Charles Franklin Thwing is a largely forgotten but impressive figure from the early twentieth century. He graduated Harvard in the 1870s, entered seminary, became a pastor in Massachusetts, then an academic, eventually ending up president of Western Reserve University.
He came to my attention because of a book he wrote in 1912 titled, Letters from a Father to his Son Entering College. In this insightful volume is the following wisdom:
“To save time, take time in large pieces. Do not cut time up into bits…The mind is like a locomotive. It requires time for getting under headway. Under headway it makes its own steam. Progress gives force as force makes progress. Do not slow down as long as you run well and without undue waste. Take advantage of momentum. Prolonged thinking leads to profound thinking.”
Thwing, it seems, was a disciple of deep work a century before the term was coined. Good ideas, I suppose, are timeless.
Hat Tip to Morry, who turns 80 next month, and who brought this book to my attention. Morry, inspired by Thwing, has followed this advice for decades by deploying 4 hour stretches of deep work to get important things done.
23 thoughts on “The Mind is Like a Locomotive”
Cal, whatever happened to “Incubation,” the step I thought (or was told) it was necessary in the creativity process. You work hard on a problem, hours, and nothing! It seems no point to keep on hitting the wall. The advice was to let go, take a walk, take your mind off, sleep it off, and the solution will come to you, when you least expect it. Let your subconscious takes over. It has more tools at its disposal to solve the problem. Wasn’t that what Carl Jung talked about? Help, please!
As far as I can tell, the two are not opposing. All that time without a solution could be considered deep work (as long as it was uninterrupted), and then you take a break and get back to it.
Both are true. Deep work as I understand it contains blocks of time that are focused and uninterrupted by social media or people. It allows you to really drill down into an issue to get at its heart and discover its meaty goodness. This is for when you know what you are doing. The taking breaks, walking etc is for when you are wrestling with a problem and you don’t know how best to go about it.
Again, I recommend reading Peter Drucker’s “The Effective Executive”.
“Yet most of the tasks of the executive require, for minimum effectiveness, a fairly large quantum of time. To spend in one stretch less than this minimum is sheer waste. One accomplishes nothing and has to begin all over again.”
“To be effective, every knowledge worker, and especially every executive, therefore needs to be able to dispose of time in fairly large chunks. To have small dribs and drabs of time at his disposal will not be sufficient even if the total is an impressive number of hours.”
Good ideas are indeed timeless. Drucker especially recommends time tracking to spot where time is wasted.
Say I study many different subjects in a day, allowing a short amount of time for each activity, but doing so on a daily basis to let me make progress on everything. So should I instead make each day focus on a single different thing, as opposed to doing a little bit of everything?
General recommendation is YES. But the only way to tell what works best for YOU is to experiment, of course. Try the day-per-subject activity for a week, and compare the progress with a “usual” week. Please let me know your experience – I’m very curious if you hit any obstacles with “deep” approach!
The only way to find out is to experiment and track your progress and time spent.
When I was doing practice math problems, I found out that I could do many more problems when practicing 1 hour every day for 5 days, than practicing in one 5-hour stretch.
Keep in mind that studying and solving problems and creating some piece of work are not the same thing.
One can’t compare proving a difficult theorem to solving practice math problems.
Also, writing an essay isn’t the same thing as studying to gather the information for it. To write the essay, I would suggest to use a long stretch of time to produce a zero draft of the entire essay, and then you can work in small time blocks on it later on, correcting mistakes, reformulating sentences etc.
As an Organic Chemistry professor, and now a parent, I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. I wish I had read it in High School and I wish I could live up to it today. . .
LETTERS FROM A
FATHER TO HIS SON
CHARLES FRANKLIN THWING
President of Western Reserve University
Thanks, once again, Cal.
P.S. I’m trying your challenge for the new year: Four 3-hour blocks of uninterupted time for Deep work.
I went to Case Western Reserve for undergrad, and the student center is named for Thwing, but I never knew much about him until now. Thanks, Cal. Also, your book is great.
I have to say, this is really consistent with my own experience as a student.
When I was a first year physics student, I took the normal prescribed classes, and they cluttered up the entire day. I had to run between lectures, because the lecture halls are spread over the entire city.
The only day with a long time block was Tuesday afternoon, and the weekend. I remember complaining to my fellow students that these tiny time blocks are useless, and that you can’t get anything useful done in that time.
Later, when I specialized on theoretical physics, I wouldn’t even start to study if I didn’t have a 3-hour time block ahead of me. I would consider 2 hours the absolute minimum, but even then I would cringe and feel constrained. 3 hours between 9-12 a.m. was the Golden Time Block for my theoretical physics studies, and I got seriously pissed off if a lecture took place during that time block.
So yes, this is entirely consistent with my personal experience.
Now as a professional, I didn’t get any useful deep work done except on the weekends, putting considerable strain on my relationship.
Therefore, last year in December I started getting up around 5 am, so I would get in a 2-hour time block for Deep Work before work. However, I have to say, my cognitive gold is still between 9 and 12, regardless of getting up earlier.
I have to say, I’m deeply inspired by Cal’s commitment to Deep Work, and a very favorable review on Amazon will follow this weekend, when I have more time to think about it.
It’s not that I never knew the joy and beauty of Deep Work, I certainly do, and many blissful moments of my life where when I figured out something that was really hard for me.
But, I lack the practical side of Deep Work that Cal has, to make Deep Work work for me, so to speak. There, I have a lot to learn from him. Thanks for sharing your insights with us on the blog and your book.
Speaking of this, I have a practical question.
How do you set yourself up to work on a problem while walking? Do you just remember the problem and all its details, or do you prepare it, sitting down and memorizing all the important details pertinent to the problem?
As a high school student, I don’t have hard problems to tackle for hours. Even so, long uninterrupted sessions are highly beneficial. At the start of this semester I’ve blocked out distractions until an hour after school to concentrate on nothing but schoolwork, essentially forming an 8-hour study session. And it worked like a charm – for the first time I’m following the ideal student workweek!
It’s a great feeling to be done with all homework and focus on my “deep interest” in the evening, knowing that there’ll still be an hour or two left each day for gaming. It’s all thanks to the combination of HIGH SCHOOL SUPERSTAR, STRAIGHT-A and DEEP WORK.
I hope that you can discuss your thoughts on “deep polishing,” “deep production,” and “deep research” which you mentioned in your Google Hangouts video. Any plans to write about those concepts?
Thanks for the blog and your new book – Have read the eVersion, now getting the paper version (much easier to see the links between the ideas on paper). In a similar line, I love the comment from Leslie Lamport: “sensible old ideas need to be repeated or silly new ones will get all the attention.” (doi:10.1145/2736348). We need to always be reminded of the “sensible old ideas” and not let the silly new/old/fashionable ideas take the place of read work.
I love that things like batching and deep work have been used by effective people for centuries.
Deep work is a tremendous solution to an age old problem – “How do I best use my time”
This is off of this topic, but I am wondering, Cal, if you could post or send me a link to your video on Deep Work. I preregistered as I purchased your book, but had a major personal conflict and was not available at the time when you presented.
Thanks from a fellow professor. 🙂
Quote from this documentary from Vice:
“Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.”
My Life In Monsters: Meet the Animator Behind Star Wars and Jurassic Park
Excellent post Cal.
I particularly like the “Do not slow down as long as you run well and without undue waste. Take advantage of momentum.” Scheduling is important, but it’s also important to have margin scheduled in the day to surrender to momentum when it occurs. There seems to be two kinds of time management. The first is how we handle our calendar. The second is how we handle our opportunities (in this case momentum).
Thanks a lot for all of the incredibly useful information you have brought us readers during the years.
I have a simple question, that may/may not require as simple an answer:
As a student, when should I find time to review old material? As classes generally are about 4 months long, I find that I forget a lot of details from early material come exam time, and have trouble nailing these trouble spots in the couple of weeks of exam prep. I am sorry if you have answered this question elsewhere, but I couldn’t find it. Thank you in advance!
great one pal
A good idea is timeless, or in the timeless words of David Brent: A good idea is a good idea forever