Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Procrastination Risk in the Maker’s Schedule

Paul Graham wrote a popular essay a year ago contrasting the "Maker's Schedule" with the "Manager's Schedule":

The manager's schedule is for bosses. It's embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you're doing every hour.

When you use time that way, it's merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you're done.

Most powerful people are on the manager's schedule. It's the schedule of command. But there's another way of using time that's common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started.

Marc Andreesen wrote a post a couple years before Graham recommending a something similar: as much as possible don't keep a schedule, don't agree in advance to meetings that can interrupt the most important to-do of the current moment.

It's true that for some creative pursuits you need long, uninterrupted stretches of time to get work done. I try to batch my calls / meetings for just this reason. But one twist: if you have literally nothing on your calendar for a day — and for enthusiasts of the Maker's Schedule, this is the goal — procrastination becomes easier, in my experience.

When I have nothing on today's calendar it's easy to dick around during any one of my morning routine stages: wake up, breakfast, email, workout, shower, lunch. If I don't have any anchor external commitment, I can say to myself, "If I start real work at 2 or 3 PM, what does it matter?"

By contrast, if I have a call scheduled at 1:30 PM (my usual time for doing calls), I keep focused on swiftly moving through my morning routine in time to do the call. Otherwise, my whole day is thrown off. Then, when the call's finished, I'm ready to immediately dive into real work for the rest of the afternoon / night. (I'm up until 1:30 AM.)

Bottom Line: The idea of a day totally free of any external commitments or obligations sounds good in theory yet increases the likelihood I procrastinate. On the other hand, a day full of meetings or obligations means I get nothing done. The optimal point is one or two obligations which mark the passing of the day and create a sense of urgency about how I spend the time that's all mine.

Do Love and Sex Naturally Go Together?

A couple months ago, at a group dinner, one non-American gentleman at the table said, "I have had sex with other women, but I have never cheated on my wife of 20 years." This was surprising coming from a man. Usually men consider infidelity the sole physical act; women tend to emphasize emotional betrayal. When I probed the guy on his answer, he just said that Americans are too obsessed with sexual monogamy. "What matters," he said, "is that you still love your partner."

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, the authors of the new book "Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality," would agree. In their fascinating interview on Salon, they explain their ideas, the central one being that monogamy is against our nature. Excerpts, emphases mine:

Marriage in the West isn’t doing very well because it’s in direct confrontation with the evolved reality of our species. What we argue in the book is that the best way to increase marital stability, which in the modern world is an important part of social stability, is to develop a more tolerant and realistic understanding of human sexuality and how human sexuality is being distorted by our modern conception of marriage.

Does this mean that humans didn't form couples before the advent of agriculture?

Because human groups at the time knew each other so well and spent their lives together and were all interrelated and depended upon each other for everything, they really knew each other much better than most of us know our sexual partners today. We don’t argue that people didn’t form very special relationships — you can see this even in chimps and bonobos and other primates, but that bond doesn’t necessarily extend to sexual exclusivity. People have said that we’re arguing against love — but we're just saying that this insistence that love and sex always go together is erroneous.

I think from a cultural standpoint the idea of strict monogamy has far less currency within the gay male world than it does within the straight world. I’m a gay man, and I think probably about half the gay male couples I know are in open relationships. Why do you think that is?

First of all, they’re both men, so they both know what it’s like to be a man. They both know from experience that love and sex are two very different things, and it seems that for women the experience of sexuality is much more embedded in narrative, in emotion, in emotional intimacy…..

I’ve been living off and on for almost 20 years here in Barcelona, and from outside, the United States looks very adolescent, in a positive and negative sense. There's its adolescent energy — its idealism — but there’s also an immaturity and intolerance toward the ambiguity of life and the complexity of relationships. The American sense of relationships and sexuality tends to be very informed by Hollywood: It’s all about the love story. But the love story ends at the wedding and doesn't go into the 40 years that comes after that….the American insistence on mixing love and sex and expecting passion to last forever is leading to great suffering that we think is tragic and unnecessary.

Here's my old post on whether you would still trust someone in the boardroom if you knew s/he was cheating on her/his partner. Here's a dense essay about how lesbians have the least sex of anyone. If all this is too depressing, here's an uplifting video of soldiers returning home and surprising their families.

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Russian Ballet Comes to Santiago; Theatrics Ensue

There's a nice theater around the corner from where I live. A Russian ballet company was coming to town to do "Don Quixote." Why not go?

We arrived with tickets in hand, gained entry, and hurried to the upper level to find our seats before the performance started in 2 minutes. Almost everyone else was seated. We showed our tickets to the person manning the aisle. He pointed us to aisle 10. We looked down the row at seats 7 and 9. People were sitting in them. In fact, the whole row's seats were taken. The culprit was a 40-something mother with her two young children. We squeezed down the aisle and then showed our tickets to the women sitting in our seats.

Chaos ensued. Rapid Spanish. People checking their tickets. Usher comes over and looks at our tickets, looks at hers, says random shit. People are moving around but people still in our tickets. The clock is ticking. We discover that the woman in our seats is not in her assigned seat — she was trying to sit in between her kids.

She denied the truth. We held firm. Everyone was looking at us. She then tried to grab our tickets to get a closer look. I said loudly to J., "Be careful of a bait and switch." Oldest fucking trick in the book. I took the tickets and held them arm's length from the short woman even as she grabbed for them.

We exited the row. The usher then said some stern words and the family left. We got our seats. Gringos: 1, Chileans: 0.

5 minutes into the performance, the woman behind me puts her hand on my shoulder and asks in a firm tone, in Spanish, "Can you move down a bit in your chair? I can't see anything." "Lo siento," I replied, "Soy alto." (Y fuerte.)

For Part 2 we sat in the way back in the farthest side aisle, where there were two empty seats, to be away from everyone else and so I could stretch my legs.

By the end of Part 2 my water bottle was expired and I needed more water, so I went home, while J. stayed for Part 3.

Just another day of ballet.

The Effect of the “Like” Button

The "Like" button on Facebook (and now all over the web) allows a user to indicate positivity about a piece of content without actually writing a comment. Millions of people have "Liked" status updates, notes, photos, bios, comments, and now external web pages. Similar one-click sentiment links ("Endorse," "Helpful," "Not Helpful") now exist on LinkedIn, Quora, and other social networking sites. And of course "Upvote" and "Downvote" arrows have driven sites like Reddit for a long time.

Like0 What is the effect (as I see it) of these type of one-click sentiment buttons? In a sentence: Overall engagement goes up, substantive comments / contributions go down.

Take a blog post. Historically, the only option for a user to engage was to leave a written comment. Suppose I write a post and five people leave comments. With the addition of a "Like" button I would estimate three people would leave comments, but four people would click "Like." Before sentiment buttons: 5 written comments. After sentiment buttons: 7 engaged users, 3 commenters.

My friend Dario Abramskiehn asked me awhile ago why certain of my posts receive more comments than others. I follow Chris Yeh's theory on comments: the less serious / difficult / lengthy the blog post, the more comments it will have, assuming an average level of interestingness. I chalk this up to the law of reciprocity: if you take the time to crank out something really thoughtful and original, readers feel like they reciprocate the effort in a comment. So many, naturally, abstain. By contrast, if you post something provocative and short, it's easy to leave a quick comment and feel square with the effort of the blogger.

With a "Like" button, readers who would have previously abstained can now indicate passive positive sentiment. Some readers who previously left a comment but did so half-assedly would now click "Like."

The generic, safe nature of "Like" also increases total engagement when difficult topics would otherwise deter readers from chiming in. A friend recently posted a status update on Facebook about a relative's fight against cancer. It was a positive update — i.e., one that warranted congratulations or encouragement — but, given the sensitivity of illness topics, given the fear of offending someone — the status received quite a few "Likes" and almost no comments. By contrast, a message that's more straightforward — such as my tweet about how many libertarians are religious — received several comments but no "Likes."

Bottom Line: The "Like" feature and other passive sentiment links next to content on the web show that the way users engage with content will continue to change, and that the way to measure the vitality of an online community continues to be more complicated than raw numbers such as unique visitors or numbers of comments.

(thanks to Steve Dodson for helping brainstorm this. P.S. "Like" buttons coming to this blog soon.)

It Was a Mistake to Play a Flawless Game

Kathryn Schulz, the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, is interviewing various people on Slate about their mistakes. Her interview with Victor Niederhoffer, a hedge fund manager, a former partner of George Soros, and a five-time U.S. Nationals squash champion, contains a few great nuggets.

On why he should have made more mistakes playing squash:

As a squash player, I was gifted. I had all the right things going for me. I practiced. I was very good with the racket, and I had tremendous anticipation. But I tended to play an errorless game by hitting a slice on my backhand, which took a lot of power off the ball. That wasn't a disaster, but it was definitely a weakness in my game. My opponents always used to say that on a good day they could beat me, because they could hit more spectacular shots than me. But they never did. I went for about 10 years without losing a game, except to [the great Pakistani squash player] Sharif Kahn. He made about six, seven errors a game—but he also made eight or nine winners. I would make about zero errors per game but only one or two winners. He had the edge on me about 10-4, and I regret that I was never willing to accept the risky shots and confrontations, never willing to play a more error-full game.

On making money when everyone else is scared:

When the public is most frightened, only the strong are left, and that's when the market is in the best possible hands. I call it taking out the canes. Whenever disaster strikes, the very sagacious wealthy people take their canes, and they hobble down from their stately mansions on Fifth Avenue, and they buy stocks to the extent of their bank balances, and then a week or two later, the market rises, they deposit the overplus in their accounts, invest it in blue-chip real estate, and retire back to their stately mansions. That's probably the best way of making money, to be a specialist in panics. Whenever there's panic hanging in the air, that's a great time to invest.

On the limits of directness in life:

But regrettably, duplicity is very, very important in life. The direct approach always creates tremendous obstruction and friction from the adversary, so often the indirect approach is necessary.

Here's Kathryn's different interview with Joe Posnanski about sports. Posnanski talks about the myths of "clutch hitters" and "hot hands."

(thanks to Paul Kedrosky for the pointer)

Time Allocation Goals vs. Output Goals

When people set goals they usually define clear, measurable outputs. E.g.: “Today I’m going to write 1,000 words” or “This afternoon I’m going to finish QA testing this version release.”

But this approach doesn’t work as well for tasks of considerable complexity where what’s required of you is uncertain. Projects where there’s a clear end-goal but it’s in the distant future. The specific intervening steps, and the time required for each step, are unknown.

I’m involved in such a project right now. When I work on it I set goals around how many hours I want / need to spend. My daily goal might be: “Spend four hours working on [specific thing related to general project].” Then I’ll put my head down and make progress. And if I spend four solid hours, I consider the goal met. I am very disciplined about making sure I only count time that’s real work — if my mind wanders or if I get distracted, I turn off the clock.

As I’ve set time-allocation goals I’ve figured out the maximum amount of time I can realistically apply toward different types of tasks in a given day. I can usually do at most 4-5 hours of “hard focus work” and 4-5 hours of “light focus work” (email, blogging, Skyping) per day. A big variable for people is whether meetings fall into “hard focus” of “light focus.”

Bottom Line: The right kind of goal setting depends on the person and projects involved. For long-term projects where the specific steps and time necessary for each step are uncertain, setting short-term time allocation goals works well for me.

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All inbound email to me is now automatically marked as “read.” No more bold messages that scream to be opened. I would find myself opening the bold messages even before I had finished dealing with an older email. Thanks to Cal for this idea. I reccomend trying it.

Assorted Paragraphs

It's too hectic in Chi-Chi-Chi Le-Le-Le to write anything of length myself, so I will instead pass on the following paragraphs which have recently caught my eye.

Ryan Holiday comments on the importance of doing rather than over reflecting and advising:

What caught my attention about your post – and let’s face it, I get hung up on things most people don’t – was you that you were reflecting on a process that you’d only just begun. More honestly, you were giving advice to other people because it’s easier than focusing on yourself. It’s easier than quietly setting out to do your work, creating a position of credibility and then speaking from it.

This is a nasty distraction and habit that the internet completely enables. Think about a comedian in your position 20 years ago – who would he have published those pieces to? He couldn’t have, at least until he was much further down the road. In a way he’d be lucky because he wouldn’t have this gratifying avenue to publicly “reflect” on the process. He’d be more likely to spend that time actually engaging in that process. His sense of self and confidence would be built through the result of that labor, not from the false image he’d crafted in front of a different audience. In some cases, the most honest thing to do is to say nothing at all.

Robin Hanson a few years back on innovations and economic growth:

The truth is that the artistic creations or intellectual insights we most admire for their striking “creativity” matter little for economic growth. Instead, most of the innovations that matter are the tiny changes we constantly make to the millions of procedures and methods we use. And changing these procedures does not require free-spirited self-expression. Instead, it is quite natural for people to constantly think about tiny changes to their procedures as they follow those procedures. In fact, we imagine far more such changes than we can afford to pursue.

Christopher Hitchens being interviewed about his memoir:

There are still people who want to criminalize homosexuality one way or another, and I thought it might be useful if more heterosexual men admitted that they are a little bit gay, as is everyone, and that homosexuality is a form of love and not just sex.

The close of a piece on how the Thailand riots have affected the country's notorious sex trade:

At about midnight, an adorable little girl who looks like she might be about 6 years old comes into the bar selling flowers. "Where else in the world," says Terry, "could I give that girl 1,000 baht, take her outside and do whatever I wanted to her?"

On the authenticity of Ron Artest:

We love Ron Artest because he's real. Not just as a hip-hop cliche—unapologetic, unflinching loyalty to his roots—but as an authentic, honest-to-God example of human complexity. Against a backdrop of cardboard cutouts in jerseys and shorts, Artest gives us three dimensions.

If You Want to Know How Things Are in Reality

Kaj Sotala, a self-described pursuer of truth, a few years ago offered some tips for those who want to "know how things are in reality." Excerpts below with my bolded highlights:

* Study things from as many points of view as possible, and try to understand as many models of thought as you can. This way, you can better understand the behavior of other people, and how people can think in ways that seem incomprehensible to you. If an atheist, talk to religious people until you understand them well enough not to consider them silly; if religious, talk to atheists until you understand them in the same way….

* Recognize your fallibility. Realize that in a quest for the truth, your own biases become your worst enemy. To defeat your enemy you must understand it, so set forth on studying it….Find the time to peruse articles like Wikipedia's list of cognitive biases and Cognitive Biases Potentially Affecting Judgment of Global Risks. In your interdisciplinary studies, especially emphasize the sciences that help you in understanding and combating your bias, and the ones that allow you to think clearly – in his Twelve Virtues of Rationality (which is required reading for you), Eliezer Yudkowsky recommends evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory and decision theory….

* Discuss the same subjects repeatedly, even with the same people. If you are losing a debate but still cannot admit you're wrong, ask for time to ponder upon it. Decide if your hesitation was you being too caught up in the defense of a topic, in which case you only need time to get over it and accept your opponent's arguments, or because there was more relevant information in your mind that you couldn't recall at the moment, in which case you need time for your subconsciousness to bring them to your mind….

* Avoid certainty, and of all people, be the harshest on yourself. 80% of drivers thinks they belong in the top 30% of all drivers, and even people aware of cognitive biases often seem to think those biases don't apply to them. People tend to find in ambiguous texts the points that support their opinions, while discounting the ones that disagree with them. Question yourself, and recognize that if you want your theories to find the truth, you can never be the only one to evaluate them….Meditate on the mantra of "nothing is impossible, only extremely unlikely". Think of the world in terms of probabilities, not certainties.

Here is Kaj's post on his personal values. Here is his "About Me" page on his personal web site where, in addition to basic factual information, he lists his one-paragraph stance on free will, ethics, rationality, love, religion, copyright, distribution of wealth, and medical regulation.

He is 24 years-old. For gender he writes: To paraphrase rm: "If there are men and women, then I'm a man. If there are men, women and transsexuals, then I'm a man. If there are men, women, transsexuals and something else, then I am something else."

Movie Review: 500 Days of Summer

Artists explore love and romance constantly. If I had to rank the accuracy and helpfulness of discussions of love by medium, from worst to least-worst, it would be: Hollywood movies, pop music, non-fiction writing, fiction writing.

The movie 500 Days of Summer is an excellent exception to this ranking. It’s the story of boy meets girl in Los Angeles. But as Morgan Freeman’s narrator voice warns, “It’s not a love story.” In this film, it’s the guy who falls for the woman, and then has his heart broken. She’s taken by him but ends it because it doesn’t feel right. After things go south, he can’t quite get over her. He tries to win her back. It doesn’t go according to plan. But he does find a light at the end of a different tunnel.

The movie jumbles the chronology — it starts near the end, then jumps to the beginning. This is an apt approach for a love story. When you reflect on failed romance, you often dwell on the low points and either forget the high points altogether or confuse when they happened.

The side plots are fun and interesting. At one point a split screen shows “Expectations” and “Reality” and proceeds through the scene showing the differences. After the guy and girl sleep together for the first time, the guy walks to work with a spring in his step, as you’d expect — and a spontaneous Bollywood dance sequence you don’t expect.

Here’s Roger Ebert’s thumbs up review of the film with these three winning sentence: “One thing men love is to instruct women. If a woman wants to enchant a man, she is wise to play his pupil. Men fall for this.”

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The Hurt Locker is another good movie out on DVD. I thought about it for a couple days afterwards, which is always a good sign. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, one can easily forget what’s happening there. This movie brought me into that world for a couple hours. A memorable scene took place not in the war zone. The main character, who de-activated bombs in populated areas in Iraq, is in a supermarket back in the U.S. after completing his tour of duty. His wife asks him to pick up cereal so he wanders over to the cereal aisle. The dull florescent lights shine down on the abandoned aisle. Supermarket music plays in the background. He looks at the endless variations of cereal. Hundreds of different types. You could feel the triviality of the moment reverberate in his head. Going from saving lives on a daily basis to electing which type of Cheerios to purchase. He re-enlists and goes back to Iraq.

Other movies watched and recommended: Capote and Away We Go.

Finally, if you haven’t already read the excellent Esquire profile of Roger Ebert, you should.

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On a completely unrelated note, I’m going to Brazil next month for 1.5 weeks, mostly Rio, if you live there or have tips, drop me a line.

Singular Competence = Passion = Happiness

Eric Falkenstein channels Arthur Brooks' new book to discuss the connection between happiness and finding your comparative advantage at work:

He states that the key factor in one's happiness–not experiential happiness, but 'remembered happiness' that is more correlated with 'life satisfaction', see Kahneman on the difference–is 'perceived earned success'. This is the willingness and ability to create value in your life or the life of others. He states that if you ask someone if they feel like they are creating such value, they are happy, regardless of how much they make. Giving people money, via welfare or inheritance, does not make people happy, because this if anything discourages the effort needed to find and develop such a niche. …

Finding alpha is about finding your comparative advantage in your work. As David Ricardo noted about comparative advantage, it exists regardless of one's absolute advantage, it's what one is relatively best at, basically, one's most productive activity. When you find it, you are literally being all you can be.

Invariably, one finds one is good at what they like and vice versa, because you can only get good at something via a lot of effort, and if the task is perceived as onerous or boring you won't put in enough effort; if you are good at it, you'll find you like the appreciation you receive from others that is greater than in any other activity. Thus, finding your alpha is like Brook's 'perceived earned success'. If you find what you would do for nothing and get so good people pay you for it, you will probably be happy.

One important refinement of this idea is that there's a difference between current and permanent value: Pets.com vs. Google, the works of John Kenneth Galbraith vs. Ludwig von Mises. They might, at one time, have generated the same appreciation, but one faded, the other proved highly prescient. One's sense of whether one is creating permanent value, irrespective of current rewards, is important as well, because its rather ghastly to think one's lifework will be seen like past experts in quack homeopathy, irrelevant if not a joke.

There's more, then this conclusion:

The key is doing the best with what you can, the self-awareness and motivation to develop one's strengths so that your hard work generates a maximum payoff going forward. As Muhammad Ali once said, "You can be the best garbage man or you can be the best model–it doesn't matter as long as you're the best." 'The best' is mathematically improbable, 'really good' generates the same result. If you are really good at your job your day is filled with sincere gratitude by colleagues and customers, and hopefully you can also have a family that appreciates you as well (but for vary different reasons).

The Cal Newport shorthand would probably be something like: Singular Competence = "Passion" About Work = Personal Happiness.

I thank Cardiff Garcia for the pointer. Here's Cardiff's post on scalable careers which draws on the same Taleb chapter I blogged about last year.

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Justin Wehr's sound advice: "When in a sour mood, stop everything and ask if you are in need of food, sleep, a potty break, fresh air, or exercise."