Update 8: Prioritization, finishing, inventories, and working memory

My friend Satvik recently told me about an important project management intuition he’d acquired: it’s a very bad sign to have a lot of projects that are “90% complete”. This is bad for a few reasons, including:

  • Inventory: For any process that makes things, it’s a substantial savings to have a smaller inventory. A manufacturer buys raw inputs, does work on them, and ships them to a customer. Every moment between the purchase of inputs and the delivery of finished goods is a cost to the manufacturer, because of the time value of money. Smaller inventories are what it looks like to have a faster turnaround. If a lot of your projects are 90% complete, that means you’re spending a lot of time having invested a lot of work into them, but realizing none of the value of the finished product.
  • Power law: Some projects might be much more important than others. If you’re allocating time and effort evenly among many projects, you may be wasting a lot of it.
  • Quality of time estimates: Things may be sitting at “90%” because they keep seeming “almost done” even as you put a lot of additional work into them. If you’re using faulty estimates of time to completion, this may make your cost-benefit calculations wrong.
  • Mental overhead: Even if it were somehow optimal for an ideal worker to handle a lot of projects simultaneously, in practice humans can’t perform very well like that. Conscious attention isn’t the only constraint - there are also only so many things you can productively fit on the “back burner”.

I decided to use this insight to prioritize my work. Things that are “90% done” should be frontloaded, and idea generation should be deprioritized until I’ve “closed out” more things and cleared up mental space.

My conceptual hierarchy writeup’s gotten some very good feedback and it’s potentially nearly ready for publication. Projects currently in my queue include:

  1. Finish and publish the writeup of my hierarchical conceptual framework..
  2. Finish and publish my writeup on a 2-factor economic model of an AI takeoff.
  3. Explain in more detail what my writeup’s about.
  4. Write and publish a few miscellaneous short research blog posts.
  5. Finish and publish a lot of personal blog posts. (Not strictly part of this project but still eating up a lot of space on the mental back burner.)
  6. Review the literature on modeling AI risk to see whether it changes my conceptual framework.
  7. Have more conversations where I ask people about their models.
  8. Reread the FOOM debate to see what happens when I approach it with my current model.

I immediately classified F, G, and H as idea-generation tasks, and therefore lowest urgency. C is upstream of both A and part of D, and A is upstream of B because it gives it context. E and part of D can be closed out fairly quickly.

So, my new prioritization is:

  1. Write up things I can finish quickly, including:
    1. Some ideas for brief blog posts related to research I have queued up.
    2. Personal blog posts.
  2. Think through and write up what the purpose is of my hierarchical conceptual framework writeup, as a standalone post.
  3. Finish and publish the hierarchical conceptual framework writeup, including a brief summary of (2).
  4. Finish and publish the writeup on a 2-factor economic model of an AI takeoff, tagging potential loose ends for future research.
  5. Review my current research priorities.
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One comment on “Update 8: Prioritization, finishing, inventories, and working memory

  1. […] I used to think that writing was the sort of thing where I should minimize the number of things in my queue: […]

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