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Posts on Tips: Fighting Procrastination
June 10th, 2010 · 88 comments
The Stanford Consensus
My technology habits are eccentric. I use an old fashioned, non-Internet connected Samsung flip phone with a postage-stamp size screen. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, and my RSS reader is an emaciated husk, subsisting on a small number of feeds, mainly the blogs of friends. Long ago, I configured Gmail to automatically mark every message as read when it arrives in my inbox, frustrating my attempts to perform distracting quick scans for new messages during the day.
The rational foundation of my eccentricity is the increasingly alarming research coming out of Stanford’s Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) lab. Pioneering researchers from this lab are converging on a scary consensus. It’s long been understood that you’re less productive when you’re constantly switching your attention; that is, the claimed benefits of multitasking are false. Researchers at the CHIMe lab, however, have found that the impact of electronic multitasking goes beyond the momentary sense of distraction, it can also create permanent changes in the brain.
As reported in a recent New York Times article, subjects who were identified as multitaskers did “a significantly worse job” on experimental tasks that required them to filter out irrelevant information — even though they weren’t multitasking during the experiment.
“Other tests at Stanford,” reports the same article, “showed multitaskers tended to search for new information rather than accept a reward for putting older, more valuable information to work.”
Or, as Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford, summarized: “the scary part for [multitaskers] is they can’t shut off their multitasking tendencies when they’re not multitasking.”
This is why I invest so much effort in isolating myself from electronic distraction. In my two fields, theoretical computer science and writing, the ability to focus on hard things for long uninterrupted periods is my most valuable currency. If I lose this ability, I might also lose my livelihood.
As the computer scientist Donald Knuth once said, “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.”
The Danger to Students
That’s the rational explanation for my behavior. If you want the emotional explanation, however, turn your (perhaps distracted) attention from Stanford’s CHIMe lab to my blog e-mail inbox.
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April 29th, 2010 · 40 comments
Earlier this afternoon I read an e-mail from a sophomore at Yale.
“I’ve always been a good student and I know that I’m smart and capable, but lately I’ve been having such a hard time,” she began.
“I’m having trouble completing assignments, even though I have sufficient time. I avoid seeking out help, preferring instead to just freak out alone in my room.”
This student recognized her trouble as deep procrastination — the exceedingly common student affliction of losing the will to work.
While responding to her message, I had an interesting realization: deep procrastination, though scary, represents something important and perhaps even exciting. It marks that key transition where the momentum of “this is what you need to do” — the momentum that carried you through high school and into college — begins to wane, leaving you to discover a new source of propulsion — not just new, but also more durable and more personal.
It’s important to side step the self-help cliches in this situation. It’s unlikely that you’ll unearth a burning life’s mission hidden conveniently just below the surface of your psyche. What you seek is more fundamental: an acceptance that doing things well is hard, and always will be, and that you need to spend more time than you thought was necessary deciding which such hard things gain rights to your attention.
None of this is easy. All of it is exciting.
With all of this in mind, I had no magical solution to offer this worried sophomore. I could only suggest that she take a step back and reduce the frantic Yale pace, maybe for just one semester, leaving space for her new propulsion to build a head of steam.
April 16th, 2010 · 26 comments
The late summer of 2006 was a heady time for Terry Tao. First, in August of that year, he received the Fields Medal, an elite prize, given only once every four years, that honors the world’s top mathematicians. (One of Tao’s fellow prizewinners in 2006 was Grigori Perelman, the eccentric Russian who roared to international celebrity by solving the long-standing Poincaré conjecture.)
Next, less than a month after his return from the Fields ceremony, Tao learned that he won a $500,000 MacArthur “Genius Grant” — leading the LA Times to dub him a “Mozart of Math.”
Here’s what interests me about Tao: on his well-trafficked web site, he has a contact page that starts…
The best way to contact me is via e-mail.
It then goes on to list 22 different types of e-mails that he will not respond to — a list that includes invitations to “collaborate,” “contribute data to a project,” “give [a] talk,” or “attend seminars or conferences.” He also declines requests for “career advice” and “copies of his work.” On a separate page, he notes that he’s “not giving [media] interviews at this time,” and diverts all other queries to a representative of the UCLA office of media relations.
In other words, Terry Tao doesn’t want to hear from you.
And this is completely understandable.
The world’s top math mind is most valuable to society when it’s solving our knottiest combinatorial quandaries. Dedicating hours to interview requests and career advice seems somehow wasteful.
But this motivates an intriguing question: why have a public e-mail address at all? Certainly it would be simpler for him to omit any contact information from his web page.
I don’t know the specific reasons for Tao’s pseudo-accessibility, but his story emphasizes a general trend I first identified in my essay on quitting Facebook: our society has a warped relationship with communication technology. Instead of deploying tools like e-mail to maximize our effectiveness, we grant them default positions in our lives protected by an impossibly high threshold for disuse — a threshold usually articulated as: “If there is any possible negative consequence of abandoning full-throttled use of this technology, I won’t.”
The scenario that intrigues me is not to move to an opposite extreme and promote a world of techno-Luddism. I like to ponder what the middle ground might look like — a philosophy of work where communication technology is isolated and tuned to specific circumstances where it provides unambiguous benefit, and ruthlessly culled elsewhere.
I’m not sure what such a future would look like, but I can only hope that it doesn’t include contact policies so complex that only a mathematician can fully understand them.
(Photo by Christopher Albert)
January 29th, 2010 · 104 comments
A Bold Decision
At the end of his first semester at Penn, a student whom I’ll call Daniel was disappointed to learn that his GPA was a lackluster 2.95. Following the Study Hacks orthodoxy that study habits should be based on evidence — not random decisions or peer pressure — Daniel asked himself a crucial question: What are the better students doing that I’m not?
When he surveyed his classmates, he noted something interesting: “the high-scoring kids weren’t on Facebook.”
Emboldened by this observation, Daniel decided to do the unthinkable: he deactivated his Facebook account.
His GPA jumped to an exceptional 3.95.
In this post, I want to share the details of Daniel’s story — revealing what actually happens when you quit one of the most ubiquitous technologies of your generation. I’ll then make the argument that although most students don’t need to leave Facebook, every student should at least give the idea serious consideration.
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October 9th, 2009 · 18 comments
The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.
A student who I’ll call Ron recently sent me an e-mail with an ominous title: Loss of Focus.
“I really enjoy most of my courses,” he started. “And I’m definitely not in the wrong major…But there are some courses that I find extremely difficult and uninteresting.”
There’s nothing surprising about this observation. As I’ve said before, you have to expect that not every course is going to incite scholastic reverie — some subjects you just have to grin and bear en route to becoming “educated.”
Ron, as it turned out, was having trouble with the “grin and bear” part of this equation.
“I sit down, stare at the books, and nothing happens,” he told me. “After reading and solving problems for 15 minutes I get bored and distracted, start surfing the web, checking email or such.”
He concluded with a key question that I receive often:
You mention that hard focus is necessary. I agree, but my question is: How can I focus on difficult, unenjoyable, painful tasks?
It sounds like a job for the grade whisperer…
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September 22nd, 2009 · 20 comments
A Difficult Talk
Next week, I’m giving the Theory Colloquium lecture here at MIT’s computer science laboratory. This means I’m facing one of the most common and most dreaded tasks of academic life: writing a talk.
Constructing good talks slides is grueling. The task is not so large that it can become a harmless background task in your life, and it’s not so small that it can be dispatched in a single inspired dash. In other words, like all medium-sized hard projects, it’s a catalyst for procrastination.
Here’s how I’m handling it…
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April 28th, 2009 · 13 comments
A reader recently sent me an e-mail in which she admitted:
I think I am starting to suffer from deep procrastination — and it’s only six weeks until my exams! I need some motivatiom for this final push, but I just can’t seem to find it.
She’s not alone. I’ve noticed an uptick in similar e-mails, and this doesn’t surprise me. For students teetering on the precipice of deep procrastination, exam period, with its significant increase in work, is a perfect catalyst for pushing them over the edge. If you see exams looming but simply can’t muster the energy to start seriously preparing, then you may already be in the grips of this scourge.
In this post, I describe a collection of simple tips that can help you escape this pre-exam slump. It’s not a long term solution to your potenital deep procrastination (for this, you need to evaluate your relationship with your major and reconnect to your studies). But it will help in the short term.
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February 16th, 2009 · 97 comments
The Mysterious Burnout Epidemic
Our friend Leena once told me a sad story. It was about an old high school classmate. This guy was a certified math whiz: he took college-level courses while still in high school, then, after arriving at Stanford, jumped into upper-level subjects and advanced research. Somewhere around his junior year, however, his drive began to falter. As Leena recalls, his energy for math mysteriously faded away. He told her, at one point during this period, that he looked forward to surviving until graduation so he could go find a job in banking and make some money.
He wasn’t overworked: he could easily handle his classes. And he wasn’t lonely: he had plenty of friends. Something inside him just petered out.
Leena’s friend burnt out, and he’s not alone. An increasing number of students suffer from this mysterious affliction, which is marked by a sudden, unexpected drop in enthusiasm and academic performance in a once promising student.
In this article, I want to talk about a common cause of burnouts — a cause I call deep procrastination — and provide some understanding for why it happens and how to prevent it.
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