A friend of mine has a track record of achieving impressive feats that require lots of discipline and work. To wit:
- Taught himself Calculus over the summer when he was 16
- Graduated high school in 3 years with a 4.0 GPA
- Graduated college in 3 years with a BS in Math (age 20) with a ~ 4.0 GPA
- Semi-pro mountain bike racer
- Wrote an instructional book on the statistics programming language R
- Acheived a broad and deep understanding of Data Science, R, and Data Visualization during his postgraduate studies (apparently there’s alot to this)
- Gets up at 4:30 every morning
I asked him for an interview because I knew he was such a dedicated and disciplined worker. I was curious to learn what techniques he used to stay on task to achieve such taxing feats of both physical and mental discipline. Specifically, I was curious about what role routine and habit played in his daily life (a big one, it turns out) and how he relates to work.
I was also curious about how he deals with having lots of different things on his plate at once, and making sense of the myriad priorities and queues that need to be set to stay on top of things.
Without further ado (responses are mostly paraphrased):
List some words that come to mind when you think of “work”:
- 4:30 a.m. wake up, work on dissertation until 6
- 6 a.m. breakfast and up to an hour of reading the paper and blogs
- 7 a.m. start working on one of my many non-dissertation related projects
- 10 a.m. go on a bike ride
- 11:30 home to eat lunch and skim RSS reader
- 12:30 back to work till 5 (somedays later)
- Early dinner, usually around 5
While working I often bounce back and forth to my RSS reader, especially if I’m reading academic stuff, which is hard to stay focused on. Sometimes I put in half days on the weekends, sometimes full days. At least 1 of the 2 weekend days I’m up at 4:30. The other day I sleep in till 6 or so…. rarely past 8. I typically go to bed between 8:30 and 10:30. I start to get run down if I get less than 7 hours/night of regular sleep.
How important is a routine to your output? Crucial.
Have you ever had trouble scheduling time into your day for new endeavors? How do you manage your priorities and use of time for multiple projects? I keep lots of running lists of the different projects I’m working on. The lists are essential for my peace of mind. I also keep a master list which contains all the different projects (which have their own lists) that I have going on. I would describe my usage of lists as a psychological imperative rather than a habit. I have 8 carefully constructed workspaces on my computer [running Linux]- one of them is entirely dedicated to lists. I keep a planner for scheduled meetings.
How do you feel when you don’t get enough work done because you failed to put in the time? Never happens.
How do you feel when you don’t get enough work done because you failed to put in enough effort? I don’t feel too bad, I accept that sometimes I’m just going to be burned out and need to take it easy. Sometimes work makes me feel frustrated and angry… then it passes. I usually just keep working. Most days I take a 10-15 minute nap, too.
How much time do you spend setting goals and prioritizing how you are going to spend your time? Very little. I almost never set goals per se since I’m always able to make the timelines I set in my mind. Sometimes I’ll go through my lists to prioritize, but I don’t really have a system for that or anything. Typically I just get a big task list and start working on something.
How do you say no to things that might interfere with your schedule? If those things are work related, I don’t really say no. Socially… I don’t get that many invitations to go out during the workweek so it’s not much of an issue.
So there you have it, folks… get up early, form a routine, and keep a bunch of lists and a calendar. Sounds reasonable to me, although I’m not sure I’m willing to work as hard as my friend does (I think he often works well past 5… having started at 4:30 a.m.).
Anyway, would love to hear feedback on what your system is!