February 6th, 2015 · 53 comments
A Curious Observation
I’ve written enough books at this point to notice trends about the process. Case in point, while many stages of pulling together a book end up going slower than expected, there’s one stage, in particular, that typically goes quicker: polishing the manuscript.
I have a theory for the phenomenon. When I polish a book manuscript, I always work with printouts and a pen (as I also advise, in Straight-A, for paper writing). Because this work doesn’t need a computer, I tend to settle in somewhere conducive to concentration, like The Chair (above), and end up working with more focus for longer sessions than normal.
The magic ingredient, I suspect, is the analog nature of the process. A computer is a portal to near endless distraction. Because we use these machines for so much of our efforts, the staccato rhythm of broken concentration they generate begins to feel natural — as if this is the necessary experience of work.
All it takes, however, is a forced break from the digital — as I experience when polishing my books — to remember the levels of depth we’re missing, and the satisfactions they can bring.
Inspired by this observation, I’ve found myself increasingly trying to carve out tasks that can be done free from a screen. I’m now more likely, for example, to venture to a library with only a notebook to work on a proof, or to leave my laptop in my bag at my office to dig into some paper reviews.
Analog work is underrated. Try it for yourself: you won’t be disappointed.
January 26th, 2015 · 14 comments
While I was at MIT, I lived for two years on Beacon Hill. One of my neighbors, I discovered, was the medical thriller writer, Robin Cook (to put things in perspective: I lived in a 500 square foot apartment while he lived in a six-floor, 1833 townhouse).
I didn’t run into Cook, however, until he agreed to give a speech at the Beacon Hill Civic Association. Eager to hear more about the life and times of this mega-bestselling author, I marked my calendar and attended the talk.
Cook didn’t disappoint. But there was one anecdote, in particular, that caught my attention.
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January 18th, 2015 · 23 comments
The Difficulty of Deep Projects
For the sake of discussion, let’s define a deep project to be a pursuit that leverages your expertise to generate a large amount of new value. These projects require deep work to complete, are rarely urgent and often self-initiated (e.g., no one is demanding their immediate completion), and have the potential to significantly transform or advance your professional life.
Examples of deep projects include writing a highly original book, creating an irresistible piece of software, or introducing a new academic theory.
The problem with deep projects is that they’re complicated and really hard. Almost any other activity will seem more appealing in the moment — so they keep getting pushed aside as something that you’ll “get to soon.”
Recently, I’ve been experimenting with a habit that seems to help with this challenge.
I call it, the depth deck…
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January 13th, 2015 · 26 comments
The Disconnected Director
Ben Casnocha recently sent me a Hollywood Reporter interview with the director Christopher Nolan. About halfway through the transcript, the journalist asks Nolan if it’s true that he doesn’t have an e-mail address.
“It is true,” Nolan responds.
He then elaborates:
Well, I’ve never used email because I don’t find it would help me with anything I’m doing. I just couldn’t be bothered about it.
What interests me about Nolan’s answer is not the details of his technology choices (his ability to avoid e-mail is specific to his incredibly esoteric job), but instead the thought process he applied in making them.
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January 5th, 2015 · 47 comments
A Call to Read
Maura Kelly begins her 2012 manifesto in The Atlantic with a Pollan-esque exhortation:
Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.
Kelly is just one voice in the growing Slow Reading movement (c.f.., here and here). The motivating idea behind this movement is simple: it’s good for the soul and the mind to regularly read — without distraction or interruption — hard books.
There was a time when intellectual engagement necessarily included long hours reading old-fashioned paper tomes. But in an age when a digital attention economy is ascendant, it’s now possible to satisfy this curiosity without ever consuming more than a couple hundred highly digested and simplified words at a time.
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December 30th, 2014 · 17 comments
Thoughts on Thinking
“Thinking [is] a very special type of psychic activity, very uncomfortable, but also very exciting…”
This quote comes from the influential twentieth century classicist, Eric Havelock. It’s taken from a book in which Havelock argues that the invention of writing in the ancient world was a prerequisite for the activity we now call “thinking” (he’s talking here about thought in its most rigorous form in which we embrace abstraction and attempt to understand truths beyond specific concrete encounters with the world).
What strikes me is that Havelock describes demanding cognition as both uncomfortable and exciting.
These two adjectives sum up well the sometimes complicated experience of deep work. This activity is not fun in the sense that it can cause mental strain and discomfort, but at the same time, the rewards it produces are richer than anything that the addictive digital bazaars of the attention economy can offer.
I don’t have a specific suggestion to offer here. This is just a meditation to keep in mind as we enter a season of New Year’s resolutions and begin to ask, as we do most Januarys, how we should define a working life well lived…
The quote comes from pages 283 – 284 in the 2009 Harvard University Press edition of Havelock’s influential Preface to Plato. It was first brought to my attention by James Gleick’s ambitious 2011 book, The Information.
December 24th, 2014 · 21 comments
Deciding the Undecidable
In a recent blog post I introduced the notion of undecidable tasks — a particularly important type of work that’s not well covered by standard productivity advice.
These tasks are crucial to my job as an academic — as they are to many creative fields — so I devote a lot of attention to understanding how best to tackle them.
Today I want to share three tips along these lines that have worked well for me…
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December 14th, 2014 · 73 comments
Asa Frederick Newport. Born December 10, 2014. Another future Study Hacker…