Three types of work

As a starting graduate student I’ve been thinking of what my work habits should be to get the most out of graduate school. I certainly want to put in as much time as I can but I also don’t want to be spending all day and night and weekends working. Graduate school is a really bad misnomer — it’s not really school because my main goal is to do research and produce something novel. However, it’s not like a real job either because my timings are more flexible and for the first few years I will be taking classes (and exams and doing projects). Personally I’m going to view it as a research job where I get to take classes to learn what I need.

Last night I was listening to Derek Sivers being interviewed about his work and life. Derek Sivers is a musician-turned-businessman-turned-millionaire who has a very minimalist philosophy on life and work. I suggest you listen to the interview and check out his blog. It’ll be an hour (or two) well spent. Listening to the interview helped crystallize some of the thoughts regarding work and productivity that have been swirling in my mind for the last few weeks.

Starting from the assumption that you know what you want to do with your life (computer science research for me), there are three categories that your work can fall into:

The first is work that is absolutely core to your goal and that you love doing. For me this is writing code, building systems and observing their properties and behaviors.  This is the main reason I’m in graduate school. Though I love doing it, it is also important that this is what I get paid to do, this is what sustains me in a quite literal way. It is important enough that I’ve built my life so that I can get paid to do it full time. If what you consider to be your core work is not the same as what sustains you, then you should probably be looking to change that.

The second type of work is work that is not absolutely core to your goal but you enjoy anyway. For me this is speaking and giving presentations about my work. Writing blogs and papers also falls in this category (not all the time, but often enough). I think (and hope) that being a TA and taking classes will also go here. This is all stuff that is important and I generally like doing it, but it comes second to my core work. I won’t have papers to write or conferences to go to if I don’t get the research done first.

The third type of work is stuff that you don’t enjoy, is not core to your goals, but needs to get done anyway. For me this includes paperwork I need to do, forms to fill up, bills to pay, taxes to file and so on. This is stuff that is not core to my work at all, but I still need to get it done or there will be problems down the road. It makes more sense for me to do this stuff up front and get it out of the way than to let it sit until it becomes a big issue.

Anything that does not fall in this category is not work even if it seems like “work”. Replying to email or clearing out my list of RSS feeds is not work, no matter how much interesting information might come through. Agonizing over which Macbook to get is also not work even if I will be using it to get work done later. Reading books or listening to music or going for walks also do not fall into the “work” category. This does not mean that they are not important, it just means that they aren’t central to what I want to be doing with my life right now.

What this means is that I want to maximize my time (and energy) doing work while leaving enough space for non-work things so that I don’t burn out, be miserable or go crazy. I have to maximize investment in work types I and II (because they have the greatest return) while not procrastinating on type III (because that needs to get done). It also means that for my non-work things I need to decide what is actually important to me and helps me re-energize from work. I’d rather be reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than catching up on Slashdot. I’d rather be calling home than hitting delete in my inbox. At the same time, I think it’s important to spend some time just lying in the sun and letting the world go by. I’m not entirely sure how this idea of work and non-work will affect my lifestyle and habits but I think it’s a good set of guidelines to start off with.

3 thoughts on “Three types of work

  1. the “non-work” time is vital, trust me. Just like the cooldown phase after a bout of heavy exercise. It is in that floating free-fall state of the brain that a lot of things just slip past or coagulate without any controlling intention. And that really helps, not just in recharging your batteries but getting novel ideas ( a sort of tangential approach to a problem as opposed to directly applying your greycells to working it out), introspection and all that.

    I like this post, it made me think.

  2. I like this 🙂
    ” I’d rather be reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than catching up on Slashdot. I’d rather be calling home than hitting delete in my inbox.”
    So true.

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