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How to Write Six Important Papers a Year without Breaking a Sweat: The Deep Immersion Approach to Deep Work

March 24th, 2013 · 50 comments

diligence

The Productive Professor

I’m fascinated by people who produce a large volume of valuable output. Motivated by this interest, I recently setup a conversation with a hot shot young professor who rose quickly in his field.

I asked him about his work habits.

Though his answer was detailed — he had obviously put great thought into these issues — there was one strategy that caught my attention: he confines his deep work to long, uninterrupted bursts.

On small time scales, this means each day is either completely dedicated to a single deep work task, or is left open to deal with all the  e-mail and meetings and revisions that also define academic life.

If he’s going to write a paper, for example, he puts aside two days, and does nothing else, emerging from his immersion with a completed first draft.

If he’s going to instead deal with requests and logistics, he’ll spend the whole day doing so.

On longer time scales, his schedule echoes this immersion strategy. He teaches all three of his courses during the fall. He can, therefore, dedicate the entire semester to two main goals: teaching his courses and conceiving/discussing potential research ideas (the teaching often stimulates new ideas as it forces him to review the key ideas and techniques in his field).

Then, in the spring and summer that follow, he attacks his new research projects with the burst strategy mentioned above, turning out 1 – 2 papers every 2 months. (He aims for — and achieves — around 6 major papers a year.)

Notice, this immersion approach to deep work is different than the more common approach of  integrating a couple hours of deep work into most days of your schedule, which we can call the chain approach, in honor of Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” advice (which I have previously cast some doubt on in the context of writing).

There are two reasons why deep immersion might work better than chaining:

  1. It reduces overhead. When you put aside only a couple hours to go deep on a problem, you lose a fair fraction of this time to remembering where you left off and getting your mind ready to concentrate. It’s also easy, when the required time is short, to fall into the least minimal progress trap, where you do just enough thinking that you can avoid breaking your deep work chain, but end up making little real progress. When you focus on a specific deep work goal for 10 – 15 hours, on the other hand, you pay the overhead cost just once, and it’s impossible to get away with minimal progress. In other words, two days immersed in deep work might produce more results than two months of scheduling an hour a day for such efforts.
  2. It better matches our rhythms. There’s an increasing understanding that the human body works in cycles. Some parts of the week/month/year are better for certain types of work than others. This professor’s approach of spending the fall thinking and discussing ideas, and then the spring and summer actually executing, probably yields better results than trying to mix everything together throughout the whole year. During the fall, he rests the part of his mind required to tease out and write up results. During the spring and summer he rests the part of his mind responsible for having original thoughts and making new connections. (See Douglas Rushkoff’s recent writing for more on these ideas).

I’m intrigued by the deep immersion approach to deep work mainly because I don’t usually apply it, but tend to generate more results when I do. I’m also intrigued by its ancillary consequences. If immersion is optimal for deep work, for example, do weekly research meetings make sense? When you check in weekly on a long term project, it’s easy to fall into a minimal progress trap and watch whole semesters pass with little results. What if, instead, weekly meetings were replaced with occasionally taking a couple days to do nothing but try to make real progress on the problem? Even doing this just a few times a semester might produce better results than checking in every week.

I don’t know the answers here, but the implications are interesting enough to keep the immersion strategy on my productivity radar.

(Photo by moriza)

50 thoughts on “How to Write Six Important Papers a Year without Breaking a Sweat: The Deep Immersion Approach to Deep Work

  1. Deep Immersion seems to be the same strategy that Nassim Taleb takes when he writes and does projects. It’s also similar to one interpretation of Tim Ferriss’s four hour work week. Work with no distractions for 4 hours per week in a batch while the rest of the time is spent on “fun”, less intense activities.

    Taleb specifically compares it to his “barbell” approach to investing. Long periods of rest with short, immersive bursts of work are like having a large fund of safe cash-like investments and venture capital.

    It also has some similarity to the Critical Chain project management system. If you’re in the critical chain, all you work on is your critical chain task, everyone else on the team focuses on eliminating distractions.

  2. M says:

    How do you build up a tolerance for doing deep work that long?

  3. Want says:

    I agree with the near direct relationship between focus and progress.

    But I wonder how much of the information is retained over long periods of time with a “deep immersion.” At what point is the information forgotten? Does that matter or is the goal merely getting something out the door?

    This reminds of the role of spaced repetition. See, Wired – “Want to Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm” http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/magazine/16-05/ff_wozniak?currentPage=all

    I tend to lean more toward the spaced repetition because you force your mind to not forget. Whereas, deep immersion invites forgetting the information; though that might not actually happen.

    Does the sample researcher remember the intricate details of the 6 papers that he writes? Does that matter if doesn’t?

    The complaints of the “chain approach” relate more to quality of focus. If someone could devote quality of focus to a consistent habit over time, that seems ideal. The difficulty, though, to do so is where the chain approach falls short.

    As an aside, this website’s preference for Gladwell-isms (eg., “deep immersion,” “deep work,” “deep thought,” “chain approach,” etc.) gets tiresome. I understand the need to pander to editors/publishers, but this reader wishes the dial to be turned down.

  4. Mariya says:

    It’s interesting that you mention the deep immersion technique. I do more or less the same thing, though as an undergrad before big exams (in fact, I just came from a deep immersion session for accounting). Instead of doing an hour here and an hour there, I just have a full on accounting day or math day or whatever. It really works!

  5. El Nicho says:

    The plural of anecdote is not data. I assure you are familiar with Boice’s work on this and the data which shows the opposite about regular habits versus binge writing. It might work for some people, but won’t for most. AND, we don’t have a controlled test; how much could your professor write if they followed a regular pattern?

    Mariya, see anything on distributed learning, preferably in Google scholar. One of the strongest effects in education is the improvement due to spaced learning rather than blocking for real learning.

  6. medi says:

    Hmm I’m kinda missing a line of logic between what you mention here as working 10-15 hours at once versus what I’ve been reading from your previous work, the book “Talent is Overrated,” and Professor Anders Ericsson about an optimal daily amount of deliberate practice. What I gathered from the works I mentioned was that working more than 5-6 hours a day, in 45 to 90 minute sessions, would be fruitless due to the strain that deliberate practice has on us.

    What I do conclude from this post is that it is more beneficial to work 5-6 hour straight in 45-90 minute chunks on a particular topic or task, rather than spend 1 hour a day on it. This way, we’d keep a longer continuity of our thoughts to avoid wasting some time recollecting our past efforts on the topic, and also we wouldn’t fry out by sticking on a project for an extended amount of time (10-15 hours). Any thoughts?

  7. Meiko says:

    I totally prefer working this way too. Ideally, I’d like to spend at least one week working hard on something before switching topics, although this hardly ever happens. I find that holding up the focus for six or seven hours a day is not a problem if I’ve simplified the to-do list to one item; on the contrary, having to break my concentration to do extraneous things becomes very annoying and ruins my ability to work. It is literally like having to come up to the surface when you’re diving deep.
    What I find really hard is telling other people who are waiting for my input that I won’t be available for one week.

  8. Rohan says:

    Hmmm.. the insight here may be that we have two kinds of activities – ones that benefit from the ‘drip’ and ones that benefit from ‘bursts’

  9. lol… for spring break I spent the first few days doing chores, and plan to spend the last few days doing math. I just have so many chores to do, and I just find it too difficult to keep switching between doing chores and doing math.

    The advantage of separating math is that I can spend my free time thinking about math, and basically just immerse myself fully into the math.

  10. Andrew says:

    Hi Cal,

    Long-time reader, first-time responder. I appreciate your thoughts on this, as I’ve found that I’ve fallen into a deep immersion-type schedule recently. It first started a couple of months ago when I was trying to write the first draft of my master’s thesis. I needed a place to study because the regular library I wanted to go to wasn’t open, so I happened upon another library where I couldn’t get on the Internet. And so deep immersion happened, and I was super-productive, averaging ~7 pages of writing per day for 3+ weeks.

    Now, as I’m working on other academic papers for presentation and publication, I find I really prefer the deep immersion schedule. On the days when I need to be on campus, I tend to run errands and plow through my e-mail or do other logistical tasks. But when I want to write, I run away to the aformentioned library and crank out lots of research and/or writing without the distraction of all the little logistical tasks that need to be done.

    One point about a deep immersion strategy I find helpful for me is that of environment and context. Since I use different locations for doing different kinds of work, a deep immersion strategy makes my days logistically simpler.

    I’m thinking about using the same deep immersion strategy for studying for my comprehensive exams, so I’ll be interested to see if I retain the info as well as with a chaining strategy, something Want commented on above.

  11. I am also a big fan of the burst method of working. Since the first step, getting started, is always the hardest part, I find that jumping in with both feet works best. I really get dedicated to my work and the output is of surprising quality to me.

  12. Terje says:

    It depends how long it takes to get immersed. E.g., deliberate practice does not need that long because the task is repetitive and familiar. However, working on my thesis I have found that 1.5-2 hour periods is too short for writing that requires a lot of thinking. It takes that time just to warm up.

  13. CJPoll says:

    Some other commenters have expressed concerns about retention. We do retain information better with repetitive recall – but that’s not the point of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is there to discover new ideas & expand personal capability.

    I’ve found that supplementing my DP with less-intensive recall exercises maximizes retention and understanding. By having a clear separation between the two, I’m able to stay focused on the deep work, while still retaining the vast swathes of knowledge gained during that time.

  14. Avi says:

    I read that Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey has similar style too: Here is the key point from the article:

    – Monday, he says, is for addressing management issues;

    – Tuesday he focuses on product engineering and design;

    – Wednesday Dorsey zeros in on marketing and communications, and growth;

    – Thursday he holds meetings with outside partners and developers;

    – Friday is about “company and culture” and recruiting;

    – Saturday he takes off; in particular he likes to hike;

    – Sunday Dorsey thinks about strategy and conducts job interviews.

  15. Study Hacks says:
    It also has some similarity to the Critical Chain project management system

    I hadn’t heard of critical chain management before. Sounds interesting…

    How do you build up a tolerance for doing deep work that long?

    A combination of practice, rules (no internet/phone, no exception), and belief that what you’re working on is important to complete.

    mm I’m kinda missing a line of logic between what you mention here as working 10-15 hours at once versus what I’ve been reading from your previous work, the book “Talent is Overrated,” and Professor Anders Ericsson about an optimal daily amount of deliberate practice.

    I’m wondering about this same thing. If I had to guess, the immersion work done by this professor is not all deliberate practice. That is, some is stretching, and some is just applying skill he already has. (I’m thinking, for example, of writing a good related work section of an academic paper. This is a pain — but it’s also something that we get good at and is not stretching us in a way that learning a new technique might.)

    needed a place to study because the regular library I wanted to go to wasn’t open, so I happened upon another library where I couldn’t get on the Internet.

    I love it. I write about my fondness for finding out of the way libraries in STRAIGHT-A. At Dartmouth, it was the stacks of the Dana biomedical library. At MIT: the music library and the basement of the engineering library. Etc.

    I read that Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey has similar style too: Here is the key point from the article:

    Interesting. Though the rigidity of that schedule would concern me. I guess at his level, he can control that time pretty closely…

  16. Matt says:

    This deep immersion technique reminds me of a management style I’ve been trying to apply to my life lately: Peter Thiel’s Extreme Focus technique. While at PayPal, Thiel required employees to have a single goal toward which they directed all their energy. His philosophy was that, in a world with many priorities, the secondary priorities are more likely to be tackled because they are easier to complete. The primary priority is often the most difficult, but also the most valuable.

  17. Harsh says:

    It is definitely worth testing the idea. I’ve been using the chain approach in the recent past.

  18. The strategy you mention is interesting, especially if you have the flexibility to carve out your time like that. But one thing you neglected to mention is this person’s interaction with students and collaborators. How many graduate students do they have? How often do they have office hours/do they have an open-door policy? Do they regularly advise (or at least talk to) undergraduates? How is this person regarded as a teacher? Three classes seem very hard to manage, especially if they are at a larger university. Similar questions apply to collaborators. Is this person a broad collaborator on multiple topics, or do they have more of a lone-wolf approach on a few particular topics? It would be interesting to have a more broader view of this person’s activities than just research output.

  19. Keegan says:

    I really like the deep immersion technique and the idea of having one day devoted to certain activities. I really hate the idea of “multitasking” and constantly shifting from task to task during a day. I think I might try something like Dorsey of Twitter does and focus on one thing for a particular day.

  20. Euripides says:

    I realize I have followed this approach right before the deadline to submit a paper for a conference or a commissioned study. The week before and days before, that’s pretty much all I do.
    It may be a bit harder with some papers. For instance, I have to wait for my RA to get some data series which I realize I need in the middle of working on the project.
    Nonetheless, I’ll give it a shot next time I can line up the time and the proper project. Thanks!

  21. Carey says:

    I entirely agree with the concepts behind this post. I often find that when I’m able to devote long stretches of time (1 or 2 days straight) to a particular project, my output level is highly increased. When I try to do otherwise, my output level suffers drastically. Getting the mindset in place and blocking out those chunks of time is the hardest part for me.

  22. The article resonated with me. Looking back it appears as though I did my best work during times of “deep immersion”. It’s a challenge to work that way now. However, I’m going to definitely explore this concept.

    Thanks for introducing me to Douglas Rushkoff. I was a fan of his and didn’t even know it.

  23. Sam says:

    As a thought experiment: say a paper is 20 pages and he works 10 hours per day. That means his text output is one page per hour. For “easy” sections such as related work and defining your model that seems reasonable if you’ve already read all the related work and have a good grasp of the details of that work. Producing a page of text every hour for the hard technical parts of a paper seems like stretching it–I typeset finished proof sketches and equations from paper at roughly that pace on a good day. Even if his papers are half the size, 10 pages, that still means he needs to have a complete story with nearly all the details thought out beforehand and his paper writing is merely an act of hammering on the keyboard until the information is transferred from his mind to the paper.

    While writing a complete draft in two days is an impressive feat in itself I’m much more curious about the preparation for accomplishing that. Established researchers usually have a pipeline of half-baked results in the back of their heads, and that certainly helps the output. Has the professor learned a set of incredibly general proof techniques and apply those techniques to a single problem for each paper, where each problem requires a new twist to the technique?

  24. Jim Stone says:

    Cal, I love that you’re exploring different working rhythms. But I think I’m in the other camp on this one.

    I love doing about 2-3 hours/day of deep immersion work every day (either writing or coding), and one of the reasons is because that’s about all I can do in a day before my energy flags and my ability to focus deteriorates.

    I don’t know if I suffer from limited neuro-transmitter reserves that take time to replenish, or if I’m so caffeine-dependent that I have to pair deep focus work with coffee consumption, or if it’s the fact that I’m 44 and not 24.

    But I seem to do much better on a 3-hours in the morning of deep work and 3 hours in the afternoon of doing less intense work (like answering email, researching, and things like that).

    As for switching costs, . . . I don’t feel like it takes me an excessive amount of time to remember what I was doing each day. I’ve got a good planning tool, and can see the big picture very quickly and get right to it most days.

  25. Dan Skarda says:

    Cal, thanks for valuable observations and insights.

    Your posts about deep work remind me of a talk by Rich Hickey called “Hammock Driven Development”. In his talk he makes a case for deep work in a context of software design and development.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f84n5oFoZBc

  26. As someone who has seen a lot of different people work in a lot of different ways, I know that the approach can work for some. However, here are some of the downfalls:

    -Most people can’t have this much autonomy over their schedules. If they think they can only work in this way, they’ll not take advantage of the small blocks of time they do have. This can lead to long-term procrastination, guilt, and missed deadlines.

    -As you’ve talked about in previous blogs, many people can only do 3-4 hours of deep work a day. Their brains just get tired. So while for some, an all-day or all-week focus is best, for others, it’s not as effective or even possible.

    -Again going back to personality and focus, some people thrive on pressure whereas others thrive on exploration. For those who thrive in a state of exploration, having all-day stints is freeing and allows them to be most productive. For those who thrive under pressure, having a whole day to work on something leads to them not beginning to start until 5 p.m.

    So in short, I think what you’re suggesting definitely works best for some, but it’s not a one-size-fits all solution for people with different personalities and/or work environments.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  27. Azmir Ismail says:

    This article is rather timely as I have been wondering about whether it is chain or burst that works for me. I noticed that I like to plan in chains but my output is more productive when I work in bursts in almost anything I do. I guess in the end, you can mix and match it and hope it fits you. Again, the output is the final measurement.

  28. David says:

    Great contribution. When I was in accademic live I used this technique (without noticing it), but when I started working I was forced to change my habbits. Now I see my productivity substancially reduced and I didn’t know why, but this discussion remembered me of the basics. I gess that now I just have to find a way to apply this in an environmente where I am bombarded with meetings and several projects at the time

  29. David says:

    Great contribution. When I was in accademic live I used this technique (without noticing it), but when I started working I was forced to change my habbits. Now I see my productivity substancially reduced and I didn’t know why, but this discussion remembered me of the basics. I gess that now I just have to find a way to apply this in an environmente where I am bombarded with meetings and several projects at the time

  30. Reshmi says:

    Hi Cal,

    It will be very interesting to know about your thoughts on this.

    (Adam Grant – Wharton Professor NYTimes – Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?)

    Reshmi

  31. Jakub says:

    Obviously this is a bit of “each to their own”, and not something that can work for everybody. Personally, that’s how I worked back in college, usually just sitting down and plowing through half the essay in a single sitting. I never understood people who could spread writing a paper over multiple days or sessions, I always thought it would just take longer with the extra overhead.

    At the same time, there IS VALUE in “taking a break” from writing, letting your mind forget a few things, and going back to it later. Gives you a fresh look at your work.

  32. Pingback: Time Overhead
  33. Kianna says:

    Sorry for clogging up your comments with my rambling post, but any advice from anyone would be greatly appreciated.

    Cal,

    I would like to thank you on your wonderful job with Study Hacks and your novels. I’ve been a fan of yours since 8th grade, a mere four years ago. Your philosophy did not change my high school career, but shaped it. I’ve kept a relaxed superstar attitude, became the best at Japanese and tennis at my high school, and am now ready to prepare for the next stage of my life: college.

    I have been accepted to many wonderful universities across America, thinking that I would major in East Asian Studies. However, within the past several months, I have become very interested in screenwriting, taking up a class in it and writing scripts. Thanks to your novel, Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You, I know what I need to do in order to become an unforgettable screenwriter. Here is where I would like to ask for advice from you.

    Should I change from an East Asian Studies major to Screenwriting/Filmmaking, so I can ignore unrelated pursuits and focus diligently on screenwriting? Or should I pursue an East Asian Studies major and add Screenwriting as a minor/double major (although double majors don’t publish novels)? My parents prefer the latter, as it provides a back-up option to a screenwriting career they are not very fond of.

    Thank you once again and I look forward to your response.

  34. Eder Santana says:

    A kind of mindfulness isn’t it. When you teach, teach. When you write papers, write papaers. So to the guy who asked how to develop endurance and focus for such deep immersion I would also recommend following his own breath.
    http://zenhabits.net/fundameditate/
    http://archive.org/details/TheMiracleOfMindfulnessAnIntroductionToThePracticeOfMeditation

  35. Rita says:

    When I write a little every day it takes me months to finish a paper. It’s harder to focus and I’m more vulnerable to distractions.
    A few months ago I tried the deep immersion strategy. I spent 2 weeks working on a paper and nothing else. I did all the data analysis and writing in those 2 weeks. So, deep immersion clearly worked for me!

  36. Mark Strasell says:

    Cal, this is a very interesting post. Writing papers is creativity/innovation which isn’t strictly defined work. What if you can’t find an attack to the problem? Wouldn’t the method you would use depend on the type of problem you are attempting to solve? If you have most of the pieces and just need to put it together, it would require a different approach than having a problem without a way to move forward? People who advise on creativity/innovation say the opposite, keep you activities broad and let your problem stew in the back of your mind until the moment the solution pops out in front of you and then drop everything and work straight through until the problem is solved.

  37. Hein Hundal says:

    I am really enjoying your blog and this discussion.

    I really enjoy deep immersion when it happens, but it does not happen that often. It tends to happen when I am doing something math or compsci related that I really enjoy in a low distraction environment.

  38. The human body works more in cycles than the conscious mind can be aware of. The earth and the whole universe works in a cycle. I know even my love life works in a cycle. Deep work is not easy, it’s very difficult to achieve, but way worth it.

  39. The Onion is challenging, as usual. You may enjoy David Ferguson, “Find the Thing You’re Most Passionate About, and Then Do it Nights and Week-ends for the Rest of Your Life.” http://www.theonion.com/articles/find-the-thing-youre-most-passionate-about-then-do,31742/?ref=auto

  40. Critical chain comes from Eli Goldratt. In a nutshell, you have a project with a set of staff and resources, find the longest path through the project with the limited resources and subordinate everything to it. All estimates are supposed to be 50% likelihood guesses and you put a big chunk of safety buffer at the end. By measuring the amount of buffer consumed versus initial estimates you can get a sense of how the project is going.

    It’s a lot more humane and effective than traditional critical chain and resource leveling systems.

  41. Preston says:

    Just asking, what are the other strategies that he suggested? I would love to know what kind of approach has worked for him and get some general advice on the topic.

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