April 8th, 2014 · 53 comments
The Straight-A Method
In the early 2000′s, I was obsessed with study habits. The obsession began with my interest in performing well at Dartmouth, then eventually evolved into a (surprisingly popular) book.
Something I uncovered during this period is that high performing undergraduates, as a general rule, seem to internalize the following formula:
Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity
This formula helps explain why some students can spend all night in the library and still struggle, while others never seem to crack a book but continually bust the curve. The time you spend “studying” is meaningless outside of the context of intensity. A small number of highly intense hours, for example, can potentially produce more results than a night of low-intensity highlighting.
(This is how I avoided all-nighters, for example, during my three year stretch of 4.0′s as an undergraduate.)
From Campus to Corporation
I’m mentioning this phenomenon because of the following observation:
The above formula applies to most cognitively demanding tasks.
In other words, intensity affects the productivity of a knowledge worker as much as it helps the GPA of a college student.
Read more »
March 31st, 2014 · 14 comments
In Search of Productive Simplicity
Last week, I described a kink in my project productivity systems. I was oscillating, somewhat haphazardly, between two different strategies, tracking hours (e.g., when the work is open-ended), and pursuing milestones (when the work is known and I need to hustle).
This felt too complicated, so I asked for your thoughts and you responded with over thirty suggestions.
A lot of your advice seemed to fall into the category of “different work requires different tools, switch as needed.”
This is probably good counsel.
But it still nagged at my preference for simplicity in such matters (which, as a theoretical computer scientist, I of course measure in terms of Kolmogorov complexity).
Read more »
March 23rd, 2014 · 38 comments
Some of you have been requesting to hear more about my own struggles to live deeply in a distracted world. In this spirit, I want discuss strategies for completing important but non-urgent projects. In my experience, there are two useful things to track with respect to this type of work:
- Specific milestones: for example, the number of book chapters completed or mathematical results proved.
- Hours spent working deeply toward milestones: for example, you can keep a tally of the hours spent writing or working without distraction on an important proof.
In my own work life, I find myself oscillating between these two types of metrics somewhat erratically, and I’m not sure why.
Read more »
March 17th, 2014 · 27 comments
The Amazing Roto-Mill
I’ve been toying with a (potentially) interesting thought experiment recently. Imagine you walk into a hardware store and a helpful clerk comes up to you holding a weird looking tool.
“Here’s our latest and greatest lawn care tool,” he explains. “It’s called a roto-mill. It has a reinforced auger head that spins at 1600 RPM.”
“Why do I need a roto-mill?”, you ask.
“I don’t know,” he replies. “I want you to buy it, take it home, dedicate a few hours every weekend to trying it out in your yard, seeing if you can find a use for it. Who knows, you might even find it fun.”
“But I have other things to do on the weekends,” you protest, “things I know are useful and things I know are fun.”
“If you don’t dedicate your time and attention to working with this roto-mill,” the clerk warns, “you might miss out on some benefit that we’re not thinking of now. I don’t see how you could afford such a risk in today’s age of modern yard tools.”
A (Contrived) Analogy
This dialogue, of course, is contrived, but you’d likely agree that if you were that customer, you’d walk out of the store, perhaps worried that the clerk was mentally disturbed.
What intrigues me, however, is that this is essentially the same conversation many have with high tech companies when they release their latest, greatest social media tools. If we replace the word “roto-mill” with “snapchat,” for example, the above suddenly seems more familiar and somehow less absurd.
I’m the first to admit that this thought experiment is not perfect: there’s money involved in buying a yard tool, but not so directly involved in trying an online tool; entertainment is perhaps not being valued fairly; etc.
But still, an interesting Monday afternoon thought…
(Image by Lance Fisher)
March 2nd, 2014 · 39 comments
The Double Degree
A reader recently pointed me to the following question, posted on Stack Exchange:
I am studying a combined bachelor of engineering (electrical) and bachelor of mathematics; I just started this year and will graduate in 2018. The reason why I am doing double degrees and not a single degree is because I love both electrical engineering and mathematics and I could not ignore any of them. So with this in mind, I am thinking of doing two PHDs when I graduate (one in electrical engineering and one in mathematics). Is this a good path or I should concentrate on only one of them?
The responses in the comment thread for this question are fantastic, but in this post I want to add an additional thought to the conversation.
Read more »
February 26th, 2014 · 24 comments
The Evolution of Louis C.K.
I sometimes listen to a stand-up comedy channel on Pandora. Driving home the other day, it served up an old clip of Louis C.K.
Here’s what surprised me: he wasn’t that good.
His material wasn’t original (one of his gags was about wearing adult diapers) and his pacing was rat-a-tat-tat night club style.
Louis C.K. today, of course, is an exceptional comedian — arguably the best stand-up in the business at the moment.
I bring this up, because American culture (similar to ancient Greek culture) likes to attribute significant accomplishment to outside sources. Whereas the Greeks attributed moments of great heroism or creativity to the presence of the relevant God, Americans love stories of prodigies imbued at birth with stunning talent, or people driven with clarity to their destiny by an unmistakable passion.*
These stories are compelling, but I’m more drawn to narratives like Louis C.K. — narratives of people who polish their craft deliberately, night after night in crappy clubs and hothouse writer rooms (C.K. honed his asburdism writing for Conan O’Brien), then, one day, look up and are surprised to realize that they’ve become a star.
* Please don’t, at this point, tell me that Louis C.K. persisted only because he had a clear passion for comedy. This necessity-of-pre-existing-passion fairy tale is common but I think just as absurd as depending on a Greek God to guide you. Work and life is complicated. Comedians like C.K. suffer from extensive insecurity and doubt. They don’t wait to feel like they are doing the right thing, they work hard to make it the right thing.
February 23rd, 2014 · 26 comments
The Gatekeeper Complex
I recently stumbled across an interesting podcast about fiction self-publishing, titled, appropriately enough, the Self-Publishing Podcast. The show is hosted by three fiction writers who are experimenting with a new model for genre fiction production, based on book series fueled by funnels (think: first volume free).
Something that caught my attention about this show is the tagline read by the host at the beginning of every episode:
The podcast that’s all about getting your words out into the world without contending with agents, publishers, or the other gatekeepers in traditional publishing.
I’m highlighting this statement because I think it captures a sentiment common in the DIY/Lifehacker world: gatekeepers (book editors, admissions officers, venture capitalists, prestigious academic journals, etc.) are obstructing your quest to do interesting and valuable things.
I understand this sentiment: this is a heady time when lots of innovation is happening in lots of fields.
Read more »
February 14th, 2014 · 18 comments
The Deliberate Strummer
The first step in learning guitar is mastering the major chords. As any new player will tell you, it’s not difficult to learn where your fingers are supposed to go for each chord, the real challenge is training your finger muscles to actually hit the desired positions cleanly.
Of all the major chords, this challenge is most pronounced for the F (pictured above), which not only keeps your fingers devilishly close together on the fretboard, but also requires you to contort your index finger to somehow flatten two strings at once.
There’s no shortcut to learning how to play an F: you have to force your hand into the cramped position, again and again, picking up the speed as soon as you become too comfortable.
Each of these attempts (literally) strains you. This is not Guitar Hero: it’s uncomfortable and not at all fun.
But if you stick with it, your muscle memory improves, and you get faster and cleaner. Then, one day, you’re able to play House of the Rising Sun.
I’m bringing this up because learning to play the F chord provides a perfect case study of deliberate practice. It’s a clear goal that requires you to stretch your current ability and provides immediate and clear feedback on your progress. It’s also a goal that provides tangible rewards if achieved.
Accordingly, it provides a nice analogy when assessing your own work habits. When surveying how you spend your time, it helps, in other words, to ask “where’s my F chord?”
To ask this question is to ask where in your schedule is the time dedicated to straining yourself (uncomfortably) to master something that you can’t do now but would be valuable if you could.
This type of deliberate effort is a pain. It’s why most people give up learning to play the guitar (and why my skill level plateaued pretty quickly when I was younger*).
It’s also why so many knowledge workers end up glorified e-mail sorters, nervous at every round of layoffs.
But here’s the thing (if you’ll excuse the abuse of this analogy): if you’re not willing to strain your fingers, you’ll never end up the professional equivalent of the cool guy, surrounded by girls, strumming soulfully to House of the Rising Sun.
* See Part 2 of SO GOOD for more on my guitar playing career and its relevance to understanding deliberate practice.