You Can Be Busy or Remarkable — But Not BothApril 3rd, 2013 · 46 comments
The Remarkably Relaxed
Terence Tao is one of the world’s best mathematicians. He won a Fields Medal when he was 31. He is, we can agree, remarkable.
He is not, however, busy.
I should be careful about definitions. By “busy,” I mean a schedule packed with non-optional professional responsibilities.
My evidence that Tao is not overwhelmed by such obligations is the time he spends on non-obligatory, non-time sensitive hobbies. In particular, his blog.
Since the new year, he’s written nine long posts, full of mathematical equations and fun titles, like “Matrix identities as derivatives of determinant identities.” His most recent post is 3700 words long! And that’s a normal length.
As a professor who also blogs, I know that posts are something you do only when you have down time. I conjecture, therefore, that Tao’s large volume of posting implies he enjoys a large amount of down time in his professional life.
Here’s why you should care: Tao’s downtime is not an aberration — a quirk of a quirky prodigy — it is instead, I argue, essential to his success.
The Phases of Deep Work
Deep work is phasic.
Put another way, to ape Rushkoff, we’re not computer processors. We can’t be expected to accomplish any job any time we have the available cycles. There are rhythms to our psychology. Certain times of the day, week, month, and even year (e.g., the professor I discussed in my last post) are better suited for deep work than other times.
To respect this reality, you must leave sufficient time in your schedule to handle the intense bursts of such work when they occur. This requires that you constrain the other obligations in your life — perhaps by being reluctant to agree to things or start projects, or by ruthlessly batching and streamlining your regular obligations.
When it’s time to work deeply, this approach leaves you the schedule space necessary to immerse.
When you’ve shifted temporarily out of deep work mode, however, this approach leaves you with down time.
This is why people who do remarkable things can seem remarkably under-committed — it’s a side-effect of the scheduling philosophy necessary to accommodate depth.
Returning to Tao’s blog, the specific dates of his posts support my theory. As mentioned, he posted nine long posts since the New Year. On closer inspection, it turns out that most of the posts occurred in a single month: February.
We can imagine that this month was a down cycle between two periods of more intense thinking.
If my theory is true — and I don’t know that it is — its implication is striking: busyness stymies accomplishment.
If you’re looking for the next Tao, in other words, ignore the guy checking e-mail while running to his next meeting, and look instead towards the quiet fellow, staring off at the clouds, trying to figure out what to do with his afternoon.
(Photo by The Other Dan)