How to Manage Your Time More Effectively: The Science of Applying Computer Algorithms to Our Everyday Lives

Who among us hasn’t wished to be as efficient as a computer? While computers seem to do everything at once, we either flit or plod from task to task, often getting sidetracked or even lost. At this point most have relinquished the dream of true “multitasking,” which turns out to lie not only beyond the reach of humans but, technically speaking, beyond the reach of computers as well. “Done right, computers move so fluidly between their various responsibilities, they give the illusion of doing everything simultaneously,” says the narrator of the animated TED-Ed lesson above. But in reality, even they do one thing at a time; what, then, can we humans learn from how they’re programmed to prioritize and switch between their many tasks?

A computer operating system has an element called a “scheduler,” which “tells the CPU how long to work on each task before switching.” Schedulers work quite well these days, but “even computers get overwhelmed sometimes.” This used to happen to the open-source operating system Linux, which “would rank every single one of its tasks in order of importance, and sometimes spent more time ranking tasks than doing them. The programmers’ counterintuitive solution was to replace this full ranking with a limited number of priority ‘buckets,'” replacing a precise priority ordering with a broader low-medium-high kind of grouping. This turned out to be a great improvement: “The system was less precise about what to do next, but more than made up for it by spending more time making progress.”

The lesson for those of us who habitually list and prioritize our tasks is obvious: “All the time you spend prioritizing your work is time you aren’t spending doing it,” and “giving up on doing things in the perfect order may be the key to getting them done.” In the case of e-mail, bane of many a 21st-century existence, “Insisting on always doing the very most important thing first could lead to a meltdown. Waking up to an inbox three times fuller than normal could take nine times longer to clear.




You’d be better off replying in chronological order, or even at random.” Robert Pirsig memorably articulated this in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, whose main character offers advice to his son frustrated by the task of writing a letter home from their road trip:

I tell him getting stuck is the commonest trouble of all. Usually, I say, your mind gets stuck when you’re trying to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. What you have to do now is separate out the things and do them one at a time. You’re trying to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that’s too hard. So separate them out. Just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order. Then later we’ll figure out the right order.

We don’t write many letters home these days, of course, and even e-mail may no longer pose the direst threat to our time management. More of us blame our lack of productivity on the interruptions of instant messaging in all its forms, from texting to social media, another problem with an equivalent in computing. That a computer can be interrupted by any number of the processes it runs necessitated the development of a procedure called “interrupt coalescing,” according to which, “rather than dealing with things as they come up,” the system “groups these interruptions together based on how long they can afford to wait.” Even if we can’t eliminate interruptions in our lives, we can group them: “If no notification or e-mail requires a response more urgently than once an hour, say, then that’s exactly how often you should check them — no more.”

This TED-Ed lesson comes adapted from Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’ book Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions. If you’d like to hear about more of the ways in which they apply computers’ methods of decision making to areas of human life — home-buying, gambling, dating — you can also watch their talk at Google. We also have plenty of supplementary time management-related material here in the Open Culture archives, on everything from the neuroscience of procrastination to the daily routines of philosophers, writers and other creative people to tips for reading more books per year to the presidentially-approved “Eisenhower Matrix.” By all means, click on all these links; just don’t overthink the order in which to do it.

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7 Tips for Reading More Books in a Year

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The “Feynman Technique” for Studying Effectively: An Animated Primer

After winning the Nobel Prize, physicist Max Planck “went around Germany giving the same standard lecture on the new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur memorized the lecture and said, ‘Would you mind, Professor Planck, because it’s so boring to stay in our routine, if I gave the lecture in Munich and you just sat in front wearing my chauffeur’s hat?’ Planck said, ‘Why not?’ And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics. After which a physics professor stood up and asked a perfectly ghastly question. The speaker said, ‘Well, I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.'”

That this intellectual switcheroo never actually happened didn’t stop Charlie Munger from using it as an opener for a commencement speech to USC’s Law School. But when a successful billionaire investor finds value even in an admittedly “apocryphal story,” most of us will find value in it as well. It illustrates, according to the Freedom in Thought video above, the difference between “two kinds of knowledge: the deep knowledge that Max had, and the shallow knowledge that the chauffeur had.” Both forms of knowledge have their advantages, especially since none of us have lifetime enough to understand everything deeply. But we get in trouble when we can’t tell them apart: “We risk fooling ourselves into thinking we actually understand or know something when we don’t. Even worse, we risk taking action on misinformation or misunderstanding.”




Even if you put little stock into a made-up anecdote about one Nobel-winning physicist, surely you’ll believe the documented words of another. Richard Feynman once articulated a first principle of knowing as follows: “You must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” This principle underlies a practical process of learning that consists of four steps. First, “explain the topic out loud to a peer who is unfamiliar with the topic. Meet them at their level of understanding and use the simplest language you can.” Second, “identify any gaps in your own understanding, or points where you feel that you can’t explain an idea simply.” Third, “go back to the source material and study up on your weak points until you can use simple language to explain it.” Finally, “repeat the three steps above until you’ve mastered the topic.”

We’ve featured the so-called “Feynman technique” once or twice before here on Open Culture, but its emphasis on simplicity and concision always bears repeating — in, of course, as simple and concise a manner as possible each time. Its origins lie in not just Fenyman’s first principle of knowledge but his intellectual habits. This video’s narrator cites James Gleick’s biography Genius, which tells of how “Richard would create a journal for the things he did not know. His discipline in challenging his own understanding made him a genius and a brilliant scientist.” Like all of us, Feynman was ignorant all his life of vastly more subjects than he had mastered. But unlike many of us, his desire to know burned so furiously that it propelled him into perpetual confrontation with his own ignorance. We can’t learn what we want to know, after all, unless we acknowledge how much we don’t know.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Use the “Eisenhower Matrix” to Manage Your Time & Increase Your Productivity: The System Designed by the 34th President of the United States

“What is important is seldom urgent,” said Dwight D. Eisenhower, “and what is urgent is seldom important.” Or at least many believe Eisenhower said that, even if he might have been quoting someone else. Whether or not the 34th President of the United States of America ever spoke those exact words, he must have had a highly effective method of dealing with life’s tasks. During Eisenhower’s two terms in office, writes Atomic Habits author James Clear, “he launched programs that directly led to the development of the Interstate Highway System in the United States, the launch of the internet (DARPA), the exploration of space (NASA), and the peaceful use of alternative energy sources (Atomic Energy Act).”

Eisenhower accomplished all that after “planning and executing invasions of North Africa, France, and Germany” as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II” (and while being the most avid golfer ever to reside in the White House).




Though we may never boast such a range of accomplishments ourselves, we can still inject a shot of Eisenhowerian productivity into our lives with the “Eisenhower Matrix” — or, in the plainer phrasing “Ike” might have preferred, the “Eisenhower Box.”

Its vertical axis of importance and horizontal axis of urgency create four boxes for categorizing tasks. Clear explains these categories as follows:

  • Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately)
  • Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later)
  • Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else)
  • Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate)

Important tasks, writes Lifehacker’s Thorin Klosowski, “are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals,” pursuits that put us into a “responsive mode, which helps us remain calm, rational, and open to new opportunities.” At Business Insider, Drake Baer provides examples of all four categories of tasks. The urgent and important include “attending to a crying baby, tackling a crisis at work, and mailing your rent check.” The important but not urgent include “saving for the future, getting enough exercise, sleeping your seven to nine hours a night.” The urgent but not important include “booking a flight, sharing an article, answering a phone call.” The neither urgent nor important include “watching Game of Thrones, checking your Facebook, eating cookies.”

Eisenhower had it easy, you may say: he lived before binge-watching, before social media, and before cookies were quite so addictive. Hence the greater importance today of a time-management system with the stark clarity of the Eisenhower Matrix, and not just for presidents. (Barack Obama, Baer points out, made time for dinner with the family when he was in the White House as well as an hour’s workout every evening, both important but not urgent tasks.) So as not to lose sight of what’s important, Clear recommends keeping in mind two questions: “What am I working toward?” and “What are the core values that drive my life?” And though Eisenhower didn’t have to deal with nuisances like app notifications, he also didn’t get to see the day when a productivity app (whose explanation of the Eisenhower Matrix appears at the top of the post) has his name on it.

via James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People, Presented in an Interactive Infographic


Click the image above to access the interactive infographic.
The daily life of great authors, artists and philosophers has long been the subject of fascination among those who look upon their work in awe. After all, life can often feel like, to quote Elbert Hubbard, “one damned thing after another” — a constant muddle of obligations and responsibilities interspersed with moments of fleeting pleasure, wrapped in gnawing low-level existential panic. (Or, at least, it does to me.) Yet some people manage to transcend this perpetual barrage of office meetings, commuter traffic and the unholy allure of reality TV to create brilliant work. It’s easy to think that the key to their success is how they structure their day.

Mason Currey’s blog-turned-book Daily Rituals describes the workaday life of great minds from W.H. Auden to Immanuel Kant, from Flannery O’Connor to Franz Kafka. The one thing that Currey’s project underlines is that there is no magic bullet. The daily routines are as varied as the people who follow them– though long walks, a ridiculously early wake up time and a stiff drink are common to many.




One school of thought for creating is summed up by Gustave Flaubert’s maxim, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Haruki Murakami has a famously rigid routine that involves getting up at 4am and writing for nine hours straight, followed by a daily 10km run. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.” He admits that his schedule allows little room for a social life.

Then there’s the fantastically prolific Belgian author George Simenon, who somehow managed to crank out 425 books over the course of his career. He would go for weeks without writing, followed by short bursts of frenzied activity. He would also wear the same outfit everyday while working on his novel, regularly take tranquilizers and somehow find the time to have sex with up to four different women a day.

Most writers fall somewhere in between. Toni Morrison, for instance, has a routine that that seems far more relatable than the superman schedules of Murakami or Simeon. Since she juggled raising two children and a full time job as an editor at Random House, Morrison simply wrote when she could. “I am not able to write regularly,” she once told The Paris Review. “I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.”

Above is a way cool infographic of the daily routines of 26 different creators, created by Podio.com. And if you want to see an interactive version of the same graphic but with rollover bits of trivia, just click here. You’ll learn that Voltaire slept only 4 hours a day and worked constantly. Victor Hugo preferred to take a morning ice bath on his roof. And Maya Angelou preferred to work in an anonymous hotel room.

Note: The infographic above is very light on women. For anyone interested in the daily habits of female creators, see this post and Mason Currey’s related book: The Daily Rituals of 143 Famous Female Creators.

An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in January 2015.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Deliberate Practice: A Mindful & Methodical Way to Master Any Skill

Each and every day we eat, we sleep, we read, we brush our teeth. So why haven’t we all become world-class masters of eating, sleeping, reading, and teeth-brushing? Most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, plateaued on those particular skills decades ago, despite never having missed our daily practice sessions. This should tell us something important about the difference between practicing an action and simply doing it a lot, a distinction at the heart of the concept of “deliberate practice.” As the Sprouts video above explains it, deliberate practice “is a mindful and highly structured form of learning by doing,” a “process of continued experimentation to first achieve mastery and eventually full automaticity of a specific skill.”

Psychologist Anders Ericsson, the single figure most closely associated with deliberate practice, draws a distinction with what he calls naive practice: “Naive practice is people who just play games,” and in so doing “just accumulate more experience.” But in deliberate practice, “you actually pinpoint something you want to change. And once you have that specific goal of changing it, you will now engage in a practice activity that has a purpose of changing that.”




As a post on deliberate practice at Farnam Street puts it, “great performers deconstruct elements of what they do into chunks they can practice. They get better at that aspect and move on to the next,” often under the guidance of a teacher who can more clearly see their strengths and weaknesses in action.

“Most of the time we’re practicing we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone,” says the Farnam Street post. “This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily” — just as easily, perhaps, as we eat, sleep, read, and brush our teeth. But we also fail to improve when we operate at the other end of the spectrum, in the “panic zone” that “leaves us paralyzed as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of reach.” As in every other area of life, what challenges us too much frustrates us and what challenges us too little bores us; only at just the right balance do we benefit.

But striking that balance presents challenges of its own, challenges that have ensured a readership for writings on the subject of how best to engage in deliberate practice by Ericsson as well as many others (such as writer-entrepreneur James Clear, whose beginner’s guide to deliberate practice you can read online here). The video above on Ericsson’s book Peak: How to Master Almost Anything explains his view of the goal of deliberate practice as to develop the kind of library of “mental representations” that masters of every discipline — golfers, doctors, guitarists, comedians, novelists — use to approach every situation that might arise. Developing those mental representations requires specific goals, intense periods of practice, immediate feedback during that practice, and above all, frequent discomfort. Everyone enjoys mastery once they attain it, but if you find yourself having too much fun on the way, consider the possibility that you’re not practicing deliberately enough.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Daily Rituals of 143 Famous Female Creators: Octavia Butler, Edith Wharton, Coco Chanel & More

Certain kinds of content have flowered on the internet that we can’t seem to get enough of, and if you frequent Open Culture, you may well have a weakness for one kind in particular: the daily schedules of notable creators. When we know and respect someone’s work, we can’t help but wonder how they spend their finite time on this Earth in such a way that allows them to create that work in the first place. Mason Currey, creator of the blog Daily Rituals, knows this well: not only did all his posting about “how writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days” lead to a book, Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work, it just last month produced a sequel, Daily Rituals: Women at Work.

“In the first Daily Rituals, I featured far more men than women,” writes Currey. “In this second volume, I correct the imbalance with profiles of the day-to-day working lives of 143 women writers, artists, and performers,” including Octavia Butler, “who wrote every day no matter what,” Isak Dinesen, “who subsisted on oysters and champagne but also amphetamines, which gave her the overdrive she required, Martha Graham, “who eschewed socializing in favor of long hours alone in her studio,” and Lillian Hellman, “who chain-smoked three packs of cigarettes and drank twenty cups of coffee a day (after milking the cow and cleaning the barn on her Hardscrabble Farm).”




You can read a few excerpts of the book at the publisher’s web site. Coco Chanel, we learn, usually arrived late to the office but “stayed until late in the evening, compelling her employees to hang around with her even after work had ceased, pouring wine and talking nonstop, avoiding for as long as possible the return to her room at the Ritz and to the boredom and loneliness that awaited her there.” Edith Wharton, by contrast, “always worked in the morning, and houseguests who stayed at the Mount — the 113-acre estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, where Wharton penned several novels, including The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome — were expected to entertain themselves until 11:00 a.m. or noon, when their hostess would emerge from her private quarters, ready to go for a walk or work in the garden.”

The other subjects of Daily Rituals: Women at Work, a full list of which you can read here, include everyone from Maya Angelou to Diane Arbus, Joan Didion to Marlene Dietrich, Dorothy Parker to Emily Post, and Agnès Varda to Alice Walker. Not only do no two of these creators have the same routines, their strategies for how best to use their time often conflict. “Screw inspiration,” said Octavia Butler, but her colleague in writing Zadie Smith takes quite a different tack: “I think you need to feel an urgency about the acts,” Currey quotes her as saying in an interview, “otherwise when you read it, you feel no urgency either. So, I don’t write unless I really feel I need to.” For all tips as you might pick up from these 143 women, as well as from the creators of both sexes in the previous book, the most important one might be a meta-tip: develop the set of daily rituals that suits your personality and no one else’s.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How to Practice Effectively: Lessons from Neuroscience Can Help Us Master Skills in Music, Sports & Beyond

Practice makes perfect, so the cliché says, although like many clichés, it has also spawned corrective variants. “Practice makes permanent,” a common one of them goes, and what it lacks in catchiness it may well make up for in neuroscientific truth. We’ve all recognized that, when we do things a certain way, we tend to keep doing them in that certain way; in fact, the more we’ve done them that way before, the more likely we’ll do them that way next time. What holds true for simple habits, formed over long periods of time and often inadvertently, also holds true for deliberately perfected — or anyway, permanent-ified — tasks. But what happens in our brains to cause it?

“Practice is the repetition of an action with the goal of improvement, and it helps us perform with more ease, speed, and confidence,” says the narrator of “How to Practice Effectively… for Just About Anything,” educators Annie Bosler and Don Greene’s TED Ed video above. It then goes on to explain our two kinds of neural tissue, grey matter and white matter. The former “processes information in the brain, directing signals and sensory stimuli to nerve cells,” and the latter “is mostly made up of fatty tissue and nerve fibers.” When we move, “information needs to travel from the brain’s grey matter, down the spinal cord, through a chain of nerve fibers called axons to our muscles,” and those axons in the white matter “are wrapped with a fatty substance called myelin.”




Myelin, and the sheath it forms, is key: “similar to insulation on electrical cables,” it “prevents energy loss from electrical signals that the brain uses, moving them more efficiently along neural pathways.” (You’ve probably read about the weakening of myelin sheaths as a factor in ALS and other movement-related neurological disorders.) Recent studies performed on mice suggest that repeating a motion builds up the layers of those axon-insulating myelin sheaths, “and the more layers, the greater the insulation around the axon chains; forming a sort of superhighway for information connecting your brain to your muscles.” This, though it has no direct effect on our muscles, may be what we’re building when we say we’re building “muscle memory.”

All interesting facts, to be sure, but how can they help us in or own practice sessions, whatever those sessions may find us practicing? Bosler and Greene provide a series of tips, each quite simple but all in alignment with current neuroscientific knowledge. They include:

  • Focus on the task at hand. “Minimize potential distractions by turning off the computer or TV and putting your cell phone on airplane mode.”
  • Go slow. “Coordination is built with repetitions, whether correct or incorrect. If you gradually increase the speed of the quality repetitions, you have a better chance of doing them correctly.”
  • Frequent repetitions with allotted breaks. “Studies have shown that many top athletes, musicians, and dancers spend 50-60 hours per week on activities related to their craft. Many divide their time used for effective practice into multiple daily practice sessions of limited duration.”
  • Practice in your imagination. “In one study, 144 basketball players were divided into two groups. Group A physically practiced one-handed free throws while Group B only mentally practiced them. When they were tested at the end of the two week experiment, the intermediate and experienced players in both groups had improved by nearly the same amount.”

If you’d like more suggestions on how to practice effectively, have a look at the list of twelve tips from Wynton Marsalis we featured here on Open Culture last year. He takes a more expansive approach, encouraging those who practice — not just music but sports, art, or anything else besides — to adopt strategies like writing out a schedule, avoiding showing off, and staying optimistic. We must also stay realistic: optimism, even optimism backed by science, can’t make our skills perfect. None of our skills are perfect — not even Wynton Marsalis’ — but with the right techniques, we can at least give them some degree of permanence.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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