News broke wide earlier today about something unexpected that happened last month at a maximum security correctional facility near Dannemora, New York: a team of prisoners won a debate contest held against Harvard’s vaunted three-time national champion team.
As reported by the Washington Post, a twist that made this outcome even more unlikely is that the prisoner team completed their extensive preparation without access to the Internet.
They were forced instead to make formal requests to the prison administration for the books and articles they required, and to then wait for days — and sometimes even weeks — for approval.
The easy storyline here is that this underdog team triumphed despite the hardship of being less connected. While this description might be largely true, the Post’s reporting suggests that something more interesting might have also happened:
Here’s something that baffles me: the fact that most companies don’t invest in helping their employees develop effective workflow systems.
(It’s probably worth taking a moment here for definitions: When I say “workflow system,” I mean a set of habits and tools used to organize what work you do and when you do it. And when I say “effective,” I’m referring to the amount of value you produce.)
Most people don’t dedicate much thought to such systems. The default, instead, is to run your day as a reaction to events and deadlines on your calendar, an inconsistently referenced task list, and, most of all, the flux coursing through your inbox.
As productivity nerds know, however, there are much more effective ways to get important things done.
My goal, of course, is not to make a rigid plan I must follow no matter what. Like most people, my schedule often shifts as the day unfolds. The key, instead, is to make sure that I am intentional about what I do with my time, and don’t allow myself to drift along in a haze of reactive, inbox-driven busyness tempered with mindless surfing.
Though the basic idea behind daily planning is simple — block out the hours of the day and assign work to these blocks — many readers ask me good questions about the details of its implementation. In response to these queries, I thought it might be useful to show you a few of my actual daily plans from recent days during this past month…
A reader recently sent me the above video of comedian Louis C. K. speaking at a 2010 memorial to George Carlin. His brief remarks provide interesting insight into the reality of how people reach elite levels in their fields — and why it’s so rare.
As C. K. begins, when he first attempted comedy, he was, like most new comedians, terrible. But he wasn’t deterred:
“I wanted it so bad, that I kept trying, and I learned how to write jokes.”
This early burst of effort helped C. K. become a professional, with a full hour’s worth of reasonable material.
It was here, however, that he stalled. For a long time…
“About fifteen years later, I had been going in a circle that didn’t take me anywhere. Nobody gave a shit who I was, and I didn’t either, I honestly didn’t. I used to hear my act, and go, ‘this is shit and I hate it.'”
This is the lesser told story about the quest for elite accomplishment. It’s common to hear about the exciting initial phase where you’re terrible but motivated and therefore see quick returns.
But so many people, like C. K., soon hit a plateau. They’re no longer bad. But they’re also not improving; stuck in a circle that doesn’t take them anywhere.
The idea of a “digital sabbatical” is relatively recent: the earliest traces I can find date to 2008 (e.g., this dated gem from CNN). Its popularity, however, has skyrocketed since then.
The mechanics of a digital sabbatical are simple: you set aside a period of time — typically on the scale of days — where you refrain from using some subset of your standard digital network tools.
Many reasons are given for these sabbaticals. Some seem contrived, like boosting creativity or losing weight, but most people understand the real appeal of this behavior: their digital lives consume and ultimately exhaust them, and they crave a break.
As Pico Iyer put it: “It’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole.”
As I’ve long maintained, if you don’t give your time a job, it will dissipate in a fog of distracted tinkering. Simply having a to-do list isn’t enough: you need to provide the executive center of your brain a more detailed target to lock onto.
There is, however, a pitfall with this productivity strategy that I stumble into time and again: it’s easy to start associating “success” for your day with accomplishing your plan exactly as first envisioned, and to label any other outcome as a “failure” — a belief that triggers near constant frustration for most jobs.
Albert Einstein was a rebellious student who chafed against traditional schooling and earned bad grades. After his university education, his brilliance was overlooked by a conformist academy who refused to give him a professorship. Broke and unemployed, Einstein settled for a lowly job as a patent clerk.
But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Free from the bonds of conventional wisdom, he could think bold, original thoughts that changed the world of physics.
I'm a computer science professor exploring how people reach elite levels in knowledge work careers. I used to write a lot of student advice (which you can still find in the blog archive). If you're new to Study Hacks, start here.
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