Do I wish to revise my time management tips?

I wrote this in 2004 on MR:

Here are my suggestions:

1. There is always time to do more, most people, even the productive, have a day that is at least forty percent slack.

2. Do the most important things first in the day and don’t let anybody stop you.  Estimate “most important” using a zero discount rate.  Don’t make exceptions.  The hours from 7 to 12 are your time to build for the future before the world descends on you.

3. Some tasks (drawing up outlines?) expand or contract to fill the time you give them.  Shove all these into times when you are pressed to do something else very soon.

4. Each day stop writing just a bit before you have said everything you want to.  Better to approach your next writing day “hungry” than to feel “written out.”  Your biggest enemy is a day spent not writing, not a day spent writing too little.

5. Blogging builds up good work habits; the deadline is always “now.”

Rahul R. asks me if I would like to revise the list.  I’ll add these:

6. Don’t drink alcohol.  Don’t take drugs.

7. At any point in your life, do not be watching more than one television show on a regular basis.

8. Don’t feel you have to finish a book or movie if you don’t want to.  I cover that point at length in my book Discover Your Inner Economist.

I think I would take back my old #5, since I observe some bloggers who have gone years, ten years in fact, without being so productive.


Don't read blogs?

Or maybe just, don't comment on blogs.

The Internet is just as much a time-suck as TV.

I'm dubious about #7. A television show is 40m per week. I'm sure there's much more low-hanging productivity fruit than that.

Not in the days of netflix and digital recording. It can be a 80 minutes a day and a season finished in a week, or even a single highly unproductive day.

If you're binge-watching show after show consecutively, you're still following the letter (but probably not the spirit) of rule #7.

Yeah, in the era of Netflix and Amazon Prime, number 7 is not really a constraint on time wasting.

Regarding number 6, it's becoming increasingly irresponsible to advise people to avoid alcohol:

Otherwise I mostly like these. 2's my favorite. Morning is the time when you are unfettered.

Well, then we must watch TV and search the web at the same time.

Except you learn more on the internet.


You can learn a lot watching TV, as well, and a lot of what you "learn" on the Internet is trivia.

I gained productivity on the margins when MR banned me from commenting; but that was just my workplace IP, maybe I need to get banned for the home IP, too?

I would rather drink alcohol and take drugs than watch television.


A million ups. I would also rather a sharp stick in the eye that listen to someone else tell me about television.
If I cared, I'd watch it. There is nothing privileged about it.

I'd rather have two sharp sticks in the eye (the same one, please) than read a comment about whether someone likes listening to someone else about television.

What, you say? Reading this is voluntary? Never mind, I'm outta here.

"Drugs" is too broad a brush. Some drugs don't waste time at all, such as coffee. Some people would include tobacco with that. A few people would include amphetamine via the oral route, though the other routes of taking amphetamine (snorted or smoked) are a completely different animal.

Agreed, although I think psychedelics are worth using on occasion. It really alters one's consciousness and expands ones creativity and interaction with the world in a positive way.

On Paul Erdos-
"After 1971 he also took amphetamines, despite the concern of his friends, one of whom (Ron Graham) bet him $500 that he could not stop taking the drug for a month.[17] Erdős won the bet, but complained that during his abstinence, mathematics had been set back by a month: "Before, when I looked at a piece of blank paper my mind was filled with ideas. Now all I see is a blank piece of paper." After he won the bet, he promptly resumed his amphetamine use."

I also disagree with #6, given the possibility of alternating drugs/alcohol with work/writing. Drugs (from coffee to heroin) change your perspective, and some people benefit from that in their work (let alone in their lives). /currently high on coffee :)

Amphetamine may have somewhat similar effects to nerve growth factor eye drops that Rita Levi-Montalcini is said to have used.

And Linius Pauling was a brilliant two-time Nobel winner who thought megadoses of vitamin C was the key. All it did was make his urine turn orange. Levi-Montalcini may have been personally certain about NGF, but it's effects on her were more likely to be in the realm of placebo effect and confirmation bias. In any event, you can be absolutely certain that NGF and amphetamine are NOT having similar effects - in fact, amphetamine lowers NGF levels in the brain.

Well, some things down-regulate others because they have basically identical effects. That's not what I'm suggesting, of course when I say similar effects.

I'm also not appealing to authority with the reference to NGF. I'm not sure why you would assume, assuming you are assuming, that NGF would have only placebo effects. Here is a paper that claims significant results with the optic nerve.

Oops, it's by Levi-Montalcini...

Publishing papers at 99 years old doesn't prove anything either...just sayin'.

Vitamin C doesn't turn your urine orange, and you can't absorb megadoses. After about half a gram, additional vitamin C doesn't make it into the bloodstream.

Andrew', my only assumption is that you were generalizing from a single person's life about the supposed benefits of NGF for . . well, I'm not sure for what. Longevity? Intelligence? Mental acuity during senility? I can't really tell. Since this is a post about productivity, and you seem to believe NGF has some similar brain-power-enhancing effect to amphetamine (!?), I'm guessing you think Levi-Montalcini's personal belief about NGF is possibly valid. Correct?

I know you wouldn't want to respond to an appeal to authority, so my having a Ph.D. in neuroscience, an MD and a residency in psychiatry, and some stints in neurobehavior and in dementia clinics, is all probably meaningless to you. Regardless, the idea that NGF eyedrops have similar effects to amphetamine is nonsensical, and any general effect of NGF eyedrops on long-term brain function is almost certainly in the realm of placebo. And I say that having read at least some of the literature on NGF, amphetamine, and long-term brain function.

More that that, I make it a point to never take a single self-reported anecdote as meaningful, even if it comes from an elderly Nobel prize winner. But I know people need to believe they have special insights, which is why I've tried to stop discussing things like astrology, megavitamins, stacking nootropics, and other silliness.

Maybe avoiding these discussions should be on the list of productivity boosters. Now that's some low-hanging fruit.

Mark, the typical megadoses of vitamin C do in fact darken one's urine and give it an orange cast. And of course you're correct that megadoses of water-soluble vitamins just end up in the toilet (it's often been said that Americans have the most expensive urine in the world). That was precisely my point -- Linus Pauling was a genius, and also embarrassingly wrong about vitamins.

I knew a woman who interviewed a number of elderly Nobel prize winners, and she said he was by far the sharpest of all of them in his old age. She found it inexplicable that someone who had his intellect and scientific background could believe so strongly in his personal theories about vitamins, despite a wealth of evidence even then that he was completely wrong.

"you think Levi-Montalcini’s personal belief about NGF is possibly valid"

Sure. "Possibly" is a big word. May is also a big word, that also can mean may not. I'm assuming Paul Erdos used amphetamine for something related to plasticity. I'm assuming NGF may possibly move in that direction. I suppose the other two gross possibilities are reduction in plasticity or no effect at all. I find them all plausible.

The broader context, on a blog that routinely discusses drug legalization etc., is that drugs can help elite performers, and I guess we could include even if perhaps just by placebo. I've brought up Kevin Smith numerous times who says marijuana helps his productivity and creativity. People oddly choose to assume he's just a lying stoner.

I didn't mean to wander into offending your expertise. So, which was harder, the PhD, or the MD?

"In summary, repeated, intermittent treatment with AMPH shows neurotrophic effect in PC12 cells."

Yes, all caveats apply (cell line, in vitro, etc.). I think the basic problem is we are coming at this question from opposite ends, me from "maybe" and you from "almost assuredly not." I'm not suggesting that Amphetamine and NGF have identical biochemical functions, nor that NGF should be prescribed. More that elite thinkers might be taking them for similar desired and perceived effects.

No offense taken -- you cannot have medical and scientific training and be offended by muddled thinking if you want to stay sane. And I know lots of people who happily cling to the possibility that a cherished, almost certainly false, idea MAY be true. That's why we have religion, right? And I work with folks who are stoned all the time who genuinely believe they're more creative in that state. They're probably correct, though it also impairs their productivity, convinces them that they've done better work than they have, and makes them forgetful.

Med school was a ball. Absolutely loved it, though going to Stanford may have been a big part of that (no grades or even honors, big emphasis on research, no emphasis on making money). I was too young and ignorant to take advantage of my doctoral program, so that was a struggle. Probably one of those things that I should have heeded the advice of number 8 above (that advice applies to much more than movies and books, for heaven's sake!).

Did you do the MD after the PhD?

"muddled thinking"

Watch it. Don't smack me with the olive branch I gave you.

"We are aware of very few studies that directly exam-
ine the molecular basis of drug-induced structural plas-

Sure, that is as of 2004, but are you so sure the issue has been settled in the last 10 years?

Sorry for the 'muddled thinking' crack, but you are correct about this: "I think the basic problem is we are coming at this question from opposite ends, me from “maybe” and you from “almost assuredly not.” In my time studying and researching chemical productivity boosters, psychotropic enhancers and pharmaceuticals, and now nootropics (and treating patients who suffer from inattention, lack of focus, dementia, etc.), I have seen a long list of substances (as well as techniques) rise up, become flavor of the month, get lots of mention in various echo chambers, and then quietly disappear without a trace after true believers waste enough time and money. Funny thing is, these experiences don't lead to scientific skepticism (i.e., assume it's bullshit until proven otherwise), they lead the true believer to keep looking just around the corner for the next amazing thing. If you want to believe enough, an e-meter or NLP or racetam or NRG may be your answer! So, yes, I am a Skeptic with a capital S, especially on this subject. Snake oil salesmen abound, and some of them truely believe what they're selling.

For me the bar is high. Prescription medications for ADHD and depression absolutely work, but the effects are subtle enough that rigorous double-blind studies are required. Even then the benefits tend to be exaggerated and/or relatively short term. My very-well-trained gut instinct tells me that NGF eyedrops would be as likely to keep one's mind sharp in old age is as likely as a small pyramid would keep the razor blade sharp.

Oh, and the neural plasticity of long term drug and alcohol abuse, as described in that article, is probably not the kind of neural plasticity you're looking for if you want to enhance productivity or keep learning new things as you age.

Kevin, do you categorically reject the possibility that Erdos or other mathematicians may benefit from amphetamine use? You argued that one anecdote is never enough to move the needle. But you did say that ADHD drugs work. Amphetamines work for ADHD, so if they worked for Erdos, are we to conclude that he had ADHD? Or that he was a gifted mathematician and, unrelatedly, a drug addict?

anon, I wasn't arguing about Erdos. I was arguing that amphetamine and NGF do not remotely have the same effects (and I'm sure Levi-Montalcini would be the first to agree with that), and that amphetamine =/= marijuana, among other things.

Amphetamine is definitely a short-term productivity enhancer. The caveat is that most creative types who have used speed find that stimulants aren't helpful for creativity. For most people, the usual effects of addictive drugs (tolerance, withdrawal effects, etc.) end up making amphetamine an unproductive losing proposition in the long run. But then Erdos clearly was not a normal person -- he appears to have been profoundly eccentric in many ways. Apparently he was a coffee fiend most of his life. Per Wikipedia he began using amphetamine around age 58, at which point he was already one of the most published mathematicians of all time, so just from that I have a hard time attributing too much of his productivity and brilliance to amphetamine.

During the one month he quit amphetamine on a bet, he likely suffered the common malaise and depression that chronic amphetamine users experience upon withdrawal from the drug. As pointed out in the paper Andrew' cited, chronic drug use will reset the brain, and a month off of amphetamine wouldn't be long enough for Erdos to get back to his baseline state. We cannot use that quote to assume the amphetamine was the key to his productivity and creativity, only that he was, at that point, in some way dependent upon it. And, as you note, he may have had ADHD.

Stimulants in prescription doses act differently in those with ADHD than in the rest of us. Small doses allow someone with ADHD to have a normal level of focus, concentration, and reduced impulsivity. It's not a perfect fix, but it's damned good, and very dramatic when you have the diagnosis right. Almost like a light switch going on. I remember one 12 year old tearfully telling me "Now I know what it's like for the other kids" when I asked him how things were at school since I'd started him on Ritalin. The coffee may have done this for Erdos, and later small doses of amphetamine. Or, perhaps, Erdos is simply an outlier.

Something that is missed in a lot of these comments is the profound difference between creativity (doing something new and worthwhile) and getting shit done (productivity). Stimulants are great for the latter. Other drugs may or may not be helpful for the former, but they are usually deadly for the latter. And then a lot of these examples are just epiphenomena and reversed cause-and-effect.

Yeah I find the Alcohol/Coffee combo to work quite well for me.

I know many would say I am drinking too much, but 3-4 glasses of red wine over two hours before bed nails the sweet spot of falling asleep the minute I go to bed, getting a restful night sleep, and waking up with no hangover for me.

Followed by coffee to get me ramped up in the morning.

Anecdotally I find there is no correlation between people who drink alcohol and their productivity. We can easily think of some people who achieved prodigious things while being alcohol drinkers, Winston Churchill is one them, but there are any numbers of writers than one could include in this. If anything my sense is that teetotalers are likely to be less productive than moderate drinkers (but I live in a broadly Muslim country!).

On drugs, most musicians are heavy users of drugs during their most productive years, trivially easy to think of examples here but I will give you the Beatles and Rolling Stones as a starter.

If I am struggling with a difficult problem, a couple of glasses of red wine in front of the TV can help me relax and then in my more relaxed state I can be more creative and less "stuck" the next morning. Hammering away at a problem all the time is not conducive, for me at least, to achieving the best result. When I look back I often see I have been too worried about solving problems that in the big scheme didn't matter, alcohol to me is a way of achieving that perspective without the distance in time.

Coffee protects the liver against cirrhosis. Be sure to drink your coffee!

Seeing the plethora of 2 AM blog postings....( fine for me since I am currently almost the opposite Time zone)

9) Sleep little, or certainly late.

This blog has an automated posting system.

I agree with #6. Nothing more unproductive than breaking the work routine, which invariably happens after a crazy night out. Probably the best solution is resting completely for a day and start fresh the day after, but then the body is still too unsettled for work.
And the 10 years blogger I know has been hugely productive, although he may think he could have done more.

Along those lines, I am phenomenally unproductive after I return from vacation... takes me several weeks to reestablish my routine. But I doubt Tyler would add "9. Don't take vacations."

I value the pleasure of good scotch over time management.

I value the pleasures of intoxicants or relaxing in general over constantly being productive as well. Living a life spent being constantly productive, isn't living. Day dreaming, alcohol, a little j occasionally is time well spent in my book.

Obviously, all these tips blow up when you have a crabby infant who won't let you put it down. Unless of course there's a tip 9: It's funny what you can do one handed.

It makes some of the tips downright funny. "Finish a book"! Ha.

10. Don't have kids

'Don’t drink alcohol.'

Somehow, I suspect there is a connection to a preference for strip mall restaurants in this. And one could reasonably assume that a strip mall restaurant is more time effective, too.

He likes strip mall restaurants for reasons. Being a foodie is only time effective if you are a foodie, which brings us to 10. Love your work.

9. Distinguish between tasks that are "letter grade" and those that are pass/fail. Don't try to get an A on tasks that are Pass/Fail.

If something is worth doing, it's worth doing well.
If something isn't worth doing, it's not worth doing well.

Consider starting an anti-economics blog. It would be the perfect place for such sentiments.

Ha, that reminds me of when I posted here at some point that it's useful to watch someone make easy repairs so you can DIY next time. The response was something to the effect "That is anti-economics--you should super-specialize and pay someone to do anything that isn't in your super-specialty!"

It also involves reducing information asymmetry. Even if you pay the next guy, now you know what you are paying for. I'm not sure why a lot of economics becomes anti-economics.

Perhaps, but some are worth doing much better than others. Making a toast at dinner versus making a toast at your brother's wedding. Signing a car rental contract versus signing a financing for your company.

Incentive structures would often reward diligence in the car rental contract more than the company financing deal as long as you're not noticeably negligent.

9. Don't spend all your time being productive. Be still.

10. Don't let anyone make you feel guilty for being human.

"Don’t spend all your time being productive. Be still."

I like this, it's the opposite of the "if I'm driving really fast, I must be going somewhere important" theory.

What is your metric for "productive?" Choice of that matters. Is it possible that some bloggers have earned more money via blogging and financial opportunities that flow from that than if they had been "academically productive?" Even within the academy, the appropriate measure of productivity is unclear and tugged by agency issues. Is it CV maximization or future success of the students in one's classes.

Don't worry about satisfaction, happiness, enjoyment, fun. They're too difficult to measure. Stick to productivity, it's a lot more important than those other things since a number, even a bogus one, can be assigned to it.

I actually have this up on the wall in my cube. By the way, I'm surprised nobody went for the obvious:

8. "I cover that point at length in my book Discover Your Inner Economist." I never got that far.

Is this good advice for someone like me with ADD? My problem is often sticking to any book or task at hand. When do you know its no longer worth your time to continue an activity, and when should stick it out? I'm afraid that if dropped any activity the second I lose interest I'd never get much out of life.

I have that exact same problem.

#11. "No" is a power word. Say it often.

Saying "NO" is the most important time management tool indeed. Here are a few tips for those who struggle with that:

Good sleeping habits and low alcohol volume beer to manage nerves. Also, no social media on your cell phone ;)

To-do lists are only good for a day. At the end of the day delete it.

Take adderall. Dont get mono. Dont eat too much. If your erection lasts longer than 4 hours, call a doctor....

There is a bit of tension between #1 and #4.

you must not watch telenovelas -- impossible to do only one. I pretend I am improving my Spanish. Wonderful to enter that world.

#0 . A programmer's rule: your most productive work is done from the hours of midnight to six AM, when there are few interruptions. Every other hour is downtime. I find this to be very true when I'm coding.

0-based indexing of lists, eh? Maybe you are for real in this case.

I'll add one. Use Facebook (or other social network) as a tool if you must but don't let it control you. It's much more wasteful than watching TV.

A teetotaler? Ugh.

9. do more consumer spending because it's good for the economy

Assume you need to strive for marginal productivity gains instead of doing something else...

May we please see your list of unproductive bloggers?

I think I already know the top two.

LOL, not Cowen and Tabarrok.

Hasn't Tyler written about pairing wines with food? I don't think he's truly teetol.

Maybe he doesn't count wine as alcohol, the way some self-proclaimed vegetarians don't count fish or chicken as "meat".

It appears 5, 6, 7 are really "Restrict and moderate your timesink habits" - bad blogging (for some people), alcohol/drugs and TV are called out because they appeal to Tyler Cowen. But for me the list would include some types of phone games (love wastinutes here or there with plants v zombies 2), and over checking twitter. Having a glass of wine at night to watch weak sci-fi on TV is definitely one for me as well. That is to say, everyone's particular timesink habits may be different. Restrict or limit them. This rewording would make the list more concise, yet more generally applicable. Now.....I need to get back to finishing a few things, it's still prime morning productivity hours for me. :)

Do the most important things first in the day and don’t let anybody stop you. Estimate “most important” using a zero discount rate. Don’t make exceptions. The hours from 7 to 12 are your time to build for the future before the world descends on you.

Unfortunately, I have to be at work from 7-12.

Being a foodie is stupid and mainly shows a poor understanding of neuroscience.

High status foods only taste superior because you believe they are high-status. It's a placebo effect.

The huge amount of time Cowen has put into being a foodie is nothing more than self-deluded status-climbing.

Foodies are, without exception, just a bunch of wankers with no insight into their own motivations.

Are you saying all foods taste the same, or are you saying cheap foods can taste just as good as gourmet?

From the utility point-of-view, you're just paying extra for the same number of calories and grams of protein, hence you're a fool.

That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard!

I don't care what the pleasure an sich is, I care about the pleasure für mich!

He eats for purely nutritional reasons.

While I don't avoid alcohol (i luv gin and tonic), I do eat, whenever possible, just for nutrition.

I snack on broccoli, and rarely have any soft drinks.

I do love Nachos (at least once a week), however.

The most efficient and nutritionally balanced food for you would be Purina Monkey Chow. No more decisions about what to eat or whether you're getting enough vitamins, minerals, etc. Comes in 50 pound sacks.

Is Tyler Cowen a Calvinist because of #6? The goal of life is happiness not time management.

Quite a few productive writers would have done well to avoid alcohol:

William Faulkner
Dorothy Parker
Raymond Chandler
Oscar Wilde
Edgar Allen Poe
Tennessee Williams
Truman Capote
James Joyce
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Ernest Hemingway

Er ... no ... wait.... Is it just the opposite?

Off the top of my head, add: F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Malcolm Lowry, Raymond Carver, John Cheever. William Styron.

I guess you could come up with counterfactuals, but they would be only that.

The fallacy here is that the same formula works for everyone and that everyone has the same goals--maximize the word count on your blog or book on economics. If you want to do time management, first figure out what it is you want to accomplish with your time (or not). Figuring out how best to spend your time is then the easy part.

Imagine how much more James Joyce could have accomplished if only he had followed these 8 easy tips!

Re: No. 2 — Can somebody explain what a "zero discount rate" is? That's the sort of term that Tyler would bother to explain, if it were in one of his books.

Obligatory XKCD link:

#1 don't read blogs
#4 don't comment on blogs
#2 ignore the advice about alcohol
#3 schmoozing over alcohol is more useful than anything else you'll do in your life, leading to both partners and jobs

What about exercise?

At least 50 minutes of intense exercise a day.

Works for me. Allows me to eat just about anything I want, and enjoy alcohol (red wine) without putting on weight.

David Wong had an excellent essay relevant to this a few weeks ago.

"So here's the secret, the thing that has been plainly obvious all along: Those people out there who are accomplishing great things and seem to get 50 hours' worth of work done every day? They're doing it because they have that gun to their head. An imaginary gun, pressed against their temple all day, every day.

But every obese person imagines themselves a decade from now having become thin, every coward imagines they'll be brave, you get the idea. There's never a defined plan for how to get from Point A to Point Z, and never an acknowledgment of the unbearable truth, which is that who you're going to be 10 years from now is just who you are today times 3,652. If you spent a good part of today playing iPhone games, then 10 years from now you'll be a person who's super good at iPhone games"

I can't imaging Boris Pasternak with a gun to his head as he wrote a wonderful novel.

There are actually worse things than wasting time. Wasting your life by trying to be more productive all the time, for example.

Succeed in what? Happiness or just being maximally productive? The whole point of being productive is to reach the day where you don't have to work excessively.

This productivity shit is too much. Yeah, most readers here are overproductive sheep. Fuck you. Fuck you all. Chaos is the score upon which reality is written.


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Against #6 I suggest Bob Dylan, throughout the 60s but especially:

*Another Side of Bob Dylan*
*Bringing It All Back Home*
*Highway 61 Revisisted*
*Blonde on Blonde*

I'm not sure that *"Love and Theft"* owes its creation to the use of drugs or alcholol, but I'm not sure that it would exist without the earlier influence of drugs and alcohol.

(Dylan's on tour in the USA again. I for one am going to take advantage while I still can. Time is short.)

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