One of the indisputable virtues of the internet is the availability of free online courses that enable anyone to educate themselves. edX is one such outlet, founded by Harvard and MIT, and offers free, open source courses that are allowing people around the world to get an education that would otherwise be out of their reach.
At the helm of edX is Anant Agarwal, who is also a professor of electrical engineering at MIT. He's been a longtime advocate of MOOCs (massive open online courses) that enable thousands of people to participate in courses from universities ranging from Harvard to Berkeley, and even schools outside the US. He's also co-founded several companies and continues to travel the world while helming edX. But, as we learned, his favourite work spot isn't a glossy office; it's a humble diner. Here's how he works.
Location: Cambridge, MA
Current Gig: CEO of edX, Professor at MIT
One word that best describes how you work: Obsessively
Current mobile device: My most mobile device is my ballpoint pen, but I supplement that with an iPhone 7 and a mini iPad.
Current computer: Samsung 900X Windows notebook
What apps, software or tools can't you live without? Why?
I travel pretty frequently (or dare I say constantly). With over 100 global edX partners, it's not uncommon for me to be in Miami one week and Mumbai the next, so I rely on my iPhone hotspot to stay connected no matter where I am in the world. I also use my my Gmail app, Google Drive, and remote desktop a lot, too. It's not all work when I travel, though — I can't live without my torch and magnifier app, since I need both to expand the print on menus when dining out! I'm also a fan of the Slingbox app — I use it to watch the Patriots play when I'm travelling.
What's your workspace setup like?
Outside of my office in the edX HQ in Kendall Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, my most important office is a diner called Frescafe in Natick, right down the road from the town where my family and I live. On the weekends, I spend at least two hours a day in the place — just me, my laptop, and many cups of decaf coffee. The greasy breakfast joint has been my haunt for 20 years — I wrote my co-authored textbook on electronic circuits there in the early 2000's and they haven't been able to get rid of me since! I've also been known to strike up conversations with fellow diners and wait staff. On numerous occasions, the edX sticker on my laptop has been a conversation starter and I've had the pleasure of hearing stories from edX learners who happened to visit or work at the diner. There's no better motivation to really crack on with a difficult proposal or review a long deck than hearing inspiring stories from real-life edX learners.
What's your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
That's easy! Procrastinate. When it comes to work, my life hack is: "If it can be postponed then postpone it." Even though I know it isn't the most perfect way to go about managing my time, it works for me. It probably also makes my colleagues mad at me! Sometimes I find that the work was unnecessary and can avoid it altogether, but usually what happens is that I end up having far too many things to do close to a deadline, so I have to prioritise and be super efficient and minimise the time I spend on things, while maximising the thoughtfulness and energy I put into them. Can I caveat this answer by saying that if there's one thing I'd like to do better, it would be time management?
What's your favourite to-do list manager?
The piece of paper I have currently crumpled up in my pocket. It isn't high-tech, it is super portable, never runs out of charge, works on aeroplanes, but you better believe that if I add a task to this scrap of paper, then it will get done!
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can't you live without and why?
During conference calls or meetings, I can't live without an analogue desk clock in clear view. I tend to love deep diving into rabbit holes during conversations and can lose track of time. I don't wear a watch, and prefer not to have my phone or laptop or any other device out to distract me during meetings, so my usual sources of time are unavailable. So, an analogue clock keeps me on track, as I can keep my eye on how much time I've spent talking without opening my phone or laptop.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What's your secret?
Making Kerala fish curry. Mine is unparalleled!
Also, I used to do stand up comedy in school, and I think being funny and being able to find the humour in things is critical to being a good leader. You can disarm people with humour even if they are going to be unhappy with a decision.
What do you listen to while you work? Got a favourite playlist? Maybe talk radio? Or do you prefer silence?
I listen to talk radio when I drive and am not on the phone. But, having grown accustomed to a very noisy dorm at IIT Madras during my undergrad years, I can work practically anywhere. These days, I can still shut out the noisy background of the world while working. Once, I even missed my Air Canada flight as I sat hammering away on the keys of my laptop opposite the boarding gate even as they called out my name several times. To avoid this, I now set the alarm on my mobile phone!
What are you currently reading? Or what's something you'd recommend?
Probably something by John Grisham.
How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to forget about work?
I think about working out and that tires me, but I really need to start exercising. A greasy breakfast at a diner or going out for pizza is always fun. I also turn to Netflix, when I need to escape into a movie.
What's your sleep routine like? Are you a night owl or early-riser?
I can sleep very easily at any time. I can, in all honesty, sleep standing up. I try to get six to seven hours of sleep a day.
I am absolutely a night owl and I love to work late into the night. I despise the early morning! I'd much rather stay up all night to make a 5AM meeting than face a 5AM wake up call.
Fill in the blank: I'd love to see _________ answer these same questions.
Some of our edX students like Battushig or Amol Bhave. They are truly inspiring and their accomplishments never cease to amaze me! Both took my MIT Circuits course on edX as high school students in Mongolia and India, respectively, and aced it! Then, they got into MIT, and are now in their senior year. They are young, but their ambition and talent are just incredible. I'd love to know how they do it all!
What's the best advice you've ever received?
The best advice I have ever received is to always act on your curiosity. Throughout my career, curiosity has served me well. Believe it or not — it started with a visit to a family friend's chicken farm when I was a teenager. After the visit, I was curious about chicken farming, so I started a small farm of my own. The farm thrived, as I expanded its reach by selling eggs to neighbours and in bulk to a local restaurant. You could say I discovered B2C and B2B early! The curiosity to start and develop this endeavour helped lead me to create several high-tech startups later on, and the importance of following your inquisitiveness has remained with me throughout my professional life.
We've asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.