How to Be an Effective Engineer

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Crux of The Effective Engineer talk by Edmond Lau:

  • Optimize for learning – small improvements compound over time.
  • Invest in tools & automation – automate anything that you do more than twice a year.
  • Validate before you implement – test your ideas for features and designs before investing the time and effort to implement them, you don’t want to work on the wrong thing.
  • Keep it simple – complexity is a compounding tax on productivity and communications.
  • Work with people that value learning, invest in tools, test their ideas, and simplify things.

Deliberate Practice Doesn’t Matter Much

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Crux of Actually, practice doesn’t always make perfect – new study by Alfie Kohn:

  • The popular idea of 10,000 hours is disproved by research: “the amount of deliberate practice in which someone engages explains only 12 percent of the variance in the quality of performance.”
  • The effect of practice depends on the domain: “Practice explained 26 percent of the variance in achievement for games, 21 percent in musical accomplishment, 18 percent in sports, 4 percent in college grades, and less than 1 percent in professional success.”
  • Other factors that do, in fact, contribute to performance: “how early in life you were introduced to the activity […] how open you are to collaborating and learning from others, and how much you enjoy the activity.”
  • It is possible that the amount of practice is a result of intrinsic motivation, and that it is this motivation that affects the performance more than the practice.

Durable Learning Requires Taking Breaks

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Crux of Ditch the 10,000 hour rule! Why Malcolm Gladwell’s famous advice falls short by Katie Mcdonough:

  • “Rapid fire practice leans on short-term memory. Durable learning, however, requires time for mental rehearsal and the other processes of consolidation. Hence, spaced practice works better. The increased effort required to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory.”
  • “The learning from interleaved practice feels slower than learning from massed practice. (…) But the research shows unequivocally that mastery and long-term retention are much better if you interleave practice than if you mass it.”
  • “learning gained through the less challenging, massed form of practice is encoded in a simpler or comparatively impoverished representation than the learning gained from the varied and more challenging practice which demands more brain power and encodes the learning in a more flexible representation that can be applied more broadly.”

Naps Are Good, But Not All Naps Are As Good

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Crux of The Perfect Nap by Sumathi Reddy:

  • “For a quick boost of alertness, experts say a 10-to-20-minute power nap is adequate for getting back to work in a pinch.”
  • “For cognitive memory processing, however, a 60-minute nap may do more good, [because] slow-wave sleep helps with remembering facts, places and faces. The downside: some grogginess upon waking.”
  • “90-minute nap will likely involve a full cycle of sleep, which aids creativity and emotional and procedural memory, such as learning how to ride a bike.” Usually there’s no grogginess afterwards.
  • “the ideal time to nap is generally between the hours of 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Napping later in the day could interfere with nighttime sleep.”

Optimal Times For Daily Activities

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Crux of Why most olympic records are broken in the afternoon: Your body’s best time for everything by Belle Beth Cooper:

Science has identified some activities work better at specific times during the day, including:

  • “we should try to get most of our calories earlier in the day, and have lighter, earlier evening meals when possible.”
  • Muscle strength and hand-eye coordination peak in the afternoon, so this is an optimal time for physical exercise.
  • Analytical work is best done in the morning, while creative work is better left for the late evening.

Science-Based Productivity Tips

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Crux of What To Know About Productivity by Gregory Ciotti:

Research shows that “our brain fears big projects” and “will attempt to “simulate” real productive work by avoiding big projects and focusing on small, mindless tasks to fill your time.”

Studies have found several ways to overcome this.

Get Started

“The Zeigarnik Effect” is our tendency to want to finish what we started, whether it’s a real project or a reality TV show. So “the best way to overcome your fear of spending a lot of energy on a big project is to simply get started.”

Short Bursts of Energy

Since “willpower is a limited resource that can be used up in it’s entirety” it is best to “break big projects down into smaller chunks and plan a recovery period right after.”

To sync with our natural rhythm, schedule “productive sessions (of 90 minutes) followed by short breaks (of no more than 15-20 minutes)”.

Track Output, Not Input

“Tracking your progress […] increase self-control because you’ll be exposed to the work you’ve actually accomplished, and not the (inaccurate) assumption of work you might construe in your head.”

A simple 2-column tracking system:

  • in the left column write your 90-minutes scheduled sessions of focused work
  • in the right column write tasks you accomplished in each session

Focus on One Thing at a Time

Research shows that “multitaskers are actually less likely to be productive, yet they feel more “emotionally satisfied” with their work (creating an illusion of productivity).”

To avoid multitasking and distractions:

  • turn off alerts, notifications, and extra applications.
  • “create an evening planning ritual where you select a few priority tasks to accomplish the next day.” because “we drastically miscalculate the amount of focus we’ll be able to maintain in the future [and then] when tomorrow rolls around without a game plan to get us started, we’ll likely fall back into our old multitasking ways to avoid doing any real work.”
  • “split large tasks up into smaller segments so your brain won’t view the assignment as something that is so large that you must multitask to complete it.”

Willpower and thought are a finite resource

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Crux of Ego Depletion by David McRaney:

  • There are several mental functions that seem to draw on a single energy pool. They include: “making choices, avoiding temptation, suppressing emotions and thoughts,” and solving puzzles.
  • This energy pool can get depleted by use, thus making it difficult to make decisions after avoiding temptation, for example. “self-control is a strenuous act. As your ego depletes, your automatic processes get louder, and each successive attempt to take control of your impulses is less successful than the last.”
  • Several things can affect depletion and repletion of this ego energy pool, including: social rejection depletes the ego and social acceptance repletes it, hunger and lack of sleep deplete while satiety and rest replete.

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