Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

The Opposite of the Open Office

October 19th, 2016 · 21 comments


The Bionic Office

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about Joel Spolsky’s claim that Facebook’s massive open office is scaring away talent. The comments on the post added many interesting follow ups; e.g., a pointer to a recent podcast episode where a Facebook developer claims the office is rarely more than a third full as people have learned to stay home if they want to produce anything deep.

A critique of open offices, however, inspires a natural follow-up question: what works better?

For one possible answer we can turn once again to Spolsky.

Back in 2003, when Spolsky was still running Fog Creek, they moved offices. Spolsky blogged about his efforts to work with architect Roy Leone to design “the ultimate software development environment.”

He called it the bionic office. Here a picture of a standard programmer’s space from the outside:

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A Famous Rabbi’s Advice for Getting Important Things Done

October 12th, 2016 · 27 comments

shapiraKalonymous Kalman Shapira was an influential Polish Rabbi murdered by the Nazis in the Trawniki concentration camp. Before the war, Rabbi Shapira published a respected book on learning titled Chovas haTalmidim, which roughly translates to The Student’s Obligation.

A reader (and religious studies graduate student) named Daniel recently pointed my attention to the following excerpt from this book:

“[N]o amount of resolve will help a person unless he learns to budget his time and utilize it for accomplishment. For an undisciplined person’s days and nights are confusion, all of his time is confusion and is wasted. Every night he will say, ‘How did the day pass? I didn’t even feel it passing; it stole away from me and escaped.’ In this fashion, the next day and the following one will also slip away, wasted and used up on inconsequential matters.”

What is Rabbi Shapira’s suggestion to avoid undisciplined time confusion? This should sound familiar…

“If you have compassion on yourself, you will learn to budget your hour; every hour will have its own task. You should decide before you begin how much time you want to spend at even mundane matters…Your hours should not be left open, but should be defined by the tasks you set for them. Write out a daily schedule on a piece of paper and don’t deviate from it; then you will reach old age with all your days intact.”

If this computer science thing doesn’t work out for me, perhaps I should consider yeshiva…


I’m pleased to announce that the audio version of So Good They Can’t Ignore You is now available to listeners in the UK. You can listen to an excerpt here or find our more here.

Is Facebook’s Massive Open Office Scaring Away Developers?

October 9th, 2016 · 40 comments

In Search of Silence

Joel Spolsky is a well-respected figure in Silicon Valley. He created the popular Trello project manager software and is currently the CEO of Stack Overflow.

He’s also one of the first Silicon Valley insiders to publicly and directly endorse the importance of deep work over the fuzzier values of connection and serendipity.

At the GeekWire Summit earlier this week, Spolsky made the following claim in an on-stage interview:

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Nassim Taleb’s (Implied) Argument Against Social Media

September 30th, 2016 · 33 comments


Fooled by Shiny Apps

Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness is a classic in the genre of erudite idea books. It’s an extended discussion of the many different ways humans misunderstand the role of probability in their everyday lives.

The book is most famous for its attack on the role of skill in money management (Malcolm Gladwell called the book the Wall Street equivalent of Luther’s ninety-five theses), but it touches on many other topics as well.

As a reader named Rainer recently reminded me, Taleb also includes a passage quite relevant to the dominant role new technologies like social media, or Apple watches, or the latest, greatest smartphone app play in modern life (see if you can sight the 1990’s-era Michael Lewis reference):

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Quit Social Media

September 21st, 2016 · 63 comments

Anti-Social Grumblings

I recently gave a deliberatively provocative TEDx talk titled “quit social media” (see the video above). The theme of the event was “visions of the future.” I said my vision of the future was one in which many fewer people use social media.

Earlier this week, Andrew Sullivan published a long essay in New York Magazine that comes at this conclusion from a new angle.

Sullivan, as you might remember, founded the sharp and frenetic political blog, The Daily Dish (ultimately shortened to: The Dish). The blog was a success but its demands were brutal.

For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week…My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.

In recent years, his health began to fail. “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”, his doctor asked.  Finally, in the winter of 2015, he quit, explaining: “I decided, after 15 years, to live in reality.”

This might sound like an occupational hazard of a niche new media job, but a core argument of Sullivan’s essay is that these same demands have gone mainstream:

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On Deep Breaks

September 14th, 2016 · 49 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 · 36 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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