January 28th, 2017 · 32 comments
The Complexities of Simple
The core idea of digital minimalism is to be more intentional about technology in your life. Digital minimalists carefully curate these technologies to best support things they value.
The idea sounds simple when presented at the high-level, but in practice it dissolves into complexities. One such complexity, which I want to explore here, is the notion of “value.”
Measuring whether a given digital tool provides “value” to your life can be a fruitless exercise — the term is simply too vague, and applies to too many things, for it to support hard decisions about what can lay claim to your time and attention. (Everything you use probably offers you some value; why else would you use it?)
With this issue in mind, I’ve sometimes found it helpful to introduce more variation into what I mean by “value” when assessing tools. Consider, for example, the following three different types of benefits a digital technology can provide:
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January 23rd, 2017 · 12 comments
The Return of Top Performer
Top Performer, a career mastery course developed over the past four years by myself and Scott Young, is open this week for new registrations.
Top Performer is an eight-week online course that is designed to help you develop a deep understanding of how your career works, and then apply the principles of deliberate practice to efficiently master the skills you identify as mattering most.
We’ve had over two thousand students go though this course to date, representing a wide variety of different professions, backgrounds, and career stages.
Registration for new students will be up until Friday at midnight Pacific Time. After this we will close the registration page so we can prepare for the new session to start.
If you’re interested in joining the new session, or just want to find out more about the course (including multiple case studies and detailed FAQs), please check out the course registration page before Friday.
Addendum: Scott and I try to open new sessions once or twice a year, but the frequency can depend on many factors. If you’re thinking of skipping this session to join the next, the wait might be long. Keep in mind that once you sign up you gain lifelong access to the course and all future updates and sessions. And even though we start each new session at a given time, there’s no obligation to progress through the session at a set pace. You can start when you’re ready.
January 16th, 2017 · 11 comments
As you may know, over the past four years Scott Young and I developed an online course about career mastery called Top Performer. It teaches you how to apply the rules of deliberate practice and depth to systematically get ahead in your professional life. We’re planning on opening the course to new students next week. In anticipation for this next launch, Scott and I wanted to share a series of articles on interesting lessons we’ve learned about career mastery from the previous sessions of the course.
Below is the first such lesson. It was written by Scott. To avoid cluttering the blog, the subsequent lessons, and information about when/how to sign up for Top Performer next week, will be sent only to our email lists. If you’re interested, sign up for my email list in the box in the righthand column of my blog.
Take it away Scott…
A Common Complaint
One of the most common complaints Cal and I heard when working on Top Performer is that people feel stuck in their careers. They’re working hard, but they don’t know why they’re not getting ahead.
It turns out a big reason people get stuck has to do with a small distinction people rarely make when pursuing professional advancement: the difference between knowledge and meta-knowledge.
Doing well in your career requires two crucial factors: first, you need to be able to do your work well. This requires knowledge. If you’re a programmer, you need to master the languages you work with. If you’re an entrepreneur, you need to know your market and how to serve them. If you’re a lawyer, you need to have a rich knowledge of the law.
However, this is only the first factor. The second is meta-knowledge.
Meta-knowledge is knowledge about how your career works. For example, which skills matter, and which you should ignore, and how best demonstrate your talent in your particular industry, and so on.
This second factor is often invisible and many people can go their entire careers without getting a very good picture of how people succeed beyond their current station.
One of Cal and my students from Top Performer, Chris L., didn’t even realize that he was missing it, telling us: “I was frustrated specifically because I thought I was doing a good job, and I see people who I don’t think are doing a good job and they’re getting ahead of me. I work hard, but nothing happens.”
He had knowledge but didn’t realize he was missing meta-knowledge.
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January 11th, 2017 · 26 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 · 47 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 · 89 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 · 50 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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