September 13th, 2014 · 32 comments
In Search of Depth
Aaron is a PhD student. This requires him to spend a significant fraction of his time thinking about hard things.
To accommodate the necessity of depth in his working life, Aaron developed a ritual he uses to quickly shift his brain into a state of concentration.
Here’s how it works:
- Aaron puts on headphones and plays non-distracting meditative music (this track is a favorite).
- He launches FocusWriter, a stripped-down text editor that hides all the features of your computer (not unlike George R. R. Martin’s use of Word Star).
- He loads up a template that contains seven questions about the deep task he’s about to begin. These questions force him to specify why the task is important and how he’s going to tackle it (see the above screenshot of the template taken from one of Aaron’s work sessions). The issues addressed in this template come from a classic Steve Pavlina post titled “7 Ways to Maximize Your Creative Output.”
Getting through these steps takes around five minutes. As soon as Aaron’s done typing in his final answer he turns immediately to the scheduled deep task.
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September 11th, 2014 · One comment
Saturday Update: Today was the charity event and it was a big success. With your support, our team ended up the top team fund raiser and I ended up one of the top ten individual fund raisers (out of 4,500 participants). This is a direct result and expression of your support. I thank you!
I don’t often allow my non-professional life to seep into this blog, so this post represents a rare violation of this habit…
This Saturday, I’m participating in a fund raising event called the Race for Every Child. My team in this event is raising money for a foundation started by our friends Gabi and John Conecker.
The Conecker’s son, Ellliott, was born almost two years ago (the same time as our son, Max) afflicted with a devastating genetic disorder virtually unknown to science. They soon discovered that families all over the country are going through something similar each year (c.f., this New Yorker article).
Their foundation helps raise awareness and more importantly fund research to better understand and treat these disorders. (The foundation directly supports the research efforts of a world class neurogeneticist at Children’s National Medical Center who is making real progress into understanding the impact of these mutations.)
Anyway, if this type of cause resonates, please consider donating something to the effort sometime between now and Saturday. You can learn more about the foundation and donate here.
If you do donate, please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can thank you personally.
If this type of cause doesn’t resonate, please disregard. We’ll return shortly to our regularly scheduled programming.
September 9th, 2014 · 12 comments
The Temporary Plan
As I’ve revealed in recent blog posts, there are two types of planning I swear by. The first is daily planning, in which I give every hour of my day a job. The second is weekly planning, where I figure out how to extract the most work from each week.
These are the only two levels of planning that I consistently deploy.
But there’s a third level that I turn to maybe two or three times a year, during periods where multiple deadlines crowd into the same short period. I call it (somewhat blandly, I now realize) a temporary plan.
A temporary plan is a plan that operates on the scale of weeks. That is, a single plan of this type might describe my objectives for a collection of many weeks.
When a lot of deadlines loom, I find it’s necessary to retreat to this scale to ensure things get started early enough that I can coast up to the due dates with the needed pieces falling easily into place. If I instead planned each week as it arose, there is too much risk that I would find myself suddenly facing a lot of uncompleted work all due in the next few days!
Logistically speaking, I typically e-mail myself the temporary plan and leave it in my inbox. My general rule is that if a temporary plan is in my inbox while I’m building my weekly plan, I read it first to make sure my weekly plan aligns with the bigger picture vision.
A Temporary Plan Case Study
To help make this strategy more concrete, let’s consider a temporary plan I developed last spring to make sure that the papers I was working on for a May deadline would come together in time while I still made progress on some other efforts that also had looming deadlines. I replicated this plan below. (I added my commentary in square brackets):
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September 5th, 2014 · 15 comments
Words of Wisdom
A reader recently pointed my attention to the following quote from the composer and artist John Cage:
“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
She thought I would like it and she was right. Cage captures something fundamental about deep work on important things: there’s a stage — sometimes a long stage — that’s tedious.
The good news, of course, is that over time, tedium gives way to glimpses of potential that then grow into something downright eudaimonic.
Once you recognize this reality, your potential to do things that matter is unleashed.
August 29th, 2014 · 26 comments
I track my deep work hours using a weekly tally, so I have a good sense of how my commitment to depth varies over time. A trend I’ve noticed is that my deep work rate hits a low point around this time of year.
The obvious explanation is that the start of the fall semester adds extra time constraints. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. My deep work tends to increase as the fall continues, even though my teaching commitments also increase during this period (i.e., once there are problem sets and exams to grade).
In thinking about this mystery I’ve begun to better understand a crucial but often ignored aspect of working deeply on important things: the necessity of clarity.
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August 24th, 2014 · 25 comments
The Insult of Simplicity
There are many reasons why I don’t like the advice to “follow your passion.”
One reason I haven’t mentioned much recently is that I find its premise insultingly simplistic.
It would be nice if we were all born with a clear preexisting passion.
It would also be nice if simply matching your job to a topic you liked was all it took to generate a meaningful career.
But reality is more nuanced (as we should expect, given the rareness and desirability of the goal being pursued here).
In an effort to be more positive than negative, however, I thought it might be useful to provide a brief case study that sketches a more realistic image of how people end up with work that matters.
This case study comes from a reader whom I’ll call Peter…
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August 19th, 2014 · 37 comments
A Weekly Plan Case Study
Last week I wrote a post about my habit of planning out my whole week in advance. I provided some example plans from my own life, but many of you were interested in how this technique applies to other types of work.
Fortunately, I recently received the following note from a lawyer whom I’ll call John:
I tried writing out my week last week for the first time using [a method from your blog post]. When I reviewed my week on Friday afternoon, I was surprised at how much more I accomplished compared to my usual method of scheduling time to complete tasks in Outlook. Thanks for sharing this method.
Naturally, I asked John if he’d allow me to share his plan with you. He agreed. Here it is (properly anonymized, of course):
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August 15th, 2014 · 25 comments
Earlier today, I was browsing Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog and stumbled across a letter that Albert Einstein wrote to his son Hans Albert in the fall of 1915.
This date, of course, is important in the lifetime of Albert Einstein, as this was right after he finished writing one of the masterpieces of modern science: his general theory of relativity.
(To paraphrase my astronomy teacher at Dartmouth: “most scientific breakthroughs are expected, many different people are closing in on the same idea, but general relativity, this came out of nowhere, it was magic.”)
One quote, in particular, caught my attention:
“What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys. These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.” [emphasis mine]
Einstein’s reference to “a lot of strenuous work” emphasizes an important reality: accomplishing important things is really, really hard. (He’s guilty of understatement here. The strain of proving the theory turned his hair white and nearly shattered his family and his health.)
It’s easy to play lip service to this idea, and many of us do, but what frustrates me is that there’s so little in the advice literature that directly addresses the nuances of this requirement.
It’s not obvious how to prepare yourself for really hard things. What should you expect? What changes are necessary to the way you approach your life and work? How do you know when to persist? (I mention these questions not because I have great answers, but because I want better ones.)
Seth Godin’s book, The Dip, is an important initial meditation on this subject, and one I found immensely useful, but I’m not aware of many other books that tackle this topic. This is a shame given its importance to the goal of making a mark.