Ravi Mohan's Blog

Friday, November 09, 2007

Experiments with Time Management

After viewing Randy Pausch's lecture on Time Management, I've been experimenting with various time management practices. (yeah I know how management-ey and buzzword-ey that sounds, sorry). It helps that I am going through the busiest month in my entire life, so I am more motivated than usual to make this work.

The most successful habit I've adopted is to put a money value on my time. As Randy says in the first few minutes of his talk, people are generally willing to give you their time, but not their money. If you ask people to spend a quarter of an hour to help you arrange the furniture for a talk, they will happily do so, but they won't hand over 10 $ for no obvious reason.

Once you start putting a dollar value on your time, though, strange things happen. For example, I decided not to attend Barcamp. (I'd registered, I cancelled it). Say an hour of my time is worth say a measly 25 $ (being a cheap outsourced-to Indian programmer). Travelling to and from Barcamp, and attending 3 or 4 sessions would take, at a minimum 6 hours. 6 * 25 = 150 $.

Would I spend 150 $ to attend Barcamp? Not on your life! To be honest, there are other disincentives also - I really don't want to attend a meet which is so "implementation lite" - where there is so large a focus on things like search engine optimization (!) and blogging.

People actually think blogging is a big enough deal to form "collectives" about blogging? - there is even a "collective" for "radical ideas" -- yeah right, that makes sense .. NOT. The mind boggles. I consider blogging the intellectual equivalent of writing a post-it note. I cannot imagine self-identifying as a "blogger" and making a big deal out of it. God have Mercy.

Back to Time Management. Since I don't (in general) attend phone calls from unknown numbers/people when I am working, I don't have interruption issues. And once I concentrate on something, it is hard even for people (even if they are sitting right next to me) to jerk me out of the zone - I don't hear anything when I focus on work so they'd have to nudge me, and risk getting a laptop thrown at their heads) so I didn't benefit so much from that part of his talk. But the money value of time is an excellent perception to have. Would I spend 50 $ to have a good conversation with a friend/someone doing interesting things? definitely.

He is also right about keeping a time journal. The result of such an experiment is the most horrifying document you will ever see in your life. The good news is that with such an abysmal base, you can make substantial improvements in a very short order.

To round things off, a couple of snippets from a Phil Greenspun article.

Ask a wage slave what he'd like to accomplish. Chances are the response will be something like "I'd start every day at the gym and work out for two hours until I was as buff as Brad Pitt. Then I'd practice the piano for three hours. I'd become fluent in Mandarin so that I could be prepared to understand the largest transformation of our time. I'd really learn how to handle a polo pony. I'd learn to fly a helicopter. I'd finish the screenplay that I've been writing and direct a production of it in HDTV."

Why hasn't he accomplished all of those things? "Because I'm chained to this desk 50 hours per week at this horrible [insurance|programming|government|administrative|whatever] job.

So he has no doubt that he would get all these things done if he didn't have to work? "Absolutely none. If I didn't have the job, I would be out there living the dream."

Suppose that the guy cashes in his investments and does retire. What do we find? He is waking up at 9:30 am, surfing the Web, sorting out the cable TV bill, watching DVDs, talking about going to the gym, eating Doritos, and maybe accomplishing one of his stated goals.

Retirement forces you to stop thinking that it is your job that holds you back. For most people the depressing truth is that they aren't that organized, disciplined, or motivated.

This is so true it is not funny. And one doesn't have to retire to encounter this phenomenon.I know many people who drop out of the 9-5 rat race for various reasons ( startups, research , search for the meaning of life .. whatever), and then find that months and years pass with nothing substantial being achieved.

Another interesting suggestion from the same article.

publish a public Web diary of what you do every day, thus discouraging you from wasting time because you'll be ashamed to admit that all you accomplished yesterday was a 15-minute oil change and a trip to Target

That is a very interesting idea, but a little forbidding, exposing one's lack of productivity to the world. But I should probably grit my teeth and try it for a month or so. If you want to see what this would look like for someone who is really really good at what he does (vs humbler mortals like you and me) see John Carmack's dot plan files (warning - Flash, sorry I couldn't find an html document of these and I am running out of my "write a blog entry" time slot). There's even a theory that these (Carmacks' plan files) were the origins of the present day blogs, no matter what Dave Winer says.

While I don't quite have the guts to "dot plan" my puny daily efforts, I could probably list down what I plan to do each month on the first day of the month and a report on the last day of the month detailing what actually got done.

So, as an experiment, here is what I need to do this month (November 2007) (client work excluded - privacy concerns blah).

  1. Research - Solve the last 2 issues, code, write up research results into a paper and send out for review. Hard deadline of 24th Nov
  2. Write a Reinforcement Learning library for the friendly folks at at the DRDO. This is a a lot of work
  3. Implement the algorithms in chapters 9-12 of AIMA. (First Order Logic and planning, for anyone working through the book). Release the next version of the AIMA Java code.
Even with the newly adopted time management practices, that is a tonne of work which brings me to -

Blogging Time Over. Back to Work.


Mani said...

Few thoughts..
Imagine if Randy Pausch had thought about money-time equation for that presentation..I am positve, he wouldn't have received any money. He would have got a much more rewarding compensation.
I think of all the people influenced by the presentation (including you) - I feel the value that he added to the time he spent in the presentation was what made it much valuable than the money-time equation.
If you had been at the barcamp, you would have influenced atleast one person. that would have added more value than the 150$ - a measly sum if you calculate the virtual-value.i mean virtual-in both ways, virtue + virtual(abstract).
I think the value-time is equally important equation in comparison. We cannot apply money-time math to 'outside work'. To cite your eg. from prev post, prog-manager talk, theres more to valueofpleasure-in-doing-this vs money-i-lose/gain-in doing this.
This is no counterargument to your thoughts, infact even we remove the monetary aspecct, and simply give time=weight, it still works as you said. I agree with you, along with a different flavour.
Also want to add-yes-'your blogging time'- should be censored, not your 'to-blog-this'-threads of thought. I know you have own reasons to blog, but if you will agree that the feedback to your posts have any influence, then you should consider it.

Ravi said...

"Imagine if Randy Pausch had thought about money-time equation for that presentation..I am positve, he wouldn't have received any money. He would have got a much more rewarding compensation."

please listen to the speech and do some reading about the circumstances surrounding the speech. :-) Randy Pausch's speech makes sense in the context *as per the money=time" rule.

Accepting your time has a money value doesn't mean you stop doing anything. It just means you make conscious decisions about participating vs drifting into something

"If you had been at the barcamp, you would have influenced atleast one person"

I did attend one Barcamp. I was not "influenced" by anyone. Most of the people there were very "content lite" and the "content/idea heavy" people I knew anyway.

Even if there are one or two good people, non bloggers, non "I wanna startup a company pls someone gimme money " types, digging the gold out of all that muck is very labor intensive.

friend, give me the minimum credit by accepting i know what I am talkng about, at least as regards to what *I* am influenced by etc:-) Don't put words in my mouth. :-)

"also want to add-yes-'your blogging time'- should be censored, not your 'to-blog-this'-threads of thought. "

huh? I can't make heads or tails out of this. What should be censored and what shouldn't be?

Mani said...


I didn't mean censoring > I meant rationing your blog time. I didn't even read before posting. i don't know why i wrote censoring :) . seriously!
if you can edit the comments..it will be easy on others who read-than add confusion.

I am not disagreeing on any of money-time equation.I am not arguing with a different set of thought. I hastily worded my randy pausch sentences all wrongly.

regarding barcamp/conferences: I said YOU influencing others, not otherway around. I always see these silly groups as 'networking', thats all they do.

Where did I say anything that you don't know your stuff. I am emphasizing your-stuff is good. I meant the feedback in that context of appreciation. don't tell you are all stoic and all..

PS: edit/delete this comment if you wish;i am just clarifying myself.

Ravi said...

Ok now I understand. Seems I misread your comment as well. As for deleting your comment, why should I? I don't mind people disagreeing with me (I'm not saying you did) if they try to be reasonable.


Vladimir Levin said...

I think your list of items is excellent for two reason:

1) Prioritizing: Do each item on the list in order of descending priority. It's a helpful technique because it prevents the thrashing that results from too much multitasking where one can wind up exhausted yet having accomplished little.

2) You're making a firm commitment. If you can, make that commitment directly to a stakeholder in order to increase the urgency - after all, no one casually reading your blog *really* cares. For example, when I've wanted to learn something in the past, I've scheduled free tutorials on the subject. When you know a group of people are taking a few hours out of their day to attend your presentation, you make sure to be ready.

Just my two cents. Cheers.

chandrakant said...

"That is a very interesting idea, but a little forbidding, exposing one's lack of productivity to the world. But I should probably grit my teeth and try it for a month or so".

I guess it doesnt need to be public for it to be shameful enough to make you be more productive. Just seeing it yourself should be incentive enough to want to make it more meaningful. In fact, I should probably start one today. I have thought of this before (creating a weblog just to keep track of most of the tasks you do during the day) but havent really had enough drive to do it. Its strange how it seems more meaningful when I hear a few more people other than myself saying it. Come to think of it, thats probably why I didnt implement a lot of my ideas :)

Biji said...

Recently one of junior in office did the first BARCAMP in kerala. From what I could make out , it was a meeting ground for "who wanted to do something" but can't do it themselves. These people also felt that networking == getting things done.

Time to rename this to "The BAR"

hash said...

aah.. the story of my life.
thanks for the post. I shud stop wasting time and stop reading ur blog:p
ps: I came here from lambda, if neelk says he likes ur blog, then its a top compliment.
Actually I did a lot of web (re)search on parallel languages/ implementations, even bought CML(Reppy) last year, but I havent even started it, quite ashamed I feel. Wud be happy to lend it to you(if ur still in b'lore).
pps: check out http://manticore.cs.uchicago.edu/

Ravi said...


nothing to be ashamed of :-). Your "bottleneck" blog seems to indicate you have been doing interesting work. As for working *consistently* just wait till you have to work for a decade in enterprise programming like I did. :-P

We should meet up one of these days to exchange notes. Your blog profile is sketchy on details. What do you do? Are you a student? programmer? scientist?

hash said...

macha I too have gone through the pain of enterprise programming, but only 2 yrs:D
I now work for a EDA services company, but I do in-house research only, currently working on a small DSL for protocol verification.
ps:btw I have a few haskell books if you want to borrow. Cos Im sick of seeing them on my bookrack, one of them in virgin state, still.
pps: Regarding FFI, a very interesting paper is by Reppy, you shud read it, I think it was even posted on lambda home.
pps: btw me and my friend have been planning to design a parallel VM for so long....forget it, its all talk and no walk.

hash said...

let me see. I have 2 haskell books and 2 ML books:)
mostly newbie:
1. Prog in Haskell by Hutton (very beginner level)
2. The Haskell road to Logic,Maths an Programming (havent touched it)
3. Elements of ML Programming by Ullman (I liked Harper's online book on ML better)
4. Concurrent ML by Reppy (havent touched it)
The link u have me is incorrect I think, but bother not, I have already browsed your insanely big online library:p
thanks for the tip, I will get some enthu in my friend and then we shall roll:)

Ravi said...

(some of) my book collection is here. I have a few haskell books as well, though they are mostly borrowed from my friend Rajesh Babu. Do you have "Haskell School Of Expression"? Not that I have time for it now!

As for execution (or lack of it), I've found that having a group of people who meet *regularly* (and semi formally) to exchange progress reports, learning etc (we call this our "loser's club", which meets on the last Saturday of every month - I have written about this on this blog) really helps.

Ravi said...

fixed the link. But it seems to have put the comments out of order. Oh well!