June 5th, 2013 · 13 comments
The equation is simple: the more deep work you do the more new value you create. And creating value, of course, is the key to a remarkable life.
Acting on this equation, however, can be surprisingly difficult.
Here’s a simple hack (that came out of my recent anti-planning stretch) that has helped me rack up more deep work toward my computer science research: I append my list of active projects with a code indicating the next step I’m trying to reach (see the left column in the image above).
Having this extra column greatly simplifies my transition into a deep work mode, as my goal for these sessions is now simple: try to advance to the next steps on these projects.
This hack also works, in part, because specificity is crucial for deep work (your mind needs a crystal clear target before it will marshal the resources needed to go deep). It also works because the simple positive feedback (updating my board every time I move to the next step of a project) taps into our brain’s habit circuitry (c.f., Duhigg).
When it comes to deep work, there’s no magic bullet that will make it effortless. This work is hard. But hacks of this type can help keep these efforts from sliding toward impossible.
June 1st, 2013 · 23 comments
On Reading On Writing
Every few years I re-read On Writing, Stephen King’s professional memoir. It helps me reorient to the reality of becoming better at creative endeavors.
Here’s King, talking about his initial efforts to publish his short stories in magazines:
“When I got my rejection slip…I pounded a nail into the wall above the Webcor [phonograph]…and poked [the rejection slip] onto to the nail…By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen I’d begun to get rejection slips with handwritten notes a little more encouraging.”
It would be another ten years before King sold his first novel, Carrie.
The obvious lesson of this story is that King wrote a lot before he became good. The visual of rejection slips filling a spike is vivid.
But there are two other important elements lurking, uncovered only with a deeper reading of On Writing.
First, King didn’t just write, he tried to get people to pay for his writing, by submitting it to magazines. The nice thing about money (as I elaborate in SO GOOD) is that people don’t like to give it up. Therefore, when you ask people to give you money in exchange for your product, you’re going to get brutally honest feedback.
Second, King was careful to always aim above, but just barely above, his current skill level. His first published story was in a fanzine — the 1960′s version of a blog. He moved from fanzines to second-tier mens magazines like Cavalier and Dude. After he cracked that market he moved on to top-tier mens magazines and top-tier fantasy and science fiction publications. Only once he could consistently hit those targets did he succeed in selling his first novel to Doubleday.
Let’s step back and summarize these key points of King’s training: lots of practice, driven by honest feedback and challenges just beyond his current skill level.
King’s rise to writing fame is a perfect case study of deliberate practice in action.
(Photo by snck)
May 22nd, 2013 · 14 comments
A Hard Week
Last week was hard. Four large deadlines landed within a four day period. The result was a week (and weekend) where I was forced to violate my fixed-schedule productivity boundaries.
I get upset when I violate these boundaries, so, as I do, I conducted a post-mortem on my schedule to find out what happened.
The high-level explanation was clear: bad luck. I originally had two big deadlines on my calendar, each separated by a week. But then two unfortunate things happened in rapid succession:
- One of my two big deadlines was shifted to coincide with the second big deadline. Because I was working with collaborators, I couldn’t just ignore the shift. The new deadline would become the real deadline.
- The other issue was due to shadow commitments – work obligations you accept before you know the specific dates the work will be due. I had made two such commitments months earlier. Not long ago, however, their due dates were announced, and they both fell square within this brutal week.
The easy conclusion from this post-mortem is that sometimes you have a hard week. Make sure you recharge afterward and then move on.
This is a valid conclusion And I took it to heart. But it’s not complete…
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May 7th, 2013 · 41 comments
Seeking Full Capacity
Since becoming a professor, my productivity (as measured by original publications in quality venues) has improved.
I’m happy about this fact.
But I’m also convinced that I’m still leaving capacity on the table. As my expertise in my area grows, I’m reaching a point where I have more ideas per year than I have time to publish (which can be frustrating). If I could increase my deep to shallow work ratio just a little more, I could, I think, close that gap.
Accomplishing this goal, however, has proved difficult.
According to my Monthly Plan archives, since September 2012 I’ve launched at least six different plans aimed at increasing my research output, with the goal of closing this final gap.
None made a major impact.
With this in mind, I’m taking advantage of the beginning of summer to try, as I like to do every now and again, the most radical of productivity plans — no plan at all.
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April 24th, 2013 · 19 comments
The Power of Diligence
The comedian Louis C. K. lives a remarkable life. How did he make that happen? Here’s an interesting quote from a recent New York Times interview:
There’s people that say: “It’s not fair. You have all that stuff.” I wasn’t born with it. It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life. If you’re new at this — and by “new at it,” I mean 15 years in, or even 20 — you’re just starting to get traction. Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that’s in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.
Notice his use of the phrase “horrible process” in describing his rise. This is exactly what is wrong with telling people: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life” — you’re providing them a flawed description of reality.
Careers you love require a lot of work. Sometimes even “horrible” work.
You can’t escape the necessity of career capital…
(Hat tip: 99u)
April 10th, 2013 · 42 comments
I recently received the following note from a career counselor:
I regularly counsel students on their career paths and I was having a hard time giving a student guidance today without referencing passion. ‘What are you good at?”’ I asked instead, and she replied that she didn’t know. She doesn’t know because she hasn’t tried enough things.
I like that this counselor is thinking critically about passion. I didn’t, however, agree with her alternative suggestion.
Asking “what are you good at?”, in my opinion, can be essentially the same as asking, “what is your passion?”
In both cases, you’re placing the source of career satisfaction in matching your job to an intrinsic trait.
And this is dangerous.
As readers of SO GOOD know, career satisfaction almost always follows: (a) building up a rare and valuable skill; then (b) using this skill as leverage to take control of your working life.
If you lead a student believe that making the right job choice is what matters for career happiness (whether you’re choosing based on “passion” or identifying “what you’re good at”), you’re setting them up for confusion when they don’t feel immediate and continuous love for their work.
My advice to a student in the above situation is the following:
Pick something that you wouldn’t mind investing years in mastering. If you already have some skills, then it might make sense (though is by no means necessary) to start there, as you already have a head start on mastery, but you should still expect years of deliberate improvement before deep passion can blossom for your work.
The key thing, in other words, is to direct expectations away from match theory — which says passion depends primarily on making the right job choice — and toward career capital theory — which says passion will grow along with your skill.
April 8th, 2013 · 24 comments
The Deliberate Practice Pilot Program
I’m fascinated by deliberate practice.
I’m convinced this advanced practice philosophy can help knowledge workers rapidly pick up skills that will make them invaluable and provide control over their career. It is, as I’ve argued here, in my last book, and in the Wall Street Journal, perhaps one of your most effective tools for building a working life you love.
But it’s also really hard to figure out how to adapt these ideas to the world of knowledge work.
I decided a good way to proceed with my investigation of this topic would be to: (1) take my best shot at distilling what I know into a formal system; then (2) recruit a group of people, from a variety of different knowledge work careers, to try out my recommendations and report back what they experienced.
This is exactly what I’m going to do.
Over the past few months, I’ve worked extensively with Scott Young (a master of rapid learning), to create a four week pilot program that walks you, step-by-step, through our best understanding of how to identify key skills and then apply deliberate practice techniques to dominate them in a small amount of time.
Now we want to recruit an (extremely limited) group of participants to give this pilot course a try and tell us how it went. In other words, I want real people, in a variety of real jobs, to kick the tires on these ideas Scott and I have been writing about for so long.
Learn More About This Experiment
I don’t want to clog Study Hacks with tons of logistical posts about the experiment — more details, how to sign-up, etc. — so I created a separate e-mail list for this purpose. If you’re interested in learning more about this pilot program click the link below to sign-up for the list.
This will be the only place where you can hear more details and receive information about the first-come-first-served sign-up that will likely happen as soon as next week.
Click here to sign-up to learn more…
And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…
April 3rd, 2013 · 45 comments
The Remarkably Relaxed
Terence Tao is one of the world’s best mathematicians. He won a Fields Medal when he was 31. He is, we can agree, remarkable.
He is not, however, busy.
I should be careful about definitions. By “busy,” I mean a schedule packed with non-optional professional responsibilities.
My evidence that Tao is not overwhelmed by such obligations is the time he spends on non-obligatory, non-time sensitive hobbies. In particular, his blog.
Since the new year, he’s written nine long posts, full of mathematical equations and fun titles, like “Matrix identities as derivatives of determinant identities.” His most recent post is 3700 words long! And that’s a normal length.
As a professor who also blogs, I know that posts are something you do only when you have down time. I conjecture, therefore, that Tao’s large volume of posting implies he enjoys a large amount of down time in his professional life.
Here’s why you should care: Tao’s downtime is not an aberration — a quirk of a quirky prodigy — it is instead, I argue, essential to his success.
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