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Decoding Patterns of Success
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August 25th, 2016 · 54 comments
I don’t like talking about myself (outside discussions of hyper-specific productivity techniques), so I’ll keep this announcement brief…
At some point early on in my graduate student career I set two somewhat arbitrary goals for my academic trajectory: to become a professor by the age of 30 and tenured by the age of 35.
I ended up starting at Georgetown at the age of 29, and earlier this summer I earned tenure at the age of 33 (though I since turned 34).
There are many factors that help fuel an academic career, and many fell outside my direct control.
But reflecting on these past five years, it’s easy for me to identify what was by far the highest ROI activity in my professional life: deep work.
I know I’ve said similar things a million times before. And it’s not sexy. And it’s not a contrarian “hack.”
But in my case, focusing intensely on hard things that people unambiguously value, day after day, week after week, was more or less the whole ball game.
August 22nd, 2016 · 11 comments
Recently, I’ve been collecting stories from people who held the same type of job before and after the introduction of email. Something that struck me as I sorted through these recollections is their variety.
Email was a miracle to some.
For example, I talked to a woman who has spent many years in mergers and acquisitions. These deals, it turns out, require large contracts to be received and sent with urgency at unexpected times.
Before email, this meant weekends camped out at the office.
“If I was expecting a new version of a merger agreement, I would have to stand outside the fax room waiting for my 200-page document and then call to ask the other side to re-fax any missing pages,” my source recalled.
“If there was even a possibility that I would be needed, it made no sense to go home…people would sleep at the office.”
With email, these same urgent documents could suddenly reach her anywhere — greatly reducing time wasted squatting by the warmth of a fax modem and increasing time with her family.
“Email has been a plus,” she concludes.
But email was also a curse to many others.
One teacher I spoke with, for example, told me about how the arrival of email made teachers at her school suddenly available to parents in a way they never had been before.
The school eventually instituted a policy that all such emails must be answered within 48 hours.
“Email exploded,” my source recalled. “My planning period was spent reading and answering emails…forget planning. [It became] a huge distraction from the already very difficult job of teaching.”
A Useful Heuristic
How do we make sense of these contradictions?
As I sorted through more stories like the above an interesting pattern emerged.
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August 3rd, 2016 · 27 comments
A Primal Movement
The primal/paleo philosophy argues that we’d all be better off behaving more like cavemen.
In slightly more detail, this school of thought notes that humankind evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to thrive with a paleolithic lifestyle. The neolithic revolution, which started with agricultural, and quickly (in evolutionary timescales) spawned today’s modern civilizations, is much too recent for our species to have caught up.
By this argument, we should look to paleolithic behavior to shape our basic activities such as eating, exercising, and socializing. To eat bread, or sit all day, or center our social life on a small electronic screen, is to fight our genetic heritage.
Or something like that.
This philosophy attracts both righteous adherents and smug critics. And they both have a point.
I maintain, however, that this type of thinking is important. Not necessarily because it’s able to credibly identify “optimum” behaviors, but because it poses clear thought experiments that are worthy of discussion.
An Interesting Thought Experiment
It’s with this spirit of exploration in mind that I pose the following prompt: what would the primal/paleo movement have to say about productivity?
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July 20th, 2016 · 16 comments
An Insightful Tale
I recently ate lunch with an executive who manages several teams at a large biomedical organization. He told me an interesting story.
Not long ago, he hired someone new to help tackle an important project. A logistical problem, however, delayed some paperwork processing for the new employee.
The result was that he spent his first week with no company email address.
In isolation, this is just a story of minor HR bungling. But what caught my attention was what happened as a result of this accidental experiment in email freedom: nothing bad.
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July 15th, 2016 · 19 comments
The Crawford Prescription
Matthew Crawford is one my favorite social critics.
(Damon Linker got it right when he quipped in The Week: “Reading [Crawford] is like putting on a pair of perfectly suited prescription glasses after a long period of squinting one’s way through life.”)
Crawford’s 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I draw from in Deep Work, takes on the bewildering, dehumanizing mess that is the knowledge economy.
His 2015 follow-up, The World Beyond Your Head, takes on the natural next topic: the attention economy.
This book is complicated and ambitious. But there’s one thread in particular that I think is worth underscoring. Crawford notes that the real problem with the current distracted state of our culture is not the prevalence of new distracting technologies. These are simply a reaction to a more fundamental reality:
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July 7th, 2016 · 17 comments
The Nature of Our Business
When Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow began her multi-year study of consultants at the high-pressure Boston Consulting Group (BCG), she was quick to identify a defining behavior of her subjects: they were always connected. The pressure for them to check their email at all waking hours was intense — a point captured in the title of Perlow’s 2012 book on her research, Sleeping with Your Smartphone.
As Perlow summarized in an HBR article on the topic, the BCG consultants, like many knowledge workers, see this constant connectivity simply as “the nature of our business.”
To me, however, the important question lurking behind this topic is how did this behavior become so natural?
And it’s here that Perlow’s research on BCG uncovers an interesting answer…
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June 28th, 2016 · 30 comments
Deep Thoughts with Aziz Ansari
Last summer, comedian and actor Aziz Ansari was a guest on Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics Radio show.
The stated purpose was to discuss Ansari’s book, Modern Romance, but the conversation wandered toward a wide-ranging exploration of Ansari’s complicated relationship with the Internet. I thought I would excerpt some choice quotes below.
Here’s Ansari on email versus depth:
“I would just get so many emails. And then when I started filming my TV show I just set up a thing that said, this email is dead. I’m not checking email…And I had an assistant on my show and I was like, you can call her…And you know what you realize is, all that shit people email you about all the time, all day, none of it is important. None of it is pressing…I found that I’m much more focused when I don’t have those little questions. And then at the end of the day I just have someone fill me in on everything or I call someone on the phone.”
And here he is on his social media habits:
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June 21st, 2016 · 21 comments
I’m always looking for particularly inspiring or exotic examples of deep work habits. With this in mind, I was pleased when an alert reader named Stepan recently sent me an interesting case study concerning the Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman.
The following quote is taken from an interview with Friedman published in a macroeconomics textbook:
“[W]e typically spent three solid months in the country at our second home in New Hampshire to begin with and later on in Vermont. Then later on I split my life 50–50: we spent six months a year in Chicago and six months a year in Vermont. Almost all of my writing was done in Vermont or in New Hampshire, relatively little during the actual school year.”
Friedman goes on to elaborate how he maximized depth during his periods away from Chicago:
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