This year, I have not been blogging as much as I had expected to. Here’s the background.
I tend to plan my calendar years several months in advance. My goals for 2017 were quite ambitious. They included:
- publish Cognitive Productivity with macOS®: 7 Principles for Getting Smarter with Knowledge,
- publish Discontinuities: Love, Art, Mind,
- CogSci Apps to publish its new cognitive science-based desktop app, which should significantly improve how most knowledge workers process information,
- submit a manuscript for publication that details the Somnolent Information-Processing theory.
- CogSci Apps to publish several updates to mySleepButton
- take new steps towards other CogZest projects
And alas several other goals.
But then I decided to pursue significant new academic and business projects and collaborations. And in January I decided to revive my R&D projects on limerence, perturbance and affective self-regulation, which were supposed to be largely dormant this year. The latter led to a paper, two conference presentations and more in the works. Fortunately, these projects are intertwined with my 2017 projects. For instance, they both contributed to my paper on Somnolent Information-Processing, to the design of mySleepButton and Principle 1 of my new book. Moreover, I tested our highly innovative, soon to be published macOS cognitive productivity app with this knowledge-intense work, which also led me to discover many new requirements for the app, several of which we’ve already implemented.
Meanwhile, there are certain activities that I refuse to cut back on:
- exercising vigorously (daily, averaging an hour a day);
- healthful nutrition (contrast eating fast food to “save time”);
- reading, thinking and writing within and beyond my projects (most days);
- productive practice (most days); and
- several other forms of deliberate mentation (normally scheduled during other activities, e.g., mentally practicing/applying Gottman principles in the shower.) (By the way, one of the topics in my blog backlog: using particular environments as cues for particular deliberate mentation goals and activities).
As a result,
- I will fail to meet some of my original 2017 objectives;
- even though writing is amongst my favourite activities, I have not been blogging much (hard to justify blogging with a delayed pipeline of projects);
- I have made much deeper, more extensive progress on some of my current scholarly projects than I initially anticipated (e.g., on further understanding sleep onset and insomnia and many other aspects of the human mind — I am so excited by this paper!); and
- I have set the stage for future R&D that, I think, will serve all the institutions to which I am affiliated well (academic research (@SFU), CogZest projects, and CogSci Apps projects).
Several Cognitive Productivity readers have asked me when I will publish Cognitive Productivity with macOS®: 7 Principles for Getting Smarter with Knowledge. First, thank you for your interest, it certainly has helped keep me interested in completing this project. I will explain the status of this in more detail in an upcoming blog post. However, I will note that six of the seven principles have been nearly complete since May (the vast majority of the screencasts were finished by last December). As every author knows, between a first and final draft there is a lot of work, even with lean publishing. I had been waiting for Leanpub to support embedded screencasts; currently, only screencast thumbnails are presented in the book; to view the screencast you need to click on the thumbnail and launch it within a web browser. I decided recently to stop waiting for fully embedded screencasts, and will publish the book very, very soon (as I mentioned on this blog). Life being unpredictable, I don’t want to officially commit to saying “next week”.
I have a long backlog of topics that I want and intend to blog about. (I use OmniOutliner, OmniFocus and Finder folders to drive my projects, as described in Cognitive Productivity with macOS®: 7 Principles for Getting Smarter with Knowledge.) 2018 will be another highly demanding year for me. (E.g., I am co-founding a new company.) However, I expect to blog more, particularly in relation to my new books and our cognitive productivity app.
Of course, it’s a good idea to complete current projects before starting new ones. (Cal Newport takes it further: “top performers seem to obsess about finishing things.”) And it’s easier to only have one major cognitively intense project at a time. One reads a lot about the importance of focusing these days. It is well known that Steve Jobs called for hyper-focus, which served Apple well. Jony Ive talked recently about how “Steve Jobs taught him to say no, especially when it hurts to do it”. Of course, there is lots to be said for paring down one’s projects to a minimum. However, there is also something to be said for having multiple projects on the go. In one of his books, Marvin Minsky explains why pursuing multiple tough, ambitious projects is important for academics in particular — it helps them deal with the high risk of project failure. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. Winston Churchill had a striking ability to pursue multiple interleaved projects.
I prefer entertaining a more nuanced, parameterized model about focusing, with arguments about when and how to engage in coarse-grained multi-tasking. I repeatedly struggle with questions like: should I move on this opportunity? And if so, when and to what extent? Should I drop this project? How far can I afford to postpone this project? Etc. In this respect, one of the most important qualities I strive to develop in myself and my team is resourcefulness, i.e., extending my resources. Then of course there is frugality and productivity.
Speaking of which, I do not have the time to flesh out this topic. However, here are some of the principles I find helpful: To
- engage in multiple projects when they are interrelated in the sense that progress on one project contributes to another;
- keep a list of “cognitive tasks” to process when I have “spare time” (e.g., while exercising or shopping —with apologies to mindfulness over-zealots);
- cue my brain before going to bed with the most relevant challenge to resolve while I am sleeping (when you have multiple projects, your brain has too much to choose from at night; (compare the heuristic relevance-signaling hypothesis I presented in Cognitive Productivity);
- track my time carefully, including my deep work, attempting to gauge how much time I spend on each project, including a special category for my quarterly deliverables (compare mySelfQuantifier);
- realistically assess the effects on completion dates that extending myself has;
- be clear about the “generalized urgency” of my priorities (a concept I presented in chapter 3 of my Ph.D. thesis,Goal Processing in Autonomous Agents — a bit technical but I think relevant to anyone who is deeply into goal setting and productivity);
- clearly communicate status with stakeholders, who might not be participants in one’s parallel projects;
- cope with the negative affect that comes with deadlines that slip (or are simply at risk);
- beware of escalation of commitment while aiming for completion of key projects; and
- review my activities periodically, and try to learn how better to make project decisions (there is always room for improvement).
The foregoing are not universal rules. Your mileage may vary.
I think some of what Imre Lakatos said about research programmes applies to the bird’s eye view of one’s cognitive productivity on intertwined, interleaved projects: only time will tell whether one’s choices were deeply progressive. But whereas future scientific historians are the ultimate judges of research programmes, each individual him or herself, approaching death, will be the judge. One doesn’t want to look back and feel that one attempted way too little; nor way too much. I suppose regular multi-project reviews are likely to lead one to better final judgments.
Let’s keep in mind when reading posts like this one that there’s no experimental research that directly addresses the big questions here. One can’t exactly perform ecologically valid blind, controlled experiments on these matters.
But Your List of Projects Seems a Bit Extreme
One of the reasons I have so many projects is that I specialize in adult self-regulated learning with technology (“cognitive productivity“). In my very first job, I taught at the Royal Military College in the Department of Military Psychology and Leadership. I left an assistant professorship there (partly) because I realized I was too young and inexperienced to adequately teach this subject to anyone, let alone officers who would be putting their lives and those of others on the line. So, I headed into high tech (semi-conductors as a tech writer, and then embedded systems as a “Senior Software Developer” —”Senior” at 29? Weird!).
To write books about cognitive productivity and give training on the subject, it is helpful to be active in multiple organizations (a university and two businesses) with various roles. So, from an interdisciplinary perspective, I continue to learn about and contribute to cognitive science (Psychology (diverse areas), AI, and education), etc. With my small, very knowledge-intense businesses, I need to wear multiple hats — author, company designer, product designer (favourite job), product manager, customer support specialist, marketing guy (least favourite), public speaker, etc. (See About Me.)
Learning from Art
Speaking of multiple projects… one of my favourites is our Learning from Art project. (Stay tuned for announcements on that one, too!) One of its big ideas is this:
Great Works of Art that one previously experienced need not lay dormant in the recesses of one’s mind. There are ways to transform oneself with Great Art.
On that note, we can all enjoy Schubert’s most sublime symphony, “Unfinished” (Symphony No. 8 in B Minor). For, regardless of how little or how much of our visions we accomplish, everyone’s journey —even Schubert’s, Mozart’s, Ramanujan’s, and those of others who also “knew infinity”) — is necessarily unfinished.