A Lesson from Deadlines: Cut the Useless Crap Out

During the last two weeks I have been working intensely on a paper for a conference. At 15 pages, it’s about twice the length of a normal conference paper I’m used to, but that wasn’t the challenging part. Writing is easy. The hard part is all the thinking over a pen and paper, all the programming, and all the reading / learning that goes into just getting to where I can ask the right questions and all the work after that. Since the topic of this paper was a somewhat new area for me, this process was especially painful.

I learned (or rather re-learned) something important about how to get and stay productive. First is you have to love what you’re doing. “Work” isn’t really hard when you are enjoying it. But that’s obvious. Second is you have to cut all the useless crap in your life out and just get to doing the things that you want to get done and don’t stop until they are done. That seems obvious as well, but I think my brain is designed to deteriorate into a lazy, distracted mess if left unchecked. Here’s an inspirational video of Steve Prefontaine at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In case you were wondering what “distraction” is, it’s the process of you now clicking on that video:

Prefontaine did not click on YouTube videos, he just ran and ran and ran.

Let’s take Facebook for example. The problem is not how much time I spend on Facebook. The problem is that I jump over to Facebook many times a day for 1-2 minutes, and by doing that, break the flow of thought that I had cultivated around the task I was working on. That’s the main lesson for me, from the past two weeks, that I’ve learned many times in life already, that it’s important to construct your day, week, and life in general in such a way that you get several uninterrupted spans of time during the day when you do nothing but a single task. You don’t move, you don’t eat, you just fill your brain with a single task. It’s basically just meditation.

By the way, I don’t mean to pile on Facebook. I think that it’s much much more than a shallow self-indulgent addiction. I think it connects us together, perhaps not as well as a beer on a Saturday night, but it’s pretty damn close. It gives a chance for introverts such as myself to talk to friends I don’t see enough, or jump into conversations that are too intellectually involved for in-person shooting-the-shit type of conversation.

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