I(x) and U(x)

More than a month ago, BlogLily tagged me to write about how I plan, and that is what I intend to do today. While I was eager to respond to the very first tagging request I have received in twenty months of blogging, I was also scared of sounding preachy about the subject of planning, because I find myself planning-challenged so many times. But, now that I have more or less conquered my fears, I shall step on the sandbox that has been offered me, leaving the reader to blame BL for making me write about this!

On planning under duress:

Rather too often, I am reminded of the importance of planning only when there are so many things to be done that spending more time and effort to plan is barely an option. But, I convince myself that having the to-do list in front of me is better than trusting my brain to retain everything, and that it is much much better than “firefighting” and living my days on a perpetually short fuse. As the cliché goes, an unprioritized to-do list is not much better than no list at all, so I try to have a rudimentary prioritization based on importance and urgency. When one is planning under pressure, there is seldom time to worship at the altar of Stephen Covey and rhapsodize about weekly goals, yearly goals, life goals and such-like in a pretty Moleskine book, and all that one hankers after is a back-of-the-envelope calculation that offers a little peace of mind and tells one where to begin.

My method – if I can dignify the barely conscious taking stock of activities by the word “method”- has been to assign to every activity x, an importance score I(x) and an urgency score U(x). A score of 1 indicates higher importance (or urgency) than a score of 2, and so on. Then, I find a priority, P(x)=I(x)+U(x). Activities with lower P(x) must then be performed before activities with a higher P(x). An example, literally on the back of an envelope, would look like this:

Clearly, there is one big problem with this simplistic approach, and all time management books are suspiciously silent on the issue. How in blazes does one resolve ties? What if I(x) + U(x) = I(y) + U(y) ? Does one perform x and y simultaneously? Does one choose a more complicated function than addition of I(x) and U(x)? Or does one choose according to whim? I try to resolve ties by asking myself “If there was only one thing I had to be doing, what would it be?”. I believe that the method or tools with which one makes a plan is less important than actually making a plan, because by making a plan, one makes a commitment to finish, at the very least, the most important and the most urgent things on one’s plate. Making that commitment is much more important than drawing tables, marking quadrants, drafting mindmaps, though there can be a lot of pleasure in these things as well. Now, I have to urgently shut up about planning under duress, because I find myself becoming preachy.

On planning under less pressure:

It is relatively rare for me to plan without pressure. Some instances that I can think of are preparing for a paper and planning the visit of a dear friend or relative. I’ll write a little bit about the former, though it applies equally to the latter. (There are other much more important things which call for planning without pressure, such as having a family, and buying a house but I do not feel remotely competent to comment on these since I have had too little experience. Besides, these things are a little too private to blog about. They are probably best reserved for the lovely Moleskine journal that you spent a fortune to buy.). When there is less time pressure, I do what I consider to be the obvious thing, which is to work backwards. For example, if the submission deadline for a paper is T then my back-of-the-envelope scribbling would run thus:

  • T – 0 days: Submit
  • T – 1 day: Have final draft ready
  • T – 2 days: Have a second draft for co-authors if they want to review it again
  • T – 4 days: Make corrections to first draft based on comments from co-authors
  • T – 7 days: Give draft to co-authors for proof-reading
  • T – 8 days: Have one ready draft with text and experiments
  • T – 9 days: Finish experimental simulations
  • T – 20 days: Start simulations and start writing while simulations are in progress
  • T – 35 days: Start computer programming required for experiments
  • T – 40 days: Decide whether publication in said conference is a good idea, decide rough content of the paper
  • T – 60 days: Theoretical foundations and toy experiments

Almost always, the above is too ambitious. But it gives a sort of template to follow, and enables me to estimate what can or cannot be done in the available time frame, makes me think about whether it is worth doing at all, and indicates what other activities I can allow myself in the days leading up to T. If things become too crazy near time T, the above template gives me a very good idea about what the I(x) and U(x) for the paper ought to be. 🙂

I don’t know if this is useful, BL. Now that I have written it down, it seems to me pretty run-of-the-mill stuff. I cannot, in my right mind, affect the self-help writer’s tone and say that “This has worked for me” or “This always works.” Because I know too well that it doesn’t always work. It is just a quick fix. However, it has something going for it: It’s at least a start, and isn’t that what we need when we are stumped?

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6 thoughts on “I(x) and U(x)”

  1. Very interesting. I would have pegged you to be a big planner with your science and engineering background. Though the fact that you use a formula to help you decide what to do first is too perfect. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Oh my, Polaris, that is really a Thing of Beauty! I think it’s the formula, and your handwriting together that make it so lovely. And I agree, a start is sometimes all one needs.

    What I’m having some trouble with, though, is that this is the very first time someone has tagged you. Now that I know that, you are in deep trouble in the tagging department.

  3. Your method of planning and prioritizing appears to be a continuous extrapolation of President Eisenhower’s boolean approach:
    – NOT important AND NOT urgent => dropped
    – important AND urgent => done immediately AND personally
    – NOT important BUT urgent => delegated (I have just invented a new logical operator)
    – important AND NOT urgent => assign an end date – to be done personally when they become urgent

    For the sake of physical homogeneity, shouldn’t you introduce a weighting constant in the linear combination: U(x) + k.I(x) ? Obviously, the physical units for importance and urgency are completely different.

  4. Stefanie: Yes, it is fun to use math, or more precisely to think that I am using math, while planning which could otherwise become a drudgery. It isn’t really math, I think – more of a helpful device.

    BL: Thanks for the kind comments. And now I’m scared of being tagged for every other meme from every other blogger who sees this. Have mercy please :-).

    Mandarine: Interesting to know about the Prez’s approach. And I agree about the conversion factor k. Believe it or not, but I have tried I(x) + k.U(x). I wasn’t motivated by consistency of units though – I just dig Lagrangians! Actually, I’ve also tried I(x) + k(x)U(x), i.e., changing the relative weight of I(x) and U(x) based on the activity. It is the height of navel-gazing, but I’ve done it (with no useful results).

  5. Mandarine, Sure, I would love to answer the 5-questions meme. The only condition is that I will take some time to do so because I am pretty sure that these questions are not going to be easy!

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