March 17th, 2015 · 13 comments
Deep Work After Hours
One lesson I learned after becoming a professor is that producing intellectual insights at a professional pace requires deep thinking beyond the confines of the normal workday. Though I’m quite good at protecting and prioritizing deep work against the encroachment of the shallow, the depth I can fit into my regular schedule is not sufficient.
My strategy is to maintain, at all times, a single, clear problem primed and ready for cogitation. I then set aside specific times for this deep thinking in my schedule outside work. I use many (though not all) of my commutes for this purpose. I also leverage long weekend dog walks and the mental lull that accompanies time-consuming house work.
(People sometimes ask what I do with the free time I preserve by not using any social media or web surfing. This is a large part of my answer.)
Read more »
March 14th, 2015 · 31 comments
Redeeming The Luddite Caucus
Earlier this morning I was reading The Washington Post while watching the sun rise (I have two young kids at home: I find quiet where I can). A column by Catherine Rampell, titled The Luddite Caucus, caught my attention.
As I began to read, my interest transformed into concern.
In the wake of the recent Hillary Clinton e-mail story, many reporters, it turns out, have been asking other politicians about their digital habits. After reviewing these articles, Rampell reports that there are a surprising number of United States senators who rarely use e-mail — a list that includes: Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Pat Roberts, Richard Shelby, Orrin Hatch, and Chuck Schumer.
Rampell is shocked that so many senators “proudly abstain” from e-mail.
She accuses them of being “utterly uninterested” in “understanding the daily experience, workplace expectations or priorities of their younger constituents.”
She describes the senators as displaying “mindboggling levels of societal incuriosity,” to the point that this behavior should be considered “political malpractice.”
She concludes by asserting that contemporary technology use is a “necessary” condition for understanding “good tech policy”, rendering these senators unqualified to address laws that affect technology, privacy, labor, global competitiveness, and, for some reason, immigration.
As you might have guessed: I don’t buy this argument.
Read more »
March 10th, 2015 · 19 comments
A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about three writers who custom-built work spaces to help them go deeper with their craft. In response, many of you sent more examples of fantastic deep work spaces. I thought I’d share a few of my favorites, as the more I dive into this idea of “method working,” the more appealing it becomes…
David McCullough’s Cabin
(Image from Reason and Reflection.)
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough, it turns out, writes his biographies in a eight-by-twelve cabin on the property of his Martha’s Vineyard farm. He calls it his “World Headquarters.” Supposedly, he once quipped, “nothing good was ever written in a large room.”
Read more »
February 27th, 2015 · 28 comments
A Compelling Answer
Earlier today, a reader pointed me toward a blog post about Barack Obama from the Humans of New York project. The post quotes Obama’s answer to the following question: When is the time you felt most broken?
The president begins his response by recalling a doubt-ridden plateau in his political career…
“I first ran for Congress in 1999, and I got beat. I just got whooped…for me to run and lose that bad, I was thinking maybe this isn’t what I was cut out to do.”
What caught my attention (and the attention of the reader who forwarded me the interview) is the idea Obama leveraged to move forward…
Read more »
February 24th, 2015 · 31 comments
Last summer, I wrote a post detailing various strategies for reading mathematical proofs faster.
Last week, I stumbled across a new strategy that I think may be relevant for many different types of deep information processing.
I came across this strategy while peer reviewing a complicated computer science paper. As I read, I quickly became frustrated. I was processing lemmas and theorems, one by one, but as the details for each slipped from my short term memory to make room for the next, there was no sense of a coherent whole. It was as if I couldn’t get my metaphorical arms around this mathematical beast.
After an hour of this blind processing I decided to step back and try to summarize what I understood so far.
It was here that things got interesting.
Read more »
February 19th, 2015 · 20 comments
A Magical Muse
This past fall, news broke that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was building a replica of Hagrid’s hut near the border of a forest on her Scottish estate.
Though its intended use is unknown, Entertainment Weekly speculated Rowling might be designing the ultimate writing cabin for her current project: penning the screenplay for a Potter prequel.
Read more »
February 16th, 2015 · 24 comments
Super Casual Friday
Last week, an article in the Washington Post caught my attention. It was titled, “At some start-ups, Friday is so casual that it’s not even a work day,” and it focused on an Oregon-based tech company called Treehouse.
This company, it turns out, offers an unusual perk to its employees: no work on Friday.
The idea of a four day week upset people in the tech world. Michael Arrington, for example, responded:
“As far as I’m concerned, working 32 hours a week is a part-time job…I look for founders who are really passionate. Who want to work all the time. That shows they care about what they’re doing, and they’re going to be successful.”
But here’s the thing: Treehouse is successful.
The company, which offers online courses, has enrolled over 100,000 students and raised over $13 million in funding. Last year saw 100% revenue growth, and, perhaps not surprisingly, they have near 100% employee retention.
Read more »
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.