A Difficult Talk
Next week, I’m giving the Theory Colloquium lecture here at MIT’s computer science laboratory. This means I’m facing one of the most common and most dreaded tasks of academic life: writing a talk.
Constructing good talks slides is grueling. The task is not so large that it can become a harmless background task in your life, and it’s not so small that it can be dispatched in a single inspired dash. In other words, like all medium-sized hard projects, it’s a catalyst for procrastination.
Here’s how I’m handling it…
A Morning Brainstorm
This morning, I brought a notebook, a cup of coffee, and my dog, Bailey, out into the courtyard of my apartment building. I spent a half hour under the shade of a tall maple tree working out the big ideas of the talk while simultaneously frustrating Bailey’s life ambition to fully devour a tennis ball.
Then I put the work aside and did something else.
Later this afternoon, when I arrived at my office on campus, I spent another hour building the slides for the first 10 – 15 minutes of the talk.
And that was it for today.
Tomorrow I’ll make a hard push to finish a full draft of the slides, leaving almost a full week for my standard cycle of practice talks and polishing.
The Ice Bath Method
I want you to notice the general structure to my approach:
- Start with a half hour brainstorming session. Go somewhere interesting, armed only with pen, paper, and caffeine. (Dog optional.)
- Later that same day, use the results of your brainstorming to set the foundation for one hour of hard focus.
- Wait until at least the next day to do your first multi-hour push on the project.
I call this the ice bath method in reference to the training methods of cold water swimmers, who prepare themselves for the bracing cold by a series of short exposures to ice water. I claim that it’s a smart strategy for any medium-sized project; i.e., a project too large to knock out in an hour or two, but too small to handle with a regular session in your autopilot schedule.
The first step of the method is designed to overcome your resistance to starting. Staring at a blank computer screen that needs to soon contain a hundred slides is daunting. Brainstorming under a tree is romantic, and therefore much easier to actually do.
Once you’ve taken some action, it’s easier to dive into the second step which requires some hard work, but is limited to only an hour. This limit will help you follow through.
The third step is where the real hard work happens. Because you’ve already made non-trivial progress during step two, however, this work is much easier to start — you’re not staring at a blank screen, you’re instead continuing with a specific set of known next actions.
The ice bath method is simple, but it’s also how I manage to get started on (and finish) terrible projects surprisingly early.