Working productively towards my data science goals

8 minute read

With the current days of COVID and working from home, I initially felt my data science learning and productivity slow down as my routine was disrupted. But in late March, I created a schedule for myself which helped keep me in the rhythm of studying and staying sane. I’ve committed to this now for about 4 weeks and it’s good to look back and reflect on how this schedule has worked for me.

Creating a schedule towards my objectives

My objectives for creating a schedule are to:

  1. Learn data science topics well enough so that I can comfortably communicate concepts to others
  2. Maximize the efficiency of my learning
  3. Maintain or update projects to add to my portfolio
  4. Stay aware of job opportunities
  5. Keep my mind and body healthy

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I devote about an hour each to algorithms, business cases and behavioral questions. My Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays are focused on machine learning, SQL, and probability and statistics. The interleaving is meant to mimic spaced, interval learning and avoid diminished returns from studying in a blocked fashion (objectives 1 and 2). Splitting the topics up across days also makes progress more realistic (objectives 1, 2, and 5). I devote about 4 hours per week updating a project (objective 3). Furthermore, I devote time to stay in touch with others and participate in Insight meetings. This gives me opportunity to practice talking about concepts, ask others questions, get feedback on projects, and keep a pulse on open positions. Importantly, it provides the opportunity to give and receive support from other fellows. Therefore, while staying in contact with others might not always provide a concrete box to check, it contributes to all of my objectives. One area where I devoted time but have not been as consistent is in writing. I committed to improving my writing a few months ago. While I should not be too hard on myself since most of this time was spent doing Insight, it is time to get back on the proverbial horse. Finally, I’ve maintained an exercise routine and having a fitness goal has kept me motivated (mine is to gain five pounds of muscle mass in about two months). Sticking to this schedule is hardly perfect. Most days things don’t go exactly as I’ve planned. But having targets to shoot for have kept me going. But since I’m also interested in learning efficiently, especially from a psychology/neuroscience perspective, I’m keeping my eyes open to how to maximize productivity which I can then use to integrate or update my schedule.

Ideas for improving productivity

I already had a copy of Barbara Oakley’s A Mind for Numbers but had only read parts of it previously. But one thing that I adopted from the first reading was Pomodoro Technique. Doing work in 25 minute durations has worked well for me. I had forgotten about other useful lessons from the book. For example, working on a problem right before you go to bed allows your brain to work on it while sleeping, giving your mind a new perspective in the morning. Another simple thing to avoid procrastination is to work on something important before checking messages in the morning. I’m only about halfway through the book so there are other techniques I’m sure that I will adopt.

A second “productivity” source I came across recently was a seven-day productivity challenge from the NYTimes. Interestingly, the first recommendation was committing to just 10 minutes of uninterrupted concentration on your highest priority item, and not the 25 minutes from Pomodoro. But the idea is that we can do so much from not multi-tasking. Day 2 in the series was make a realistic to-do list. Luckily, I think I was already doing that for my schedule, not putting to much on a certain day makes tasks feel more “bite-sized” and therefore I feel less overwhelmed than when I was trying to study too much at once. Day 3 was about being mindful of posture, breathing, and movement. Since I had already been standing up between Pomodoro sessions and exercising regularly, I felt like I was practicing this, but I could be more mindful of posture. (My mother would always remind me about posture when I was growing up.) The fourth piece of advice was rise above the noise by stashing devices and limiting message checking to once per hour at most. This is probably the most challenging for me since I (like probably most people) am addicted to my phone. (More on this in discussion of the next source.) But this has undoubtedly helped sharpen my focus on a task and improve productivity. In reality, there are very few reasons that I need to pay attention to messages as they appear. Reducing the frequency of message checking would likely be the most significant, concrete practice I can implement now. Day 5 was about finding a partner to help with accountability. I practice this by talking with fellow fellows about project milestones once a week. This has helped me build momentum on my projects. The sixth recommendation was to extend focus to two full hours of time on a single work-related task. The article’s advice could not be any better in going about this concretely:

To accomplish this, lean on the lessons you’ve learned from earlier in the week: First, set aside a block of time to work only on this task (monotasking). Then divide the larger task into three or more separate increments and write them down (a mini to-do list).

The last sentence of the article was also important to me: “As you work, don’t focus on quality. Just live in the moment and work.” This was good advice because sometimes I try to reach certain learning objectives within a defined time frame, but I don’t realize if they’re overly ambitious until after I start working on it. (Sometimes I can be widely inaccurate in how long a new problem might take me. I might assume it takes 30 minutes when in reality it can take me several hours.) Day 7’s advice was about reflection, thinking about what worked, what didn’t, and not being so hard on myself for not reaching a goal. It also says to write down three new things I did this past week and what could be new, permanent habits. (For what it’s worth, I wrote this blog to help solidify what I learned.)

The third source of improving productivity was from an Insight seminar I watched yesterday, given by two UC Berkeley professors Dr. Sahar Yousef and Lucas Miller. They have cognitive neuroscience backgrounds so I was eager to hear what they had to say. Improving workplace productivity is something that they do professionally. I don’t yet have access to the recording of the seminar so most of what I have is from memory. One of the ideas that stood out was about recognizing most important tasks (MITs) and least important tasks (LITs) and not letting LITs dominate your day. I really liked the mouse analogy they gave regarding how brains react to these kinds of tasks, since I can connect it to my molecular neuroscience background. LITs are the short-term dopamine hits like a mouse pushing a lever to receive a sugar pill. Tasks in this category for us would be responding to emails or attending unimportant meetings. LITs can easily fill your calendar while at the same time feeling like your day was empty. On the other hand, working at MITs feels difficult because they take longer to achieve and it is hard to feel like you’ve made tangible progress on a day-to-day level. For the rodent in the analogy, an MIT would be like a big, fat block of cheese at the end of a long and difficult maze. But we can shred the cheese and sprinkle the shards towards the end of the maze. This would turn our MITs into LITs, aligning our short-term instincts for achieving quick, productivity gains towards a larger goal. Additional recommendations were in alignment with the other two sources. They cite doing a “focus sprint” which is like Pomodoro, but longer (about 50 minutes of focused work + 10 minutes of break). This includes applying monotasking and keeping your phone out of sight. (Despite my knowing about similar tips in the above sources, I still manage to violate these recommendations and caught myself on my phone up until they mentioned this in their seminar.) I recognized their discussion on aligning work with the times of the day where we’re pre-disposed to be most productive. (I’m definitely a morning person and the times I devote to self-study are between 8 and 12. Meetings are in the afternoon.)

Final thoughts

With the tips and recommendations cited above, I am conscious of optimizing productivity, but I surely can get better at applying the ideas more consistently. Having a objective to serve as a “North Star” helps me place my bits of cheese. In a teach back session I gave at Insight on SQL, I provided such an example but it can be genericized to other topics: to “comfortably execute an advanced SQL (or algorithm/statistics/machine learning) question while providing an explanation to someone with who you initially don’t know in a limited amount of time.” I emphasized other phrases because proper execution of a problem is not enough. It is important to explain my thinking to someone while ideally getting through as many problems as possible. When making my objective this concrete, it provides motivation and focus for where I need to be.

Here are some concrete steps I will take:

  • Reduce the frequency of checking messages and news. This would surely be one of the most impactful practices I will adopt.
  • When studying, spend more time pairing concept learning and quizzing. I was taking some detailed notes in a notebook but I can increase time building up my Anki flashcard set.
  • Improve communication skills by writing more consistently. The writing will be on an education project and on various topics as I learn about them. (For the next couple of weeks, the education project will take priority.)
  • Discuss solutions to problems with other fellows, being mindful of my thought process and treating each opportunity as an interview.

The multiple sources of productivity tips have both reinforced habits that I have already adopted and introduced me to new modes of thinking. I hope some of these ideas might be useful for you too.