How to Survive Late Capitalism As a Worker

My recent response to Paul Graham’s article on economic inequality allowed me to express a few of my relatively mainstream economic ideas to a wider audience. I think that the discussion about inequality is worth fleshing out a bit more, but I’m not so interested in getting into the much-rehashed capitalism versus socialism theoretical debate. Instead,  I think a practical article is due: how should people who make their livelihood by selling labor survive and thrive in our current era of soaring inequality and reduced labor-power? How should people avoid realizing downward social mobility? The short answer to these questions is that people must embrace identification and proper utilization of personal resources.

Before we continue addressing the title’s question, let’s define some terms that may not be common. First, “late capitalism” is a term which refers to a turbulent phase of the economic system of capitalism. I’m not going to define what capitalism itself is here, but late capitalism is characterized by matured globalization, soaring inequality and attendant opulence/poverty, reduced economic growth, weakened social safety net, mass consumption, and reduced boundaries between political and economic systems. Departing from the definition that Wikipedia offers, I do not believe that there is an overtly Marxist revolution in our near future which would bring a definitive conclusion to the economic system of capitalism. I do believe that workers must advocate for themselves in order to receive compensation for the resources which they expend at work. The term “late capitalism” is still fruitful because it is a convenient way of describing the broad strokes of an unstable period of time.

The confluence of these trends results in increasing poverty and a threat to individual standard of living. The purpose of this article is to shed new light on how an individual can navigate this period of time conscientiously rather than as shark bait– the unfortunate fate of the underclass. The underclass is filled with people who experienced downward social mobility, and who now have trouble surviving.

The next terms to define are “survive” and “worker”. To survive late capitalism means having sufficient personal resources to ensure that physical and emotional needs are met for an individual, as well as their dependents. Critically attendant to this is that survival in late capitalism constitutes the continued ability to rent personal resources in exchange for money. For our purposes here, having no money and no ability to get money is equal to death.

Money can be thought of as living inside all resources like an ore within rock. The resources in question are too many to list, but I’ll get into some of them, namely time/energy, physical health, skill set, disposition, fluid cash, and social network. Taken together, the sum of personal resources that an individual can bring to bear can be considered as “capital” which a corporation may rent in order to make a profit by utilizing the individual’s resources. A worker is a person who rents their personal resources as their primary way of gaining money. The most important step to surviving late capitalism is understanding what your personal resources are and ensuring that no single personal or social resource is depleted beyond renewal as a result of renting them out for money. 

If a resource is depleted beyond renewal, opportunities to sell your labor which would tax that resource are now cut off. Resources depleted beyond renewal typically result in realized social mobility downward or abject poverty. For many people, there appear to be few choices but to continue depleting the few resources they have until they are barren. If resources are on track to be completely depleted with no way of renewal, we can call it a death spiral because it eventually results in economic death.

Why would renting personal resources out for money at a job result in these resources being rendered barren? Given the way that I have identified my terms, there is inherent tension between the concepts of surviving and being a worker. Working is renting out personal resources in exchange for money, and there are no guarantees that these resources are being rented out and expended at the correct rate or monetary return.

At a naive level, we can say that a worker who rents their physical health resource out too aggressively may end up sick or injured, and thus unable to work until they have recovered. If the worker’s physical health is completely depleted, they may become disabled or dead, precluding their use of renting that resource in the future– an economic deathblow resulting accidentally or from mismanagement. This may seem a bit flip, but it’s a real concern for manual laborers.

Physical health is a personal resource which is finite, but renewable. The same could be said for a worker’s mental energy resource. All workers rent out some of their physical health resources as part of the package that employers demand. Sitting at a desk hunched over a computer all day is detrimental to your health, as we all know– yet it’s part of many jobs.

“Working harder” by expending more physical effort may result in injury, but it’s seldom worth extra money directly. A dilemma occurs when the worker unwittingly or unwillingly expends more of a given resource than they intended given the terms of employment; it is rarely possible to go back and re-negotiate a new fee based off of personal resources expended, though a corporation is sure to do exactly that if they overrun their budget for a contract. So in many situations, workers cannot retroactively correct imbalances in resource use, assuming that the imbalances are noticed at all. I will state that this situation is the progenitor of many injustices, and there is little economic or political pressure to create a remedy.

An additional difficulty occurs when we consider exactly which personal resources are going to be expended for a given job. Every job will deplete a worker’s physical energy/health, mental energy, and time resources. Most jobs will also deplete some of a worker’s money indirectly in the form of transportation. It is very easy to lose track of our individual resources and how much we are taxing them, as we often realize when we look up from our work and see that it is 9:00 PM instead of the informally agreed upon stopping time hours earlier. Thankfully, our time resources are always renewable, though we may have plans to utilize them in certain ways on any given day.

In order to prevent personal resources from being depleted beyond renewal, explicit knowledge of the total quantity of each resource and the rate at which that resource is used must be understood in depth by the worker. Making a rational deal with an employer regarding use of personal resources is impossible without explicit knowledge of what those resources are and how much they will be expended, yet most people have only vague ideas of what is in their stable, and what is in their work contract. Furthermore, employers always have concrete knowledge of their company’s financial resources, but never have an itemized list of employees personal resource expenditures; this inequality favors the employers massively, as it means they cannot be held accountable for breaches of contract resulting from too many personal resources being used. Having this kind of knowledge explicitly stated will benefit employers massively as well, allowing them to understand inefficiencies of individual resource use and provide crutches as needed to make their workers happier.

Employers hide and thrive in the ambiguity of personal resource use; workers are eaten alive by uncalculated overages. Surviving late capitalism is possible by rectifying this inequality via the surgical application of knowledge directly where it is unwelcome. A vague plea for economic fairness falls on sewn-shut ears, but an itemized invoice for resources disbursed is undeniable. Though corporate culture is not yet receptive to such brazen empiricism, they will grudgingly adjust if the issue is forced by their employees– and it must be forced vigorously.

It is my assumption that the majority of worker resources including money (for housing near work, etc) are expended in large quantities by their work, with the remaining resources being expended at home or “wasted” by disuse. A wasted resource is a resource which isn’t utilized by the individual, whether to rent out for money or to be expended on other things. The most easily wasted resource is time, though physical energy and social resources are also typically not fully utilized. We will forget the topic of wasting the money resource, as it is a very large jar of snakes that has been discussed many other times.

For most people, expending the majority of their resources on work is a way of life that is accepted as necessary and virtuous. The difficulty with the “virtuous” component of this point of view is that it promotes a peculiar type of rounding-up fallacy where the worker believes that it is just for their employment to consume the majority of their resources, so a little bit more sacrifice in the name of employment is also just.

There is even a pejorative name for this tendency: the Protestant work ethic. The tendency to commit more resources to work than the minimum explicitly agreed upon in the employment contract is a form of wasting resources, as the resources are not expended for personal purposes nor do they directly result in more money for the individual. The defense of an individual against wasting resources as a result of work is to explicitly agree on the amount of resources that will be expended in the course of work with the employer. 

As uncomfortable as it may be to force the issue of limits, not agreeing in writing to ironclad boundaries always leads to a worker’s personal resources being wasted. For some jobs, overtime is a form of agreement which offers compensation for resources which would otherwise be considered by the worker to be wasted. For most jobs, the there is no such agreement where in fact there should be. This norm is harmful, and must change.

When on average more workers commit more resources to work than the explicitly agreed upon amount, employers grow to expect that level of commitment. This is how a society eventually arrives at exploitation when starting from acceptable premises. More perversely, workers grow to expect their level of resource usage to be higher than the explicitly agreed upon amount even including the previous over-commitment, creating a death spiral of sorts. We as a society are currently in the midst of this death spiral, and only by simultaneous individual action can it be stopped.

How frequently do you spend more time at work than is required? How quickly does being at work physically tire you? Mentally? Does it cost a lot to get to and from work? What does that work out to weekly? Are you zombie-like after work, or still perky? Are your personal relationships being impeded by work? Is your skill set being bolstered at work, or is it decaying from disuse or overly narrow use?

Brutal honesty is necessary here. Work is not the only thing which taxes personal resources, though– family, recreation, religion, and friends count too. All activities that an individual performs consume their personal resources to some extent. Luckily, many activities are beneficial and can refill depleted resources.

As an exercise, write it all down in a table which details the resource, your estimated total capacity for this resource, current amount of this resource, whether the resource is renewable or not, and how roughly how much of each resource you use when you are doing activities required for work, home, or play. Are you being compensated for the totality of usage of these resources, or just a few? Is the current rate of resource usage and renewal going to result in this resource being rendered barren if given enough time? Which resources are being wasted at work? At home? Did you sign up for this, or something else? Aside from economic issues, this is a great way of finding out which activities of your life are beneficial and which aren’t great.

Identify potential death spirals, and use your resources to stop them as quickly as possible. Economic death spirals can literally kill you if you’re relying heavily on your physical health as a resource. Which resources are being tapped to capacity and are in danger of being burned out? Is there a certain changeable life situation which you can see is going to lead you to ruin? Why are your resources being drawn on so hard? Would it be possible to trade expenditure of one resource for expenditure of another for a time being in order to let a heavily taxed resource recover a bit? For mental energy, people might consider a vacation as a way of vaccinating themselves against burnout by expending money and time. If your skill resources are stagnating from not being used, you can use time, mental energy, and money resources to take a class and stay sharp.

Frequently, social resources have to be called on in order to stop death spirals– don’t be shy, and ask for help well before it’s too late. Family and friends can frequently spare some of their resources in order to give a little slack. Social resources include government and state programs; make use of public resources as much as possible in order to free up your own resources. Aside from using public resources, use friends and coworkers as advocates; if everyone systematically quantifies their resource use and demands compensation and a reduction of wasted resources, there will be change.

Remember: economic gravity means that it’s much easier to fall than to rise. The fewer spare resources an individual has, the more likely they are to slip down the economic ladder, and the less likely they are to rise. If an individual is constantly heavily drawing on all of their resources in order to trade them for money, we can say that the individual is a wage slave, and is likely on the cusp of downward social mobility, though they have already likely experienced some in order to arrive at that point.

So, how should a person protect and increase the amount of resources they have, given that having personal resources is so critical to survival? A great boon is to have a job which increases your skill resources and social resources via learning new things and meeting new people. As skill resources and social resources grow, an individual’s value becomes more clear to potential employers, even if they haven’t fully tabulated all of the resources they’ll be using in the job.

There will be few people that suggest skill building and networking are not economically useful for an individual. Skill building should be a priority for anyone interested in surviving late capitalism; as employers demand more, you must have more to actually provide. Being in a habit of constantly building skills is being in a habit of constantly providing for your future. This habit will likely tax certain resources heavily until they compensate, so remember not to tap them out completely.

Just skill building isn’t enough to confer survival, though, as not all skills are economically equal. I would suggest a meta-thought here: an important skill is the ability to differentiate economically lucrative skills from merely economically sustaining skills. This isn’t as obvious as it sounds, and many people jump at what is easy to learn rather than what is profitable to learn. Learning how to operate an espresso machine provides a skill that may offer some financial sustenance, but it is not lucrative. Learning how to perform surgery is lucrative. A measurement of economic demand is frequently a good place to get started.

To summarize: a surviving individual’s response to the extreme economic pressure of late capitalism is to increase resource expenditure in themselves in order to to make par, frequently by building financially rewarding skills and social resources. Explicitly knowing what personal resources are and the rate at which they are expended during work is critical, as is a realistic work contract which recognizes the above. In the event of an inaccurate contract or set of circumstances which taxes a person’s resources too heavily, care must be taken to avoid death spirals.

I hope this article shed some fresh light on my personal strategy for surviving late capitalism. Given the bold points that I have bulleted, I worry that I have been a bit longwinded. Unfortunately, I already know that the ideas I put forth here aren’t going to help people who are trapped in the underclass, but maybe it’ll prevent some middle classed people from slipping down to there. I do not yet have a real solution for the general problem of “most people don’t have enough personal resources to flourish”. I’m not an authority on this topic by any means, and “the struggle” is far from over. I feel as though I will have a lot more to add on various aspects of this piece, so expect me to revisit it relatively soon.

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A Response to Paul Graham’s Article on Income Inequality

While perusing HackerNews today, I encountered this article and this comment thread by Paul Graham (PG for short), founder of Ycombinator. I think that a lengthy response is in order. I originally intended this response to be in my HN comment, but it was too long. If you’re not interested in debating income inequality, this response is not for you. I’ll be quoting quite liberally from PG’s essay in this response.

So, let’s get started. I think PG really missed the mark with his assessment of the impact of economic inequality and instead substituted a real world struggle against economic conditions with a rosy economic model which starts from the premise that the rich need the ability to get richer in order to have a successful society.

To quote Graham, mafioso of the startup incubators: “I’m interested in the topic because I am a manufacturer of economic inequality.”

Well, not quite. The throughput of successful startup folks is never going to be enough to make a dent in the economy’s general state of inequality. If anything, YC offers social mobility insurance; the potential for social mobility from the middle classes to the lower-upper class without the potential for a slip from the middle classes to the lower classes in the event of failure.

“I’ve also written essays encouraging people to increase economic inequality and giving them detailed instructions showing how.”

Perhaps PG misunderstand the terms here? Has he been instructing his charges to pay lower wages and fewer benefits as their profits scale upward so as to add more to their own purses? A disconnect between rising productivity and worker income is one of the largest factors for economic inequality in the US.

“The most common mistake people make about economic inequality is to treat it as a single phenomenon. The most naive version of which is the one based on the pie fallacy: that the rich get rich by taking money from the poor.”

Well, “taking” is a bit biased, but broadly speaking, it’s true that the poor must buy or rent what the rich are offering in order to survive. This means that the poor are economically at the whim of the rich unless they choose to grow their own food and live pastorally, which isn’t desirable. People pay rent if they’re poor, and collect rent if they’re rich. The poor sell their labor, whereas the rich buy labor in order to utilize their capital, which the poor have none of. These are traits of capitalism rather than anything to get upset about. People get upset when the rich use their oversized political influence to get laws passed to their benefit; over time, the rich make more money due to their ability to manipulate the political system.

“…those at the top are grabbing an increasing fraction of the nation’s income—so much of a larger share that what’s left over for the rest is diminished….”

Check out these charts… the data is much-discussed because they are unimpeachable. Ignoring the reality of data is a mistake economists often make, which can explain some of their more incorrect predictions.

“In the real world you can create wealth as well as taking it from others. A woodworker creates wealth. He makes a chair, and you willingly give him money in return for it. A high-frequency trader does not. He makes a dollar only when someone on the other end of a trade loses a dollar.

If the rich people in a society got that way by taking wealth from the poor, then you have the degenerate case of economic inequality where the cause of poverty is the same as the cause of wealth. But instances of inequality don’t have to be instances of the degenerate case. If one woodworker makes 5 chairs and another makes none, the second woodworker will have less money, but not because anyone took anything from him.”

The woodworker works in a wood shop, not alone. The owner of the wood shop has decided that if 5 chairs are sold, it takes 2 chairs worth of money to recoup the costs of making the chair. With three chairs worth of money remaining, he takes two and three fourths chairs for himself and distributes the remaining amount to the worker who created the chair.

The woodworker created the wealth by using the owner’s capital, and so the owner of the capital gets the vast majority of the wealth generated, even though he didn’t actually make the chairs himself. Is the owner “taking” from his employee? No, the employee has merely realized that one fourth of one chair’s income is the standard amount that a woodworker can get from working in a shop owned by someone else, and happened to choose this particular shop to work in. “Taking” is the wrong word; “greed” is the proper word. The proportion of revenue derived from capital that is returned to workers selling their labor is far too low. The woodworkers can’t simultaneously pay off their woodworking school loans, apartment rent, and care for their children on the wages they’re offered.

“Except in the degenerate case, economic inequality can’t be described by a ratio or even a curve. In the general case it consists of multiple ways people become poor, and multiple ways people become rich. Which means to understand economic inequality in a country, you have to go find individual people who are poor or rich and figure out why.”

Actually, economists have been describing it in the terms of ratios and curves for a long time. Piketty’s account is the most current. The “ways” of becoming poor or rich misses the point entirely. Upward social mobility is very low now, and downward social mobility is quite high. Outside “becoming” rich or poor, the standard of living for the rich has risen and the standard of living for everyone else has dropped. Becoming rich is an edge case which isn’t even worth talking about when there are far more people in danger of becoming poor. We have no obligation to stop someone from “becoming rich”– but we have a strong obligation to stop someone from becoming poor.

“If you want to understand change in economic inequality, you should ask what those people would have done when it was different. This is one way I know the rich aren’t all getting richer simply from some sinister new system for transferring wealth to them from everyone else. When you use the would-have method with startup founders, you find what most would have done back in 1960, when economic inequality was lower, was to join big companies or become professors. Before Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook, his default expectation was that he’d end up working at Microsoft. The reason he and most other startup founders are richer than they would have been in the mid 20th century is not because of some right turn the country took during the Reagan administration, but because progress in technology has made it much easier to start a new company that grows fast.”

Not even close. The richest hundred people have gotten wildly richer as a result of crony capitalism in which the richest are able to bend the political system to their will via overt bribery, creating unfair advantages for their ventures and endless loopholes for their personal wealth to avoid taxation. The ventures of the very rich are given unearned integration into political life, again making them a shoe in for special treatment.

Remember how the failing banks in the financial crisis were considered too big to fail, and were accommodated at the public’s expense? This kind of behavior insures the rich’s safety with the money culled from the poor. Information technology is a gold rush, and creates rich people by forging new vehicles of capital– generating wealth. The economics of a gold rush are quite clear, but PG forgets that the vast, vast majority of the workers in the economy are not participating in the gold rush, nor could they.

“And that group presents two problems for the hunter of economic inequality. One is that variation in productivity is accelerating. The rate at which individuals can create wealth depends on the technology available to them, and that grows polynomially. The other problem with creating wealth, as a source of inequality, is that it can expand to accommodate a lot of people.”

Productivity has been increasing for decades, and at one point in time, wages tracked productivity. The relationship between wages and productivity fell apart. This means that the business owners were benefiting from increased worker productivity, but the workers were not benefiting… another cause of economic inequality that can be attributed directly to the owners not allowing enough money to go to their workers. If productivity is accelerating, wages should be too. Rather than understanding workers as slaves that require a dole as they are presently, they must be considered as close partners in economic production.

“Most people who get rich tend to be fairly driven. Whatever their other flaws, laziness is usually not one of them. Suppose new policies make it hard to make a fortune in finance. Does it seem plausible that the people who currently go into finance to make their fortunes will continue to do so but be content to work for ordinary salaries? The reason they go into finance is not because they love finance but because they want to get rich. If the only way left to get rich is to start startups, they’ll start startups. They’ll do well at it too, because determination is the main factor in the success of a startup. [3] And while it would probably be a good thing for the world if people who wanted to get rich switched from playing zero-sum games to creating wealth, that would not only not eliminate economic inequality, but might even make it worse. In a zero-sum game there is at least a limit to the upside. Plus a lot of the new startups would create new technology that further accelerated variation in productivity.”

Once again: the current flap about economic inequality is not about people wanting to become rich, it is about people wanting to get by. Most people are not driven. Everyone wants to at least get by. You will not stop people from being driven to become rich by making it possible for everyone else to get by.

“So let’s be clear about that. Ending economic inequality would mean ending startups. Are you sure, hunters, that you want to shoot this particular animal? It would only mean you eliminated startups in your own country. Ambitious people already move halfway around the world to further their careers, and startups can operate from anywhere nowadays. So if you made it impossible to get rich by creating wealth in your country, the ambitious people in your country would just leave and do it somewhere else. Which would certainly get you a lower Gini coefficient, along with a lesson in being careful what you ask for. ”

No, it wouldn’t. There is lower and higher economic inequality in many places in the world, and many of those places have startups. There is nothing special about startups, and startups persist whether or not the society is extremely unequal. There are startups in Sweden. There are startups in China. There are startups in Nigeria. There are startups in Denmark. There is absolutely no reason to be prideful in the American startup phenomenon if it requires people living in poverty– I do not believe that it does require this, though.

“And while some of the growth in economic inequality we’ve seen since then has been due to bad behavior of various kinds, there has simultaneously been a huge increase in individuals’ ability to create wealth. Startups are almost entirely a product of this period. And even within the startup world, there has been a qualitative change in the last 10 years.”

Do not confuse the tech startup as a method for creating wealth that anyone can step into. Coding is a difficult skill that most people are not about to retrain into, even if it’s lucrative.

“Notice how novel it feels to think about that. The public conversation so far has been exclusively about the need to decrease economic inequality. We’ve barely given a thought to how to live with it.

I’m hopeful we’ll be able to. Brandeis was a product of the Gilded Age, and things have changed since then. It’s harder to hide wrongdoing now. And to get rich now you don’t have to buy politicians the way railroad or oil magnates did. [6] The great concentrations of wealth I see around me in Silicon Valley don’t seem to be destroying democracy.”

Living with economic inequality is uncomfortable for the majority of the population, but it is comfortable for the rich. The way to live with it is to defer having children, not get a graduate education, never own a home, have a shitty car, never eat out, don’t go on vacation, work two jobs, don’t ever get sick, don’t get married, never pay off student loans, never save for retirement or an emergency, and never get arrested.

Seems pretty shitty, right? Seems like something people would want to change for the better, right? I will also state that all of the above items vastly detract from a person’s free-mental and physical energy, which results in less innovation and ultimately less creation of the “startups” that income inequality is supposed to support. PG even acknowledges this, but doesn’t seem to understand the visceral impact of income inequality.

To crystallize everything, let’s hop backward to a time when there was less inequality and compare lifestyles. In yesteryear, families requires only one breadwinner, and debt beyond a mortgage was unknown. People had a car per person, and college education. If you were sick, you could pay for a doctor. People had savings. People married young, and bought starter homes… then moved into larger homes. People had children. People could care for their aging parents without moving back in. People had pensions, retirement funds, and plans to use both. All of this wealth derived directly from workers selling their labor for money. Starting new businesses happened frequently because there was a robust net to fall on in case of failure. Workers banded together to protect their share. Wages tracked productivity.

Now: none of the above, and families often consist of two breadwinners (& no children) with a hearty amount of debt, nothing owned, and few savings. The family unit itself may even be weaker because of less shared ownership. Wages haven’t tracked productivity for decades, so wages haven’t risen since the previous story was normal. We’ve lost all of that ground: not just some of it, all of it, and more. We’re back to the 1920s– wage slaves with few rights and no political ability to change things.

Is this what PG thinks is okay?

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How to Decide What to Prioritize At Work

Deciding what to prioritize during work is a critical skill that every employee in any job must understand in order to excel. In my previous post,  regarding praise and criticism at work, I discussed how the coherence of priorities among members of a team results in opportunities for criticism or praise. Given that an individual’s prioritization of work tasks has direct results which other coworkers and managers evaluate, picking the correct order of priorities has high social stakes as well as obvious economic stakes.

Let’s define the term priority in the context of work. A priority is a task or collection of closely related sequential tasks which consume a worker’s time and energy resources to complete. Most workers have numerous priorities which must be completed. Priorities frequently exist in a list of importance, whether this list is explicitly stated or not– we’ll talk more about the “importance” of priorities later on. Certain priorities have dependencies on other priorities that must be completed before they can be performed; dependent priorities are often completed by a coworker.

The completion of priorities consumes the majority of an industrious worker’s time and energy spent at work, and businesses hire new employees in order to complete more priorities. The role of the manager is to assign priorities to the members of the team, and ensure that the members of the team are able to complete their priorities. Frequently, meetings are held in order to discuss which priorities are “more important” than others. Let’s unpack the concept of more important priorities versus less important priorities.

A priority is considered to be “high priority” or “more important” than other priorities if the completion of that priority is time sensitive or is a dependency of another person or group’s priority. We will define a time sensitive priority as a priority that is initiated close to its deadline. Most priorities do not fit this bill, and so there may not be a clear reason to complete one before the other.With that being said, missing or confusing the reason for arranging priorities in a certain order is a perpetual stumbling block for most employees.

Typically, employees and managers alike have only a case-by-case way of reasoning about which priorities should be completed first. I’ll try to clear this up by offering a concrete thought system for ordering priorities.

Figuring out a process to correctly determine the list of priorities requires thinking from a holistic perspective. The efficiency goal of a team is to maximize the team’s completion of high priorities; when the highest priority is completed, the next highest priority takes its place. Teams are made of individuals, and the priorities of the team are divided among the individuals in the team. For the maximum priority completion capacity of an individual team member to be met, at minimum, their priority dependencies must be completed.

If a worker’s priority dependencies are not met, they may become unable to complete a priority and instead opt to complete a different priority. If a worker can’t start on any of their priorities as a result of the dependencies not being completed, the worker is said to be blocked. If a worker is blocked, the team is wasting that worker’s time and energy resources, so organizing priorities in a way which avoids blocking is critical to a smoothly functioning team.

While dependent priorities may seem to always take the highest place on the list, there is an inherent tension between dependent priorities, time sensitive priorities, and general time management. Is it higher priority to finish writing a report by its deadline, or to proofread a coworker’s finished report so that they may start writing a new one? The answer is that it depends on how much time and other priorities you have, and also how much time and other priorities your coworker has.

A worker’s general purpose is to transmute their time and energy resources into completed priorities. Time at work is hopefully finite, and is marked by the explicit or implicit passing of deadlines. Most priorities have deadlines after which their completion will be considered discordant with expectations, likely resulting in criticism. Priority deadlines exist together simultaneously, and approach the present with equal speed regardless of the amount of resources invested. Having strong knowledge of time management and the time it takes a given worker to complete a given priority is critical.

A smart team will have a calendar with the deadlines for all of the team’s priorities as well as the individual team member priority deadlines. Having this information and mapping it out is the first step in a system for determining the most important priority.

  1. Organize all priorities onto a calendar with the deadline marked clearly. A non-calendar schedule is also fine. This organization scheme should be zoomed in to the minute, or zoomed out to the year as necessary. The more detailed and particle-sized the calendar is, the more effective it will be. A digital calendar or schedule shared by the entire team is the way to do this correctly, as a paper calendar would probably get full too quickly.
  2. Mark into the calendar or schedule who is going to devote their time to each priority. Be realistic about what each team member can do, but also recognize inertia: people in motion tend to stay in motion. An overloaded teammate making good headway is often a smarter choice for an even heavier load relative to a moderately loaded but frequently dependency stalled teammate. Time insensitive and non-dependent priorities can be left unassigned to remain as extra for whoever finishes their priorities first, but I don’t recommend it unless the team is exceptionally motivated to churn through work, which most are not. Unassigned priorities tend to fall through the cracks, so don’t set yourself up for failure by assuming someone will pick up the burden.
  3. Identify the amount of time it takes to perform each priority assuming that the priority’s dependencies are met. If you don’t have this data, I highly suggest gathering it. If you want to get fancy, you can also identify how much worker energy each priority expends per unit of time. Understanding which priorities are effort intensive can often lead to insights.
  4. Identify which priorities are dependent on the completion of other priorities. Write down exactly which other priorities need to be finished first in order to start work. Identify who is responsible for completing the dependencies, and identify if they are going to be dependent on further priorities being completed before they can unblock each other. Identify the points at which blocking is likely to happen.
  5. Identify which priorities are time sensitive. Time sensitive priorities are always close to their deadline; the affix of time sensitivity can be surreptitiously imposed by management, meaning that time sensitive priorities are not always known in advance. A priority could be time sensitive if it is a priority which is another worker’s dependency, and that worker will be stalled and unable to do any work if the priority is not finished by its deadline.
  6. Arrange priorities to eliminate blockages as much as possible. Ensure that all dependencies are completed to avoid stalling. Perfection may not be possible here. Pragmatic judgments about the harm of missing deadlines in order to maintain steady flow of priority completion will be required. Time sensitive priorities passed down from high may cause hiccups in steady flow, causing blockages– it’s best to leave some slack time between a priority’s minimum completion time and its deadline whenever possible.
  7. Assess blockages as they occur and determine whether a different ordering of priorities would prevent them. A no brainer: adjust based off of how the plan works in action. Sometimes multiple blockages can be alleviated with a single change.

I highly suggest that managers take this explicit methodology for priority ordering to heart. Conducting endless meetings to assign priorities and gather status updates on completion is one very popular (and very time-wasteful) method of ensuring the team’s priorities are ordered in the same way. Having a shared team system for picking the order of priorities reduces blockages, reduces workplace stress, and improves a team’s output.

When everyone is on the same page when it comes to priority completion, we call it good teamwork. A frequent sensation of good teamwork is the gratefulness of being handed a snack immediately before actually being hungry.

I hope you liked this article! I struggled a bit to clarify my thoughts during the final two items of the list, and I may revisit them shortly to edit. If you liked this piece, follow me on Twitter @cryoshon and if you’re feeling generous, check out my Patreon page to support me writing more articles like these!

How to Understand and Provide Praise and Criticism at Work

The issues of praise and criticism in the workplace are especially important for employee morale– after all, it feels bad to be criticized and feels good to be praised. The effects of praise and criticism are cumulative, so each must be given carefully and in a targeted, effective fashion. Praising irrelevant or inconsequential attributes of a coworker’s work won’t be as effective as choosing the correct target. By the same token, we all know that feelings of indignation and hurt occur when we feel that we have been criticized unjustly. Of course, we may not be so happy when we receive accurate criticism either. This article is my attempt at biting into the concepts of workplace criticism and praise, attempting to tease out the actual psychological phenomena, and offering a constructive path forward that will provide superior quality communication.

First, let’s define criticism and praise. Criticism and praise are after-the-fact identification of priorities, effort invested, and outcome accomplished relative to prior expectations. Praise is an observation that the ordering of priorities, effort invested, and outcome accomplished were more successful than expectations beforehand. Criticism is identification that priorities were not what was expected, and as a result the effort invested may have been insufficient or misplaced, leading to an unexpected outcome that fell short. Neutral observations that are neither exactly criticism nor praise are likely to be identifications of unexpected priority placement or effort investment which did not have an explicitly positive or negative outcome.

By this definition, the two concepts of criticism and praise are in fact the same concept popularly called “feedback” in the corporate doublespeak. I don’t like the term feedback because it’s nonspecific and is frequently a euphemism for criticism because people are afraid of the word itself due to its emotionally harmful connotations. The fact that the word “criticism” has become verboten is an indictment on the disastrous state of communications skills in corporate life. Discussions of workplace priorities should not spur anxiety within employees, yet it is so. The knowledge of employee discomfort over receiving criticism has spurred the creation of many different investigations into various aspects of criticism, but many employees still struggle.

We should not fear criticism at work– criticism is merely a type of social signalling which indicates that our work priorities were inconsistent with what was expected by others. Adopt a detached mindset, and accept that if we never received praise or criticism because our priorities were always exactly in tune with everyone else, we would be closer to ants than humans.  We should not fear praise, either!

An inability to accept praise or a rejection of praise at work is merely a fear of admission that individual priorities were not the same as what was expected. A fear of criticism is frequently mirrored by a fear of praise because both pertain to individual deviation from expectation and thus a violation of social conformity. It is human nature to be conformist, so we can forgive an inbred tendency to avoid ostracization from the group, but we must overcome this tendency if we want to be part of a maximally effective team or organization.

Effective teams and organizations have a shared frame of priorities, which means that identifying deviations from those priorities is important for keeping on the right track. In this sense, we actually need a certain minimum amount conformity in order to accomplish our group’s goals. With that being said, I am of the opinion that too much conformity is typically far more harmful than too little— a team that is incapable of deviating from expectation is stagnant and inflexible.

So, how do we deliver criticism and praise in such a way that the people we deliver it to get the most helpful impact? The biggest unstated misconception that I regularly come across is that criticism and praise can be doled out without reference to the receiving person. I would like to rectify this misconception, perhaps controversially: the most effective criticism or praise will be carefully calibrated based off of what the receiving person prioritized when performing the work. 

Let’s unpack that statement. In order to get the biggest psychological impact in the desired direction (more efficacy and team cohesion), we have to understand and empathize with our coworker. We have to get into their head.

Why do you think they prioritized what they prioritized, and does this explain the outcome? What aspect of their work did they seem to have put the most effort into, and what part do they seem proud of? Do they seem anxious, ashamed or avoidant of certain prioritizations or aspects of their work? Why would they feel this way? It helps to have the coworker reiterate exactly what they think the expectations were for a given project.

Identifying insecurities regarding the work in question is a good starting point if the above questions are inscrutable. Frequently during discussions of their work, people will provide clues which indicate that they suspect their actual prioritizations are different from the expected prioritizations that may have been agreed upon at the start of a project. Suspicion of differing priorities does not mean that the person should be criticized! Frequently, refutations of expectation are positive, and are indicative of individual initiative and creativity. Individual initiative and creativity have their time and place, however; certain projects may be too sensitive or intolerant of deviation for an individual’s flair to have a positive impact.

Once you’ve identified points where a coworker’s prioritization or effort invested deviated from the original vision of the team, you have identified a point for criticism or praise. Examine the outcome compassionately: did the coworker’s choice seem as though it would be fruitful at the time? If there was really no need or leeway to reprioritize, and the outcome was worse than what was expected, they have earned criticism because it was the incorrect time for their creativity. Was the unexpected investment of effort fruitful in a surprising way while still accomplishing the original desired outcome? Time for praise.

The trick is to keep your criticism and praise limited, detached, and extremely topical. Find the points of individual initiative that the coworker took while working. If your coworker prioritized the wrong thing which led to a bad outcome, detail the logical chain for them if they aren’t aware that there was a problem. Did recalculating the sales from November waste valuable time that could have been spent compiling those sales into charts? Say so clearly and gently, giving your coworker acknowledgement for creativity but not shying away from the problem: “Though you are right that it’s essential for our data to be correct, prioritizing recalculating the sales from November instead of compiling those sales into charts led to a duplication of previous work which contributed toward us missing our deadline.”

Praise should follow the same formula, provided that the outcome was acceptable.  “Choosing to prioritize recalculation of the sales data over compiling the data into charts allowed us to catch a number of mistakes that we would not have otherwise.” Keep both praise and criticism impersonal! The objective of evaluating your coworker’s work is not to quantify their worth as a human being or “human resource” but rather to identify where their individual decisions were compatible with the objective of the team. Accept their choices as compartmentalized pieces on a per-project basis, then look for trends later on if you’re inclined.

Tone and body language are critical to giving and receiving praise and criticism, too. Because of how uncomfortable people are discussing deviations from expected priorities,  defensive body posture and clinical prescriptive tone occur very frequently on both sides of the table when evaluation time comes around. Making a conscious effort to avoid these harbingers of poor communication is absolutely essential! People will detect defensive or vulnerable body language and tone and mirror it when they piece together that criticism is inbound.

Instead, opt for open body language. Signalling warmth and having a benign disposition helps to prevent the other person from clamming up into a defensive posture and allows for praise and criticism to be fully analyzed without emotion. Tone of voice is a bit harder to remember to regulate, but should be carefully considered as well.

Praise should be delivered with a positive and serious tone– adopting a nurturing or parental voice is the most common mistake here. Workplace praise is not the same type of communication as praising your dog for returning its toy or your child for a good report card; workplace praise is clear-sighted objective recognition of successful individual task reprioritization. Praise for a good outcome is not personal, and shouldn’t be confounded by a friendly office relationship.

Criticism should also be delivered with a (slightly less) positive and serious tone. Remember, the purpose here is not to tear the other person down, or talk down to them, but rather to show them that their priorities caused outcomes that were not consistent with the team’s original purpose. Criticism should be delivered at normal speaking volume, and abstracted far away from any frustration you may feel.

A frustrated tone from you will cause the other person to grow defensive, and the maximum positive impact of criticism will not be achieved. A tone of simpering or crestfallen disappointment when delivering criticism will not do: personal emotions or discomfort are not relevant to the discussion of expected priorities and outcomes. Emphasize hope for the future, and move the discussion toward steps for next time around.

I hope you guys enjoyed this piece; I know that I struggle quite a bit with giving and accepting praise, so this article was enlightening for me to think through. Follow me on Twitter @cryoshon and be sure to check out my Patreon page if you like the stuff I’m writing!


How to Disagree Intelligently At Work

One of the large differences I see between technical/scientific people and laymen is in the communication style that critiques or disagreements are offered. Disagreeing with other people in an effective and respectful way is an extremely difficult skill that takes considerable guts to practice.

For the most part, people find disagreeing with each other as difficult and uncomfortable, and use watered-down and less effective language as a result. Some people have the opposite problem, where they are too willing to disagree with others tactlessly without really considering why they disagree in the first place. The prior style of disagreement leads to miscommunication and unfixed problems, whereas the latter leads to bruised egos and frayed team morale.

There’s clearly a big incentive to disagree effectively. Needless to say, there are many possible ways of delivering the sentiment of disagreement correctly and incorrectly. Certain personalities and dispositions are biased toward certain disagreement styles. The scale of disagreement matters too, as a technical dispute may be easier to resolve than a philosophical spat. This article pertains to both of those disagreements, though I think the technical spats are generally easier to resolve quickly as it’s possible to conduct experiments and determine which technical option is better. I’ll characterize ineffective ways of disagreeing and offer a few smarter methods in this article. First, it makes sense to elaborate on exactly what disagreement is in a professional context.

What is disagreement? I will define disagreement as an inconsistent opinion between parties. If an opinion is consistent among all parties, there is consensus. In a professional context, disagreement is a communication modality that is  found within teams or pairs of individuals. Communication modalities are fluid, and are emergent from the interactions between individuals that make up a group. A group made of particularly cantankerous individuals will likely be in the modality of disagreement far more than a group of shy people. Do not take this as a suggestion to form teams of compliant people: disagreement is how bad ideas are destroyed before they cause real damage, and a team is empowered by strong ideas. Disagreement can be essential pruning when used properly.

So, our understanding of disagreement is that  it’s a pattern of communication resulting from inconsistent opinions on a given issue. Much of our time spent in meetings is actually spent trying to jostle the group’s current communication modality from  disagreement to consensus. We may even decide to form groups based off of how much or little the members of the group are likely to have internal agreement or disagreement, though an excess of either is likely to be harmful for the actual output of the group.

One of the functions of leaders in the workplace is to try to circumvent a state of disagreement via executive action– though a definitive ruling will typically allow for work to continue despite the disagreement, it rarely actually resolves the dispute at hand and is frequently akin to the ego-bruising too-direct style of disagreement in terms of damage caused to the team.

Instead of promoting coping strategies for leaders to use in an attempt to ease the pain of being overruled, I think it’s much more effective for leaders to ease disputes via consensus building rather than default to authority’s power. Part of moving the team from disagreement to consensus is  accepting that opinions are malleable and subject to extreme change under the right conditions.  In order for the leader and group members to move toward consensus, effective disagreement is critical.

Ineffective disagreement:

  • Uses personal attacks against others, even if they aren’t present
  • Prompts negative defensive reactions from others via indirect criticism or passive aggression
  • Appeals to office politics or the sanctity of individual fiefdoms
  • Denies or neglects unchangeable frameworks or obstacles
  • Asserts incompetence of other people or groups that will be relied on, even if it’s true
  • Denies attempts to refine points of disagreement
  • Dismisses disagreement as irrelevant without explaining why
  • Breaks group up via factional lines instead of individual opinion
  • Is delivered shortly, bluntly, and without true consideration of the facts
  • Does not rally facts and data to support statements
  • Is delivered agitatedly or emotionally
  • Assumes negative reaction to disagreement from others before it’s actually given
  • Fills in details of opposing arguments without having explicitly heard them
  • Is overly general or lacking specific articulate criticisms
  • Can be reduced to “my gut feeling doesn’t like this”
  • Paves over or ignores opposing viewpoint when convenient
  • Detracts from importance of the issue in disagreement rather than address the disagreement itself
  • Expects authority to effect a particular action regardless of discussion
  • Is delivered only because it is expected by superiors
  • Surrenders quickly due to discomfort associated with disagreeing
  • Plays devil’s advocate wantonly or without purpose

Effective disagreement:

  • Maintains an open mind and pliable opinion
  • Accepts that disagreements can be resolved via changing of opinion
  • Does not assume personal correctness of opinion
  • Does not shut down discussion before the group has agreed to stop
  • Is delivered after considering the merit of the opposing viewpoint relative to the facts and data at hand
  • Is delivered coolly with constant reference to established facts and data for each statement
  • Attempts to refine points of disagreement between parties first, then resolve disagreements second
  • Seeks to actually change opinion of disagreeing parties to reach a consensus that all parties will agree is the most effective path forward
  • Does not respond to emotionality or passionate arguments, preferring impartial consideration
  • Accepts disagreement as an essential and positive part of team functionality
  • Assumes good will and common goals of people with different opinion
  • Understands the personalities and thought processes of the people supporting the opposing opinion
  • Tenaciously argues for opinion, but accepts defeat when clearly outmaneuvered
  • Accepts that there is usually no moral content of disagreement in the professional context
  • Does not build grudges or allow tainting of discussion by grudges based off of disagreements
  • Is scientifically detached from both the issue and the individuals at hand
  • Is blind to status and applied equally
  • Is delivered respectfully, directly, without personal attacks or passive aggression
  • Is delivered in neutral language, in a neutral tone

There’s quite a bit to keep track of here, so I’ll summarize the biggest points of each quickly. Ineffective disagreement is emotional, argumentative, judgmental, fact-free, loud, and political. Effective/intelligent disagreement is data-driven, neutral toned, open minded, inquisitive, and status-blind. Of course, getting yourself and your team to disagree in an effective way is easier said than done, as many people have been disagreeing ineffectively for a lifetime. The colloquial pattern of disagreement is easy to fall into, but has no place in a work environment because it’s an expression of emotion rather than an attempt to navigate a path forward.

Delving into resolving disagreements, I highly suggest that you understand your own opinion on the disagreed-on issue completely. Write your opinion down, and think systematically! Most of the time, our opinions are not nearly as clarified or explicit as we would suspect. Very frequently, clashing opinions are a result of unclarified thoughts that lie in between premise and conclusion. The human brain has a fantastic ability to sketch an idea’s outskirts, then trick itself into believing that the interior is filled with detail without actually investigating each wrinkle. Upon examination of the area in between the edges, we find that our idea isn’t really as developed as we had initially hoped.

Referencing data and forcing a step by step compilation of an opinion’s logic is one of the strongest tools for evaluating ideas, and is an essential tool for smart disagreement. If an opinion is fully developed and linked to supporting data, it is easier to positively assert that the opinion is correct and also easier to refute clashes with other opinions. If an opinion is fully thought out and linked to data, it will usually be more persuasive than an emotional opinion and allow for a faster resolution of disagreement.

In the laboratory, the way to resolve certain disagreements of fact was to conduct experiments. The results of the experiment would clarify which opinion was correct, and instantly catalyze a consensus. Of course, there was always the chance that the data from an experiment would raise new disagreements and questions, but this too was a welcome consequence, and moved the discussion forward.

Conducting experiments to resolve disagreements may not always be possible in a work setting, but sometimes a thought experiment or hypothetical experiment can be helpful in clarifying opinions. If the path through a jammed disagreement isn’t being loosened by talking through the logical steps and evidence for each opinion, try an experiment. I’ve discussed how to conduct an experiment in a work setting in my previous post.

I find that being more in tune with emotions and personal state of mind helps to disagree more intelligently. As out there as it may sound, a lot of team disagreements over otherwise trivial issues are born from outside stressors. If a person is stressed out or otherwise emotionally run down, their disagreement style will trend toward the “ineffective disagreement” list. Defensiveness, emotionality, and reactivity are far more likely to crop up. In this sense, ineffective disagreement can be a symptom of other problems in the work environment.

The companion post to this will probably be discussing how to agree effectively in the workplace– easier said than done, I think! I may also revisit this post at a later time with special attention to office politics and personal fiefdoms, which I have found to be particularly poisonous for team cohesiveness and effective disagreement.

If you liked this article, follow me on Twitter @cryoshon and subscribe to my email listing. If you want me to write about something in particular, tweet me and I’ll give it a whack!

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How to Improve Work-Stuff, Scientifically!

One of my favorite tasks to do when I’m at work is to find ways of optimizing workflows, actions, or processes that I’m regularly doing. If you do something multiple times per day or week, it’s worth doing it as well as possible, right? In my experience, most tasks or workflows are created thoughtfully, but then executed relatively automatically, and, over time, thoughtlessly. Sure, if you have a workflow that’s deeply detail oriented or requires a lot of conscious, brain-on-task time, you’re likely to be mentally active while you execute it, but actually thinking about the efficiency of the process itself may not  be on your mind.

Sometimes I set aside time for process improvements, but usually I fit it into a block of time that I don’t have slated for anything else. Depending on what kind of work you do and what kind of improvements you’re seeking to make, making a change to your process may require a lot of paperwork. If making changes to your workflow or process will require a lot of paperwork, it’s still worth at least investigating whether you can make a change, but the bar for what criterion you use to select your change will probably differ, as it makes more sense to fix a ton of small changes or radically re-haul the process entirely.

When optimizing work, take care to not disrupt old dogmas willy nilly. I propose investigating your workflows scientifically, and determining which optimizations to make scientifically as well. This means that the technique for optimizing workflows I’ll be discussing in this article will be suitable for some kinds of work, but not others. Additionally, my scientific way of investigating beneficial changes may not operate properly for every type of work.

How do you select a process for scientific optimization? The following points are a good guide to seeing whether or not your process can be improved scientifically:

  1. Measurable outcomes and rigorous metrics. In order to think about optimizations scientifically, we need to be able to quantify the pieces we’re talking about. A manufacturing process that produces 15 yellow cubes in 1 hour is an easy candidate for scientific optimization because changes to the process will alter the number, color, or time it takes to produce the cubes. A painting technique that is used to produce impressionistic portraits is not a good choice for optimization, though with some time invested into making qualitative rubrics it may be possible.
  2. Empowerment to experiment. Everyone has bosses, and not everyone’s boss is going to be keen on experimentation with company assets. Having supportive co-workers and bosses is essential to experimenting with process improvements. Bosses may be scared away from the scientific optimization process because it’s resource intensive. Others may be scared due to their own insecurity with scientific pursuits, which tend to be perceived as complicated. Aside from clearance to experiment generally, some processes at work may be open for reinterpretation, whereas others will be sacred and untouchable.
  3. Non-catastrophic failure. Experimenting with the workflow that props up an entire business is sometimes necessary, but should be avoided if it can’t be done safely. The last thing an employee should do is destroy an already-functioning process by attempting to improve it. For some workflows, safe experimentation isn’t possible without the potential for massive fallout if things go wrong. In these cases, making a smaller model to play with typically isn’t possible. I suggest you avoid playing around with systems that will have bad consequences if they fail or have null results.
  4. Controls and Variables. If you’re really going to be conducting a scientific evaluation of your workflows, you need to have the ability to create controls and variables for your investigation. This means that it must be possible to keep the majority of your process the same while changing small pieces individually. Additionally, you need to have data for the way that the process behaves under normal, non-experimental conditions. Most workflows have a paperwork component of some kind, so this is a great place to start looking for control data that you can compare your experimental data with after you’ve run your experiment.

Now you know how to evaluate a process for scientific optimization, so let’s dive right into the meat of how to actually run an experiment once you’ve picked a process to change.

  1. First, if you haven’t already, decide what your variables will be. Remember, you should only be investigating one state of one variable for each trial in the experiment. The variables you pick are up to you, but keep in mind that the items you pick as variables are the items which will end up being improved by beneficial changes to the process that you discover after the experiment is over.
  2. Next, decide your controls. The controls are the most important part of getting usable data from the experiment. I suggest having a negative control (the process as executed before the improvements proposed by the experiment). If you want to get fancy and your process permits it, I’d also add in a null control (a control designed to terminate the process from moving forward) and a positive control (a control designed to test your ability to detect positive results and gather data), but these aren’t strictly necessary.
  3. Once you have decided your controls and variables, it’s time to write up an experimental protocol. How will you be isolating your controls from your experimental group? How will you be altering your variables and setting up your controls? How will you be changing your variables? What will your output look like? How will you be measuring the results of the experiment? How will data be presented in raw form? This is the hardest step and also the most risky step, scientifically. Ensure that your protocol is as close to the normal, pre-experiment way of doing things as possible in order to minimize variability. An experiment is only as strong as its protocol!
  4. Run your protocol and gather data. Each run of the protocol counts as a trial in your experiment. Take care to follow your protocol to the letter, and record data about how the output of the process changes based off of the state of the variables. Don’t worry about analyzing data yet, just try to stick to the protocol and pay attention to your controls and variables. It’s best to minimize variability by running protocols at the same time of day.
  5. Repeat step 4 as many times as needed. Gather data until you feel as though you have enough trials to make a decision. If you want to be super scientific, do some statistics and determine the sample size you need in order to make a good decision, but for most workplace experiments, this level of application isn’t necessary.
  6. Analyze the data gathered in steps 4-5. Which changes to which variables created the most beneficial changes to your originally stated metrics? Were there any consequences to optimization?
  7. Implement changes to your workflow. This should be quite easy, with data in hand. Be sure to argue for your changes using the data that you gathered scientifically, if necessary. If there’s no boss to convince, then enjoy the fruits of your labor immediately.
  8. Show off your good results! Be sure to keep a record of the way that your workflow was run beforehand, just in case. It also helps to maintain records of how your metrics were performing before your scientific optimizations, so that you can show off the positive differences you effected later on. If your results were negative, don’t sweat– most experiments have negative results. More experimentation might be useful, but know when it’s time to throw in the towel. There isn’t necessarily room to improve every single process, especially if it’s already been through the ringer a few times over the years.

Hopefully this guide was helpful to you; I know that I’ve more or less run this regimen on every workflow and process that I’ve touched throughout my professional life. The core concept is systematically tracking changes to variables. As long as you can keep track of what you’re changing, you can make a causative connection between your changes and the outcome.

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Time Management Tips from the HIV Lab

Growing up, I hadn’t ever imagined that I’d be at high risk of HIV infection for years on end as a result of my chosen profession. I thought that HIV was mostly a problem of Africans, or homosexuals in the US– a problem that was steadfastly irrelevant and completely opaque to my white, straight, middle class American self.

When I was desperately scouring for jobs to apply to after graduating from college, my only thought about working in an HIV lab is that it might be a cool opportunity to help people with HIV. I liked the idea of “doing science”, and I liked the idea of “helping people”. I grew to understand that in the course of my work, HIV would be my problem too: the high level goal of my job was to create a vaccine for HIV, and the only way to get there was by slogging through experiments involving HIV+ blood, stool, cell, and tissue samples every day, for years.

When I was interviewing for the job, they told me informally that the rate of infection at this laboratory was %0.3 per year, meaning that if I worked there for three years, I’d have about a %1 chance of contracting HIV due to my own mistakes. I don’t know if that statistic is true or not (I suspect not), but I ended up working there for three years, and definitely had a few close calls due to carelessness– a problem addressed later in this piece. At the time of my application, I wasn’t even a little bit scared. It wouldn’t be until much later that the full meaning of what I was going through would be clear to me, and the caution would take over– far later than it should have, of course.

Formally, my title at the start was “research technician” (how demeaning this term grew to be!) at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, an academic research laboratory group devoted to the formulation of a vaccine or cure for HIV, an immune system disease that has proven to be increasingly problematic in the developing world.

At this early point, I hadn’t yet understood that HIV was a problem outside of poor and minority communities. Luckily, I joined the Ragon book club, and read a biography called A Song in the Night written by one of our research subjects regarding his fight against HIV. Reading his account of HIV divested me of my delusions, and made me think more about the white, straight, middle class HIV epidemic that was largely hushed up during the early stages of the disease’s spread.

My job at the Ragon Institute (or Ragon for short) was my first “real” job after college, and I experienced a huge amount of personal and professional growth during my time there. In the course of my time at the Ragon, I went from being a lowly “pair of hands” quasi-biorobot to being one of the most experienced technologists in the Institute,  responsible for leading, training, and advising my peers.

The biological sciences are extremely demanding in terms of attention to detail, and immunology is no exception. Each experiment must be designed properly, and executed with caution and precision. In order for experiments to have statistical relevance, they must be repeated many times with slightly different variables, leading to a high volume of work.

The work must be performed in standardized ways, making use of components which have been tested and standardized themselves. These factors quickly create workflows that are extremely time consuming, dangerous, and psychologically demanding, generating stress. A tiny mistake could ruin a week long experiment, wasting time and money. A larger mistake could give you HIV.

This piece will chronicle the distilled professional wisdom from my time at the Ragon Institute, with a special emphasis on time management.

Many of my nuggets of wisdom have been culled from times when I made mistakes, or witnessed others making mistakes, frequently as a result of rushing through an experiment in a stressed out fashion due to fear of reproach and political fallout.I also frequently consulted Extreme Productivity, which is a decent resource for jump-starting your own thinking about improving your work experience.

After a year of working at the Ragon, I realized that I needed a solution to the problem of making easily avoidable mistakes in order to save my sanity. The mistake that prompted this thought occurred when during an experiment, I performed an action that was akin to adding dish soap directly into a fresh cup of coffee that you’re planning to drink. It was a mixup of order, and relatively simple to avoid. I figured that the solution to avoid making the harder to avoid mistakes would become evident if I managed to find a technique for the small ones. I wasn’t wrong– any problem that’s large is a problem that’s waiting to be split up into particle-sized steps which are easy to solve.

First off, I figured I’d decrease the speed at which I worked. This seemed like a pretty basic common sense way of reducing mistakes. Later, I’d reform this idea to fit it into my concepts of stress reduction and time management, but at this early phase, I didn’t quite execute it properly. I pledged to slow down, especially when doing “simple” tasks. I didn’t think about breaking down large tasks into smaller ones, or planning more effectively, or making accommodations for my reduced rate of perfectionist work.

As a result, when I slowed down, I’d quickly have a backlog of work, and trouble making my appointments and reservations to use certain instruments or people’s time. Sure, the work that I produced didn’t have quite as many mistakes– until I began to get stressed about the growing pile of work yet to be done as a result of my slowness. Then, the growing stress would take its toll, causing mistakes on the more complicated manipulations of my experiments.

The missed and late appointments and reservations were also a stressor, causing tension with the other people in line to use the various research apparatuses. Just slowing down without taking anything else into consideration definitely wouldn’t work. With some trial and error, I made a system for improving my work quality.

My system has three main parts, and one main variable. The three parts are time management, stress management, and professional relationships. I’ll be focusing on time management in this post. The variable is perfectionism. I’ll describe the other parts of the system separately in a different piece. Your time management strategy must be consciously calibrated for the job at hand in light of perfectionism. The level of perfectionism that you choose to apply is going to have transformative impacts on the details of your time management, your levels of stress, and your professional interactions.

I’ll explain in more detail how perfectionism fits into each piece as we go, but the main theme is that perfectionism is a sliding scale which has both good and bad consequences. In the HIV lab, I occupied every shade of the perfectionism gradient at one time or another, often unwittingly. As a novice, I had no control over my own level of perfectionism or lack thereof, meaning that simple but inconsequential tasks (slapping labels onto vials) were performed slowly and perfectly, whereas deeply difficult and complex tasks (calibrating the cytometer’s laser voltages to prevent spectral overlap of excited-state flourochromes) were breezed through without care. When I reached mastery, I understood how to regulate my own level of perfectionism to best complete the tasks at hand. I hope to share this ability with you.

The first step in revamping my time management ability was to estimate and then measure the amount of time that it took me to perform various common tasks. I measured how long it took me to prepare my samples for the analyzer machine, and then how long it took me to analyze them, including the physical walking time to transition between the two places I’d need to go. I measured how long it took me to manipulate my samples if I did preparatory work during my otherwise unproductive incubation times. I measured how long it took me to add entries to our sample database. I measured how long it took me to jot neatly into my lab notebook, and, for fun, measured how long it took me to merely scribble unintelligibly into my lab notebook. Attention to detail takes time.

I wrote it all down, and had a nice collection of most of the things that I did and about how long they took me, along with a few variations of those common things and the extra time the variants would take. This is a critical step to time management, and I highly encourage you to do the same: think of things you do frequently, time yourself (even if you think you know how long it takes, get an objective measurement!) and write it down. Once you have several pieces of data for each task you commonly do, you are closer to being ready to making a realistic work schedule for a given day.

Before we get to actually making the schedule, there’s one other thing that I learned which is critical: breaking down tasks into particles and tracking completion of each particle like a tyrant. It’s an old piece of advice, but it actually works. Don’t write a plan and have an item that says “do the laundry” with an estimate of two hours. This is asking for stress, because in order to do the task “laundry” you have formed the idea in your mind that it will take 120 minutes of continuous work, which is not true. Doing the laundry isn’t all one step, either. It’s a common work flow with a few different steps that fits into your larger plans for the day, and comes with transition times between steps which can’t be neglected.

In order to put the concept of “doing the laundry” into your schedule, it should really look more like:

Laundry (estimated time 2H total):

  1. Gather the dirty clothes (2 minutes)
  2. Separate the white clothes from the colored clothes (3 minutes)
  3. Put the dirty clothes in the hamper (1 minute)
  4. Grab the detergent (30 seconds)
  5. Bring the detergent and the hamper downstairs (1 minute)
  6. Put the detergent into the washer (30 seconds)
  7. Put the clothes into the washer (1 minute)
  8. Start the washer (15 seconds)
  9. Wash cycle (35 minutes, could do something else in the meantime)
  10. Remove the clothes from the washer (2 minutes)
  11. Transfer clothes to dryer (2 minutes)
  12. Start dry cycle (15 seconds)
  13. Dry cycle (50 minutes, could do something else in the meantime)
  14. Remove clothes from dryer (2 minutes)
  15. Fold clothes (10 minutes)
  16. Bring the folded clothes and detergent back upstairs (1 minute)
  17. Put away the detergent and the folded clothes (10 minutes)

None of these steps are intimidating whatsoever, and you can adjust the times to be more accurate as you go. You may also notice that there are a few opportunities here to reduce the amount of “hands on” time. If you were to gather the dirty clothes, separate them, and put them downstairs the day before you had to do the laundry, for instance, that’d reduce the amount of time you’d have to be working on the day of. In this case, the prep work wouldn’t make a huge difference in reducing the total amount of time spent on the task, but it certainly would give you more flexibility to fit doing the laundry into a given slot of time, because it would take less time on that day.

Doing the prep work before it was actually needed was a lesson which also greatly improved my ability to multitask. Once you have made lists with particles of things to do for a given task, you can very easily fit your overall schedule together such that while you are doing hands on things for one task, a different task is in its incubation time. This also works for situations in which you hand off your work to someone else, who will later return it back to you. It’s nice to rest sometimes, but this is time that can be used to be productive. If you hand off your work, you can usually make headway on something else in the meantime. If you’ve done your prep work or do your prep work during these times, you’ll find that you can knock down a lot of tasks by just fitting task particles into any open space.

Realizing that turning my tasks into particles allowed me to accomplish more by cutting down my dead time was a huge improvement for my work at the lab. Of course, multi-tasking has consequences: a task with maximum perfectionism applied will be performed alone, so as to allow a full devotion of attention.

Doing something while something else is out of your hands is a basic productivity strategy, and it also implies another good trick for scheduling your particle-sized tasks: leave yourself a margin of error. If you can plan your day to the minute accurately and have no spare time whatsoever, you’re overbooked. In the lab, I always left myself extra loose time in my schedules in order to account for things which might pop up: a coworker asking for help, running out of a reagent and needing to borrow it, a fire drill, coffee with a friend passing by, etc. You need this loose time as an insurance policy against fate, and also for your own sanity. Having extra time to play with often means that you have more time to take more care and more perfection in the tasks that you are doing. Not having extra time means that in the event of anything unexpected, you will be behind schedule, and your tasks can’t be attended to as much as they really should be.

The last major consideration is the amount of perfectionism you are going to invest in each task in your day. I suggest an easy rating scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being tasks that require an extreme amount of care and perfectionism and 1 being tasks which can be breezed through without much fear of a mistake causing a major derailing. Each particle in your list of tasks on your schedule can be rated this way. This way, you can allow yourself to relax a little bit in between focus intensive tasks while also understanding when you are going to need to really put in scrutiny.

Judgments of what amount of perfectionism should be formed based on the ease of the task, the ease of correcting mistakes, and your familiarity with the task. If it’s quick, easy, hard to mess up, and simple to fix, the task is a 1. If it’s extremely involved with irreversible consequences in the event of a mishap, it’s a 5. This system can help to relieve stress or at least channel stress at the correct moments as well. A quick self-reminder that “this task is a 1” or “this task is a 5” helps keep things in context. In lab research, far more things are closer to 5 than to 1.

In summary, time management is absolutely critical, and easily separates effective and productive employees from those who are drowned, stressed, and overwhelmed. It is a common story that giving an extra task to the busiest person results in it getting done the fastest. I think that this story is a result of the superior time management and productivity dispositions that the highest producing people have to have.

To a certain extent, a person that is an effective time manager is a lot like a wood furnace for tasks. There is a finite capacity for how much a wood furnace can burn at any given time, but its response to having wood put into the fire is to burn hotter and more efficiently.

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