How To Be Effective
February 2012 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
As I approach the end of my Ph.D. career, I'm reflecting on how I was able to get more and better work done than many of my peers without stressing nearly as much. I made it through K-12, college, and a Ph.D. program while losing very little sleep.
Here are some habits that have made me more effective than people who are often smarter than I am. In the long run, good work habits – consistently applied over time – are far more important than so-called “natural intelligence” or “aptitude”.
I've managed to produce more and better work than many of my peers because, ironically, I try to do less than they do. During K-12, I did fewer extracurricular activities than my peers (especially those who were aiming to pad out their college applications). During college, I took fewer classes per semester, which left more time for each class. During my Ph.D., I mostly worked on one research project at a time rather than simultaneously juggling several.
Devote the time to get good at what you need to do for your job. The better you are at your craft, the faster you will be able to do it, and the more you will be willing to try alternatives which might lead to creative innovation.
For example, I spent over a decade getting good at two job-related skills: computer programming and technical writing. I can now write both computer code and English prose faster and with higher quality than many of my peers. Being good enables me to get my work done faster and, more importantly, to experiment with more alternatives. Creative innovation often comes from rapidly iterating on many half-baked ideas. The better you are at your craft, the more times you can iterate per day, and the higher chance you will have of discovering something great.
Like your work
You'll be more effective if you like what you're working on. Note that I don't use the word "love", since very few people can be in love with their work all the time. All types of school and jobs have unpleasant and unavoidable tasks. However, years of "like" for your core subject will turn into moments of deep love if you can get good at what you do.
Do useful work
No matter how hard you work, you won't be effective unless you're doing something useful towards your goals. It's a tragedy to see people blindly working so hard on tasks that won't get them the desired results, whether it's studying the wrong material for class, approaching a research problem from an unwise angle, or doing busy-work that doesn't impress who they need to impress for their jobs. Figuring out what kind of work is useful in your particular situation is easier said than done; it requires perceptiveness, experience, and a willingness to learn from your past inefficiencies.
One to-do list
I keep all of the tasks that I need to do in one single to-do list file, synchronized across all of my computers. That way, I can always see what I need to do at a glance and prioritize accordingly. However, you can probably maintain separate work and home to-do lists if you need to keep them separated.
This tip has had the greatest benefit to my effectiveness: When you want to work on a task (e.g., from your to-do list), get your mind to enter a specific "mode" where it only knows how to do that task. Forget everything else. Remain fixed in that mode until you get tired and have to "break character". Then move onto the next task and repeat.
Here are some of my mental modes, and how long I can remain in each before I need to switch:
Don't switch modes before you get tired; context-switching ruins productivity.
Don't mix two modes in one block of time; multitasking also ruins productivity.
Finally, get fully immersed in your current mode, and don't think about another mode until you switch. You're most effective (and happy!) when your mind gets "in flow". If you're trying to write a report, don't think about the chores you need to do later. And if you're hanging out with friends, don't think about all the work waiting for you the next day.
If you've been working on a particular problem for a few hours and feel stuck, then step away. You aren't going to make any more progress at the moment, so you need to take a break. Walk around the building a few times, go exercise, do some household chores, chat with your buddies, watch stupid online cat videos—do whatever you want as long as you step away from that particular problem. Your brain will unconsciously keep working on the problem as you rest, so that in an hour or two, the solution might "magically" materialize when you return to work.
A related tip: Don't eat at your desk. Step away and eat elsewhere. Even if you brought your lunch, go find another place to eat. You don't necessarily need to eat with friends; just sitting somewhere by yourself and eating is better than sitting at your desk. First off, eating at your desk encourages multitasking, which is counter-productive. More importantly, it doesn't give your mind the space it needs to churn subconsciously on your problem.
Ask for help
Another way to get un-stuck is to ask for help. Being able to ask the right person for help at the right time is an art. You need to build up good working relations with people so that they are willing to help you. And in terms of timing, you don't want to ask too hastily, or else you will risk wasting your colleagues' time. But you don't want to wait too long, either, because you'll have wasted more of your own time.
Effective people channel their rage to push harder on new opportunities rather than withdrawing into paralyzing depression. I've experienced both forms of rage: 1.) Feeling utterly hopeless and withdrawing inward, which is obviously counter-productive. 2.) As I've become more skilled and mature, my response to setbacks has been to channel my rage towards purposeful action. I now feel invigorated by being enraged over professional setbacks, because it knocks my mind off of its comfortable pedestal and forces me to devise alternative strategies or to seek assistance.
Less input, more output
Effectiveness is measured by how much you output, not how much you input. Thus, if you want to be more effective, then produce more output and consume less input. Sure, consuming input is important for learning your craft and understanding related work, but most people input too much and output too little. It's always easier to consume than to produce, so you need to make an effort to spend more time producing.
Always march forward
If you're not feeling energized enough to do significant work, then pick a less important task and make some small amount of forward progress on it. Always keep marching forward, even in tiny increments. Everyone has days when they're not feelin' it. One big difference between effective and non-effective people is their willingness to attempt forward progress even when they're not feelin' it.
For example, I'm a morning person, so I like to tackle the most challenging work as soon as I get into the office. Then in the late afternoons when I'm feeling lethargic, I usually do some boring grunge work or errands so that I don't have to waste precious time doing it the next morning. That way, I'm always marching forward—doing significant work when I have energy and boring mindless work when I'm tired.
Get organized first
On a related note, before you can get to the interesting part of your work, you often need to do quite a bit of boring setup and organizational chores – e.g., collecting data, outlining a report, setting up a presentation template, installing and configuring software, setting up skeleton code for a programming project, finding and formatting the references for an academic paper.
Use the time when you're not feeling energized to do these boring tasks, so that you can dive straight into more interesting work when you're feeling your best. Another side effect of getting organized is that it reduces the transaction cost of productive work, which makes you more likely to want to do the interesting parts in the near future.
I personally work the best in the mornings, so I try to do boring setup tasks during the prior afternoon or evening when I'm tired. That way, as soon as I bust into the office each morning, I'm ready to jump into my main work without needing to waste precious mental energy on mundane setup and organizing.
Prime the pump
At the end of each work day, prepare the first task you're planning to work on the next day. That way, when you head into work each morning, you know exactly what you're going to do. For example, if I want to read and revise a paper draft the next morning, I will print out the paper and put it on my office chair before leaving work.
You don't need to meticulously plan out everything you want to accomplish every day, since that's unrealistic. Getting started is often the hardest part of each morning, so if you prime your mind with the first task of the day, then momentum can propel you through the rest of the day.
Burst then nurse
I've done some of my best work during bursts of inspiration which last from a few days to a few weeks. During those times, I focus so intensely on my work that I can barely speak in coherent sentences. However, after that initial burst dies down, I spend much more time "nursing" my creation to grow it into something substantive.
Always be ready to give it your all when inspiration strikes, but be willing to do the unglamorous work of nursing your creations to adulthood if you want them to succeed.
Keep 'em separated
I've been most effective when I do all of my work in the office and don't do any work at home, even if I have to arrive early or stay late. That way, whenever I'm home, my mind is never in work mode, and I can chill guilt-free.
However, if you must work at home, then dedicate one room or computer to use for work and keep it separated from the rest of your home life. And never, ever bring your laptop into bed!
Procrastination is often a symptom of sub-optimal work habits, so all of the above tips can help you avoid it. Stop making excuses, get your butt in your seat, and start working.
It's hard to be effective if you're not physically and emotionally healthy. Don't skimp on food; saving a few dollars isn't worth the hit in productivity. Exercise in whatever way feels best to you. Avoid getting sick. Maintain healthy and lasting relationships, both personally and professionally.
This final tip is a no-brainer: If you're not having at least some amount of fun in your life, then it's hard to be effective at your work. All of the above tips can help you free up more time and energy for guilt-free fun.