There are reports that the UK is holding £1bn in food that was purchased as the COVID-19 situation became serious. While that is enough to leave me seeing shortages of flour and dry pasta on shelves, a quick division makes that number £15 per person, which means only a little extra spending over a week of “stocking up” can push the complex supply chain of fast moving consumer goods beyond its limits. This small change in perspective makes me feel less frustrated; an average family doubling up on their weekly shop seems foolish but understandable, compared with imagining panicked people filling their cars with pasta and toilet paper. Especially in Britain (where baking is a hobby as much as a source of nutrition) flour stocks could easily sell out as people newly working from home find the opportunity to bake. Furthermore, knowing that the system is tuned so finely to match regular demand makes me feel there is less waste than I had previously intuited. (Side note; in googling for articles on this I came across this guide to how supermarkets nudge you to spend more).

Photos from the week

2020 Week 12: Exponential Whiplash

Since I wrote last week about the pandemic, putting it in the context of other global health issues, the total fatalities due to COVID-19 have more than doubled, and major European economies have essentially halted. I had some awareness of the likely rate of spread, but was not anticipating how events have played out, and so count myself among those hit by “exponential whiplash”:

a cognitive phenomenon that sars-cov-2, the virus which causes covid-19, has been provoking around the world: exponential whiplash. Knowing in principle that something may take only a few days to double in size does little to prepare you for the experience of being continually behind the ever-steepening curve such doubling creates.The Economist

I shared on LinkedIn this week that ONI is working on research to support the fight against COVID-19 and since Wednesday my productive energy has been focused there. Like many businesses across the UK, a majority of ONI’s staff are working from home, but my skills let me keep working on new projects directly related to SARS-CoV-2. It is exciting and rewarding to be able to do so, but it is also sapping time and energy from my usual pursuits. Given that, I have only a few incomplete thoughts to share:

Things to share this week

Proximity bias
It is noticeable to me that these deaths are causing so much more economic and social pressure than the deaths by the causes I listed last week. I guess it is because these deaths are more proximate to wealthy societies, which have won huge victories against infectious diseases. Combined with the panicked behaviour I note below, I feel most people demonstrate they do not find all lives are equally valuable, even though they might espouse that value.

Pandemics vs. Climate Catastrophe
Something I’m thinking about: if society knew that these radical measures were necessary to prevent a much larger disaster much further away, would we be able to make the same cuts on air travel, entertainment, and consumption? Could we reinvent our way of life to prevent deaths from climate change, without anyone needing to die first?

Some people are panicking
I am hearing first hand accounts of stockpiling from both Australia and the UK; supermarket shelves being emptied despite no larger issues on the supply side. A friend had toilet paper snatched out of her shopping cart. There has been a spike in gun sales in the US. It saddens me to see people act out of fear, and with so much selfishness. I wonder if it is merely a lack of understanding, or a symptom of a more fundamental social focus on individuals vs. collectives.

Some people are too relaxed
I was very surprised to see stories in my twitter feed of crowds flocking to climb Mt. Snowdon and filling out beaches in Florida and Bondi. While I am feeling relaxed when it comes to my personal safety, wider compliance with public health directives such as social distancing are needed for those policies to be effective (see also vaccines).

Misleading headlines make me angry
Please take care of the media you engage with. I generally feel positive about coverage from the guardian, but headlines like Australian man, 36, diagnosed with coronavirus dies in Iceland are deceptive. It is designed to grab your curiosity (or fear) about the pandemic, and clearly implies that the Australian man was killed by COVID-19. The disease is most lethal in older people, so a younger person dying is notable. But the reality brought by the third sentence is:

“While he was found to be infected with the coronavirus, it is unlikely to have been the cause of his death,” epidemiologist Dr Thorolfur Gudnason,

I.e. an accurate headline is “Australian man, 36, dies in Iceland of unknown causes whilst infected with coronavirus”. This is a problem; in a media saturated landscape many will scroll past the headline in a feed, and it will add to anxiety needlessly.

Harvard Medical Students COVID-19 Curriculum
A friend passed on this resource, which I think provides a good balance of brevity and comprehensiveness on the disease.

Photos from the week

Marathons have been cancelled which takes the pressure off. I can take my time to get back into higher mileage running. It also means I enjoy the scenery a little more.

2020 Week 11: Epidemiology

It was another exciting (but confidential) week at ONI. Evenings included a little live music, training, reading, and trying out the game Terraforming Mars. The increase in daylight going into spring is improving my mood, and conversation continues to be dominated by COVID-19.

Things I wrote this week

People are dying from a new strain of coronavirus, but I am not worried. I try to explain why in this note.

Things to share this week

There has been good news on viruses: the last patient being treated for Ebola was discharged, starting the final count down until the outbreak can be declared over.

Honeywell, as a google image search will suggest, are mostly known for making safety equipment and thermostats. As a chemist, I also am familiar with buying Honeywell research chemicals. In this paper they have revealed that they are also developing quantum computing. While a huge conglomerate like Honeywell doesn’t need its various business units to be aligned, there is a (tenuous) link between thermostats and quantum computing. The delicate states of the ytterbium ions that hold the quantum information require ultra low temperatures, in this case -260.5°C at the trap.

Political news about the democratic primaries quietens down as Biden seems to have secured the nomination. Meanwhile the internet continues to create conditions for fierce political conflict, the latest battleground being the knitting world.

New Zealand has a unique wildlife, including a historic lack of mammals, and subsequent flourishing of bird life. On the arrival of mammals (including us humans) bird life that had existed without predators suffered, but this recent paper shows that is not entirely due to lack of intelligence in birds.

Rockets are expensive, and not just the kind that will get us to Mars. “Israel, for example, routinely expends $50,000 interceptors on home-made rockets that cost about $1,000“. The solution to this? Lasers.

Photos from the week

A note on fear and death under the current pandemic

Short version:

Since I posted last week, coronavirus continues to dominate media and conversation. First, my advice is unqualified, go to the NHS and CDC instead. If you’re here for my thoughts they are:

1. Don’t panic. It doesn’t help, and this is relatively normal.
2. Journalists know less than clinicians and epidemiologists. Avoid media, instead use the NHS and CDC. For scientific updates, the WHO and journals (The LancetThe New England Journal of Medicine, and Nature). Engaging more than once per day is not helping you stay healthy. Stress weakens the immune system.
3. If you’re healthy and under 50, your personal risk is very low (but the elderly should isolate).
4. If this pushes you to take care of your hygiene and health as you should have been doing already, that’s great.

Long version:

Death

Currently, my media (and conversation) are saturated by the coronavirus pandemic. People seem generally frightened. As I write this, there have been just over 5000 deaths, the first being on January 11th in China. Of course as you read this that number will be higher, and if you are reading it relatively soon it will likely climbing at a faster rate. The final death toll will likely be in the millions. That is, of course, terrible, but it is only terrifying if these numbers are the first point of engagement with public health statistics. This paper from the Journal of Emergency Management points out that the flu outbreaks in 1957 and 1968 both had death tolls over a million, and while the flu of 1918 is being cited as analogous, it hit a population exhausted by 4 years of world war, and when life expectancy was under 50 due to bacterial infections (penicillin being discovered in 1928). People are dying constantly, for example in our modern context:

About 150,000 people die every day
42,000 die from heart attacks and strokes
11,000 die daily due to air pollution
8,000 die from lower respiratory infections (like COVID-19, but this data is from 2016)
4,300 die from diabetes
4,000 die from tuberculosis, every day
4,000 die from malaria, every day
3,800 die from motor vehicle accidents

So, in context, the total deaths we have seen over two months are on a similar order of magnitude to the deaths associated with car accidents or diabetes that happen every day. That said, the death rate will climb, and public health interventions can flatten the curve (worth the click through) to help save lives, but I feel that a significant part of the fear of death is the relative unfamiliarity of most people with it, when it is a very common occurrence.

A note where I hedge: As discussed in 2019 Week 32: Unsympathetic Science, mass shootings draw attention (and therefore public fear) to gun deaths despite being a regular occurrence in the US. I feel the situation here is similar in that the initial fear creates media interest which in turn creates more fear and the feedback drives a frenzy. Unlike the diseases we are familiar with, there are many unknowns to coronavirus, and there is a possibility that it overtakes the causes of death described above.

Reactions

So the psychological behaviours of this pandemic is also interesting.

1. Hoarding toilet paper seems extremely odd to me, and I made the observation that no one has ever died from a lack of toilet paper. Large parts of the world don’t use toilet paper at all. I assume people, being afraid, want to take action to attempt to feel prepared. Panic buying is a self fulfilling prophecy: since stores stock shelves based on what they usually sell, when a sufficiently large minority feels they need to stockpile, they create the shortage they are attempting to prepare for.
2. This virus seems to sit at some optimal point for generating a media frenzy. Health issues like obesity or opiates have not been able to capture the public consciousness to the same extent. Even the return of previously eradicated diseases like measles has not fully captured the public consciousness. Perhaps the authoritarian lock down by the Chinese government creates a setting that lends itself to the public imagination.

A thought experiment I have been playing with:

If you are afraid of the current coronavirus pandemic, how much would you pay to avoid it. £10? £100? £1000? Much more? I would guess you are more afraid of (and therefore willing to pay much more to avoid) coronavirus than you would be of a regular flu, but the flu kills many tens of thousands each year and many people don’t feel the need to buy the annual vaccine. Presumably you are more concerned with death than with suffering the fever or cough, and so whatever the amount you price avoiding coronavirus, I would expect you would also pay to avoid a heart attack, stroke, cancer, or lethal car accident. Given that, here are some things you can do to decrease your chance of death by a much more significant amount!

Stop smoking

Smoking statistics are intense. Smoking kills more than 0.1% of the US population each year (a likely estimate for the total coronavirus deaths), but 5% of the US population has a smoking related disease right now. With 300 under 18s becoming daily cigarette smokers every day, this is not a problem that comes from “before people knew it was bad for them”.

Drive safely

You probably know of someone who died in a car accident. Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol and speeding are known to be dangerous, but in the US alone 9 people die each day from distracted-(using a smart phone while)-driving.

Maintain a healthy weight

Costing obese UK citizens 9 years of life expectancy, poor diet is catching up to smoking as the single worst health decision a person can make. Cutting back on high calorie low nutrition food (e.g. sugary drinks and snacks) and finding time to exercise regularly makes you less susceptible to a wide range of diseases (including coronavirus).

Prepare to get help for mental health

Addiction kills slowly. Suicide kills quickly. Both are preventable if people can get help, but when help is needed most it is hardest to navigate towards it. Start talking to friends, loved ones, and your health services about mental health and drug use, so that if things do go bad one day, you’re familiar with the system when you actually need it.

Note, I did not have time to convert DALYs into expected years of life saved for each of the above decisions, but this paper has a very useful table if you want the numbers.

Other things that didn’t fit above but I wanted to share:

A disease burden of influenza special issue from 2018

Netherlands infectous disease burden

Highly shared summary on slowing the disease progression from Tomas Pueyo

How long the virus survives on stuff

Economist explains the structure of the virus and how it relates to possible drug targets.

2020 Week 10: Coronavirus

My physical and mental health are good. Life is satisfyingly busy. Lots of time this week eaten by logistics, so a brief post on the topic of many conversations this week.

Things to share this week

Coronavirus

The new strain of coronavirus is being covered widely in the media. The latest scientific information can be found at The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Nature. This virus has drawn huge attention, particularly compared with other common transmissible diseases. It is good that people are learning to take hygiene and self imposed quarantine seriously, since the common flu strains cause tens of thousands of deaths each year. It is not good if people panic, and I echo the sentiments of Dr Abdu Shrarkawy, particularly: “Temper fear with reason, panic with patience and uncertainty with education. We have an opportunity to learn a great deal about health hygiene and limiting the spread of innumerable transmissible diseases in our society.”

Side point: perhaps the most striking example of the gap in public understanding of epidemiology is the hits to Constellation Brands‘ “Corona” beer. An example of fearful lack of patience comes form the brief Australian toilet paper shortage.

Photos from the week

2020 Week 9: Book thoughts

Some exciting breakthroughs at work leave less time for extracurriculars. Life is generally good.

Things I wrote this week

I finished writing some thoughts about The Lady Astronaut of Mars series by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Things to share this week

Twitter backlash can change a person’s life. In this 2015 New York Times Magazine article a person making jokes (in poor taste) to her 170 followers went viral and triggered an outpouring of public shaming. The internet makes the spread of information so fast and irreversible that I am fearful of making a mistake that lands me in infamy.

I learned about this glider that you can launch by running and I want one. (Video of it in action). Much of my excitement is driven by the possibilities of carbon neutral air travel. Related; this scientist has turned to tree planting to offset the emissions from his air travel.

Earth temporarily has two moons! (Technically a temporary satellite).

Bill Gates writes some sensible thoughts on COVID-19, he has been advocating better pandemic preparation for some time. I hope to write a longer piece on the virus soon.

Lady Astronaut of Mars

“And basically, the novels are: I would like The Martian Chronicles but with more women and people of color, please.”

Mary Robinette Kowal speaking at Google on her novels.

About the books

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Fated Sky, the most recent book by Mary Robinette Kowal. It follows the multi award winning novel The Calculating Stars, and occupies the same “punchard punk” universe as the short stories Articulated Restraint, The Lady Astronaut of Mars, and We Interrupt This Broadcast. You can hear the author read an extract at the start of of this Talk at Google.

Kowal describes her use of sci-fi as “set dressing” to help “explore things that [she] is thinking about from the real world and it allows [her] to talk about them without all of the emotional baggage so [she] can approach them more as a thought experiment”. Dressed in sci-fi, Dr Elma York (main character) grapples with mental illness, patriarchy, and racism, while background elements invoke the politics of climate change.

My thoughts

I enjoyed the alternate history, the blending of the real life Mercury 13 and computers of Hidden Figures with an engaging character driven story. Kowal has done her homework, with help from Derek Benkoski (fighter pilot), Kjell Lindgren and Cady Coleman (astronauts), and Stephen Granade (rocket scientist), which gives Kowal’s depiction of space-faring such realism that it felt a little like reading astronaut Chris Hadfield’s autobiography.

It was new for me to read fiction where most of the cast, including the first person narrator, are women. As with film (I highly recommend checking out this blog post) women tend to be less represented in stories I read (e.g. The Lord of the Rings). While the main plot of The Calculating Stars centres on women fighting to be included as astronauts, The Fated Sky shifts focus to issues of race. The diversity of the cast is necessary for the story Kowal sets out to tell, and whilst she clearly has a progressive stance to share, at no point did I feel narrative was compromised to make a political point (though as far as I can tell I largely share the author’s views).

The first novel opens to a scene involving Elma and Nathaniel’s (main characters) sex life, and their emotional, sexual, and professional relationships feature significantly in both books. Kowal states in the Google Talk that she “wanted their relationship to always be rock solid”. I am fortunate that my relationship is similar enough to find myself relating to Elma and Nathaniel. While there has been criticism that “Nathaniel York is too perfect to be realistic” (which Kowal has responded to via twitter), being able to see the familiar stresses of over-commitment to work, mental illness, and maintaining intimacy over distance, helped me invest in them both as a couple and as individuals.

Fiction and Authors

It is new for me to come to the end of a story I have enjoyed for recreational-escapist-immersion and then be able to turn to the internet to learn about the author, her process, and how to examine fiction more generally. Kowal keeps a public journal, where as I began drafting this post she shared insights into her writing process. She tweets and answers questions through Lee the Puppet and collects typewriters. By following her online presence, I learned of the existence of narrative beats and about heat welding for puppetry. Seeing an author as an actual person (with their struggles and distractions and desires) makes writing less daunting, and so encourages me to write more.

Real Astronaut CVs

Science-fiction and fantasy make for interesting psychological insights into readers. While no one has experienced contact with aliens or magic, the audience’s immersion may be first broken by a very human behaviour. In the talk Kowal discusses that her writing is criticised for her depiction of Elma’s weaknesses as it seems contradictory for Elma to be so paralysed by anxiety in a social context but utterly comfortable with near death experiences in space craft. This is in spite of the real lived experiences of those with social anxiety disorder. Another criticism of the character I have seen in a few places regards her mathematical prowess:

The least relatable thing about Elma is that she’s so smart that no one else can match her. She went to college at 14. She does math in her head. Oh, you have to solve differential equations with a piece of paper and a pencil? You’re actually a dumbass in comparison.” — librarything review by yvonnekins

I remember feeling a similar jealous sentiment towards Patrick Rothfuss’ protagonist in the Kingkiller Chronicle series. It is easy to be jealous of characters who are defined by their intelligence, particularly if you operate in a world where intelligence is worshipped. When it comes to astronauts however, Elma’s skills did not break my immersion, as I have seen astronauts tend to have pretty incredible CVs, e.g. Jonny Kim. Also child pilot and accomplished physicist Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski is not a fictional character.

Some uncomfortable feelings when I come to write about books

Generally, despite really enjoying the story, coming to reflect on it here inspired some painful feelings. While it would be easier to ignore those feelings, that would miss an opportunity to grow past them, and fail to follow the example of sharing personal weakness set by Kowal and others who inspire me. I feel it is important to hold and express thoughts about the books I read, and I couldn’t do that if I avoided emotions that come with reflection. Emotions are difficult to untangle, but two strands I can draw out are:

1. I feel I should write about books but I don’t know why or how. I feel disappointed with myself that when I finished the first book all that made it into the blog was “I finished reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, it is excellent.”

2. I read slowly. It is also disappointing to me that it took me nearly 3 months to read The Fated Sky. I quickly convert that rate of four books a year through the relatively short human lifespan, and feel a great sense of loss that there are so many texts I will never read.

Closing Thoughts

I highly enjoyed both books (on paper), but given Kowal is a voice actor and does the narration, I would recommend listening to The Calculating Stars via audiobook. I eagerly anticipate the third book in Elma and Nathaniel’s story, due in 2022.

2020 Week 8: Do the living outnumber the dead?

Life is busy, I over estimated my ability to find time to read this week, and have started but not finished several texts. I (correctly) sought professional advice for some minor tendon issues, and running is feeling much more comfortable with some specific rehab exercises. I met two researchers in cyber security, and it turns out in the UK there are fairly strict laws on signals interception which make their research difficult. In other news a Russian satellite is probably stalking a US spy satellite in orbit.

Things I wrote this week

No longer posts again this week. I’m working on summarising some books I’m reading.

Things to share this week

Do the living outnumber the dead?
The short answer is no. While the global population has grown rapidly, the current 7 billion is far fewer than half the estimated 100 billion who have ever lived. This sort of population growth estimation reminded me that the sum of the n-successive powers of two is less than 2 to the power (n+1), so if the population was consistently doubling within a lifespan, then there would be more people alive than had lived previously. There is a nice intuitive explanation of this;
Consider binary
Binary 1 is Decimal 1
Binary 10 is Decimal 2
Binary 100 is Decimal 4
Generalising; binary 1 followed by “n” zeros is expressing 2 to the power n
Intuitively; the smallest four digit number is always larger than the largest 3 digit number
I.e. 1000 > 111 (or 222 for base 3, or 999 for base 10)
So the sum of 1+10+100 is 111 in binary (or any other base) which is less than 1000, and so 2^n > {2^(n-1) + 2^(n-2) + … + 2^1 + 2^0}
(I will look up how to express mathematical formulas on my own blog in future)

Science was stranger in the 1960s
NASA funded a project involving humans trying to train dolphins to speak by living with them and injecting them with LSD. Covered by The Guardian and New Scientist. Details probably in this book (but I haven’t had a chance to check it out).

The following come from my (current) three biggest sources of lost time, YouTube, Unnecessary-Fitness-Reading, and Chess.

Elon Musk reminds me of the importance of minimalism in production
Quote: “The best part is no part, the best process is no process
Context: Musk gives MKBHD a tour of the Tesla Factory, and explains that removing unnecessary parts or processes from a product removes a risk of failure at no cost. In the case of Tesla, increasing production speed is a major issue, so eliminating unneeded steps leads to better manufacturing.

Strava makes more cool info-graphics
This time looking at motivation for running.

NBC covers boom in chess streaming
This article about e-sports sadly leaves out my favourite chess streamer, Jerry.

2020 Week 7: Curfew

This week, in several situations, I ran out of time. By not setting end times for experiments, training sessions, or social occasions, I find myself realising on reflection that I regularly continue longer than would have been optimal. Of course the future is unknown, but making an estimate of how much time I ought to spend before I start, and then evaluating the situation once that time has elapsed, should help me to fit more into each day. This week’s longer post on productivity is highly relevant.

Things I wrote this week

I finished a set of thoughts on how to get more life into the fixed amount of time each day, i.e. productivity. Eventually I’ll reorganise the homepage of this website to have pages dedicated to a few significant topics, and I suspect productivity will be one of them.

Things to share this week

Atmospheric Optics collates visual phenomena that occur due to the spontaneous formation of optical systems in the sky, a common example being rainbows. Thinking about ice halos reminds me of X-ray crystallography, perhaps the most famous example being Photo 51.

Emma Stoye of Nature collated scientific photos from January, including the tracks from the head-crab like robots I shared a couple weeks ago.

The UK brought forward its ban on cars that burn hydrocarbons to 2035, some good news for the climate. I suspect unrelatedly, Telsa shares broke $1000 (and continue to be the centre of reddit shenanigans).

Artist Simon Weckert walked around with a cart full of smartphones to trick google maps into plotting non-existent traffic jams. Whilst I find google maps traffic useful on the rare occasions when I drive, I find the “performance” of having a bright red cart full of smartphones intruding into live updating maps a cute reminder of the difference between reality and abstractions.

Photos from the week

Productivity Update February 2020

Motivation

I want to get more done. I constantly have unfinished to-do lists and projects I would like to take on, if only I had more time. Rather than simply aspiring to have more time (e.g. by living longer), it is equally valuable to do more living in the time I have. I see increasing productivity as converting time I feel is wasted into time I feel is useful, by either decreasing the time useful tasks take or removing tasks that are not useful. This post is a collection of things I have found to help with this, and areas where I am seeking to improve.

Things that I think work

Prioritise health

If I am mentally or physically unwell, my productivity rapidly decreases. Keep health as a priority. Assess it regularly, and take time to eat well, exercise, and sleep. Follow good hygiene practices. When ill, make recovery the single highest priority.

Hesitate less

Increasing productivity and focus first require that you actually start doing something productive. Whatever that is, learning, training, meeting people, or something else, I often find myself hesitating to start. Fears of failure may be reasonable or unreasonable, but not starting at all makes failure a certainty. Of course some projects are more risky; the costs are higher, the harms can be bigger, but generally the first few steps don’t require such a big commitment, and having started I will be in a better place to assess what can be done. Simply put, just start.

Solve what you need to do, not what is easy to do

The blue areas (important with known solutions and unimportant with unknown solutions) take care of themselves; things that are important and easy to do get done with much satisfaction and hard things not worth doing don’t ever get started. The trick is doing the important things that don’t have solutions yet. They’re so hard! It is frustrating to try and fail, and failure is likely since the solutions are unknown. It is much more attractive just keep working in my comfort zone of known solutions, even if they are unimportant at least they are easy. The more time I shift along the yellow arrow, the more productive I am.

Focus on what is important, and do not be distracted by what is easy. I think most people are familiar with a time when, rather than write a difficult essay, or make a difficult phone call, suddenly they were inspired to reorganise their desk or tidy their house (Tim Urban goes more into procrastination in this TED talk). I’ve lately been thinking about it in terms of the diagram above; trying to focus my attention away from the easy but unproductive tasks and towards harder but more useful tasks. A related concept comes from an anecdote about Warren Buffett advising Mike Flint about goal setting.

Example – Science
Easy Productive: Setting up experiment
Hard Productive: Interpreting experimental results
Easy Unproductive: Selecting nice colours for charts and plots
Hard Unproductive: Writing new spreadsheet software

Example – Writing
Easy Productive: Choosing a topic to write about
Hard Productive: Actually writing about the topic
Easy Unproductive: Selecting fonts, organising stationary
Hard Unproductive: Writing in an unknown language

Example – Fitness
Easy Productive: Signing up for a gym membership
Hard Productive: Actually using the gym membership
Easy Unproductive: Watching YouTube videos about how to exercise
Hard Unproductive: Making YouTube videos about how to exercise

Use technology effectively

Tim Ferris shared this article about how to use your iPhone productively. I was a little underwhelmed by the focus on apps and content to consume, rather than actual phone tweaks that help avoid distractions. Smart phones are powerful devices that can be highly detrimental for productivity. While I am certainly more productive with a suite of tools in my pocket at all times, I can also be distracted by the similarly immense collection of toys. Armies of clever people work to increase the amount of time users spend in their app or on their website, and they are often successful. Some things I have found useful:

Make your phone binary. Either it is a “toy” used for relaxation and entertainment or it is a “tool” to help you work more effectively. If it is a toy you don’t need it with you when you are working. If it is a tool then don’t install games or use it to browse content where the main purpose is to be entertained.

Put your phone in black and white. Screen technology creates images more vivid, and therefore more captivating, than reality. For the majority of useful functions, a phone doesn’t need a colour screen. Putting it in black and white makes it less attention grabbing.

Do one task at a time. Build a habit of telling yourself what task you are picking up your phone to perform, performing it, and putting the phone away again. Sending that text message doesn’t need to lead to browsing Instagram. Checking the bus timetable doesn’t need to lead to reading a news article.

Turn your phone off. When you don’t need your phone, turn it off. Notice how often you pick it up and stare at a blank screen, and put it back into your pocket. If what you need to do isn’t worth waiting a few seconds for the phone to start up, it probably isn’t worth doing at all.

Avoid vanity

Time spent checking social media is not particularly useful, but time spent looking at your own content is especially not useful. I learned that in the early days of LinkedIn, 25-35% of clicks were people looking at their own profile. The speculated reason for this, with some evidence, is vanity. I can certainly feel the urge to check posts for likes, retweets, kudos, etc. It is validating to have people consume your content and approve it. It is also not worth checking repeatedly. The few minutes many times a day adds up to a meaningful amount, the interruption disrupts flow, and the emotions (envy, insecurity, and even the validation from being “liked”) are broadly negative.

Multitask appropriately

Multitasking in some situations can boost productivity, and in others just slow things down. Learn what tasks go well together for you, and which ones shouldn’t go together. I am sure this varies significantly

An example of good multitasking:
Listening to the news while doing steady state exercising. Not every training session should be hard, often I have less intense, putting-in-the-miles work outs. This is a great time to catch up on news.

An example of bad multitasking:
Listening to music while writing. I enjoy it, but changes in songs, and particularly interesting lyrics, tend more often to disrupt my train of thought than to drown out distractions.

Define “possible” honestly

Motivation matters. Setting the bar too high for what level of productivity I want to achieve, or putting too many things on a to-do list, leads to failure, and that failure can sap away confidence and motivation to do more. Be realistic with what can be achieved, keep the ego in check, and when things become overwhelming take time to pause, cut back, and start again with a lighter load.

Things I haven’t worked out

Consume content carefully

I read slowly, and I suspect inefficiently. There is so much content being produced at such an incredible rate, I find myself “tab hoarding”, filling hard drives with PDFs, trying to skim academic papers that I forget immediately, and buying books faster than I finish them. I think the problem is needing to be selective, and to learn to not be “completionist” in my reading, but rather focus on finding things that sit comfortably in my Zone of Proximal Development, and skipping things in a text that I already know, or are well beyond my grasp.

Keep in touch

I am still not good at keeping in touch with friends. I lose time I could be using to catch up with them (via a plethora of communication platforms) fretting about how much I have failed to meet my own expectations on frequency of correspondence. I suppose this is because I am not good at selecting which relationships I ought to prioritise, and effectively let random encounters define which people I spend time with. In not wanting to leave anyone out, I leave everyone out.

Long term goals

Finally, and most challenging to me, finding a major goal to unify my interests, my work, and my hobbies, so that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. I lack direction, and this means that many projects I begin and abandon which might not otherwise have been wastes of time, become so.

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