What value do you think productivity coaching has for the EA community?
Two things. First, my clients get more done now. They’re able to make more grants or finish their theses faster or write an extra paper. And for effective altruists, getting more done means more impact. I crunched the numbers a while back and my clients reported getting an average of four more productive hours of work every week—from a one-hour coaching call. This isn’t even counting the continued impact after they stop coaching.
Second, my clients are investing in their career capital. They’re building skills for planning, experimenting, and getting stuff done. They’ll carry that through to future work that they can do better because they learned those skills. And hopefully, by investing in those skills now, the effective altruism community will be in an even better position to make an impact ten or fifty years from now.
Based on your interactions with EA community members and organizations, what other professional/personal development services do you think EAs could benefit from?
Obviously therapy, if you might be struggling with a mental health issue. I’m pretty excited that there are now a couple of therapists focusing on the EA community, Ewelina Tur and Damon Pourtahmaseb-Sasi. I’m hoping they can help folks cut through the logistical nightmare of accessing therapy.
What are some of the most common issues that you come across when coaching others?
Prioritization comes up a lot. But really, that’s because it covers so much.
For one person, prioritization might include working through big questions to decide on a high-level goal to work towards, such as AI safety. And spending six months reflecting, discussing, and building models to identify what needs to happen to realize that goal. And choosing a select few projects to focus on that seem promising based on those models. And iterating on the projects as you get more information about how valuable they are in practice. And ruthlessly doing the most important actions each day so you’re not wasting motion.
So yeah, I talk about prioritization a lot. We might also discuss deep work habits or routines for getting started working, but it usually comes back to prioritization.
Due to COVID-19, a lot of people who used to work from an office (or coffee shop, library, etc.) are now working from home. Do you have any general advice or best practices that you’d suggest for maintaining productivity while working from home?
Honestly, my biggest quarantine tip is to take care of yourself first. No one is going to be optimally productive if they’re lonely, tired, or going stir crazy from not moving all day. And while quarantine is fine for some folks, others are finding it’s shredded the routines and support network they rely on. So focus on productivity after you’re getting social time, exercise, decently healthy meals, and sufficient sleep.
After that, my top productivity advice is the same regardless of where you’re working. Deliberately choose your most important work, set clear goals for how to accomplish it, and carve out deep work time to focus on it. If you’re accomplishing your top priority each day and putting in several hours of focused work, you’re probably doing okay.
Are there any books or resources that you’d recommend for people that are looking to improve their productivity?
I always struggle a bit with this question. Like, there’s a bunch of great books I could say. Off the top of my head, there’s Motivation Hacker, Essentialism, Peak, Deep Work, The 4-Hour Work Week, The Power of Habit, Getting Things Done, and The Procrastination Equation. They’re all pretty good in their own way. But each book kind of thinks it’s the answer to life, the universe, and everything. And it’s not. But they all have good ideas and you can get a long way by picking up the most useful tips from each.
Okay, I do actually have a few stronger recommendations for particular audiences.
I think every ambitious high schooler, or in the first few years of undergrad for that matter, should read How to be a High School Superstar by Cal Newport. It’s helpful for figuring out what you want to become good at. Plus I like its vibe of agency about actually believing that you can become good at something, even when you’re young.
For people early in their careers, but who know what they want to become good at, the Top Performer Course is pretty useful. It covers a bunch of stuff around how to find out what it takes to become an expert, plus practical tips for then actually doing the work.
For folks doing research, I’d recommend Jacob Steinhardt’s article “Research as a Stochastic Decision Process.” It describes a way to increase the efficiency of your projects, particularly research. The really simple version is that it’s fastest to first do the parts of the project that are most likely to fail or change what other steps you will do, rather than doing the easiest parts first.
And last but not least, I think a lot of effective altruists would benefit from reading Nate Soares’ Replacing Guilt series. This might seem like a weird recommendation for productivity. But a good number of people come to me feeling guilty they aren’t more productive than they are, and I think that guilt sabotages their attempts to become more productive. They feel guilty about not being more productive, so they feel bad when reminded about work. So they’re just less likely to enjoy their work. Sometimes they’re less likely to even think about their work, which definitely makes it harder to be productive. Hence tips for building a motivation system that doesn’t run on guilt.
With regard to productivity, what do you struggle with most and how did you overcome this?
Probably how to stay motivated without any external pressure. I mean, my clients expect me to show up and be focused. But outside of that? I don’t have a boss, professor, or coworkers. I don’t have any deadlines. I work alone, from home. The rewards are far in the future for, say, posting an article. And to top it off, I have a health condition called POTS which makes me tired like a third of the time. Basically, my work is the perfect storm of zero accountability, with no panic monster in sight.
In other words, I have to find ways to motivate myself entirely on my own.
So, I built my own accountability network, starting with Stickk penalties. Some money on the line was a good way to motivate myself when I was really struggling, and now I use it to put teeth behind the deadlines I set. After much experimentation, I’ve added daily coworking sessions on focusmate.com to protect space for deep work. And each month I email a group of people I respect, pre-committing to goals for the new month and telling them of my successes or failures on last month’s goals.
Of course, those tools work as well as they do because I’ve spent a lot of time training myself to want to do my work. Part of that process was learning what I enjoyed and then paying attention to that happiness so that when I sit down to do work, I expect that doing it will make me feel good. Another part of learning to want to work was growing to appreciate the challenge. I can set a goal and enjoy the challenge of getting it done efficiently, of producing the desired quality of work without wasting any effort.
And finally, I accept that there are limits to what I can do. As long as I do a couple hours of deep work every day plus my coaching calls, I’m happy. And if I fail at my goals, I’ll use the failure as data about what to change next time to get better results—but I don’t beat myself up about it.
Are there any popular productivity trends/fads/strategies that you are particularly skeptical about?
In general, I’m not a fan of “one size fits all” approaches to productivity. It’s possible to waste a lot of time on things we “should” do. For example, meditation. It’s great for some people. But I see people trying to meditate regularly and really struggling to stick with it. They don’t feel motivated, they can’t point to any clear benefit in their lives, and they don’t really seem to enjoy it. Yet they want to spend 15 minutes a day on it. That’s a lot of time!
If you had the ability to magically give everyone in an organization one additional hour of time each week to focus solely on improving their productivity, how would you recommend they spend that time?
Run experiments! In that time, you could run an experiment every week or two.
These can be super simple. For example, I tried various combinations and found that it works best for me to take a caffeine pill every third day. And I’ve tested, so I know that setting goals for my day works much better than either time blocking or just doing what I feel like.
Experiments don’t need to be complicated. Really, just ask yourself what your biggest productivity blocks are. Maybe ask yourself if there’s an obvious idea that would help or get a list of ideas from a book or blog. Then try out a couple of ideas to see what helps. For many experiments, a week or two is enough to test it.
If it helps enough to be well worth the effort, keep doing it! Otherwise, leave it behind with a clear conscience. Either way, then you can try a new experiment!