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The Ice Bath Method: Easing Into Painful Projects

A Difficult Talk

Bailey Next week, I’m giving the Theory Colloquium lecture here at MIT’s computer science laboratory. This means I’m facing one of the most common and most dreaded tasks of academic life: writing a talk.

Constructing good talks slides is grueling. The task is not so large that it can become a harmless background task in your life, and it’s not so small that it can be dispatched in a single inspired dash. In other words, like all medium-sized hard projects, it’s a catalyst for procrastination.

Here’s how I’m handling it…

A Morning Brainstorm

This morning, I brought a notebook, a cup of coffee, and my dog, Bailey, out into the courtyard of my apartment building. I spent a half hour under the shade of a tall maple tree working out the big ideas of the talk while simultaneously frustrating Bailey’s life ambition to fully devour a tennis ball.

Then I put the work aside and did something else.

Later this afternoon, when I arrived at my office on campus, I spent another hour building the slides for the first 10 – 15 minutes of the talk.

And that was it for today.

Tomorrow I’ll make a hard push to finish a full draft of the slides, leaving almost a full week for my standard cycle of practice talks and polishing.

The Ice Bath Method

I want you to notice the general structure to my approach:

  1. Start with a half hour brainstorming session. Go somewhere interesting, armed only with pen, paper, and caffeine. (Dog optional.)
  2. Later that same day, use the results of your brainstorming to set the foundation for one hour of hard focus.
  3. Wait until at least the next day to do your first multi-hour push on the project.

I call this the ice bath method in reference to the training methods of cold water swimmers, who prepare themselves for the bracing cold by a series of short exposures to ice water. I claim that it’s a smart strategy for any medium-sized project; i.e., a project too large to knock out in an hour or two, but too small to handle with a regular session in your autopilot schedule.

The first step of the method is designed to overcome your resistance to starting. Staring at a blank computer screen that needs to soon contain a hundred slides is daunting. Brainstorming under a tree is romantic, and therefore much easier to actually do.

Once you’ve taken some action, it’s easier to dive into the second step which requires some hard work, but is limited to only an hour. This limit will help you follow through.

The third step is where the real hard work happens. Because you’ve already made non-trivial progress during step two, however, this work is much easier to start — you’re not staring at a blank screen, you’re instead continuing with a specific set of known next actions.

The ice bath method is simple, but it’s also how I manage to get started on (and finish) terrible projects surprisingly early.

22 thoughts on “The Ice Bath Method: Easing Into Painful Projects”

  1. Hey Cal!

    In the headline it’s “ice bath method” and in the middle of the text it’s: “ice bed method”. Perhaps a mistake?

    Interesting article, it’s how I handle my projects as well ;).
    First step: Brainstorming. 2nd step: structure 3rd step: draft, or: just do it! 4th step: stepwise refinement.

    Cal, you seem to be a quite disciplined guy and a self-pruductivity-guru. I’ve read a lot (but not all) of your StudyHacks-posts in the last 2 years and what I’m most interested about is:
    Where are your weaknesses?
    Were you always that self-disciplined?
    And if not: How could you improve yourself?
    Is there a method or a thought that influenced your (study) life more than others?
    I know these questions aren’t typical and maybe you answered a few of them in one of your posts already, but I think readers might be interested in how you developed into who your are right now :).

    Greetings from Germany

  2. Excellent post.I’m a big procrastinator in general, and this method looks like it could bring some relief to my school work. I wish I could bring my dog, but he would just take the ball and wait for me to chase him 😛 Cheers, Cal!

  3. Here’s a tip I picked up from Presentation Zen (?), that complements your approach. I created an empty presentation with 8 white slides, that I print on a double sided standard A4 with some empty lines for comments to the right of each. Once I have the big outline of my presentation thought out (can take days to figure out) I take my printed empty sheets and draw the slides by hand and make some brief notes about key-points for each slide. The “slides” are tiny and look very rough, which is a feature: it’s not hard to cross one out and draw a new one, and you can’t sink too much time in a single slide since it’s so small. When I’m happy with the order of slides and content I transfer that to the computer, which is surprisingly efficient since I already know what the slide should look like. This also avoids constraining your slide design since you can draw anything with a pencil.

  4. Kind of unrelated, but do you have any advice for giving conference talks? I usually get caught up explaining data sets and methodologies instead of going on to my conclusions and have gone over my time twice now. I’ve only presented a few times but I find the whole ‘conference’ presentation process incredibly stressful in comparison to making non-academic addresses.

  5. Your dog sounds adorable. Do you have any photos of him?

    Why yes, Julie, I do. See the revised introduction to the post.

    In the headline it’s “ice bath method” and in the middle of the text it’s: “ice bed method”. Perhaps a mistake?


    Is there a method or a thought that influenced your (study) life more than others?

    I’m inspired by people like Alan Lightman, or Neal Stephenson, who decided what they wanted their life to be about and then refused to let random crap gunk up that vision.

    Kind of unrelated, but do you have any advice for giving conference talks?

    Students focus too much on trying to impress the audience that what they did was hard and that they’re smart. The best talks, by contrast, focus on three things:

    (1) Why is this problem important.
    (2) Why is it hard to solve.
    (3) How did we overcome that hardness.

    I’ve actually given talks where I put those three questions on the screen. Even though most of my work is mathematical, I use a minimum of actualy math in my talks — it gunks up insight.

  6. Cal,
    Been following your posts for several months and find them VERY applicable to a self-employed approach to projects, as well.

    I’ve been a member of Toastmasters for about a year and this approach to writing speeches will be quite helpful, I’m sure. Too often I avoid getting started on my next speech because it’s such a daunting task. Same with a blog post. This method makes it far more approachable!

    I see that Sam mentioned the book “Presentation Zen”, in a previous comment. It’s a great book on this topic. Another book for your readers to check out is “Slide:ology” by Nancy Duarte. Both writers have great blogs as well.

    Charles Gupton

  7. When I first read your title, I thought of the ice baths used by runners after a long run. In those cases, you actually dunk yourself in as fast as you can bear it because the ice will numb you. I thought that was what you were referring to until the part where you actually talked about swimmers.

  8. I use the same method when doing pretty much everything (outside of academia). My brain just tends to work better in small bursts, rather than hammering out 8 hours of work on a single task. I always have 3-4 projects going at once, and I switch between them, giving each 30-50 minutes at a time.

  9. great post Cal !
    the “ice bath method“ saves my week in tasks that are really hard to start

    greetings from chile (wher I´m now)


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