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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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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A satisfying week of ratcheting up my output. Some long but interesting experiments at ONI, catching up on reading, a couple of social evenings, and the most intense week of training since September 2019. That said, I’ve been feeling a little fragile. My physical and mental health are both good. I’m happy with what I’m getting done each day but have caught myself with muddled thoughts here and there. Particularly, I am worrying about illness and injury a little more this week. A couple observations on this: 1. The news of coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is causing alarm, but people are generally much less concerned about familiar diseases such as influenza. In the case of a far away outbreak, I can follow the advice that after taking reasonable precautions (e.g. washing hands before eating) it is foolish to worry about the possibility of getting sick (there is no need to suffer before the actual illness starts). I was not able to follow this advice when a different viral outbreak occurred in my social circle. I am vaccinated, and so very likely immune, but knowing I have been exposed directly it is difficult to silence my paranoia. 2. I have been recovering from a running injury, relatively minor but still the most significant injury I have had to date. I am left feeling much more vulnerable than I did before my injury, even though I ought to have been following the same injury preventing exercises either way. I let the idea of being particularly resilient become entwined with my identity, and having that misplaced belief confronted is emotionally challenging.
Things I wrote this week
The irony is not lost that I continue to delay a piece on productivity. I’m also writing about The Fated Sky (link to publisher and extract) which I finished reading this weekend.
Things to share this week
Donald Knuth and getting to the bottom of things Knuth is a legendary computer scientist, and as well as writing The Art of Computer Programming, he also wrote the dialogue Surreal Numbers, or Surreal numbers: how two ex-students turned on to pure mathematics and found total happiness: a mathematical novelette. I recently learned that he does not use email, as he explains here: “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study. “ I find this inspirational in several ways: I aspire to find a passion that allows me to focus so clearly on the one goal. I would love to have the opportunity to pursue that passion so single mindedly as to not need the convenience of email to “stay on top of things”. I would love to reach expertise where others go out of their way to reach me despite not using email.
The Dalek Game While opening too many tabs writing about The Fated Sky, I came across Kathleen Jennings illustrations of Daleks, based on a game played by replacing words in titles with the iconic Dr Who villains. Related; I look forward to trying Blurb Wars next time I’m with some creative people.
Functional Threshold Power FTP is the maximum power output that a person can transfer (e.g. to a bike or rowing machine) continuously for an hour, and is a common measure of cardiovascular endurance amongst cyclists. I’ve been looking at this set of charts about FTP, and it is humbling to see myself on the left tail of the distribution. Some relevant literature from Nature.
Week 5 sees the end of January 2020, and momentum building both in work and play as I accelerate away from the holiday season. I have been reminded in multiple ways that qualities we celebrate and often treat as innate, such as intelligence, strength, and courage, are developed through practice rather than fixed at birth. It is inspiring and motivating to see others grow. On a trivial note, today’s date is a palindrome 2020-02-02 (ISO 8601 format).
19,547 Calories Kilian Jornet is a professional athlete who enjoys going up mountains. Last year he skied non stop for 24 hours and managed to gain 23 km in elevation, or nearly three “Everest”s. Doing this required nearly 20,000 kcal (as estimated by Strava), so refuelling would take 37 Big Macs (it actually surprised me how low that number is).
Physical Training Update
I am hoping to break 3 hours for the marathon in 2020, but training has been delayed by an Achilles injury. Rest was the right approach, and I’ve tried to substitute indoor rowing and indoor cycling as low impact alternatives for endurance training. It has been satisfying to see the numbers for weekly “Relative Effort” (based on heart rate) on Strava go up, but as I resume running this hasn’t translated well into speed over ground.
It is frustrating to have to hold back and turn down opportunities to train with friends. It is teaching me the importance of focusing on long term goals to make smarter choices in individual sessions. I’ve also been thinking about this TED talk about the importance of training “easy”. I tend to train “hard” every workout, but this may be less effective the fitter I become. When new to running, race-pace and training-pace can be the same thing, but as fitness increases maximum effort sessions take more recovery time and are more likely to result in injury. Some hard sessions are necessary, but not every session can nor should feel hard.
I’ve also learned that for indoor rowers, power into the machine (watts) is proportional to speed cubed, rather than squared as I would have guessed. That is, an additional 50 W of power brings a 500 m split time of 2:31.8 s/500 m (or 100 W) down to 2:12.6 (19.2 seconds faster), but the next 50 W increment only saves 12.1 seconds more, then 8.6 s, then 6.5 s, until halving the split to 1:15.9 (i.e. doubling the speed) requires 8 times more power at 800 W.
The Banff Mountain Film Festival tour came to the New Theatre in Oxford on Tuesday 28th January 2020. The Oxford showing featured the “red” program, the other being “blue”, and you can see both lists of films here. I had not attended a film festival for years, but had grown up with Tropfest in Sydney, and was excited to share my enjoyment of film and adventure with friends.
I expected that a film festival about adventures involving mountains would include action-camera and drone footage, and the intense video game quality of Charge met those expectations.
The rags-to-riches story of the eponymous South African trail running champion left me wanting to go out and get in some more miles. There is a beautiful simplicity to running, and the wide shots of Thabang running over dusty roads exemplify it.
BASE jumping is an incredibly dangerous sport, and not one I aspire to. This tiny 3 minute spectacle did make what is often seen as a stunt for adrenaline junkies feel closer to an art form, whilst also getting the audience’s hearts pumping.
Sarah Outen’s story intertwines the physical challenges of attempting to circumnavigate the world by human power alone, with the psychological challenges of poor mental health and grieving for her father. It is intimate, inspiring, and often raw in a way that makes the alien experience of spending months alone at sea relatable.
Nouria Newman kayaks solo through 375 km of rapids to join the Indus river. This film, and films like it, convert a geographical fact (850 cubic meters of water per second) into a tangible sense of the power of a river that cradled one of earth’s earliest civilizations. Newman took a self-admittedly stupid risk, and very nearly paid for it with her life, but the story (and her courage) is compelling.
Slacklining, something I am mostly familiar with as a side show to rock climbing and university student picnicking, is brought into the political realm by two teams, one Mexican and one American, working together to cross the Rio Grande. Having crossed land borders in Europe absentmindedly, it is still a little shocking to remember how intensely polarised the debate is regarding migration in the US.
A humorous documentary on speed climbing (a new sport in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics) featured interesting interviews with the setter of the defining route (slapped together in 3 hours), the aesthetic Iranian team, and a slew of athletes who will be contesting gold medals in only a few months time.
Danny MacAskill demonstrates his cycling skill over a series of stunts towing a bicycle pram. This fun video showcases some beautiful Scottish landscapes and elicited the most gasps and groans from the audience of the night. It reminded me of the similar Road Bike Party videos, which also feature Danny.
Saturday was Chinese New Year, and I was fortunate to celebrate in traditional style by making dumplings and watching the CCTV New Year’s Gala. 2020 is the year of the rat, and the first year in a new cycle of 12 years. The ordering of the animals is explained in this amusing story.
Things I wrote this week
No longer posts to share just yet, I’ve been working on sharing some thoughts about productivity, and am hoping to finish it off in the coming week. I’ve also started writing some fiction, for the first time since school, inspired by a writing club which has started at work.
Things to share this week
Chinese news wasn’t all song and dance, the Wuhan virus caused the lock down of two cities, Wuhan and Huanggang.
This week I celebrated both two years with ONI and twenty seven years of life in general. I felt particularly cared for by the people around me, and appreciated both that this is the case, and that I am aware and able to enjoy the feeling. It is one thing to accept someone into a community, but it is even more difficult to make them feel accepted.
Things I wrote this week:
Training Fasted, a spontaneous experiment I conducted, noting how my physical performance shifted in response to not eating over a 30 hour period.
I played two games of Captain Sonar, a chaotic submarine-warfare themed board game between two teams who must work cooperatively to out maneuver their opponents. Not an easy game to learn, but a lot of fun.
On Tuesday I tested out how my training was impacted by fasting. Overall I lost about 20% of my power output over 30 hours of fasting. Over this period I lost about 2 kg of body mass, which I assume was mostly due to emptying my digestive system and some loss in water due to losses of salt and glycogen. Both this weight and power were quickly restored after resuming eating.
Numbers from the fast: 7 hours before fast begins: 90 minutes moderate exercise, approx 3600 kJ 5 hours before fast begins: Weight 67.7 kg 0 hours (final meal before fast): Consumed 1 bowl (~200 g) oats + 30 g pea protein in water, approx 3500 kJ 5 hours into fast: Light exercise (30 mins indoor cycling) approx 1000 kJ 16 hours into fast: Hard exercise (30 minutes indoor rowing) approx 1700 kJ. Able to sustain 93% of maximum steady state power output. 18 hours into fast: Weight 66.4 kg 28 hours into fast: Weight 65.7 kg 29 hours into fast: Hard exercise (30 minutes indoor rowing) approx 1600 kJ. Able to sustain 81% of maximum steady state power output. 2 days after fast: (normal diet resumed) Weight 67.9 kg
Energy expended over fast roughly approximates to 9000 kJ, i.e. 110% of glycogen stores, or equivalent to 250 g fat.
Things I consumed during the fast: 2 double espresso (coffee with no sugar or milk) Multivitamin about 1 g salt about 4 L of water
Things I felt during the fast: Hungry (for periods, but not consistently. Hunger mostly peaked in the first few hours, at approximately 10 hours in). Foggy (felt a little more distant than usual after the afternoon coffee wore off). Unmotivated to exercise vigorously (wanted to quit while performing hard rowing efforts earlier and more intensely than usual).
Thoughts: This was a spontaneous experiment. I happened to have a very early breakfast on Tuesday and missed lunch due to being needed in the lab, so decided to use the inconvenience as an opportunity to test performance impacts of fasting. The result was a small loss of power, and a moderate loss of motivation to exert that power.
I feel, but have no first hand evidence, that long distance running has left me pretty well physiologically adapted to having a large energy reserve and being able to utilise it (e.g. running a marathon uses up approx 10,000 kJ, or about the same as the entire fasting period). I also think that mentally, knowing that I am capable of going on long runs before breakfast, and knowing what it feels like to use up my glycogen stores (known as “hitting the wall” in running or “bonking” in cycling), together give me confidence to undertake fasting with exercise safely.
Given many people in the developed world struggle with obesity, I would recommend experimenting with fasting. Simply re-calibrating one’s sense of hunger (and knowing it is possible to delay the need to eat by at least several hours) could help with generally reducing calories consumed and therefore weight loss. Obviously some people struggle with disordered eating, which can be more harmful than obesity. Online communities around weight loss can drift from being supportive about achieving a healthy weights to creating unhealthy expectations about weight loss, particularly rapid weight loss.
Science: Rafael de Cabo and Mark P. Mattson published a review on Intermittent Fasting in the last week of December 2019, which longevity specialist Peter Attia commented on in his email today. The science is currently inconclusive, but there seems to be a growing body of evidence that the human body is capable of going extended periods without food not only without detrimental effects, but with benefits to overall health.
Already 12 days into 2020 and things are falling behind. I missed a Week 1 blog post, but am back with the regular Sunday blog post in a new, punchier, format. Longer posts will now be separate and linked to from the weekly posts, while topics that I return to will grow into subsections of the main website. Updates to come soon.
The top paper of 2019 was this description of a system developed at Samsung to create realistic video of talking heads from single images. The authors provided a video summary of the work, and the result is impressive and unsettling. AI image generation also took out the 5th slot with image generation.
As Climate change continues to worsen so do its effects. If you’re not familiar with the scale of the problem I recommend this briefing; Global warming 101. About 1 in 6 papers in the top 100 were on or about climate change, with 3 of the top 10. World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency has an authorship exceeding 10,000, stating that “Earth is facing a climate emergency”, and highlighting the disturbing gap between the scientific and political consensuses.
This highly discussed paper (74th) was retracted, demonstrating both that scientific papers (even in top journals) should be questioned, and that scientists are actively doing that questioning. The article relates to the He Jiankui affair that made headlines for the gene editing of human beings, however that work itself has not been formally published, and the scientist himself was sentenced to prison.