Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

On Deep Breaks

September 14th, 2016 · 48 comments


A Break to Discuss Breaks

After last week’s post on attention residue, multiple readers have asked about taking breaks during deep work sessions. These questions highlight an apparent tension.

On the one hand, in my book on the topic and here on Study Hacks I often extol the productive virtue of spending multiple hours (and sometimes even days) in a state of distraction-free deep work. As I emphasized last week, these sessions need to be truly free of distraction — even quick glances at your inbox, for example, are enough to significantly reduce your cognitive capacity.

On the other hand, in my Straight-A book (published, if you can believe it, almost exactly a decade before Deep Work), I recommend students study in 50 minute chunks followed by 10 minute breaks. I cite some relevant cognitive science to back up this timing. Similar recommendations are also made by adherents to the pomodoro technique, which suggests short timed bursts of concentration partitioned by breaks.

Which idea is right?

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Join Me and Scott Young for a Live Conversation on Learning and Study Skills on Monday at 8:30 pm ET

September 9th, 2016 · 5 comments

Update: For those who asked about this, Scott’s Rapid Learner course website is now live. You can learn more about the course here. (Even if you’re not interested in the course, scroll down to the before and after pictures from Scott’s 30 day portrait drawing challenge. Crazy!)

A Learned Chat on Learning

My good friend Scott Young is finally about to launch his long promised Rapid Learner online course, which teaches you how to learn hard things quickly. This is something that Scott knows a lot about (c.f., his astonishing MIT Challenge).

To help Scott spread the word about his course, I agreed to join him for a free live webinar on Monday, September 12, at 8:30 pm Eastern time (to attend, sign up here).

We’re going to discuss learning and study skills and then take questions on these topics from the live webinar audience. At the end of the seminar, Scott will then explain his course and make a pitch for it.

A couple details…

  • I want to emphasize that this is not my course. It’s Scott’s course. I’m joining this webinar to help him spread the word (because it’s good content, Scott’s a good friend, and I thought it would be fun to talk about study skills with a live audience), but I don’t want anyone to end up enrolling in this course under the misunderstanding that I’m somehow involved in the course itself or its content.
  • As far as I know, there will be not be a recorded version of the webinar available for those who missed it.

A Productivity Lesson from a Classic Arcade Game

September 6th, 2016 · 34 comments


The Distracted Gamer

A reader recently shared with me an interesting observation from his own life.

To provide some context, this reader is a fan of the classic arcade game snake (shown above). This game is hard: as your snake grows, it requires an increasing amount of concentration to avoid twisting back on yourself and ending the round.

What this reader noticed was that whenever he paused the game for a quick interruption (e.g., answering a text or talking to someone who walked into the room), he became significantly more likely to fail soon after returning to play.

These arcade struggles might not sound that surprising, but they turn out to be a great example of a psychological effect that every knowledge worker should know about: attention residue.

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Technology Alone Won’t Make You Better at What You Do

August 31st, 2016 · 7 comments


Some Insights from a Geek’s Heresy

I recently began reading Kentaro Toyama’s 2015 book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.

To provide some background, in 2005 Toyama cofounded Microsoft Research India, which focused on applying technology to social issues. He then left for academia where he began to study such efforts from an objective distance. Geek Heresy describes what he found.

I’m only through around 100 pages, but so far Toyama’s conclusions have been bracing.

He leverages a blend of research and firsthand experience to dismiss the cult-like belief (common in Silicon Valley) that hard social problems can be solved with the application of the “right” technology (an illustrative target of Toyama’s critique is Nicholas Negroponte’s belief in the power of cheap laptops to cure all that ails the developing world).

For the purposes of this post, however, I want to highlight a powerful observation detailed in Chapter 2. It’s here that Toyama introduces what he calls the Law of Amplification, which he defines as follows:

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A Brief Note on Tenure

August 25th, 2016 · 66 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.

Email is Most Useful When Improving a Process that Existed Before Email

August 22nd, 2016 · 13 comments


Connectivity Contradictions

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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On Primal Productivity

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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No Email, No Problem: A Workflow Engineering Case Study

July 20th, 2016 · 17 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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