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The 3-Hour Fields Medal: A Slow Productivity Case Study

Earlier today, June Huh, a 39-year-old Princeton professor, was awarded the 2022 Fields Medal, one of the highest possible honors in mathematics, for his breakthrough work on geometric combinatorics.

As described in a recent profile of Huh, published in Quanta Magazine (and sent to me by several alert readers), Huh’s path to academic mathematics was meandering. He didn’t get serious about the subject until his final year at Seoul National University, when he enrolled in a class taught by Heisuke Hironaka, a charismatic Japanese mathematician who had himself won a Fields back in 1970.

Given his recent conversion to the mathematical arts, Huh was only accepted at one of the dozen graduate schools to which he applied. It didn’t take long, however, for him to stand out. As a beginning student, Huh managed to solve Read’s conjecture, a long-standing open problem concerning the coefficients of polynomial bounds on the chromatic number of graphs. The University of Michigan, which had previously rejected Huh’s graduate school application, soon recruited him as a transfer student. Along with his collaborators, Huh generalized the approach he innovated to tackle Read’s conjecture to prove similar properties for a much broader class of objects called matroids. The new result stunned the mathematics community. “It’s pretty remarkable that it works,” said Matthew Baker, a respected expert on the topic.

The reason so many readers sent me the Quanta profile of Huh, however, was not because of its descriptions of his mathematical genius, but instead because of the details it shares about how Huh structures his deep efforts:

On any given day, Huh does about three hours of focused work. He might think about a math problem, or prepare to lecture a classroom of students, or schedule doctor’s appointments for his two sons. ‘Then I’m exhausted,’ he said. ‘Doing something that’s valuable, meaningful, creative’ — or a task that he doesn’t particularly want to do, like scheduling those appointments — ‘takes away a lot of your energy.'”

One of the core principles of my emerging philosophy of slow productivity is that busyness and exhaustion are often unrelated to the task of producing meaningful results. When zoomed in close, three hours of work per day seems painfully, almost artificially slow — an impossibly small amount of  time to get things done. Zoom out to the larger scale of years, however, and suddenly June Huh emerges as one of the most, for lack of a better term, productive mathematical minds of his generation.

12 thoughts on “The 3-Hour Fields Medal: A Slow Productivity Case Study”

  1. At age 80, I am in your debt for validating my habit of working fewer hours than ever before in this life. Of course, it doesn’t really need validation, beyond the stats: seven very good books published in the last 10 years, and new ventures in writing about the process of making art and the long-term development of depth and skill.

  2. There is a significant amount of research data that indicates that being a social extrovert has a significant amount of benefit to both promotion, happiness, pay, etc. in the workplace as demonstrated by mathematician Paul Erdos. However, you are not going to be an expert and get in the 10,000 hours in to be a master of your craft without introverted deep work like physicist Isaac Newton. Hence the conundrum: when to be a social butterfly and when to focus on deep work? (The answer is buried in the book “Barking Up the Wrong Tree” by Eric Barker in Chapter 4 so I will keep you posted when I am finished reading the chapter I am in the middle of reading.) The chapter summary indicates that best approach depends 1. on your natural inclinations or abilities, and 2. what you are trying to do, i.e. get promoted at work or invent a new groundbreaking approach. You need the understand the benefits of extroverted social networking and the benefits of introverted deep work to chose the optimal approach depending on the problem to be solved. I am a big believer of Aristotle’s gold mean or Buddha’s middle way as being pretty close to optimum, so I chose to be balanced unless the circumstances dictate a deep work or social media approach. This is a classic engineering cost optimization problem that I got my Masters in Engineer solving. (Too bad we didn’t do cost optimization for the pandemic mitigation measures to minimize the terrible damage the pandemic did to the world economy. They don’t teach engineering economy anymore in most engineering schools so I am the last of the old guard bang for the buck geeks who help win WWII and the Cold War. However, most of us were sworn to secrecy under penalty of death so the public will never know.)

  3. This was a great read. I was hoping you’d write about it!

    This paragraph stood out to me:

    “He finds that forcing himself to do something or defining a specific goal — even for something he enjoys — never works. It’s particularly difficult for him to move his attention from one thing to another. “I think intention and willpower … are highly overrated,” he said. “You rarely achieve anything with those things.””

    I’m not sure I understand what he means. When he sets out to solve a math problem, is that not a goal? Or does he mean that he doesn’t set any time limits?

    • That paragraph also had me thinking! Very interesting, but I’d also like some elaboration. This reminds me of Hayato Sumino (the pianist-slash-computer scientist) who said in one short written interview about how he never really tried juggling his interests in piano and AI research. He just did whatever he was interested in at any given period, never both at the same time.

      Which got me thinking; I wonder if outliers like them tend to rely more on curiousity to operate (instead of “willpower” as June put it) and this works fantastically for them but not for more average joes like me?

    • I think that you need to be intentional about creating a *structured environment* to do *unstructured* exploration and thinking. You need to set “rules for focused success in a distracted world” (which Deep Work is all about). And that is what Huh is demonstrating by following the same routine everyday etc.

      Cal has answered a similar question in this episode: Should you ditch your to-do list with a slow productivity mindset?

  4. I notice also that he has a strong and repetitive daily routine. He does the same things every day: gym, breakfast, work, walk, work, family, sleep. That implies a lot of focus, not just mental, but that he has reduced his life down to a few key elements. Most of us, I suspect, never do this, or would struggle to find the key elements we could repeat for the rest of our lives. It may be, indeed, that this kind of lifestyle only works for certain personalities. Still, it is certainly in opposition to much of modern life, which encourages more of everything, and well aligned to your other thinking and writing.

  5. Cal, there’s something that stands out for me as a bit in contrast to how you normally consider deep work–specifically that he considers making doctor’s appointments something he does in “focus time” because it’s draining. This is something I’ve noticed in my own life too as I’ve tried to apply your deep work ideas. Sometimes it seems that the best use of early-in-the-day focus sessions is indeed on the “frogs” of my day, which could often be considered shallow work, but are also draining and cause me to tend to procrastinate. Curious if you have any specific thoughts on this. Specific examples are writing a required monthly status report for a client. It doesn’t really make a meaningful difference in my career, but it does need to be done, and I really don’t enjoy doing it. Scheduling it for a focused “Deep Work” session has been helpful for me, but I’m not sure it really meets the definition of deep.

    • KRC, I wouldn’t worry too much about what does or doesn’t fit the definition of “deep.” I think it’s just important to set aside focused time to concentrate on one thing at a time, and avoid context switching. For example, a 90-minute session of such concentration used to handle three things (including your client status report) sequentially for 30 minutes each is a perfectly good use of time, especially for those of us in business and not writing books or solving proofs. I think Cal would agree, based on what I have heard him say on his podcast.


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