January 11th, 2017 · 23 comments
Hawking’s Fixed Schedule Productivity
In the 1980s, at the height of his intellectual productivity, Stephen Hawking used to head home from his office between five and six. He rarely worked later.
Here’s how he explained his behavior to his PhD student Bruce Allen (now a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics):
“Bruce, here’s some advice: The problem with physics is that most of the days we don’t make any major headway (on our projects). That’s why you should do other stuff: listen to music, meet good friends. There’s one exception to this rule: If you find a solution for a given problem, you work 24 hours a day and forget everything else. Until the problem is solved in its entirety.”
I’ve seen this behavior before from other elite level creatives. For them, deep, audacious results are the only currency that matters. The idea of being busy for the sake of being busy in between those big swings seems superfluous.
To be sure, they constantly seek inspiration in reading and daydreams and conversation with other elite producers, but this is a pleasurable background hum that precedes the cacophony instigated by the eventual epiphany.
(For a great study in the reality of “24 hours a day and forget everything else” technical work at the highest level, I recommend Birth of a Theorem.)
Most of us are not Stephen Hawking and never will be. I wonder, however, if there’s not a more general lesson lurking for anyone who wants to produce valuable things: go big when the work demands it, but outside those situations leave plenty of time for music and good friends.
(Photo by Bryan Alexander. The above quote was translated to English from a German newspaper article. Hat tip: David.)
January 5th, 2017 · 44 comments
The Root Of All Productivity
The new year is here, which means productivity tweaks are in the air.
I’m not going to offer you a specific strategy today. Instead, I want to touch briefly on a meta habit that will help you succeed in any number of areas in your life where you seek more effectiveness.
It’s something I’ve used for years but have never discussed publicly before. I call it: rooted productivity.
Before describing this idea let me motivate it.
A little discussed issue in the productivity community is the role that these strategies play in your mental life. Most people maintain a haphazard and shifting collection of rules and systems only in their head. When a blog post inspires them, this collection may grow, while approaches they once embraced might fizzle unexpectedly.
This unstructured approach to organizing the ideas that are supposed to organize your life can cause problems, such as…
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December 21st, 2016 · 44 comments
A Minimalist Transition
Earlier this week, I posted some thoughts on digital minimalism: the idea that using less technology, but using what you do use better, is the key to cultivating meaning in a noisy world.
I want to pull on this thread some more. One question that seems particularly relevant is the process of shifting into this lifestyle.
It seems to me that there are two major approaches that might work: subtractive and additive…
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December 18th, 2016 · 78 comments
The Curmudgeonly Optimist
People are sometimes confused about my personal relationship with digital communication technologies.
On the one hand, I’m a computer scientist who studies and improves these tools. As you might therefore expect, I’m incredibly optimistic about the role of computing and networks in our future.
On the other hand, as a writer I’m often pointing out my dissatisfaction with certain developments of the Internet Era. I’m critical, for example, of our culture’s increasingly Orwellian allegiance to social media and am indifferent to my smartphone.
Recently, I’ve been trying to clarify the underlying philosophy that informs how I think about the role of these technologies in our personal lives (their role in the world of work is a distinct issue that I ‘ve already written quite a bit about). My thinking in this direction is still early, but I decided it might be a useful exercise to share some tentative thoughts, many of which seem to be orbiting a concept that I’ve taken to calling digital minimalism.
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December 7th, 2016 · 48 comments
The Tally Problem
When I was writing Deep Work I was a heavy user of deep work tallies: a record kept each week of the total hours spent in a state of unbroken concentration (see above).
This strategy provides concrete data about how much deep work you actually accomplish, and the embarrassment of a small tally motivates a more intense commitment to finding time to focus.
I’ve written about this idea on this blog (e.g., here and here) and featured it in the conclusion of Deep Work, and for good reason: it works well — especially as compared to no tracking at all.
Over the past year or so since publishing my book, however, I’ve found myself drifting from this particular productivity tool.
I increasingly found it insufficient to support the long periods of deep work (think: 4 – 7 consecutive hours, multiple times a week) that I need to really support my increasingly complicated pursuits as a professional theoretician with heady aspirations.
The problem was timing.
By the time the average week started, I had already agreed to enough meetings, interviews, appointments and calls in advance that no such long unbroken periods remained. This was true even after I drastically reduced these incoming requests with sender filters and my attention charter.
As I found myself repeatedly frustrated with the fragmented nature of my weeks I knew something had to change…
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November 30th, 2016 · 26 comments
The Other MIT in My Life
One of the most persistent and popular strategies in the online productivity community is the notion of tackling your most important thing (MIT) first thing in the morning.
The motivation is self-evident. Our days are increasingly filled with distraction and unexpected disruptions. If you make a point of doing one important thing before exposing yourself to that onslaught you can ensure that you make continual progress on things that matter .
I’m not sure about where the idea originated. My research suggests it was adapted over a decade ago from Julie Morgenstern’s book Never Check Email in the Morning by Lifehacker editor Gina Trapani. I first heard about MITs through Leo Babauta (a major inspiration) in the early days of Study Hacks, but continue, to this day, to hear people talk about their commitment to the strategy.
Here’s the thing: I don’t want to dismiss this advice, as I know it has helped many people transition from chaos to less chaos. But I do want to urge those who are serious about their effectiveness to look beyond this suggestion.
It’s amateur ball. The pros play a game with more serious rules…
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November 23rd, 2016 · 31 comments
My Curmudgeonly Musings Go National
On Sunday, I published an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that social media can cause more harm than good for your career.
The core of my argument is that the professional benefits of social media are being overemphasized (I don’t buy this idea that suddenly Twitter and Facebook are the main channels through which talent is recognized and opportunities spread), while the professional costs of social media are being underemphasized (see: Deep Work).
As indicated in the above screenshot, this generated some discussion.
Of the different reactions that made it onto my radar, the one I found most interesting was the question of how to define “social media” in the context of these types of cost/benefits analyses. (See, for example, the thoughtful self-analysis in this Hacker News thread.)
I think it’s worth me taking the time to clarify my thinking on this issue.
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November 16th, 2016 · 24 comments
Earlier this month, a group of researchers from Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s circle of network scientists published an important paper in the journal Science. Its nondescript title, “Quantifying the evolution of individual scientific impact,” obfuscates its exciting content: a massive big-data study that dissects the publication careers of over 2800 physicists to determine the combination of factors that best predicts their probability of publishing high impact papers.
As you might expect, this endeavor caught my attention.
A high-level summary of the researchers’ results highlights two major findings:
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