Don’t Put Your Life On Hold

For those who don’t get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn’t produce the big result. So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don’t let anything else get the center of your attention — you keep your thoughts on the problem. Keep your subconscious starved so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.

—Richard Hamming

As a young PhD student I was influenced by Richard Hamming (one of the pioneers in the field of Computer Science and winner of what is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Computing), particularly his article “You and Your Research” from which the above quote comes.

What could be more attractive to a PhD student than the idea of immersing yourself so completely in a difficult problem that you start to dream the solutions, solutions that might have otherwise evaded you?

I experienced such a moment of discovery after immersing myself in one problem for over a year straight, a problem that I had been advised perhaps had no solution. For most of this period I had been working on something very closely related and only pondering this other, deeper problem on long walks. As I was writing up my dissertation however I sketched out some ideas and had the beginnings of an idea as to how to solve it, and this turned into several weeks where I thought of nothing else. Every day I woke up, went to my desk and worked for hours, with seemingly very little progress made every day. Until one day when I woke up, went to my desk, looked at my papers and something clicked: suddenly I could see the first part of the solution, that it was in fact solvable. I didn’t see it in a dream but nonetheless the moment was transformative for me and resulted in what I feel is the most interesting research of my PhD.

Life is short. If we have set our goals high, then how are we to achieve them if we do not dedicate ourselves to the cause and block out all distractions? Those starting a business, embarking on a PhD or any other multi-year intensive endeavour will need to exercise a considerable amount of willpower to get through it, and narrow their focus so that they make consistent progress towards that distant goal, overcoming inevitable setbacks along the way.

As time progresses you may find that your endeavour starts to take up more and more of your time; this is quite necessary if you want to reach the level that Hamming is alluding to. Cooking, cleaning, exercise, socialising, dating and relaxing are just a few of the things that will take a back seat as you put your all into your business. If you’re a tech entrepreneur the culture will tell you that you should either be writing code or selling code and so that is what your days will be made up of (with likely far more writing of code than selling).

What we are doing essentially, when we narrow our focus down to the laser level is putting everything else (that is, life in general) on hold. Persuaded by Hamming, I have entered this mode three times: once for a PhD, once for a business (which I still run today) and once in industry as a consultant in a high-stress environment in Japan. Doing so increases what we are able to do in the time we have but sacrifices are made: while you are absorbed in your venture, friends and family will all be moving on with their lives and you may end up missing a considerable amount of that.

It depends on you as to how important it is to keep up with friends and family but what I have realised for myself after a number of years of deep-diving into endeavours is that I need a new approach that allows me to achieve that laser focus while not losing a view of the bigger picture. It will be largely down to your own personality but for me, if I set out to achieve something like building a successful business and manage to do so, but it comes at the cost of missing major events in the lives of those close to me and ultimately in loss of contact with people that I care about then for me it is simply not worth it.

I view my life has having several different dimensions, with work being just one of them. I have tried various methods of keeping on top of all these different dimensions but using traditional tools (todo lists, calendars, reminders) has been too inflexible and creates increasing guilt over time. What I was looking for, and did not find, was something that would let me lay out all the things that I wanted to keep on top of and track their relative health. For example writing to various relatives, calling or visiting my parents, exercise along with of course various activities related to work such as releasing new features, talking to users and so on.

What I wanted were quick answers to the following questions:

  1. What have I been neglecting?
    • What one thing should I work into today’s schedule?
  2. What am I over-committing on?
    • What activities could I be doing less of and still be on top of, thus freeing more time for other things?

When you are laser-focussed on solving a problem for days on end, you naturally lose sight of the bigger picture: when was the last time I wrote to my grandfather? When did I last call my parents? When was the last time I went for a run? I imagine that for some people it is easy to answer these questions but I have found that when I am trying to focus on a single endeavour, working 7 days a week, the difference between days starts to blur and it is no longer clear at all how long it has been since I last did something in particular. Multiply that across 30 different things you feel you should be doing in your life and suddenly your accuracy has gone right out the window.

While I dislike greatly the idea of systematising things that are important to me outside of work (such as with friends, family, health etc.) as they feel like things that should come naturally, I have found that a ‘best effort’ approach while also trying to focus on particular endeavours is not delivering results that I am happy with.

As such I have built a very simple system that helps me to map out all of the things that are important to me, and roughly how often I would like to do them, across all dimensions of life. It is not there to tell me that today I must call my parents as such systems are hopelessly inflexible. Rather, it just makes it easy for me to see what I might want to do today. I believe that we can all keep on top of the wide variety of things that are important to us, but that in order to do so we need to remember to do them, and (crucially) remember at the right time. This is the hard part, and is therefore the part that the system makes easy.

The system, called Q2 (after the quadrant system of Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”), lives here and is free for anyone who would like to try it out. After using the using the system for a few months I am now up to 47 different activities (across 8 different dimensions such as Family, Work, Social, Health, Projects, Finances etc.) that if I attempted to track naturally then as soon as I immerse myself in a project then balls would be dropped left and right. Instead what I have found is that having all of these activities laid out in front of me it is no problem to work one or two into each day. There is nothing fundamentally difficult about doing these things, but there is something terribly difficult about remembering to do each thing at precisely the right time, that is when it should be done and also when you are actually able to do it.

Please feel free to try the system out and let me know how you get on with it (you can also simulate the whole thing yourself in a spreadsheet very easily if you find the concept interesting but you would rather do it yourself).