Study Hacks Blog
Posts on Patterns of Success for the Working World
September 5th, 2014 · 15 comments
Words of Wisdom
A reader recently pointed my attention to the following quote from the composer and artist John Cage:
“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
She thought I would like it and she was right. Cage captures something fundamental about deep work on important things: there’s a stage — sometimes a long stage — that’s tedious.
The good news, of course, is that over time, tedium gives way to glimpses of potential that then grow into something downright eudaimonic.
Once you recognize this reality, your potential to do things that matter is unleashed.
August 29th, 2014 · 26 comments
I track my deep work hours using a weekly tally, so I have a good sense of how my commitment to depth varies over time. A trend I’ve noticed is that my deep work rate hits a low point around this time of year.
The obvious explanation is that the start of the fall semester adds extra time constraints. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. My deep work tends to increase as the fall continues, even though my teaching commitments also increase during this period (i.e., once there are problem sets and exams to grade).
In thinking about this mystery I’ve begun to better understand a crucial but often ignored aspect of working deeply on important things: the necessity of clarity.
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August 24th, 2014 · 39 comments
The Insult of Simplicity
There are many reasons why I don’t like the advice to “follow your passion.”
One reason I haven’t mentioned much recently is that I find its premise insultingly simplistic.
It would be nice if we were all born with a clear preexisting passion.
It would also be nice if simply matching your job to a topic you liked was all it took to generate a meaningful career.
But reality is more nuanced (as we should expect, given the rareness and desirability of the goal being pursued here).
In an effort to be more positive than negative, however, I thought it might be useful to provide a brief case study that sketches a more realistic image of how people end up with work that matters.
This case study comes from a reader whom I’ll call Peter…
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August 19th, 2014 · 40 comments
A Weekly Plan Case Study
Last week I wrote a post about my habit of planning out my whole week in advance. I provided some example plans from my own life, but many of you were interested in how this technique applies to other types of work.
Fortunately, I recently received the following note from a lawyer whom I’ll call John:
I tried writing out my week last week for the first time using [a method from your blog post]. When I reviewed my week on Friday afternoon, I was surprised at how much more I accomplished compared to my usual method of scheduling time to complete tasks in Outlook. Thanks for sharing this method.
Naturally, I asked John if he’d allow me to share his plan with you. He agreed. Here it is (properly anonymized, of course):
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August 15th, 2014 · 25 comments
Earlier today, I was browsing Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog and stumbled across a letter that Albert Einstein wrote to his son Hans Albert in the fall of 1915.
This date, of course, is important in the lifetime of Albert Einstein, as this was right after he finished writing one of the masterpieces of modern science: his general theory of relativity.
(To paraphrase my astronomy teacher at Dartmouth: “most scientific breakthroughs are expected, many different people are closing in on the same idea, but general relativity, this came out of nowhere, it was magic.”)
One quote, in particular, caught my attention:
“What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys. These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.” [emphasis mine]
Einstein’s reference to “a lot of strenuous work” emphasizes an important reality: accomplishing important things is really, really hard. (He’s guilty of understatement here. The strain of proving the theory turned his hair white and nearly shattered his family and his health.)
It’s easy to play lip service to this idea, and many of us do, but what frustrates me is that there’s so little in the advice literature that directly addresses the nuances of this requirement.
It’s not obvious how to prepare yourself for really hard things. What should you expect? What changes are necessary to the way you approach your life and work? How do you know when to persist? (I mention these questions not because I have great answers, but because I want better ones.)
Seth Godin’s book, The Dip, is an important initial meditation on this subject, and one I found immensely useful, but I’m not aware of many other books that tackle this topic. This is a shame given its importance to the goal of making a mark.
August 8th, 2014 · 69 comments
A Planning Habit
On Monday mornings I plan the upcoming work week. I capture this plan in an e-mail and send it to myself so that I will be sure to see it and have access to it daily. (See the snapshot above of some recent plans in my inbox.)
This planning can take a long time; almost always longer than an hour. But the return on investment is phenomenal. To visualize your whole week at once allows you to spread out, batch, and prioritize work in a manner that significantly increases what you accomplish and goes a long way toward eliminating work pile-ups and late nights (the latter being crucial if you practice fixed-schedule productivity).
There is no best format for creating a weekly plan. In fact, I’ve found it’s crucial to embrace flexibility. The style or format of your plan should match the challenges of the specific week ahead. (Indeed, attempting to force some format to your plan can reduce the probability you maintain the habit.)
To illustrate this point, I will show you two recent weekly plans I used (with the content scrubbed where needed for privacy reasons).
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August 4th, 2014 · 32 comments
A Reality Check from Mike Rowe
Mike Rowe and I agree that “follow your passion,” as a piece of advice, tends to make people more unhappy about their working life.
A reader named Steve recently pointed me toward a hilarious and yet profoundly relevant example of Rowe articulating this position.
Allow me to set the scene…
Rowe receives a piece of fan mail that opens as follows: “I’ve spent this last year trying to figure out the right career for myself and I still can’t figure out what to do.”
Rowe then responds. In his response, he explains, without apology, exactly why this complaint is dumb.
I won’t spoil the whole thing (you can read the original letter and Rowe’s full reply here), but I do want to point your attention to my favorite paragraph:
Stop looking for the “right” career, and start looking for a job. Any job. Forget about what you like. Focus on what’s available. Get yourself hired. Show up early. Stay late. Volunteer for the scut work. Become indispensable. You can always quit later, and be no worse off than you are today. But don’t waste another year looking for a career that doesn’t exist. And most of all, stop worrying about your happiness. Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value, and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.
In my opinion, you could substitute the above suggestions for just about any commencement address that was given this past spring, and the students would have ended up much better prepared for the real world.
Well said, Mike.
July 31st, 2014 · 34 comments
An Effectual Understanding of Impact
I’ve long been interested in the idea of the impact instinct: the ability for a trained professional to continuously generate big wins at a rate much higher than his or her equally well-trained peers (see here and here and here).
What explains this impact instinct?
A reader named Jason recently pointed me toward some interesting research relevant to this question. The topic is effectuation, a theory of entrepreneurial success devised by Saras Sarasvathy (see above), a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
The origin of effectuation is a study Sarasvathy conducted in 1997. She traveled the country to interview 30 different entrepreneurs who founded successful companies (their company valuations were all measured in hundreds of millions of dollars). Instead of simply asking them their approach to business, she had each solve a 17-page problem set containing 10 decision problems relevant to introducing a new product. She asked that they talk out loud about their thinking, and then later scrutinized the transcripts of these sessions. The patterns she identified became effectuation theory.
In a nutshell, this theory notes that we’re used to thinking about problems (especially in the business world) using causal rationality. We identify a goal and then attempt to identify the optimal path to accomplishing this goal given our current resources. This process is top-down with the final goal occupying the apex position.
The entrepreneurs Sarasvathy interviewed did not rely on causal thinking. They instead relied on an alternative she called effectuative thinking.
Effectuative thinking, unlike causal thinking, is bottom-up. It doesn’t start with a final goal in mind. Instead, as Sarasvathy explains, “it begins with a given set of means and allows goals to emerge contingently over time.”
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