May 17th, 2014 · 46 comments
The Habits of a Writer
As I continue to clear out my queue after my end-of-semester blogging hiatus, there’s another article to mention that recently caught my attention. The fantasy author George R. R. Martin, it turns out, writes his books using Word Star, an ancient word processor that runs on DOS (see the screenshot above).
“It does everything I want a word processing program to do and it doesn’t do anything else,” he explained.
Martin is not the only fiction writer with idiosyncratic rituals surrounding his work. Neil Gaiman, for example, famously does much of writing long hand, and Stephen King is very particular about his desk.
This interests me because fiction writers are the epitome of deep workers (to make any progress, fiction writing requires your full concentration), and many of them, like Martin, Gaiman, and King, seem to rely on unusual but well-honed habits to get them into this mindset.
A natural question arises from this observation: Should those of us who work deeply in other fields follow their example?
This has been on my mind recently. In my pursuit to improve my ability to work deeply, I’ve paid a lot of attention to issues like scheduling (e.g., blocks versus lists) and tracking (e.g., milestones versus hour tallies). Like many knowledge workers, however, I’m haphazard about the physical details that surround this work. I don’t have a special location or special tools I always use. I don’t have a head clearing ritual or hike to a hidden glen to tackle my knottiest problems.
But the more I hear about the habits of professional deep workers like novelists, the more I wonder if I should.
One of my goals this summer is to experiment more with the intensity piece of deep work (as I introduced in a recent blog post), and working with depth-inducing habits and rituals of the type described above should be part of this experimenting. With this in mind, if you’ve found any such behavior useful in your own (deep) work, let me know about it in the comments.
Unrelated note: My friend Laura Shin, who writes from Forbes.com, and has been nice enough to feature me in some of her articles, just published an ebook, The Millennial Game Plan, which collects the best of her writing. She touches on a lot of issues we like to discuss here.
May 16th, 2014 · 29 comments
The Facebook Cleanse
Earlier today, one of the most read articles on Slate was titled “The Facebook Cleanse.” It was authored by Dan Kois, a veteran writer who reviews books for Slate and contributes regularly to the New York Times Magazine.
The article opens with the following:
“For years, I’d been frustrated that Facebook felt completely useless to me. The signal-to-noise ratio was way too low…my feed was overwhelmed by randos: publicists I’d met at parties years before, comedians with whom I’d shared stages in 2004, siblings of high school classmates, readers I’d friended or accepted friend requests from in hopes of Building My Brand.”
At this point in the article, I hoped (fruitlessly) that Kois would then reach the following eminently reasonable conclusion:
“Then I realized that I was a grown man and a serious writer and the fact that I was devoting any thought to this weird, juvenile ad network cooked up by a twenty-year old was ridiculous, so I of course quit.”
Alas: I know better.
Kois instead detailed an elaborate and time consuming routine in which he carefully culled, over many days, his “friend” list down to something that felt less useless.
Here’s the thing: I don’t find social media worthless, but I’m floored by its universality.
It’s not surprising, in other words, that lots of people like Facebook, but it is surprising that there are so few people who don’t.
Neil Postman warned about this in his insightful (but somewhat overlooked) 1992 book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. The danger is not when a given technology tries to take over our culture, he warns, but instead when we stop debating the incursion and just assume it’s necessary.
(To be clear, I don’t know Kois, and suspect he probably has good reasons to use Facebook. I’m just using him an archetype to drive this discussion.)
April 20th, 2014 · 19 comments
Feynman’s Faux Irresponsibility
Around 38 minutes into the above interview, the late physicist Richard Feynman describes an unorthodox strategy for defending deep work:
“To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time…it needs a lot of concentration…if you have a job administrating anything, you don’t have the time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible. I’m actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don’t anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, ‘no,’ I tell them: I’m irresponsible.”
Feynman got away with this behavior because in research-oriented academia there’s a clear metric for judging merit: important publications. Feynman had a Nobel, so he didn’t have to be accessible.
There’s a lot that’s scary about having success and failure in your professional life reduce down to a small number of unambiguous metrics (this is something that academics share, improbably enough, with professional athletes).
But as Feynman’s example reminds us, there’s also something freeing about the clarity. If your professional value was objectively measured and clear, then you could more confidently sidestep actives that actively degrade your ability to do what you do well (think: constant connectivity, endless meetings, Power Point decks).
Put another way: if other knowledge work fields judged merit with the academic model, you’d probably find it a lot harder to get people to show up at your next project status meeting…even if you promised extra-fancy animations in your deck.
Hat Tip: Eric S.
April 8th, 2014 · 80 comments
The Straight-A Method
In the early 2000’s, I was obsessed with study habits. The obsession began with my interest in performing well at Dartmouth, then eventually evolved into a (surprisingly popular) book.
Something I uncovered during this period is that high performing undergraduates, as a general rule, seem to internalize the following formula:
Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity
This formula helps explain why some students can spend all night in the library and still struggle, while others never seem to crack a book but continually bust the curve. The time you spend “studying” is meaningless outside of the context of intensity. A small number of highly intense hours, for example, can potentially produce more results than a night of low-intensity highlighting.
(This is how I avoided all-nighters, for example, during my three year stretch of 4.0’s as an undergraduate.)
From Campus to Corporation
I’m mentioning this phenomenon because of the following observation:
The above formula applies to most cognitively demanding tasks.
In other words, intensity affects the productivity of a knowledge worker as much as it helps the GPA of a college student.
Read more »
March 31st, 2014 · 16 comments
In Search of Productive Simplicity
Last week, I described a kink in my project productivity systems. I was oscillating, somewhat haphazardly, between two different strategies, tracking hours (e.g., when the work is open-ended), and pursuing milestones (when the work is known and I need to hustle).
This felt too complicated, so I asked for your thoughts and you responded with over thirty suggestions.
A lot of your advice seemed to fall into the category of “different work requires different tools, switch as needed.”
This is probably good counsel.
But it still nagged at my preference for simplicity in such matters (which, as a theoretical computer scientist, I of course measure in terms of Kolmogorov complexity).
Read more »
March 23rd, 2014 · 43 comments
Some of you have been requesting to hear more about my own struggles to live deeply in a distracted world. In this spirit, I want discuss strategies for completing important but non-urgent projects. In my experience, there are two useful things to track with respect to this type of work:
- Specific milestones: for example, the number of book chapters completed or mathematical results proved.
- Hours spent working deeply toward milestones: for example, you can keep a tally of the hours spent writing or working without distraction on an important proof.
In my own work life, I find myself oscillating between these two types of metrics somewhat erratically, and I’m not sure why.
Read more »
March 17th, 2014 · 29 comments
The Amazing Roto-Mill
I’ve been toying with a (potentially) interesting thought experiment recently. Imagine you walk into a hardware store and a helpful clerk comes up to you holding a weird looking tool.
“Here’s our latest and greatest lawn care tool,” he explains. “It’s called a roto-mill. It has a reinforced auger head that spins at 1600 RPM.”
“Why do I need a roto-mill?”, you ask.
“I don’t know,” he replies. “I want you to buy it, take it home, dedicate a few hours every weekend to trying it out in your yard, seeing if you can find a use for it. Who knows, you might even find it fun.”
“But I have other things to do on the weekends,” you protest, “things I know are useful and things I know are fun.”
“If you don’t dedicate your time and attention to working with this roto-mill,” the clerk warns, “you might miss out on some benefit that we’re not thinking of now. I don’t see how you could afford such a risk in today’s age of modern yard tools.”
A (Contrived) Analogy
This dialogue, of course, is contrived, but you’d likely agree that if you were that customer, you’d walk out of the store, perhaps worried that the clerk was mentally disturbed.
What intrigues me, however, is that this is essentially the same conversation many have with high tech companies when they release their latest, greatest social media tools. If we replace the word “roto-mill” with “snapchat,” for example, the above suddenly seems more familiar and somehow less absurd.
I’m the first to admit that this thought experiment is not perfect: there’s money involved in buying a yard tool, but not so directly involved in trying an online tool; entertainment is perhaps not being valued fairly; etc.
But still, an interesting Monday afternoon thought…
(Image by Lance Fisher)
March 2nd, 2014 · 44 comments
The Double Degree
A reader recently pointed me to the following question, posted on Stack Exchange:
I am studying a combined bachelor of engineering (electrical) and bachelor of mathematics; I just started this year and will graduate in 2018. The reason why I am doing double degrees and not a single degree is because I love both electrical engineering and mathematics and I could not ignore any of them. So with this in mind, I am thinking of doing two PHDs when I graduate (one in electrical engineering and one in mathematics). Is this a good path or I should concentrate on only one of them?
The responses in the comment thread for this question are fantastic, but in this post I want to add an additional thought to the conversation.
Read more »