I can track time, but what about efficiency?

I’m an independent researcher. I don’t have a boss and basically receive one big grant every year based on my output and future research ideas. I’ve been tracking how many deep work hours I put into my work. This is a great proxy for productivity, but I don’t think it’s optimal. For example, I can 10 hours of deep work on the wrong objective can be magnitudes worse than the right objective. On top of that, I could be tracking my time and making progress, but not being hyper-efficient about how I’m executing on the right objective.

I’d like to have something that provides me with extra pressure to 1) pick the correct objective rather than the one that maybe feels best 2) force me to be more efficient with my time (for example, a deadline that I’m way more likely to meet if I’m efficient with my time). I’d like to get papers, experiments, etc done a lot faster. I feel like I will not be hyper-efficient if I’m only tracking deep work time.

Basically, I want to figure out how to force myself to produce more output beyond a proxy deep work hours monitoring and paper deadlines.

I’m a little nervous about attaching monetary consequences to this in some way, but then again, the consequence is potentially a necessary component and artificial deadlines don’t seem at all optimal in general.

So, I’m curious if anyone here has anything they’ve tried to make this work.

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Can you identify some variations of your current input metric (hours worked)?

For exemple: number of blocks of 2 hours of work worked on an important item selected yesterday evening.

Start slow, with just “one block” on something that your higher order self think should be what you should work on. And then, iterate – is this proxy metric better than my “hours worked” one?

In my opinion, hours worked is often a bad input metric for open-ended work. If you target the “hours worked” metric, you might end up stuck in the emotionally easiest categories of work.

What you are doing: following your intuition. It’s deep work, but might not allow you to get a grant next year
What you want to be doing: following your roadmap. It’s deep work, but it’s harder to get started on it.

This is how I understand your problem from my past experience – did I miss something?

You’re on point with having a boss, too. Having a boss made me realize that my way of working was wrong. Having a clear roadmap and accountability increases material outcomes. It’s “working smart” rather than “working hard”. I worked hard for years without results. (except weird knowledge — which I am glad I have, I don’t regret having worked “the wrong way” for years :smiley: )

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Hey sheik, thanks for the reply. A few points:

  1. I’ve found the “hours worked” method works decently well. I’ve been following a similar approach to this guide by Andy Matuschak. I think it is working decently well because I took the time to find collaborators to work on projects, and I always have time to work x number of minutes. In practice, I like the flexibility because one day I can do 5+ hours of deep work until I get tired (on my research), and then the next day I can do less (and fill the extra time with other things).
  2. I completely agree with you on the “emotionally easiest category”. In fact, this is something I’ve been actively training myself to avoid (training myself to embrace the discomfort of the important tasks). I’m periodically checking with myself, “am I using 90% of my brain power atm?”, if not, I re-evaluate whether I’m working on the easy thing (or approaching it in an easy way, like re-reading a text) or if I actually working on the highest value thing (in the best way that I can) and it’s just easy.
  3. So, I’m not really doing what is the “emotionally easy” task anymore, but I sometimes get concerned that I’m not approaching it in the most strategic way that I can (maybe sometimes I should reach out to a mentor for advice, pay for a service that accelerates my work, etc).

The real important thing I wanted to point to in my OP was the following:

  1. If we look at some form of the productivity equation (long-run productivity), it’s something like this:

Productivity = Time x Efficiency x Objective, where the objective can sometimes be 100x more important than the other two variables because if you pick the wrong project, you could end up with 0 results no matter how efficient and hard-working you are. However, picking the right project and tasks could compensate a lot for the other two variables.

In other words, I want to force myself to aim for more important tasks through some system.

  1. Which is actually what I was getting at in the title, is that even if I keep my deep work hours tracked, some of my sessions won’t be at peak focus and won’t take the 80/20 approach for getting the task done ASAP. Now, if I was only doing the hours tracked thing, it wouldn’t be ideal, but it would still work somewhat. However, having a collaborator on a project makes me have weekly deadlines, and things like paper/grant deadlines also propel me forward to compensate for the missing directionality in ‘deep work hours worked.’

So, weekly meetings + actual paper/grant deadlines help, but I’m looking for additional things to provide me pressure in the short-term to get things done as efficiently as I can rather than ‘working more hours’. Example could be writing up my research output publicly or at least finishing 3 of the 6 tasks I set out to finish this week.

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I see, thanks for your input on the “emotionally easy” tasks. I think I need to train myself to embrace the hard ones too. This gave me an idea! (do one emotionally easy but long task and one emotionally hard task per day).

This is something I can second, since I am myself struggling to maintain a mentoring relationship. Not because the guy doesn’t want to help, but rather because I don’t text him often enough :slight_smile:.


It looks like you already have ideas on how to be more efficient, but you miss an impulse that forces you to try them out.

Maybe you could create a Beeminder goal called “improve_research_efficiency”.

This goal prompts you to:

  1. Find an idea on how to optimize work
  2. Create a Beeminder goal to work towards it.

No pressure in keeping the Beeminder goal; only in creating it.

For example:

  1. You believe that reaching the following will improve your work efficiency: “Get a mentoring relationship on subject XYZ where I often ask for advices, which will speed up my work”
  2. Create a Beeminder goal that prompts you to: “send one message to ” every two weeks. That’s enough to force you to ask a question in a while, and it’s a good start to more frequent exchanges.

Sinc you look like you want to be more effiicent in the day to day, you could make the goal more narrow (“improve_work_hours_efficiency” → will make you try out Focusmate, pomodoros ?)

A meta-Beeminder goal, so to speak.

Am I understanding it right this time :slight_smile: ? It’s a bit unclear to me what exactly is your problem, but I am interested in figuring it out :eyes:

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I think sheik is on the right track!

The question is something like the observation “doing the next obvious thing over and over doesn’t seem to be a great way to get the outcomes I want long term”. Working on this can seem really daunting, especially when you zoom out a bit. i.e.

  1. “What should I do next?”
  2. “How should I decide what to do next?”

There’s a tendency, especially with folks who tend to like things like Beeminder, to realize that 2 is a tricky and uncomfortable question to them, spend a week coming up with a brand new, highly elaborate system, and decide they have solved #2. (It seems like they often crash and burn, maybe because it’s hard to come up with a complex system that works well without starting from a slightly less complex system that works well even if you’re a sharp person, but I digress).

I suggest zooming out another level.

  1. “How do I decide how to decide what to do next?”

It’s abstract enough that it seems to removes a lot of the shame and anxiety and frustration around these decisions. How would you work a medium-sized, nontrivial problem, generically? Come up with some options, pick a subset to try first based on costs, timeframe, energy required, gut feeling…, try 'em, evaluate and decide if you should tweak what you’re doing or go back to other options you came up with earlier–or “start over” since your problem or prioritization factors (budget, timeframe, energy available…) are different now.

I’d guess that general thoughts around 3 seem fine and reasonable, but when you try it, the process “just seems to get stuck somewhere”. I’d also guess that, when you place it in the context of your work, at least one of those steps feels a little uncomfortable. Maybe you get a sinking feeling in your gut when you think about grant renewal or your peers looking at your work, or you remember a time you reflected on past work, realized you “could have just” done a different thing, and now you’re frustrated or ashamed or something, or maybe you’re feeling anxiety around not picking the perfect choice at the beginning. Or maybe not! Maybe you just forget to evaluate how your intervention is going because your research grabs your attention so well. (There are so many places for this to go awry!)

Throwing Beeminder around the whole loop, where you make sure you’re coming up with ideas, trying them over a reasonable time frame, evaluating them, and iterating, sounds like a really great idea.

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Great discussion here! Random bit that caught my eye:

Aha, Gall’s Law! Apparently I mentioned this in a beemail once:

Let me randomly tell you about Gall’s Law (I forget who told me about this a while back – sounds like an Adam Wolf thing [also a @philip thing]):

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.

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