Time Tracking

I tweeted this out earlier today:

Why do I have time tracking charts that break down when I do certain kinds of work?

A book (Deep Work) and a podcast (Cortex).

I know that the ability to focus is important to the work I do, but Deep Work by Cal Newport helped articulate precisely why it’s extremely important to cultivate the ability to perform “deep work.” I recommend reading the book, but the tl;dr is that in order to succeed in today’s economy, one needs to be able to perform extremely cognitively demanding work with speed and quality. In order to accomplish that kind of work, one needs to be able to “focus intently without distraction.”

The constant stream of email, texts, meetings, and phone calls that are commonplace in modern offices help keep us informed and connected to our coworkers, but it often prevents us from being able to maintain sustained periods of focus on cognitively demanding tasks. Newport makes several recommendations to combat distraction, but I found the most helpful advice was to schedule every minute of my day.

The purpose of scheduling every minute of your day isn’t to hold yourself to an itinerary without any allowance for deviations. Instead, it’s a way to be more intentional about how you’re spending your time. More importantly, it can help you better track the amount of deep work you’re actually accomplishing.

I currently use my calendar as a guide for how I’m going to spend my week. There are always meetings I have to work around, but every other minute at work is allocated to a specific type of work. Despite my best intentions, reality doesn’t always align with the calendar I set, so I needed another system to help me better track the work I actually accomplish.

Enter Cortex.

Cortex is a podcast featuring Myke Hurley and C.G.P. Grey talking about how they get their work done. In their third episode, Grey reveals that he uses Launch Center Pro and Due as a time tracking system. The workflow goes something like this:

  • Start a 40 minute timer in Due & begin working
  • When the timer goes off, open Launch Center Pro, which has several actions associated with a specific type of work you do
  • Trigger the action associated with the work you just performed, which adds a row to a spreadsheet detailing the time and type of work you’re doing.
  • Reset timer and continue working.

Like any good nerd, I’ve tweaked this system a little. I’ve integrated Drafts actions with the Launch Center Pro actions so I can capture a little more context about the work I’m doing. I also use R Markdown to convert the spreadsheet of my time tracking data into charts in a PDF that help me understand how I’m spending my time.

This took a little bit of work to set up, but it’s been extremely helpful. Every Friday afternoon, I look at the PDF produced by the R Markdown script I wrote a few months ago. It’s helped me realize how productive I am before 9am. I now make sure that before I leave the office, I’m clear on the work I want to tackle the first thing the following morning. Conversely, looking at the data also shows me I still have to work on making the afternoons on Thursdays and Fridays more productive.

If you’re interested in improving your capacity for deep work, start with tracking your time.

Ezra Klein interviews Yuval Levin

This is a thoughtful, in-depth conversation that covers from the thesis of Levin’s latest book, The Fractured Republic, his experience working in the Bush (43) Administration, the most interesting policy ideas on each side of the political spectrum, and more.

This is the first Ezra Klein Show episode I’ve listened to - I’m looking forward to adding others to my Overcast queue.

The objective paradox

This entire article on creativity is worth a read, but one passage in particular caught my attention:

In one experiment a bipedal robot programmed to walk farther and farther actually ended up walking less far than one that simply was programmed to do something novel again and again, Stanley writes. Falling on the ground and flailing your legs doesn’t look much like walking, but it’s a good way to learn to oscillate, and oscillation is the most effective motion for walking. If you lock your objectives strictly on walking, you won’t hit that oscillation stepping stone. Stanley calls this the “objective paradox” — as soon as you create an objective, you ruin your ability to reach it.

The objective paradox explains why NCLB’s approach to accountability failed. It asked our schools to “walk farther” without a full appreciation for the complexity of what it would take to accomplish the task. Some schools were able to respond to this challenge and many students benefited as a result.

However, far too many schools were not equipped to meet the goals set by NCLB. Instead of allowing schools to “flail and oscillate,” NCLB drove them to focus on getting one step further down the path. As many have acknowledged, this had the unintended consequence of forcing schools to divert too much focus too reading and math instruction at the expense of other subjects and priorities that may have actually contributed to better reading and math comprehension.

This isn’t to say that setting goals for reading and math achievement isn’t important, but to emphasize that too much focus on these goals can have a deleterious impact on student outcomes.

Education reformers (myself included) have an impatient desire for rapid change and improvement when we see public school system that fails to adequately serve students, particularly students of color, students with disabilities, and poor students. It’s a perfectly reasonable position - these children don’t have the luxury of time on their side. We are right to seek solutions now and not at some distant future date.

At the same time, we need to temper that relentless drive to improve the quality of public education for all children with the humility to understand two constraints:

  • We don’t know what the perfect system looks like.
  • Progress won’t always be measured by annual, linear changes in math and reading scores.

Many high-performing schools already understand this. Morgan Polikoff recently visited Success Academies in NYC and observed that the instruction and culture of the school was nothing like the caricature of a test-obsessed, drill-and-kill school solely focused on boosting reading and math scores. Instead, he found that their primary goals for students in English/Language Arts are: “for students to 1) love literature and want to read, and 2) be able to understand what they’re reading.”

Polikoff also identifies several important structural elements that contribute to SA’s success. This includes a strong emphasis on student-led dialogue, excellent classroom management procedures, and an instructional culture that embraces feedback/coaching. None of those structural elements, taken on their own, would allow a school to achieve math and reading results similar to SA, but developing these systems (or other approaches) is analogous to the walking robot flailing and oscillating its legs. Getting them right won’t directly lead to achieving success for students, but they’re foundational prerequisites to ultimately achieving that success.

ESSA will give states the flexibility to develop accountability systems that acknowledge this better than NCLB-era accountability systems. States and the reform advocates holding them accountable would be wise to consider the objective paradox and grapple with the challenge of striking a balance between the competing desires for rapid improvement and allowing room for schools to develop solid fundamental practices.

The Fatal Conceit & ESSA

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design” - F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit

The ink on the recently released Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is barely dry, but progressive ed reformers are already panning the proposed successor to the defunct No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Conor Williams argues that not only should Obama veto the NCLB rewrite, progressives should fear it.1 His case for progressive opposition to ESSA boils down to this:

“If this were a debate over clean water protections, voting rights protections, or most other policy issues, progressives would line up to yell about how states can’t be trusted to do the right thing without strong federal oversight.”

This begs the question: what is “the right thing” for states to do? Is there even one “right thing” that can apply to all states? Reading Williams’ argument, I kept hearing the Hayek quote above in my head.2 I’m not as confident that we know enough to design the accountability system he imagines.

Two weeks ago, Mike Petrilli wrote about the ed reform movement’s need for more humility:

“We know what works, we just need the political will to do it”: That’s the foundational creed of today’s reform movement. But what if the truth is closer to “We are just beginning to learn what works to help poor kids escape poverty, but we still don’t know how to do it at scale”?

I couldn’t agree more. As a movement, we’ve made some significant progress in figuring out “what works”, but what we have learned is dwarfed by what we need to know in order to provide all students with a quality education. This means that we not only need to invest more in research (see Jay Greene’s writing for more on that), but we should also encourage and evaluate new approaches. ESSA would give states a great opportunity to expand our understanding of “what works”.

Right now, it looks as if ESSA is likely to pass and that most of the education policy action will (rightfully) be at the state level. Instead of giving in to the “fatal conceit” Hayek describes, I hope that both progressive and conservative reformers embrace the opportunity to adopt accountability systems that will challenge and improve the status quo in ways that acknowledge the current limits of our policy tools.

  1. Williams also argues that conservatives should oppose ESSA because it replaces relatively simple and clear federal accountability measures with more latitude for states to design their own systems. For conservatives, that is a feature, not a bug, for conservatives. 

  2. If you’re at all interested in Hayek, I hope you’ve seen one of my favorite YouTube videos, the Keynes v. Hayek rap battle

How would great teachers spend a time bonus?

This entire series of conversations with Fishman Prize winners is worth reading, but this passage stood out to me:

“In so many ways, these hierarchies we have put teachers at the bottom. But that almost entitles everyone who is above us, so to speak, to put tasks on our plate.”

It perfectly captures my feelings after reading The Allure of Order and Team of Teams: our highly bureaucratized school system is limiting the potential of our students and our educators. When we treat educators as implementers of top-down policies, we fail to benefit from their ground-level insights, making our education system too rigid to respond to the dynamic needs of students.

It’s time to consider a new approach.