Interview with a Productivity Fiend

a highly productive individual flosses vigorously

Flossing: the hallmark of a self-disciplined individual

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”:

I tend to work at a pretty manic pace… so: stress, urgency, computer, posture problems, and health issues… 60% of my work is done in emacs for Latex or R [programming languages for statistics and data analysis] so I get the image of two monitors, one with emacs  [a script editor for programming] and the other with R or a document for latex, with random music being played loudly
What is your routine?
  • 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.

Ben considers the void, and its disordered chaos, from his bed

"For nothing matters except life; and, of course, order." — Virginia Woolf

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!


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Interview with a Productivity Fiend

  1. Rachel says:

    I found this piece to be pretty awesome. I think you should let the productivity fiend interview you. You asked questions that are relevant to your productivity struggles. I’d like to see what this flossing fiend asks of your behaviors.

    More interviews please. I recommend Susanna, she’s a fiend-ess.

    • jeffmjack says:

      Glad you liked it. I was worried that people wouldn’t like it because I didn’t feel like there was a big conclusive ending.. although I have received more positive feedback on this post verbally than any other.
      More interviews to come. I’ll look into getting in touch with Susanna… anybody know anyone else that does extraordinary things? I would love to interview Neville from but I want to have my blog’s shit together more before hitting him up :)

  2. Pingback: Week 5 Progress Report… the Linux week | Assaying Data Technology for Fun and Profit

  3. Johnf649 says:

    Very interesting subject , appreciate it for posting . All human beings should try to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why. by James Thurber. ffekgegcgekc

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>