According to ancient complexity lore, at a saddle point high in the mountains of Oberwolfach lies buried a single flask of a mystical elixir known as Websbane, or the Hammer of Firefox. Some say that the productivity-enhancing potion was brewed from the sweat of Erdös and the toenail clippings of Euler; others that it was mixed, condensed, and extracted for the Prophesied One centuries hence who will derandomize BPP. Yet all agree on the tonic’s awesome efficacy: it is said that one drop would furnish lifelong protection against Slate and Salon; a teaspoonful would lift Wikipedia’s stranglehold on the soul. He who once imbibed would neither reread Onion articles from dusk till dawn, nor follow hyperlinks till scarcely a blue word remained amidst the purple, nor while away a Thursday googling a Montreal-born singer-songwriter mentioned in an email of de Wolf. Papers would get finished – books written – reimbursement forms turned in – blog entries posted without delay.
Today’s topic is what we can do until the Websbane is unearthed from its resting-ground. I offer four suggestions below; any additions are welcome.
- Use the embryo strategy. Whenever you’re procrastinating on something, someone is bound to tell you “divvy it up into smaller chunks, then tackle ‘em one at a time.” I’ve found that to be terrible advice. When I’m starting a project, I have no idea how to divvy it up. I might commit myself to writing chapters on A, B, and C, only to realize later that A and C are trivial and that everything worth saying pertains to B. Or I might start the introduction, then freeze for days because I can’t decide what belongs in the introduction and what belongs in the “meat” until I’ve already written them.What I’ve found to be more effective is what I’ll call the “embryo strategy.” Here you simplify your project so dramatically that you can finish the entire thing (more or less) in one afternoon. For example, if before your goal was to write a ten-page popular article about quantum computing, now your goal is to write two paragraphs. Then, once you’ve finished something, you progressively add layers to it. This seems to be the approach taken by most successful software projects, not to mention by Nature herself. The advantages are twofold: firstly, everything is built around one initial idea. This changes what the end product looks like, but I think for the better. And secondly — here’s the real beauty — at no point are you ever working on something that will take “unimaginably long,” compared to the amount of time you’ve already spent. (Give or take a small additive constant.)
- Exploit the “quantum Zeno effect.” One to keep a quantum state from drifting uncontrollably is just to measure it over and over in some fixed basis. Roughly speaking, the mere fact that you’re looking means that the state “can’t try anything funny.” Similarly, I’ve taken to having my girlfriend spend the night with me when I need to finish a paper. What ensues is a long, romantic evening, wherein I sit at my computer and do my work, and Kelly sits at her computer and does her work. Interestingly, her mere presence often has the effect of projecting me onto a non-procrastinating subspace. (Kelly reports a similar effect on her as well.)
- Don’t eat. When you’re trying to prove theorems about quantum complexity classes, hunger is your friend and linguini-induced sleepiness your enemy. As obvious as that sounds, it took me almost a decade fully to understand its importance. These days I usually eat only one meal per day — my “brinner” — and don’t even try to work till three or four hours after it. (Does anyone know the physiological reason why humans seem unable to multitask between brains and stomachs?)
- Find yourself a “boss.” When I was at Berkeley, Umesh was my boss. That doesn’t mean he told me what to work on (he didn’t); it means that I got a warm fuzzy feeling from eliciting his opinion of what I had worked on. Since graduating, to stay productive I’ve had to seek out a succession of new “bosses” — from Avi Wigderson at IAS, to collaborators like Greg Kuperberg and Daniel Gottesman. Indeed, if you get a long, technical email from me, it’s not necessarily for your benefit. Mathematicians might be machines for turning coffee into theorems, but the fuel I run on is feedback.
Follow these rules, and you might someday become as disciplined and productive as I am.