These simple approaches to doing great work often go overlooked – but they could be just what you need to get it done.
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The mathematician Richard Hamming said, “If you don’t work on important problems, it’s not likely that you’ll do important work.”
In the math world, Hamming was known as a rebel. But unlike Jim Stark, with his trademark T-shirt and pompadour, Hamming’s rebellious nature was focused squarely on tackling some seriously knotty questions in early computer engineering.
Hamming’s career was sprawling. His first professional job outside of academia was on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos Laboratory, where he worked on the computers used to make the first atomic bombs. But it was in his next role, at Bell Telephone Laboratories, where his pioneering work in error-correcting codes and digital filter theory contributed to several significant breakthroughs in computer science and telecommunications.
It’s not a coincidence that Hamming is tied to no fewer than five eponymous concepts: The Hamming distance, Hamming codes, the Hamming bound, the Hamming predictor-corrector and the Hamming window. His insane productivity was, according to himself, the result of a ruthless, singular focus on what he thought was important.
Hamming was a mathematician, not an entrepreneur. But in explaining his life’s work — which he did over the course of several books and speeches — his central premise applies to all disciplines: Do work that matters. Luckily for us, he was also endlessly quotable, so I’ve rounded up a few of his more memorable bits of wisdom here.
Put in the time
“If you want to do great work, you clearly must work on important problems, and you should have an idea.”
How will you do important work if you’re not spending any time, well, doing it? Whether you’re a scientist or an entrepreneur, it can be incredibly easy to get wrapped up in day-to-day minutiae. In order to make sure he was sticking to his “important work” ethos, Hamming adopted a practice called Great Thoughts Time, which took place on Friday afternoons.
“Friday afternoons for years — great thoughts only — means that I committed 10% of my time trying to understand the bigger problems in the field, i.e. what was and what was not important,” he said, explaining that it was during this time that he realigned what he was doing with what he wanted to be doing.
“If I really believe the action is over there, why do I march in this direction? I either had to change my goal or change what I did. So I changed something I did and I marched in the direction I thought was important,” he said. “It’s that easy.”
Creating your own Great Thoughts Time will not only give you time and space to clear your head of workaday problems, but it also lets you reconnect with your core mission and evaluate if you’re still on track. If you’re not, you get the chance to course-correct. I give my employees at JotForm plenty of space to grow their most important ideas. We don’t have deadlines because I want ideas to flourish freely, and worrying about a looming deadline doesn’t do much to inspire creativity. Sure, some day-to-day tasks, like answering emails and going to meet