Archive for January, 2010

Optimal to-do list size

Friday, January 29th, 2010

I am a list-maker. I enjoy making lists. Getting Things Done (GTD) utilizes lists heavily, and I also enjoy GTD. I’m not sure which way the correlation runs between those two facts. But not all lists are created equal. I think there are very important constraints on the sizes of to-do lists, Next Action lists, and Projects lists, to name a few. For the differences among these types, GTD’s Wikipedia article is a great read — if you don’t care for the distinctions, just think of your own to-do list (and if you don’t utilize a to-do list, may God have mercy on you).

Lists cannot be too long, if you are going to use them effectively. How many times have you created a to-do list for yourself, and everything was going fine for a few days, until eventually you got bogged down and started procrastinating? I find it incredibly easy to convince myself that, paradoxically, I have so many things to do that I might as well not do any of them. This does not bode well for productivity.

Over the last half of last year, I stopped seeing myself as a task-completing machine, who should optimize his throughput of actions for maximal efficiency. I realized that it wasn’t making me any happier, just checking more things off my list, since the other half of the time I was hiding from the morass of tasks. Yet again I’ve remembered that lists are merely tools for being an effective person.

It’s important to keep perspective as you go through life — otherwise you might end up in the wrong place. I realized that it’s not important what actions I complete; it is only important where they are getting me. So, I still use the GTD system, but with a few caveats:

  • I keep a short list, on my whiteboard, of the tasks I should finish ASAP.
  • I make sure this list doesn’t exceed ten or so items.
  • I don’t let any item sit on the list too long: complete it or scrub it.
  • If I let the whole list sit for too long, I have to finish as many actions as possible in the next free moment I get.
  • If the whole list gets stale, I throw it out and start over. They obviously weren’t the right tasks anyway.
  • I warehouse tasks not important enough for my whiteboard list on my Next Actions list.
  • I review my Next Actions list periodically to see if any actions should be whiteboarded. Stale actions get thrown out.

The key change I’ve seen is that my lists are much, much smaller. Constant pruning of my Next Actions list has kept it under 15 items for a few months now. And I’ve never felt better.

High point

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Yesterday was unequivocally the high point in my graduate school career to date. The big event was our first Micro 2 class, in game theory. Micro was the only class we hadn’t had yet, and my expectations were high: Econometrics is typically dry and exceedingly difficult, and our Macro class is shaping up to be intense, courtesy of our new professor. I was hoping that Micro could be the class to keep me sane this semester.

Luca Anderlini is our professor for Micro. He’s the new Director of Graduate Studies too, so my performance in Micro serves the dual role of not failing out of the program and not embarrassing myself in front of the guy running things. I had seen him present a paper last semester, and this gave me high hopes. He had a sense of humor, an entertaining manner of lecturing, and a way of making the topics at hand seem relevant.

Let me cut to the chase: my hopes were realized. The lecture was interesting, but most important, something crucial happened, something I have been waiting my entire time at Georgetown to hear someone admit. Before Professor Anderlini got into the meat of the lecture, he made a caveat. He expressed to us, in no uncertain terms, that math is not the point of what we’re doing. While, he explained, he enjoys math a great deal, and even considered a career in math, he stressed that math is a just a tool to clarify our thinking. Anyone can reason, he argued, and make a convincing case. The key is that math is a rigorous formal language to express our ideas,  so that we can make sure we are not just deluding ourselves with words. Again, math is not the end, it is only the means.

That was the breath of fresh air I needed.

Supporting alcohol in Sudan

Monday, January 18th, 2010 is a person-to-person micro-lending website, which allows prospective do-gooders in the developed world to fund micro-finance operations for entrepreneurs in the developing world. I found out about Kiva around two years ago, and even though I gave a few gift certificates, it took me until today to make my first loan.

My lendee is so awesome that I felt the distinct need to blog about her. First, her name is Joice Pita, which is cool in and of itself. She lives in South Sudan, and runs a pub. I know very little about the Sudan — Wikipedia reminded me that Darfur is part of the country, and also noted that Sudan’s motto is “victory is ours” — but I can posit a guess that they could use more pubs. The thought of helping a pub-owner in the Sudan was too much to pass up.

Here’s her blurb, straight from her Kiva page:

Joice Pita is currently in the business of selling local alcoholic beverages, beer, and soda, and is requesting a loan to stock more crates of beer and soda to sell. Joice is 33 years old and is married with a husband that is a soldier. She has 6 children, and her children go to school. With the extra profits from her loan, she hopes to be able to open a hotel.

Now try and tell me that is not a cause worth funding. I thought so.

If you have some spare time, definitely check out Kiva. The money you put in isn’t a donation or a handout (though you can donate to itself to cover their operating expenses), which means that when your lendees pay you back, you can find new lendees and start the cycle over. You can even withdraw the money in your account after you’ve done some lending with it. So, if your bank account has some extra money in it, and you decide that instead of earning one percent interest you want to help save the world, you should head over to and start lending, like rite nao.

K is the key

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

Friends, I have a story of an unlikely advertisement achieving its purpose.

Over winter vacation I purchased a netbook, a Dell Mini 10v. It’s an adorable little thing, really gets the job done, and it has a solid feel I haven’t experienced since the old Thinkpad T series, back when IBM made laptops. I’m quite happy with my little netbook. Alas, every copy of Windows needs its antivirus protection. I haven’t had to even think of antivirus software in about four years now: RPI students got a corporate version of McAfee as part of the laptop deal.

A trial version of McAfee came preinstalled on my mini, and I actively shunned it. I heard about a new antivirus called Vipre (like the snake), decided to give it a try. I wasn’t too happy with the trial, though, mostly because it kept deleting the BIOS update I was trying to download. I’m not sure if that’s standard practice, but I distinctly remember telling the program not to delete my BIOS update. It remained obstinate.

So I decided to do some research. Apparently Norton is still the best around, according to a few sites doing antivirus reviews, but one particular product caught my eye. Kaspersky antivirus jumped out at me, because of a ridiculous little video circulating around the interwebs:

That is insanely catchy, and awesome in a ridiculous way. You can see how Kaspersky was stuck in my mind this whole time, just waiting until I needed antivirus software. I also recall one of my economics professors lauding Kaspersky in his technological change class. He liked the idea that Kaspersky keeps track of which files change between scans, and only re-scans those that need to be. Technological progress indeed.

Anyway, I hope Kaspersky is as awesome as that video makes it seem.

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.