Picking Your Battles

Over the weekend I took a few hours off from a paper push to watch a couple episodes of the second season of Gotham. In one of them, Alfred Pennyworth has some words of wisdom for the young Bruce Wayne (who has just signed him up for a fist fight):

Pick your battles, don’t let your battles pick you.

Just prior to watching this, I was busy planning a trip I could have planned weeks ago. That probably explains why I thought about Alfred’s line in the context of planning and organization. I often put things off until the last moment, and then get them done in the nick of time, feeling like my back’s against the wall. As a result, I’m often just doing the bare minimum, and repeatedly losing the opportunity to do a better job, or as happened with planning this trip, get more out of an experience.

Being early and prepared lets you pick your battles. Procrastination and disorganization lets your battles pick you, and often lets them kick your ass.

Salvaging Dead Time and Procrastiworking

The last few weeks have been another continuous episode of “too much to do, too little time”. Graduate school is a very interesting environment from a work and productivity standpoint. On the one hand I don’t really have a fixed schedule (outside of a few hours of class a week) and can work whenever I want. I also live close to campus so commuting isn’t a issue. However distractions abound. I’m not meeting with professors on as regular a basis as I was, but there are still lots of talks, colloquia and seminars that I find really interesting and want to go see. It’s very easy to have the day be perforated by lots of little things and never get anything done. However, there’s one trick that I’ve learned that in the past week or so that can mitigate this fragmentation and helps me get things done: salvaging dead time.

Salvaging Dead Time

I currently have a class that runs from 10:10am to 11:25am. Then I go to a lunchtime talk at noon. Taking out the 5 minutes or so to get back to my office that leaves about half an hour that would normally be wasted on Hacker News or Twitter. As a graduate student I need to have pretty long blocks of time to sit, think and get work done. Thirty minutes generally isn’t a lot of time to get brain-work done and hence this would be “dead time” – time that is just lost.

However half an hour is more than enough time to knock off errands. Today I filed two helpdesk tickets, processed email down to inbox zero, paid my power bill and wrote out my rent check. Not only did I get actual work done (and a little high from crossing them off my checklist) it means I don’t have to take out time for them later. I don’t have to devote separate time chunks to errands later and I can allocate that time to actual research work. I think that counts as an all-round win.

Procrastiworking

While knocking off errands works great to salvage small blocks of dead time (up to about half-an-hour) sometimes there are sometimes larger blocks of 1-2 hours that also needs salvaging. This generally happens around dinner – I don’t have a fixed dinner time. Hence there’s often this awkward state where I won’t be having dinner till a little later, but don’t have anything planned before. Normally that time would evaporate into nothingness, but I’ve been trying out a different technique to salvage it.

While an hour isn’t enough time to do real research work, it definitely is enough to do some programming exercises or go through a few more pages of Real World Haskell. Earlier this week I decided to finally sit down and learn Haskell seriously. I’m familiar enough with Haskell at the moment that I can get up and running in a few minutes. Doing exercises is challenging enough that it takes brain work and requires thinking and learning. However at the same I don’t feel bad about leaving in the middle for dinner (I can generally finish the program I’m working on before leaving). This is classic procrastiworking: I’m slacking off on what I really should be doing (research) but instead of digesting Twitter I’m doing something beneficial.

There’s also a small matter of me being lazy and using dead time as an excuse for slacking off. Even though I know I could use an hour for programming exercises I’m tempted to slack off anyway. I’ve been trying to use procrastiworking for that too. I start off doing something that is really not work: like updating all my git repos or cleaning up my Emacs config. But once that’s over, since I’m already at the computer in a terminal, dealing with scripts and code I just quietly move myself over to a Haskell file and start hacking. It helps if I leave an unfinished function that I can then fill in (or a TODO note).

In Conclusion

Salvaging dead time and procrastiworking isn’t a catch-all solution for time management but I’ve found that it works great for the small blocks of time that I would have been wasting otherwise. Of course, you can’t fill in the blanks unless you have things to fill them with. Personally I use OmniFocus to keep a list of errands that I can go through in sequence. I also have a “project” for the longer blocks – working on Haskell – that easily decomposes into blocks of just a few minutes in length that can be taken up and put down without too much buildup. Finally I hope that in this case practive makes perfect and I get better at making use of dead time the more I consciously do it.