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Category: Lifehacks

New Year’s Resolutions: If You’re In Your Twenties, Work Your Ass Off

My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night
But ah, my foes and oh my friends
It gives a lovely light.
– Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1918

For those of us in our 20s, this is an amazing time. Right now, we are gung-ho no-sleep Redbull-fuelled monsters. In ten year’s time,  life will sweep things into our path – spouses, families, crises, births, deaths, cats, arthritis. Right now, this decade is like a long, clean stretch of highway –  the one time we truly get to put the pedal to the metal and roar on.

It’s the best time to work your ass off.

Wait, what? You ask. Traditionally, the advice goes something like: “you’re young, you should enjoy life, forget everything else.” I’ve heard many of my friends argue that now is the time when we should party. That the rest of life is for work.

Right, let’s apply some thought here. Assume that you are a party person (I’m not, so if my logic is wrong here, correct me).

Firstly, the average human lives for 70 years. Are you twenty now? Good: that’s another fifty years to go, during which it only gets harder to crunch onwards. You will  get tired more often. You will need more sleep.  And what nobody tells you is the enjoying yourself often gets very, very expensive.

Now consider the act of partying. Forget the lame grinding that most people do in Colombo – assume that you really  party, and I’m talking a proper drug-fuelled rave here. It doesn’t take any special skills to party.

Yes. It doesn’t. All you need is money and alcohol. Hot dress? Money. Sexy hairdo? Money. The ability to jump in and dance away without a care in the world? That’s alcohol. Unless you’re into 14-year-old girls pretending to be twenty (Disque, we’re looking at you), age is irrelevant to a good party. Ever seen that one grandma grinding away into the night? Cash and booze, baby, cash and booze. That’s what they do to you.

So, apply some simple logic: spend your twenties working as hard as you can, and you’ll be able to afford more cash and booze when you hit your thirties. And your forties. And your fifties. Do it right and you end up with enough to be really, really happy all throughout your life. With luck you might even score that yacht and the drug-fuelled rave with the naked supermodels.

Look, all you have to do is sink a few years to enjoy a few decades. Would you like an example? Hugh Hefner, self-made millionaire and the Playboy with a capital P. He didn’t become the publisher of Playboy overnight. He wasn’t born with twin supermodels on his lap. In the prime of his life, he worked his ass off, and after a while … well, let’s just say he no longer needs to work to get ass.

Ignore all that bullshit that tells you to spend your twenties swinging from party to party and discovering yourself. No, really, fuck that. Life isn’t a bed of roses. Unless you’re on some really good LSD, those unicorns and rainbows aren’t going to last you a lifetime. And unless you’re lucky enough to have been born to rich parents, reality is going to set in sooner or later, and you’re going to have to earn your place in this world.  I’m not talking about buying your own high heels – I’m talking paying rent. Doing your own laundry. Waking up in the morning to realise that your parents are dead and you have no money in the bank account.

Here’s a scary thought: if you don’t work now, do you know what’s going to happen to you later? You’re going to be thirty, convinced that you’re underpaid, in debt because of a lease on that Honda Vezel, living with your parents, with no real achievements in life other than buying a hundred thousand bucks worth of shoes and knowing people who’ve done stuff. All those parties – and the people you met at those parties – are nothing more than memories and a large hole in your bank account. If you’re a girl, your parents may have gotten you married off to someone rich and semi-famous in a few circles. If you’re a guy, you’re fucked. The world will move on. Life will forget you.  Pretty soon you’ll be like those war veterans swapping stories at the bar, dropping names. Ah, you know so-and-so? My cousin went to school with him.  Big deal: you’ve not fought a war, your stories aren’t that special, and everybody else has moved on.

And all those people who ‘didn’t get out much’? They’ll be at home with their feet up on a mahogany table sipping martinis and wondering where to dine tonight. They’ll have the car, the house, the good-looking spouse. And they’ll be happy.

So let’s not be that failure. You have an expiry date, and it’s 2016 already. Goddamit, let’s work.

Our Facebook newsfeeds can be better than RSS readers ever were

Like many others, I used to get up in the morning and check my RSS feeds. It didn’t matter where these feeds were. I always had them on call.

Now I get up in the morning and check my Facebook. And there we are: the daily dose of politics, courtesy of NYT, Al-Jazeera, the Daily Mirror, Colombo Telegraph. The best of Techcrunch and Wired. A dose of the Anti-Media. A few scattered longform blogs and a smattering of what a very limited circle of my friends are up to.

There you go. News.

I’m not alone. Ever since Facebook added the Follow mechanic, the screen I see when I log on has been changing from random noise and those horribly shareable Aunty Acid pictures to a highly curated news website, customized and served up for my consumption.

Why it works so well, and why we like it more than ye average news site, is because of a curious psychological effect. I follow certain individuals who have three things in common:

a) They constantly seek new information
b) Because we’re friends, they tend to share more tastes or personality traits with me than the rest of my online associations
c) Each of them has a dedicated interest in one or more subjects than I care about

Anything shared by these people is inherently given a significantly higher weightage in my mind. Their untold endorsement (that this content is worth reading), in my mind, is practically a trusted judgement.

And again, because we share certain tastes and traits, I often find that I do like what they push out onto Facebook. This in turn reinforces my acceptance of their endorsement. Now I’m even more likely to click on what they share. It’s a feedback cycle that builds my mental image of these people as a fantastic source of news. Add to these a couple of follows to the brands you absolutely know and trust — like Wired — and you’re good to go.

This is why I’m really skeptical of news aggregation sites. Facebook’s personalized selection is doing such a good job of aggregating news – especially spreading memes – that plain old websites have it really tough these days.

Mind you, Facebook’s echo valley effect is a constant threat. This is groupthink, and groupthink is dangerous. To counter this I follow people who have drastically different views on the same subject. My mainstream Western Media is balanced with the Anti-Media. My Google Loon and death penalty discussions have hugely vocal for-and-against splits.

It isn’t a completely balanced system. This is because of b) — the similarities in taste and personality that make this interaction possible inevitably lead to, or arise from viewpoints that overlap; therefore, there’s always the danger of finding that all of your friends agree on this one thing (the New Zealand All Blacks, for example).

Nevertheless, Facebook is saving me massive amounts of time and effort.  Try it for yourself.   Follow some brands you like. Unfollow those idiots who reshare soppy love posts, Paulo Coelho quotes – generally avoid anyone who does not force you to learn something new with every other status. Follow a couple of good news brands.

Done right, you don’t have to visit a hundred sites; you don’t even have to visit one local news site every day —  if something serious has happened a whole lot of people will share it. We have a system, and it works.

Timebox, Don’t Multitask.

I, like most people, can’t multi-task for shit.

I had a boss who could multi-task to the level where most of us thought he was insane, or had severe ADHD, or both. His work day, as far as I could see, was a furious flutter of phone calls and scribbled notes. Occasionally someone would drop by at his summons and stand there looking like a fool while waiting for the phone to stop ringing.

Very few individuals can actually multi-task*. As it turns out, we don’t really do two things at once – instead, we constantly switch our attention between different things. Rather than doing two things at once, you oscillate between focusing on one, then the other.  Depending on how fast you can do this, you’re diagnosed with either tunnel vision – very slow switching – or ADHD – very, very fast switching – or being ‘okay’ at work.

There’s a problem with this approach. There is context to everything that we do, and switching tasks requires context switching. This, regardless of how good, bad, male, female, black or white you are, hits you. Hard. Context switching comes at a massive cost – a period in which you doodle around trying to acquire the information needed to pull this new task off.

This is literally a waste of time, and that’s where the feeling of “I did so much but got nothing done today” comes from – your time has been sunk into constantly acquiring, shedding and reacquiring context information. Sometime people get around this – my former boss used copious amounts of notes and relied on people to follow up with him on things – but most often, they don’t.

That’s where timeboxing comes in.

No, not the Dr. Who thing. Timeboxing, to quote the great Pedia of the Wiki, allocates a fixed time period, called a  time box (duh), to each planned activity. Several project management approaches use timeboxing. It is also used for individual use to address personal tasks in a smaller time frame.”

I timebox. I wasn’t aware I was doing this until @dulitharw came along and put a name to it.  It works. Ever since I started it, my productivity seems to have ramped up: I’m getting work done, writing slowly, but steadily (both the blog and a novel on the back burner); learning (cryptography and data science); finding time for a movie / series episode; reading one and a half to two hours a day, every day;  I’ve found time for extracurricular stuff – going out with friends and Toastmasters’ and the planning of complete world domination; AND I’m getting a good six hours of sleep a day.  I actually work less – I write far less that I used to – but my work is getting better.

And this is while knowing for fact that I’m nowhere near even close to optimizing my time management – I’m just scratching the surface. I know, for instance, that I’m spending 10x more time on Facebook than I need to. There’s so much more productivity ahead.

This is in contrast to my previous year – 12-hour workdays in front of the computer; stressed-out weekends; little sleep; no social or extracurricular life; no time for anything or anyone else.  It seems natural to timebox. Even better: it allows me to work around what I think of as my “goofball hours” – zones when I have no productivity whatsoever. I work well from 9 AM to 12 PM; productivity plummets at 1 PM and hits rock bottom at 3; by 4 PM I’m up again, until 7; then there’s downtime until 10 PM. Setting timeboxes for my day allows me to neatly work around these zones. Mind you, it’s not perfect, but I put that more on my failing than on the system. For instance, I’ve been unable to ‘box my way into gymming. That will hopefully change in the coming month(s).

In fact, now that I think of it, school was run along the same lines: periods were time boxes. You could clear the maths away and get out the english books, and even though we had too many subjects, it really worked.  You were never expected to do your English homework while jotting down trigonometry notes and chatting to a colleague about isomerism. That doesn’t happen. One thing at a time, dear donkey.

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Where then, does this “multitasking” business come from? I believe that’s something we’ve mistakenly absorbed from the world of computers. Back in the 60’s, computer processors had a feature called multiprogramming; while waiting for the slow-as-fuck printer or hard drive to respond, they could switch to another task and hammer away on that until whatever they were waiting on arrived.

Computers being what they were, this soon evolved to a state where processors would no longer work on tasks sequentially – new things would constantly start and interrupt things that were being worked on, and the computer processor would switch to so many different things so fast that it seemed like it was doing multiple tasks at the same time.  Marketing caught onto this and touted this as “multitasking”.  Corporate types wanting to boast about how much work they were doing caught on to this as well and started spreading the myth downwards.

TL;DR? Forget multitasking. Chances are you timebox as well, but if you don’t –  try it.   I’m no guru, but this one works for me – it’ll work for you as well.

*Science says  the human brain is simply not meant for multi-tasking. This is especially true if you buy into the “women can multitask, men can’t” myth that’s been floating around for years. I looked this up while trying to find solutions for this. Apparently yes, you can  have a phone conversation while watching the All Blacks play. You can drive a car while humming the soundtrack to Requiem For a Dream. You can fold laundry while riding a bicycle. Great. And that’s because for you, only one of these require significant cognitive effort. Driving a car is initially quite difficult: you won’t be humming anything when you’re first sorting out the clutch. But once that’s practically muscle memory, your brain is free to move on to other things. It’s the same with the rugby match – you’ll be paying significantly less attention either to the play or to the person on the end of the phone call. In short, you’re half-assing two or more things, not recommended in a work situation.  This is old knowledge, but for some reason surprisingly large amounts of people  still buy into the myth of multi-tasking.

Additional reading (with slightly more science):

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