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Monday Master Class: The Quarantine Method for Producing Better Work in Less Total Hours

September 15th, 2008 · 7 comments

Excavating CrapCalm Reading

In a 2004 interview, author Neal Stephenson noted the following about his writing process:

I did figure out that I tended to write good stuff first thing in the morning. So I had all this free time in the rest of the day that I had to occupy with something other than writing. Because if I sat and [continued to write], I’d just bury the good stuff I’d written in crap and have to excavate it later.

Neal discovered when he could write well. He also discovered where: as revealed in the same interview, he works in a basement alcove, surrounded by artifacts relating to the manuscript in progress, recording his words — believe it or not — with a fountain pen.

He then quarantined his creative efforts to this highly productive window.

His key insight: continuing to work beyond these optimal conditions could actually make things worse — forcing him to return later to clean up the unfocused crap produced when his mind wasn’t fully in the game.

From Writers to Students

I tell you this story because I think the same insight can drive you to become a more efficient student. Like Neal, you probably have some scholastic equivalent to his early mornings in the basement alcove; an environment in which your mind is really ready to rock. Following his logic, you could conclude that if you want to produce the best quality results with a minimum number of total hours, you should quarantine your work to (only) these high-octane windows.

The “only” modifier is the tricky part. It asks you to accept the idea that working beyond your peak conditions might make things worse — creating weak paper writing, or confusing your understanding of an assignment in a way that will require more time down the road to fix.

Work Without Pain

The obvious appeal of this approach is lack of pain. There are few sensations more soul-deadening than pseudo-work. By contrast, when you’re firing on all mental cylinders, and riding that Csíkszentmihályi high, even the most convoluted assignment can fascinate.

A problem, however, lurks. The average college student has a lot of work; more than maybe can be finished in a few hours each morning. I recognize this shortcoming. But I can recommend some common sense advice that can bring you closer to the dream of a Stephenson-style quarantined work flow:

  1. Increase the size of your quarantine periods by staying rested, exercising, eating well and avoiding energy sapping distractions like the Interweb.
  2. Decrease the amount of work you have to accomplish by embracing Radical Simplicity. Less courses. Less majors. Less activities. Kick ass at a very small number of things.
  3. Decrease the time required for your work by obsessing over the efficiency of your technical habits.
  4. Increase your efficiency by caring, like Neal, about your location and the artifacts that surround you. There’s a difference between working in a dorm study lounge with your Internet-connected laptop open, a chewed Bic, and an old notebook, and working in the rare books room, armed with a Black n’ Red and a Mont Blanc StarWalker.
  5. Start everything early. You might think that today requires many hours of work because you have two reading assignments and a problem set due. But if you had started those last weekend, when you had nothing else on your plate, you wouldn’t be in this trouble now.

You’ve heard many of these ideas before: location matters, time of day matters, energy matters. But I think Neal’s anecdote smashes them together beautifully, and then finishes things off with the novel twist about the danger of working beyond your quarantine.

Let’s review:

Point one: working when you’re not at your peak makes things worse.

Point two: accordingly, you should organize your student work schedule to quarantine your efforts to (only) peak-inducing environments.

Simple. But if Neal’s writing output is any indicator, also devastatingly effective.

(Photo by g-hat)

7 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: The Quarantine Method for Producing Better Work in Less Total Hours

  1. Nate says:

    As a fan of time arbitrage posts, I was eager to read this and agree. Combined with adventure studying, this could be extremely effective, but only if you have all of your materials with you.

  2. Nick says:

    Excellent post, thanks again Cal.

    However you seem to link to the wrong Stephenson interview; it should be: http://dir.salon.com/story/books/int/2004/04/21/stephenson/print.html

    Thanks for turning me onto Stephenson, by the way, both here and in the recent post http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/08/07/bonus-post-an-author-who-is-proud-to-admit-that-he-sucks-at-e-mail/. It’s nice to read of the work practises of people I admire once in a while (particularly when they aren’t too different to my own ways of working).

  3. Val says:

    I agree with Nate. I’ve been trying to adventure-study this semester, but I’ve found such an amazing place to study that I fear searching for other places might be a waste of (focused) time.

  4. Robin says:

    Ah remember reading this interview when it came out 🙂

    Seems the link goes to the wrong interview though. The one where Stephenson says this is done by Salon and you can find it here: http://dir.salon.com/story/books/int/2004/04/21/stephenson/print.html

  5. Study Hacks says:

    Thanks to all who pointed out the link issue. I had a few interviews with Neal open at the time, and looks like I accidentally grabbed the wrong one for the post. I just fixed it!

  6. Dev says:

    Um, I think you mean *fewer* total hours.

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