Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Lab Notes: I Spent 42 Hours Last Month on the Activity Most Critical to My Success

May 10th, 2011 · 33 comments

Lab notes is a regular feature in which I report on my efforts to make my life more remarkable.

A Minimalist Metric

The above image is of a sheet that hangs behind my desk at MIT. Please excuse the sloppy handwriting, it turns out to be difficult to write well on paper taped to a wall.

Starting in mid-March, I began to track the number of hours I spent thinking hard about computer science research problems. As you can see, in April I dedicated 42 hours to this task. In May, I’ve fallen behind, but am determined to catch up and ultimately beat April’s mark.

I love the simplicity of this minimalist metric. Those stupid little rows of hash marks prove surprisingly effective in focusing my attention back on what matters.

Yesterday, for example, this tally inspired me to first cut short my lunch and then relegate my weekly planning to my commute home. I love planning, and have been known to dedicate whole afternoons to the activity, but when I saw the paucity of research hours in May starting back at me, I cut and compressed and gained three ticks on the tally for my efforts.

The Core and the Periphery of Knowledge Work

This hack was motivated by my emerging understanding of knowledge work. We face two types of tasks in these jobs (my apologies to Wallerstein for bastardizing his terminology):

  • Core Tasks: The tasks that define how good you are at your job.
  • Periphery Tasks: The tasks you have to complete to keep your job, but that say nothing about your standing in your field.

Answering e-mail, for example, is almost always a periphery task, while working on something that a client paid you for is almost always a core task.

It has become increasingly clear to me that in most knowledge work, it’s those who go to battle, day after day, to defend their core tasks who end up somewhere remarkable. By contrast, it’s those who obsess over the periphery, and then get upset when no one cares, who end up tacking Dilbert strips to their cubicle wall.

Alan Lightman, Donald Knuth, Neal Stephensen, and Leo Babauta, for example, all gave up (public) e-mail. I realize now that what attracts me to their stories is that they’re examples of creatives who are willing to fight hard for their core.

This understanding of the core versus the periphery is what inspired me to track my hard research hours: this is the core task for my current job as a postdoc and my soon to start job as a professor. That sheet of tallies is not some master plan for success; it instead has a much humbler design: to give me that little boost I need each morning to suit up for yet another small skirmish in the larger battle for remarkability.

33 thoughts on “Lab Notes: I Spent 42 Hours Last Month on the Activity Most Critical to My Success

  1. Dominikus says:

    Congratulations for becoming a professor! Wish you the very best and lots of straight students ;-)

    Dominikus

  2. Study Hacks says:
    Wish you the very best and lots of straight students

    I’ll assume you mean “straight-A students” :)

  3. Humaira says:

    Cal, it’s ironic. I have your red book spread out in front of me as I revise for my Masters exams, and I sent a friend a link to three of your exam prep pages to help her as she was panicking, mainly cos I was panicking about exams myself!

    It’s been 3 years since I’ve sat an exam, so it’s a difficult to get back into the groove.

    Congrats on your Professorship! I’m sure you will inspire and help your students just as you’ve helped us all these years.

  4. Dominikus says:

    *l* Of course straight-A students!

  5. Michael says:

    I love the tally!

    Though the danger I see with it (at least for me) is in luring us to put faith in the mantra: “lots of hours = lots of results”.

    How about also having a tally for results? Since it is not always the case the more hours = more results.

  6. MB says:

    You and Leo B are two people I have and continue to learn a lot from. I read both your books and have gained a lot of practical tips from you both. Some of your ideas can be applied not just as a student but to anyone, IMO.

    Cal, I hope you continue to blog even as you move on from being a student. I found your blog when I was a part time student as I needed to learn about study tips but continue to enjoy your writing and ideas. I think are really talented and you have a lot of experience in what you write about.

  7. Sashwat says:

    Hey Cal, congrats on being a professor!

    I was also wondering about college admissions and had a question. What if someone like ” Steve”, the guy who was accepted to Columbia, was also a national level football player on top of his marketing for a NGO and his UN stuff? What would admission officers think of this student? Is this student too perfect?

  8. Jérémie says:

    Hi Cal,

    I love the minimalistic way of tracking your activity.
    It also reminds me of the productivity tips “Don’t break the chain” from Jerry Seinfield.

    I wish you the best for your teaching activity.

  9. Jonathan says:

    I can honestly say that I hardly ever come across writing this insightful. Excuse me if I quote you back at yourself:

    It has become increasingly clear to me that in most knowledge work, it’s those who go to battle, day after day, to defend their core tasks who end up somewhere remarkable. By contrast, it’s those who obsess over the periphery, and then get upset when no one cares, who end up tacking Dilbert strips to their cubicle wall.

    I’m constantly banging on about this to my partner when she interrupts me with menial tasks. I get seriously wound up when I’m not allowed to focus on my ‘core’. I know that it’s the only way we’ll produce anything remarkable.

    Thanks StudyHacks – this to me was like one of those little rays of beautiful clarity that penetrate straight into where it matters. I’m actually going to print it out and stick it up next to my desk!

  10. It occurs to me that a running similarity among world-class technology companies is the combination of a technologist (a wizard) and a trusted business person. Business people can build businesses of almost any kind… it’s what they do and they can make decent or even very fine companies. Technologists/wizards rarely if ever, can do that.

    It’s the combination of a technologist and supporting businessperson that sparks breakaway companies. The purpose of the business person is to protect the wizard. Every time the wizard is not thinking about what’s next, the company is losing money. So, Jonathan. If you’re being interrupted frequently, look at the roles in your company. Are you both technologists in need of a businessperson? Is your business person not quite focused on his/her role yet? It might help to set things in order.

  11. Therese says:

    Yes! Relentless focus on what matters, on the “core” of our work… this is what we need to prioritize. The truth is that you can “work” on the periphery all day and achieve nothing of value… or you can focus hard on your core and multiply your results and effectiveness. Maybe I should start a “tally system” of my own to look up at whenever I find myself spending too much time on the trivial and the unimportant.

    We’re all smart enough to know that this applies not only to doing remarkable work, but to building remarkable lives as well. Are you wasting your time on “the periphery” of Facebook and MTV and idle gossip, or are you spending your time on the “core” things that will allow you to live a meaningful and remarkable life? This is a question that I asked myself awhile back, and the results were worse than I imagined: WHY I ALMOST BARFED ON MY COMPUTER THIS FALL—and what this has to do with creating the life of your dreams (yes, really)

    Thanks Cal.

  12. Inspiring article. I’ll try apply this to my work.

  13. Brian says:

    Fantastic post. I’m surprised though that as a postdoc you’ve spent only 42 hours in the last month, or about 10 hrs a week on ‘critical tasks’. Are you counting only core ‘hard-focus’ hours, or are you spending a lot time on other things (and if so, what? book writing, blog writing, job interviews, etc?). Are these ‘churn rate’ hours? Thanks, Brian

  14. Ryan says:

    Congrats on your soon coming Professor-ship.

    I have nothing but pure faith that even more amazing things lie ahead in your future, your work has been inspiring me since the first time I picked up the red book and found this blog.

  15. Study Hacks says:

    A couple corollaries:

    * the May tally now has 5 new marks. April, I’m catching up on you…
    * someone just sent me a snapshot of a tally they used to ace a test with a 70% failure rate and earn a $18,000 raise for their efforts. Go tallies!

  16. Study Hacks says:
    I’m surprised though that as a postdoc you’ve spent only 42 hours in the last month, or about 10 hrs a week on ‘critical tasks’. Are you counting only core ‘hard-focus’ hours, or are you spending a lot time on other things (and if so, what? book writing, blog writing, job interviews, etc?)

    The only thing I count on that tally is hours spent thinking hard about a research problem that I’m trying to solve. So that captures the literal staring at the whiteboard phase of research.

    Everything else, from reviewing and reading papers to meetings to brainstorming, etc., is not counted.

  17. Adi says:

    I like the simplistic approach. I’m going to try that – thanks for the tip.
    You might like this paper: http://download.cell.com/molecular-cell/pdf/PIIS1097276510007835.pdf?intermediate=true
    Though it’s mostly directed towards Biomedical researchers, the ideas are generally applicable to academic researchers, and at a stretch to any knowledge workers.
    He’s at the top of his field, so he knows what he is talking about. It’s a fun read too.
    If you can;t access it I can send you the pdf.

  18. I am about to send a book to the printer that demanded exquisite attention to detail and required numerous rewrites. It might never have been completed without your inspiring drumming on hard focus over the past year. Thank you, Cal Newport.

  19. Neuroscientist says:

    What do you think are the core tasks for a junior grad student? I guess if I spend 10 hours a week staring at the wall thinking about my project it won’t be useful simply because I don’t have that much materials in my head to think about yet (I’m also a theoretician). I would count reading and learning as my core, but it’s not one of those tasks that “define how good you are at your job.” It may count if I consider myself a student, but not if I consider myself a scientist. I assume you count those time you spend programming & implementing the ideas, like experimenters would count their experiment time? Actually I’m very curious how much time I spend on each task, I have no clue!

    And, geez, I’m now not only a frequent reader, but a frequent commenter. Your blog is really special, Cal. Thanks for all your hard work.

  20. Neuroscientist says:

    One more thing have you ever considered setting up a social network for your readers? Or will you allow someone to set up a facebook fan page or something of that nature? I would love to have a way to connect with your readers to discuss your posts in depth with like-minded people. Also, since you are very busy and can’t address all of my questions, I guess the next best people to ask for advice are those who have applied your techniques and thought along your line. It will take some time to maintain such thing but the readers can help setting up and moderating the discussion. (I, for one, would do it for free). Just want to throw it out there.

  21. Theo says:

    Congrats, to-be professor!
    Just dropping by to say that you have inspired me to do better.

  22. Recently I have being trying out the Pomodoro Technique, which was developed by an Italian (Pomodoro is Italian for tomato). Anyway, the concept is simple: you set a timer (preferably in the shape of a tomato) for 25 minutes, during which time you work on something that matters. Then you take a 5 minute break. After about 4 of these you take a longer break. It is very simple really, but I found it surprisingly effective.

  23. Nathan says:

    Good luck as a professor, Cal!

    This is the best tip I’ve read in a while on the blog. Often times people may become too wrapped up in irrelevant tasks and lose focus for their most important priorities. This tracking system could work for pretty much anything and reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld’s X calendar.

  24. Aaron says:

    Been reading your articles for quite a while now, and this is by far one of the best suggestions I’ve seen. Easy to implement, and hopefully great results.

  25. Susan C. says:

    Good luck to you as a Professor! =)

    After reading and implementing the straight A method right at the beginning of my first semester back to school in years, I finished with a 4.0 and managed to handle two-full time course loads at two schools (community & university) with minimal stress and much success. I have even been offered a fantastic internship for the summer.

    Thank you for these methods and your excellent advice for students. Best of luck in the future!

  26. Lauren says:

    Congratulations on your new appointment. Like one of the other commenters above, I look forward to hearing about your experiences with this new role. I started reading your blog as a PhD student, and found many useful tips, but am struggling now I’m in a lecturing position – my research (a ‘core task’ if ever there was one in today’s higher education environment) keeps getting sidelined as I struggle to stay on top of class prep, admin etc.

  27. Ashish Jain says:

    This small habit should result in a big impact when its cumulative effect is considered over a decade or so.

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