Time is Citations: How I Plan My Days

In business, time is money. But in academia, the currency is not published units but citations of your publications. For someone to not only read your paper but understand and cite it, you need to produce high-quality, readable papers. And that requires deep work.

Deep Work

I’m an avid reader of Cal Newport’s blog where he writes about managing your attention and energy to output high-quality work. I strongly believe that a person’s work output is directly dependent on the hours they spend in deep work. “Deep work” is when you are fully “in the zone” - you have notifications turned off on your phone, you aren’t checking your email or social media, and you are fully engaged in your complex activity. For me those activities could be writing or editing a paper, adding new features to my code, carefully curating a well-designed test dataset, tweaking an explanatory figure to make it more clear, working on an upcoming presentation with a new audience, or doing a new analysis of the data.

To help keep track of your deep work, Cal Newport suggests planning every minute of your day. It may sound crazy and obsessive-compulsive, but it really works. What he does is plan his day out on paper and adjust the schedule as things happen. I don’t like that because then my day looks really messy and I want my “on-paper” plan to be an exact record of what actually happened. Instead, I plan my day out on Google Calendar the day before (during the “shutdown” time) and record what actually happened in a Moleskine daily planner notebook (I love well made stationary products). Japanese pens are my favorite so I use the Uni-ball Signo UM-151 pens from JetPens — my preferred color is “Green Black.” Additionally, I keep a self private GitHub repository containing markdown files for every week, and summarize what I was able to do that day.

My days, step-by-step

Here’s the step-by-step of my planning rituals, with pointers to the columns of the figure below. The top is a very productive day where even though the plan changed, I still was able to get a lot done (except for those annoying UCSD ethics trainings…). The bottom is a less productive day that was governed by meetings and talks (including Aaron Quinlan of bedtools fame!) but I was still able to get something done. These are fairly good examples, the “bad” examples (that are less productive) are quite boring - I only wrote down an hour or so of deep work so I’m too embarassed to show them.

Planning vs actual outcomes

  1. At the beginning of the week, I create a new markdown file and start filling it in with notes from last week and plans for this week. Sometimes my notes start with a big ole rant about some problem I’ve been running into, or have a big rolling todo list that I keep updated for the week. (First column - files for each week)
    • The most important thing about each week’s file is that each day is a separate section. This way, you can keep track of the incremental progress you made that day, and what you hope to accomplish that day.
    • This is instead of doing project-based organization, which I find makes me less motivated because projects take a long time, so at the project-level, it doesn’t look like I did much. But if I keep daily progress notes, then I feel better about myself.
  2. Before each day starts, e.g. during “shutdown” time the day before (or sometimes on Fridays for the next Monday), I plan out what I want to do on Google Calendar. (Second column - plan for each day)
    • I find this works quite well because at the beginning of the day, I’m bursting with energy and want to do all of the things! But by the end of the day I’ve realized that I can only do so much, and I’m much better at prioritizing what’s important, while at the beginning of the day I’m much better at doing things. So planning at the end of the day works for me.
    • I make sure to schedule 30m for “shutdown” at the end of the day. If I don’t do this, the system breaks because I stop planning, and I am at the mercy of my morning impulses, rather than being in control of what I’m trying to do. Skipping this step breaks the cycle and my system is certain to fail.
  3. Throughout the day, I “stopwatch” my time by writing down in my planner the exact minute that I start and stop each activity. (Third column)
    • I find that the mere act of writing down the time when I start helps me stay focused. It signals to me a commitment to the thing I’m doing, that it is important and requires depth. When my phone vibrates or something pops into my head, it gets interpreted through the lens of the deep work I’m currently doing. If it’s not important to the deep work, it gets ignored or if it’s urgent, captured (below)
      • If something comes to mind about an urgent task (e.g. submit travel insurance form), I write it down in my planner or a sticky note so I’ve captured it, but continue on with my deep work. I do not interrupt my deep work.
    • If I get interrupted, I end the time and start again
  4. At the end of the day, during “shutdown,” I briefly write down what I was able to do in my markdown document and what I hope to do tomorrow (Fourth column), and plan my tomorrow on Google Calendar (Second column). Pretty cyclical, huh?
  5. Finally I write down the hours and minutes of deep work into the monthly part of the planner. (below)

Here’s where I write the hours and minutes I spent in deep work each day. I find that it helps keep me motivated to sustain the work and get more hours in the next day.

Monthly tally

Personally, I’ve found that ~4 hours of deep work is about when I max out, because if I do 5 hours one day, next day I end up doing 2 hours. But 4 hours a day is sustainable. As you can see, December hasn’t been that productive of a month for me - only about 2-3 hours of deep work a day. The 40m day was one where I was traveling and just didn’t set aside a time to fully focus and was at the mercy of my impulses.

When you first start doing it, you may get frustrated that you’re not getting much done — that’s okay. I get disappointed in myself when I don’t Don’t get frustrated, just keep tracking. Just like any other goal such as losing weight, results don’t come right away.

Don’t overdo it

I work in an “open office” environment which makes doing deep work quite difficult as there is constant movement and potential for interruptions around me. Our lab is quite collaborative so there are times when your input or insight is needed for someone’s project to go through. I made the mistake of taking this to an extreme and getting very frustrated when people would interrupt me while I was “in the zone” and tried to set boundaries but this closed me off from others. As Richard Hamming says in his fabulous talk, You and Your Research about people who closed themselves off:

I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don’t know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, “The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.” I don’t know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing - not much, but enough that they miss fame.

So I had to learn to temper this desire to get solid work done and strike a balance between being available and performing intense work. Now, I take lunch off to socialize and chat with the group (rather than working through it), take my headphones off and interact with the world, and when I really need to get work done, I run away and go hide in a place that nobody can find me.

Take what works for you

Productivity is very personal and what works for me may not work for you. I am not trying to say that this is the OneTrueWay(TM) of being productive. This system exploits my love of git version control and simple Markdown text files (the self private github repo), beautiful writing on good paper with nice pens (hence the Moleskine planner and Japanese pens), and flexibility of Google Calendar. My system may seem overwhelming at first because it is the product of many years of trying different things. For me, online tools like Asana and Trello make planning “too fun” and get in the way of what I want to do. Writing everything out on paper makes for an ugly planner with lots of crossing out which I don’t like. Take the ideas that work for you and leave the ones that don’t. (Thanks for the quote, James Clear!)

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