It never takes 5 minutes

Often I get requests from people for assistance. Colleagues, friends, acquaintances, past clients, and everyone else. Some of these requests are special. They sound very simple. And even if they aren’t simple for someone else, the asker makes it look like a simple task for me. Oftentimes, they are. The request is usually accompanied by “It only takes you a few minutes”.

Let me get this straight. It never takes 5 minutes. Even something as simple as edit this file to add a fullstop at the end. For a text file I’ll just echo . >> file and it takes a few seconds maybe. But it involves context switching from what I’ve been doing, and back, which can be very expensive.

I quite haven’t figured out how my memory works. A few things, I remember well and can recollect and reference with ease, but more often than not, my memory is very unreliable. My short term working memory is, I suspect, worse than average for daily tasks.

All in all, the obviously-less-than-5-minute task ends up taking about half an hour on average. And it only worsens when I have multiple tasks waiting, many of which “should” take just 5 minutes.

When I don’t do your 5-minute work, it’s very likely due to one of the following:

  • There are more 5-minute tasks pending, and this will have to wait for its turn.
  • There’s a longer task that I can not afford to interrupt.
  • There is more important work. It can include entertainment. If I take just a one hour break a day, that break will most likely be more important to me and my sanity than anything you may need.

If it isn’t covered by the above, I may not be interested. Just because I can do something doesn’t mean I like to do it or I will. Nothing personal, though. When someone receives a lot of requests they have to draw a line somewhere or risk compromising productivity, rest, health, sanity and/or worse.

If you need something done fast, bump it up my priority list. If I owe you one, your requests get bumped up. If you pay me, your requests get bumped above non-paying ones, or ones that pay less. Unless there were promises made. If doing it now saves me more effort later, and I see that clearly, and I’m being rational, I’ll bump that up. If it requires a compromise to my existing obligations, rest, or causes stress, and I’m being rational, it will be pushed down. For those who think they perform better under stress, I have this desk under a hanging sword. Be my guest.

Until recently, I had a bad habit of quoting time estimates assuming I do the task and nothing else, without interruptions. It resulted in some quite ridiculous estimates of a few hours where others have quoted a few months. And at times, it resulted in me being in some very uncomfortable situations, where I take weeks for the few hours’ work.

Turns out ten tasks each taking an hour can not be completed in an hour. Or ten hours, for that matter. Depending on the task, my efficiency varies wildly. There will be interruptions. My physical and mental health may just go for a ride, all of a sudden. All pending tasks don’t come to mind when planning for one. Daily chores like eating and shitting also take time. I may get a call from someone after long, and the call can take long. Something may get stuck in my head and take time to get off. Often, I get nerd sniped by a good article, issue, or whatever and go off on a tangent.  Yada yada yada..

Though this was known to me since long, it’s only recently I’ve begun taking care to consider this when planning my work. Accumulated work shoots my productivity through the floor. I guess there’s a positive feedback loop, and I have to work against it. For a lot of things in life, actually. More on that later.

Twenty Questions, and more

Have you heard of the game Twenty Questions? I played it today with a bunch of faculty and students over dinner, thanks to Student Teacher Interaction Council (STIC). STIC organized a dinner today and I popped in for a while.

We were a group of about 20 and played two rounds. Prof. Turbo Majumder was the answerer for the first round and I volunteered for the second. And I have chosen Paul Graham of Hacker News and Y combinator fame. It turned out many people at the table were not aware of him.

Had I never encountered a reference to YC,HN or him anywhere, I would have missed a lot. That made me think, how many people whose ideas or works I am/would be interested in am I missing?

Many things I had studied a couple of years ago when they were state of art are considered mediocre today, things are constantly changing at a faster pace than I can assimilate them. Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t have been able to become as famous as the books depict, or I doubt even survive decently in today’s world. As we automate most things, the jobs that will be available will end up demanding increasingly better skill set, the barrier to employment is raising steadily.

Will we reach a point where we have automated everything and the tasks that are not yet automated require skill that an average person can not acquire in their lifetime? What would happen to the average populace then? Will it happen in my lifetime? The thought is both scary and exciting.

I know not if it will happen in my lifetime, but I know one thing. I do not want to be an average person if and when that happens.


If you are planning to start your own startup, go read his essays on startups. If you are interested in programming and can code in atleast one language, read about lisp and then his essays on lisp. I follow HN, Reddit & Twitter, and recommend you do too.

Let’s unite as Team Humanity to revive degraded land: A conversation with TED Books author Allan Savory and rancher Gail Steiger

A change is necessary in the way we look at agriculture, desertification, the way we blame overgrazing..

I was trained to think the same way as many do. I was taught overgrazing is the reason for desertification, that reducing populations solves the problem. It felt logical, but something felt wrong about reducing the populations, when I was watching Nat Geo or Discovery or Animal Planet showing a massive herd. there has to be an optimum level and we haven’t got it right, I thought. Here is someone who has evidence to prove that the thinking is flawed, or atleast the optimum level, if we stick to my theories, is far higher than we are led to believe. And I am ready to change the way I look at these issues. Are you?

TED Blog

AlanGail_Q&A Allan Savory is a biologist who has spent a lifetime trying to save degraded land. Gail Steiger is a rancher and filmmaker who has long followed his work. Below, what happens when the two talk. Make sure to read to the end for the stab-you-in-the-heart final question.

All over the world, land is turning into desert at an alarming rate. Biologist Allan Savory has dedicated a lifetime to figuring out what’s causing this “desertification.” Finally, after decades of work in the field, Savory discovered a radical solution—one that went against everything scientists had always thought. He used huge herds of livestock, managed to mimic the behavior of the natural herds that roamed grasslands centuries ago, and saw degraded land revert to robust ecosystems.

Here, Savory talks with rancher, performer and acclaimed filmmaker Gail Steiger about his new TED Book The Grazing Revolution: A Radical Plan to Save the Earth

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Hedonism revisited

Some time ago, I wrote that I’m a hedonist. I can no longer say the same with confidence.

What changed?
My perceptions. I started reading Ayn Rand. She almost convinced me that objective morality is possible, and it naturally follows that hedonism is stupid.

I’m not fully convinced, but the arguments are compelling. Right now, I’m in the in-between. Read “The virtue of selfishness” if you are interested. The very first article attacks hedonism, and that too in a sensible way.