Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Focus Hard. In Reasonable Bursts. One Day at a Time.

August 20th, 2009 · 40 comments

Dissertation HellThesis

Writing a doctoral dissertation is a peculiar endeavor. There’s a general understanding, suspended out there in the stress-fraught ether of graduate student life, that this is supposed to be a brutal process. Consider, for example, the popular blog Dissertation Hell. Its tagline reads:

A place to rant publicly but anonymously on the many tortures of writing a dissertation.

In a recent post, titled A Last Day in Hell, an anonymous graduate student notes:

Many asked how I balance [my dissertation] with my life. The truth is I never did! … I did this for three or so months, 8 to 14 hours a day, every day of the week.

In a particularly dark twist, the student adds:

My aunt died of leukemia during that time, but I had promised her I would finish, so the night I found out I doubled my efforts and kept on going. EVERYTHING got put on hold.

Fortunately, during my own dissertation process, I was able to observe most of these frantic conventions with some semblance of objectivity. Having already written two books, and published over 20 peer-reviewed papers in my field, the task, while demanding, seemed far from “hellish.” But it did get me thinking about the conventions of student life and how we handle work.

In this post, I want to share some thoughts on why these big student projects cause so much stress and a strategy for alleviating this suffering.

“Hard” vs. “Hard to Do”

I found writing my thesis to be similar to writing my books. It’s an exercise in grit: You have to apply hard focus, almost every day, over a long period time.

To me, this is the definition of what I call hard work. The important point, however, is that the regular blocks of hard focus that comprise hard work do not have to be excessively long. That is, there’s nothing painful or unsustainable about hard work. With only a few exceptions, for example, I was easily able to maintain my fixed 9 to 5:30 schedule while writing my thesis.

By contrast, the work schedule described by the anonymous grad student from above meets the definition of what I call hard to do work. Working 14 hours a day, with no break, for months on end, is very hard to do! It exhausts you. It’s painful. It’s impossible to sustain.

I’m increasingly convinced that a lot of student stress is caused by a failure to recognize the difference between these two work types. Students feel that big projects should be hard, so hard to do work habits seem a natural fit.

I am hoping that by explicitly describing the alternative of doing plain hard work, I can help convince you that the hard to do strategy is a terrible way to tackle large academic challenges. I urge you to take blogs like Dissertation Hell off your reading list, and instead remember the following hard work mantra:

Focus hard. In reasonable bursts. One day at a time.

Putting this simple formula into practice isn’t trivial at first, but it gets easier with practice. (It is, for example, how almost every professional writer works). Most importantly, it’s sustainable and compatible with a happy life.

How do you tackle big projects? How do you wish you tackled them?

40 thoughts on “Focus Hard. In Reasonable Bursts. One Day at a Time.

  1. vtamethodman says:

    This is almost exactly the same technique I use with my students. I call it ‘study pulses’ as it’s literally impossible to keep concentrating on a single task for more than a few hours. So for instance during my thesis I would first make a short list of my daily tasks, collected all the tools I needed to complete those tasks and went to my ‘study space’ (a corner coffee shop).

    Once there I’d get my Chai tea, open up my laptop and set my alarm for one hour, I worked diligently for at least one hour each day, I could go longer but at a minimum I had to put in one hour of thesis work each day. Once you make it a habit you’ll be amazed how productive you will be if you remove all distractions and give your work the focus it deserves.

  2. Maneesh Sethi says:

    Excellent article, I’ll be applying this strategy to my own work.

  3. Doc says:

    Well phrased thoughts here. I’m nearing the end of a second undergraduate degree and I’ve unfortunately been more of the sit down and do it all right there and then. Of course, the problem there is project after project, semester after semester, year after year, I’ve been gradually worn down. My grades over the last several years have slipped and the conclusion I keep returning to is that the only real problem is the lack of truly dividing and conquering the goals in small steps.

    You’ve put it well and I think if most of us learn to apply this mentality, we’ll be “sittin’ pretty”

  4. I think the biggest problem I faced when writing my PhD thesis was viewing the whole project… as a whole. I looked upon it as scaling Mt. Everest in one go.

    However, eventually I adopted a “little-and-often” approach (for practical reasons — I was a campus warden, so I’d often get interrupted), so I learnt to split the project up into manageable goals and treated each goal as a small hill to climb.

    Eventually, as the days passed, I could see how much I’d produced, which motivated me even more. From start to finish, the thesis write-up probably took me 4-5 months. Best thing was that I wasn’t burnt out at the end of the experience and I was able to enjoy the end of year celebrations. Granted, I completed my PhD 5 months later than I’d hoped, but at least I organized myself in the end :)

    Cheers for the post!

    Ian

  5. Sameer says:

    Cal, I really appreciate your writings on hard focus. Historically I’ve approached big projects with the nonstrategy of “let them overwhelm you in your head, then put them off till moment when the fear of not finishing exceeds the fear of starting.”

    Since starting to read your blog I’ve been a lot better about breaking them up into small steps (as well-defined as possible) and taking them one step at a time. It’s nice to know that hard focus is a skill that can be practiced just as any other.

    One thing I’d add about hard focus is that it’s a lot easier to focus/be productive when you’re getting enough sleep. I had very erratic sleep habits in high school, and for the first couple of years of college I was under the mistaken impression that if I was getting more than 6 hours of sleep I was being lazy. Then an extremely successful Physics major friend who averaged 8-9 hours a night convinced me to give sleeping a shot, and since then I’ve discovered that on 9 hours of sleep, everything just goes magically easier, I’m way smarter, and I’m happier!

  6. Jeremy says:

    My version of the mantra is:
    Focus hard. One pomodoro at a time. About a dozen pomodoros per day.

    http://www.pomodorotechnique.com

  7. Study Hacks says:

    Once there I’d get my Chai tea, open up my laptop and set my alarm for one hour, I worked diligently for at least one hour each day, I could go longer but at a minimum I had to put in one hour of thesis work each day.

    Habits are really powerful. I talk about them some in the red book in my chapter on procrastination.

    Of course, the problem there is project after project, semester after semester, year after year, I’ve been gradually worn down.

    Exactly. When advising students going through tough projects, I like to say: “You’re passed the point in life in which work is going to be easy.” In other words, after, say, your freshman year of college, there will be fewer and fewer projects that can be handled in a day of hard to do work followed by rest. Most things will be hard. Most will require lots of hard focused. The soon the student learns to build a sustainable life around this reality, the better.

    From start to finish, the thesis write-up probably took me 4-5 months… I completed my PhD 5 months later than I’d hoped.

    It took you five months to write your thesis which is five months later than you hoped. You must have had some ambitious hopes! :)

    Focus hard. One pomodoro at a time. About a dozen pomodoros per day.

    I’m curious to find out how that guy wrote an entire book about the idea that you should work in timed chunks. It is, however, a nice looking site.

  8. Neha says:

    I too usually employ the strategy of wasting time until I barely have enough time left to do the work required, which acts as a great motivator. I would love to switch to working more reasonable hours consistently, but I really find it difficult to force myself to focus without the pressure of a looming deadline or advisor meeting, even for a few hours. I know breaking things up into well defined chunks can help, but are there any other techniques?

  9. J says:

    I just wrote a long post and there was en error posting! I have read your books many times and I am an ardent follower of your blog. I have a few questions and would appreciate the response. I am currently in PhD program and done with the coursework.

    1. I am unclear about one thing. I understand that you work 9-5:30 every day (probably 8 hours-correct?) but how many hours do you work on weekend or do you take a break on both Saturday and Sunday?

    2. Any tips for writing especially making it academic worthy?

    3. Any tips for taking the candidacy exam?

    Thanks for the great job and good luck on PhD!

  10. Jeremy says:

    I’m curious to find out how that guy wrote an entire book about the idea that you should work in timed chunks.

    Funny thing is, he came up with it in college. An excerpt from “The Pomodoro Technique” by Francesco Cirillo:

    The basic idea for the Pomodoro Technique came to me in the late ‘80s, during my first years at university.
    Once the elation from completing my first-year exams had subsided, I found myself in a slump, a time of low productivity and high confusion. Every day I went to school, attended classes, studied and went back home with the disheartened feeling that I didn’t really know
    what I’d been doing, that I’d been wasting my time. The exam dates came up so fast, and it seemed like I had no way to defend myself against time.
    One day in the classroom on campus where I used to study, I watched my classmates with a critical eye, and then looked even more critically at myself: how I got myself organized,
    how I interacted with others, how I studied. It was clear to me that the high number of distractions and interruptions and the low level of concentration and motivation were at the root of the confusion I was feeling.
    So I made a bet with myself, as helpful as it was humiliating: “Can you study – really study – for 10 minutes?” I needed objective validation, a Time Tutor, and I found one in a kitchen timer shaped like a pomodoro (the Italian for tomato) – in other words, I found my
    “Pomodoro”.
    I didn’t win the bet straight off. In fact, it took time and a great deal of effort, but in the end I succeeded.

    It seems a little crazy, but I’ve been using it for a few weeks now, and I love it.

  11. khadija says:

    Hey.. great blog. Everything you say is completely true, from my experience in university thus far. I found myself in a lot of the unproductive habits you describe, but you have given me an alternative. I bought your two books because of your blog and I’m looking forward to practicing the techniques next year. Best, Khadija

  12. Ashlie says:

    “let them overwhelm you in your head, then put them off till moment when the fear of not finishing exceeds the fear of starting.”

    @Sameer you just basically punched me with that! Thank you! :D

    That’s basically how I finished high school 5th in my class. It worked well for a while and then I started to get worn out and I started to HATE school way more than I ever had!

  13. Louis says:

    Cal, man, I love you.

    Your blog is quite simply a step by step guide to success.

    I was looking for reasons why I wasn’t getting the marks that I thought I deserved since I was placing countless hours into drooling over my book.

    Good luck man; and thank you. Really, thank you so much for the blog. I think it’s the best thing I’ve come across on the interwebs since I discovered porn @ 12.

  14. Mitch says:

    This isn’t very relevant to the post. I’m a loyal rss feed follower of Study Hacks and I’m just wondering when Cal Newport’s next book will be published.

  15. Study Hacks says:

    1. I am unclear about one thing. I understand that you work 9-5:30 every day (probably 8 hours-correct?) but how many hours do you work on weekend or do you take a break on both Saturday and Sunday?

    I usually didn’t work on weekends. But there were exceptions. Like the few weeks leading up to my dissertation defense, and, back when I was taking classes, when I had Monday due dates or tests.

    2. Any tips for writing especially making it academic worthy?

    It’s a game of practice.

    3. Any tips for taking the candidacy exam?

    This differs too much between programs and schools for any one piece of advice to work.

  16. Study Hacks says:

    Hey.. great blog. Everything you say is completely true, from my experience in university thus far. I found myself in a lot of the unproductive habits you describe, but you have given me an alternative. I bought your two books because of your blog and I’m looking forward to practicing the techniques next year. Best, Khadija

    Thanks. I’m glad you found us here.

    This isn’t very relevant to the post. I’m a loyal rss feed follower of Study Hacks and I’m just wondering when Cal Newport’s next book will be published.

    July! I’m just finishing up the manuscript. I’ll have a lot more to say about it once the editing dies down and I enter the long phase between being done with the book and the book being published.

  17. Jon C says:

    I’m curious to know why people think dissertations have to be made hard. Is it the school, peers, social networks? I had the view that you learned and refined skills (as an undergrad) on how to write a paper and then apply it to a larger and longer paper that you feel is important. Why is sitting for about 11 horus a day, all week, for several months an option? Maybe I over simplfied it?

  18. Daisy says:

    I’m actually doing my thesis now, and reading your post made me see I’ve been adopting this strategy without realizing it. Like you’ve said, though it is a huge chunk of work, the result is way less stressful than I expected it to be.

    It’s also helped out by the fact that my thesis partner (our university makes us work in groups) has the same study habits as me. Not to mention the two of us are really interested in our topic.

    With my thesis, my partner and I started working on it everyday for a few hours (an hour or two) about two months before the proposal was due. We escalated the work to longer hours when the deadline was closer but it still wasn’t anywhere near as long as the others were doing. The others started working on it about three to four weeks before the proposal due date though.

    Results? We aced the proposal without feeling as stressed as the others seemed to be, and got the highest grade. :D There’s still a lot of work coming up but I think if we keep doing the whole focus-hard-in-reasonable-chunks-of-time thing, we won’t end up too scarred by the experience.

  19. wow says:

    I think we’ve all been psychologically messed up a tad to more than a tad by schooling.. so many people, myself included, procrastinate and have weird complexes about the simple act of getting down to work. There’s something wrong with our school system, because I’m pretty sure when we were kids it wasn’t that way.

  20. Mitch says:

    I agree with the effectiveness of hard-focus time. In your experience, is it best to have complete silence or is listening to music disruptive (subconsciously?)? Or is this something that varies from person to person?

  21. paurullan says:

    In the software engineering field the «work hard for a long period» is usually a consequence of what we call a Death March. Hint: they almost never end well.

  22. brainypirate says:

    I was fortunate in that by the time I was ABD, I already had written about half my dissertation in the form of final papers for my courses. (I’m in literature–maybe it’s easier to do this in my field.) All my professors were happy to let me work on a diss chapter that fit into their respective course topics.

    I tell all the grad students I meet to do this: start writing towards the diss from the first semester. It will be a lot easier to revise and polish those chapters in the final year than it will be to try writing them from scratch. Moreover, by the time you get to being ABD, you have an idea of how your chapters will look, so the new ones already have a template.

  23. Deepthi says:

    Hey! :) I was randomly surfing the net and I happened to stumble across your blog. Serendipity much? I’ve been reading your blog and I’m getting tons of these AHA! moments! So I went ahead and I purchased your book! Your blog is great! Can’t wait to get my hands on the book! Unfortunately since I live in India it’ll take quite some time though. :( Thank you so much for this wonderful wonderful blog!

  24. Jen says:

    This is excellent, and so true. I’m in the final days before submitting my dissertation. Apparently I’m supposed to be more stressed out than this- at least, that’s what I’m told. Yes, it’s many years of laboratory research condensed into one big document. In the past year I’ve written up and published one of my three projects in a journal and continued experiments on the other two. I completed an off-site internship in the meantime, which means that I will have an extra certificate with my PhD. A few months ago, I interviewed for and lined up a postdoc with two years of guaranteed funding. I’ve been wondering why I don’t feel more stressed out, and I think it’s because I’ve spread out the write-up. I have been compiling data and making final figures for the past year. I’ve had to present my work thrice since then and have received useful feedback each time. I’ve been taking the dissertation a piece at a time and making myself take breaks, leave work at work, and when I work from home, stop working after an 8 hour workday or so. It hasn’t been easy work, but it’s been deeply satisfying, and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to slow down and somewhat enjoy the process.

  25. Sri says:

    I’d REALLY recommend the book – The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz that looks into the new paradigm of working. Among the two most important things they say is that work should be like exercise — you seek stress for a while and when your energy runs low, you DE-stress and recover it back. And rituals. Rituals are habits that build on performance by properly balancing your energy assets. And the way they look at it is — Life is a long series of short sprints. You focus hard for a while and then when you rest, you rest completely for another day of focused work.

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