Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Three Dimensions of Work

I classify work into three dimensions: {necessity, importance, fun}

In my ongoing training to become a professor, I find myself doing a diverse variety of tasks for work. Sometimes days fly by and I feel exhausted but then think back and realize that I hadn't done anything substantive. And other times I experience an immense burst of satisfying productivity in just a few short days.

I'm fascinated by how much my mood varies at different points based on what I'm doing at work. Here's one attempt to make sense of things ...

I classify work into three dimensions:

  • necessity: How necessary is this task? Put another way, what are the negative consequences if I don't do it?

  • importance: How important is this task for my own career development? I realize that this is a very selfish definition of importance, but it keeps the discussion simple.

  • fun: How much fun will I have doing this task?

It's important (ha, meta!) to maintain a balance of these three dimensions in my daily work. Let's consider the extremes: For instance, if I do only what is necessary, then I won't advance my career and won't have any fun. That stinks. If I do only what is important, then I won't fulfill my responsibilities to others. And if I do only what is fun, then I'll probably be out of a job soon.

In the best case, I work on things that max out on all three dimensions, but that rarely happens. In the worst case, I work on things that rate as a zero on all three dimensions; I try my best to avoid that trap!

Here are some example tasks in my current line of work:

  • preparing for lecture: high necessity, low importance, moderately fun. Teaching-related tasks are a canonical example of necessity. I can't just show up for class unprepared, embarrass myself, and waste everyone's time! But at the same time, just focusing on teaching isn't going to get me promoted. Fortunately, I enjoy teaching, so it's fun to prepare for class.

  • writing a particular grant or paper: low necessity, high importance, moderately fun. Nobody mandates that I have to apply for a certain grant or submit a paper to a certain venue. But those two tasks are vital for advancing my career, so I need to aim for every relevant deadline. My level of enjoyment fluctuates wildly depending on the stage of writing.

  • programming for fun: low necessity, low importance, super fun. This is what I like to do when nobody is telling me what to do. This is me-time! Even though I'm messing around for fun, some hacks can spark creative ideas that lead to substantive research down the line. So in an indirect way, unstructured hacking can be productive in the long run.

  • reviewing papers: medium/high necessity, medium/low importance, medium/low fun. Reviewing papers is part of my responsibility as a member of the academic community, and one that I take seriously. Once I commit to doing a review, then it becomes a high-necessity task; I can't just bail out! But I also need to be careful about how many I commit to doing, since there's no point in overloading myself with too many reviews.

The final quasi-dimension is urgency, which I don't yet know how to fit into this model. All I know is that it's important (ha, meta again!) not to just churn on a bunch of urgent but menial tasks, or else I'll never make forward progress toward long-term goals.

When do I work on each kind of task?

  • I feel freshest in the morning, so I try to do important tasks to move my career forward, one tiny step at a time.

  • In the afternoon and early evening, my brain is usually fried, so I can't do any creative work. I usually knock off a bunch of necessary tasks then.

  • I try to keep my weekends free of obligatory work. This means that the only kind of “work” I ever do on weekends is just for fun – usually tinkering around with code for no apparently useful purpose or writing articles like this one (meta again!!!). The only exception is the weekend or two before a deadline, which is where the urgency dimension sneaks in.

The main takeaway here is to think about these three dimensions for every task you're asked to work on. If something is not necessary, not important, and not fun, then there's no point in doing it. So don't be afraid to say “No.”

People will sometimes try to get you to do unnecessary and un-fun work by convincing you that it's somehow important for your career, or make you fear that if you don't do it, then you're missing out on something glorious. Don't get tricked. The best way to cut through such bullshit is to ask your trusted senior mentors: “Is this task actually important for my career?”

Postscript: We in the research world are extremely lucky. For most types of jobs, the necessity dimension overshadows all else. If your boss says that you have to do something, then you have no choice. It doesn't matter if it doesn't help your future career and isn't fun; you just gotta do it to keep the paychecks coming in. As my dad would say, “A job is a job is a job.”

These three books about working in America have influenced my thinking about the nature of work in my own society:

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Created: 2014-02-08
Last modified: 2014-02-08
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