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You Can Be Busy or Remarkable — But Not Both


The Remarkably Relaxed

Terence Tao is one of the world’s best mathematicians. He won a Fields Medal when he was 31. He is, we can agree, remarkable.

He is not, however, busy.

I should be careful about definitions. By “busy,” I mean a schedule packed with non-optional professional responsibilities.

My evidence that Tao is not overwhelmed by such obligations is the time he spends on non-obligatory, non-time sensitive hobbies. In particular, his blog.

Since the new year, he’s written nine long posts, full of mathematical equations and fun titles, like “Matrix identities as derivatives of determinant identities.” His most recent post is 3700 words long! And that’s a normal length.

As a professor who also blogs, I know that posts are something you do only when you have down time. I conjecture, therefore, that Tao’s large volume of posting implies he enjoys a large amount of down time in his professional life.

Here’s why you should care: Tao’s downtime is not an aberration — a quirk of a quirky prodigy — it is instead, I argue, essential to his success.

The Phases of Deep Work

Deep work is phasic.

Put another way, to ape Rushkoff, we’re not computer processors. We can’t be expected to accomplish any job any time we have the available cycles. There are rhythms to our psychology. Certain times of the day, week, month, and even year (e.g., the professor I discussed in my last post) are better suited for deep work than other times.

To respect this reality, you must leave sufficient time in your schedule to handle the intense bursts of such work when they occur. This requires that you constrain the other obligations in your life — perhaps by being reluctant to agree to things or start projects, or by ruthlessly batching and streamlining your regular obligations.

When it’s time to work deeply, this approach leaves you the schedule space necessary to immerse.

When you’ve shifted temporarily out of deep work mode, however, this approach leaves you with down time.

This is why people who do remarkable things can seem remarkably under-committed — it’s a side-effect of the scheduling philosophy necessary to accommodate depth.

Returning to Tao’s blog, the specific dates of his posts support my theory. As mentioned, he posted nine long posts since the New Year. On closer inspection, it turns out that most of the posts occurred in a single month: February.

We can imagine that this month was a down cycle between two periods of more intense thinking.

If my theory is true — and I don’t know that it is — its implication is striking: busyness stymies accomplishment.

If you’re looking for the next Tao, in other words, ignore the guy checking e-mail while running to his next meeting, and look instead towards the quiet fellow, staring off at the clouds, trying to figure out what to do with his afternoon.

(Photo by The Other Dan)

57 thoughts on “You Can Be Busy or Remarkable — But Not Both”

  1. It is also important to point out that when putting together some sort of batching system for those everyday activities/obligations which cannot be avoided, that perfection must be ruthlessly ignored. Too often, we see otherwise productive folks spend the peak of their motivation cycle/deep work phase attempting to put together the perfect system for managing their more menial tasks.

    David Allen puts forward an interesting system and philosophy, but I have witnessed countless folks putting their high productivity moments toward further developing their system.

    It is vitally important that you develop a system that works for you, then move on. It will not be perfect, but as long as it works well enough, it will provide its purpose.

    If you wish, it makes sense to set up a review of your system (a time-based action item/to-do item) after a set period of time (3 months minimum – 6 months recommended), while allowing for small tweaks in between.

    There are some potentially remarkable people that are constantly bogged down in the minutiae of a task management system. Figure out a task management system that works for you, then move on to do your remarkable work.

  2. Hmm, a couple of comments, Cal.

    1. It makes sense that extraordinary success accompanies down time. Wisdom comes from stillness after all and Albert Einstein was known to sleep 11 or so hours a day.

    2. My first challenge here is picking Tao as he seems to be an outlier. Excellence is both nature and nurture and he seems to have been blessed with exceptional nature (and, I am sure, top class parenting). Teaching a 5 year old kid mathematics at 2 as per his wiki page means he was achieving excellence before many even learnt to walk properly.

    3. I think “bursts” is a good way to express it. I think, at some level, we all work in these bursts. I just wonder if it has a greater implication in fields like research which reward one big insight vs in business where the “drip” i.e. consistent quality work is appreciated.

  3. Cal,

    I came across this site a few months ago, and have since worked my way through almost all of the content you’ve ever produced here. I have to say that your philosophy is incredibly appealing. Thank you for taking the time to engage with this topic and taking the time to share your thoughts.

    Starting many years ago, I became fascinated with the idea of a “flow state,” something I experienced in my younger years playing sports and music, and later with music, programming, and gaming. I feel that “deep work” aligns naturally with the idea of a “flow state,” and your research and articles seem to indicate that this method of work is extremely effective when it comes to producing outstanding results.

    There is an adage that I remember hearing from an advisor in my college years: “Busy people are more productive.” At the time, I thought it was true. In fact, at the time, I was not particularly busy nor productive, at least in the sense of accomplishing anything meaningful.

    As time goes on, I find that this adage is a bit misleading. Busy people certainly seem more productive. In many cases, I believe they feel more productive, as well, which reinforces this perception to some degree.

    I hope you continue to publish articles on applying the concept of deep work to ordinary, non-academic work. I’ve enjoyed the articles that you’ve done on this subject, but I think that as an academic you overlook the fact that many knowledge workers, including myself, would like to work this way, but have responsibilities that are segmented. In this environment, how would you find your muse? Does the power of deep work rely on this work being focused on a deep specialization? I hope this question will open up a series of useful questions about how this practice is best applied.

    I apologize for the long comment! Thanks again!

  4. For a professor, you can’t do math.

    Terrence Tao was born in 1975. He got the Fields Medal in 2006. That makes him 31 when he got the Fields medal.

    I’m afraid the rest of the article also has such elementary misgivings such as:”If you’re looking for the next Tao, in other words, ignore the guy checking e-mail while running to his next meeting, and look instead towards the quiet fellow, staring off at the clouds, trying to figure out what to do with his afternoon.”

    • Hey Cal Newport. I’ve been following your blog for a long time. I agree that you need a lot of extra & free time for tasks and new opportunities that come up especially in entrepreneurship. I schedule 30-40% of my work time for meetings and batched activities, but everything else is open to work on more passionate projects…like writing topics I’m interested in and reading you blog 🙂

  5. I think he was 31 when he won the Fields Medal, not 21.

    Rohan, your point number 3 is interesting, and it is something I have been considering a lot recently. Academia definitely allows more freedom in how you allocate your time and produce results than business. This probably arises from the fact that the business world requires much faster results than academia and also requires more teamwork.

    Both of those requirements mean steady work will deliver better results than bursting. The challenge then I suppose is to deliver any “additional” work through bursting or to get yourself into a position where you have more control over your own work – and I guess this means moving away from working as part of a team towards working as an individual.

  6. I feel like I am missing you main point. If you want to be a good researcher, you need “down time” (as you put it, time away from obligations) to do research, including the necessary deep work—reading and thinking—and light work—writing, and in Tao’s case, blogging. By down time, do you mean making time for the light work? The way I read it, you made it seem as if Tao’s blog is a hobby detached from his normal work routine (like a cooking blog you write in after a hard day at the office), but his blog posts seem to be very much a part of his work load. They seem to be something he made as a priority for himself.

    As for Tao, I have heard (second hand) that he says what helps him is “productively procrastinating”, so I imagine him writing in his blog when he doesn’t feel like doing something else “more important”.

    Also, you probably know this, but he has a bunch of career advice here:

    This including posts on time management:

  7. Interesting observation, Cal. I’m not sure if I agree whether or not “posts are something you do only when you have down time.” When you have the love of writing then writing an article for your blog feels like passion that you prioritize.

    This may be impossible for some who work in careers that demand their attention with deadlines that make it difficult. However, I doubt the majority of us are as restricted as that. People who think they are usually aren’t.

  8. Dear Cal

    I’ve been a believer of there are particular patterns to success, valedictorians are made not born. I’ve been researching learning theories, study skills and theories on understanding (i.e Bloom’s Taxonomy if you’ve ever heard of it), and when I came across your book, How to become a straight-a-student, I was very happy when it finally came on my doorstep, and I was even more pleased how your methods (quiz and recall especially) linked it all together. They managed to link dozens of all this theory in a mere few pages.

    When I did the quiz and recall, it just made sense, I was learning at a much faster rate and it was surprisingly efficient. For the first time, I was actually on pace with my lectures and felt I didn’t have to read textbook after textbook to remember or understand facts. When I was lecturing and making some TEQs, I developed insight (yes your insight) on things like how the pathophysiology of acute coronary syndrome for instance explains ECG changes to the heart and HOW they occurred instead of rote-learning them as separate entities.

    I was looking forward to my MCQ test (worth 15%, I only point out this because of your strategies in your book on how to approach tests and not to stress out about them) until it came back to me and I received a poor score (passing grade). I have never felt this shattered in my academic life, because I believe in this system. This system makes too much sense not to work.

    I study a med science (specifically pharm. and in that we study drug therapy, and is that a non-technical course?), and I can’t tell if I did the quiz and recall method properly or maybe my technical explanation questions were poor.

    Aside from this drug works this way, and can be used that way. That was pretty much the only technical aspect. The amount of questions I had per lecture topic was about 40. If that matters, it just seems a lot.

    Can you provide any additional advice? Especially on how to write technical explanation questions for med related courses?


  9. Alternative (and perhaps a little cynical) explanation: Employers highly value remarkable employees for their remarkability, and will therefore have a higher tolerance for said employees’ preference for cloud-watching over busy-work. I imagine this would be particularly true in universities, where the mere presence of a well-funded “rock star” academic is important for a department’s reputation.

    Alternative, less-cynical explanation: Remarkable academics are likely to receive funding and awards that can relieve them of service and teaching duties (e.g. because the award pays the academic’s salary or other costs that are normally covered by the university), freeing them to focus solely on research.

    In other words, being less busy could simply be a side effect of being remarkable, which is a rather nice bargaining chip to have.

    Though I am not opposed to trying out the less busy -> remarkable route 😉

  10. I wonder if you might email Prof. Tao for confirmation of your conjecture :-). (And whether or not he responds is another data point that will either support or go against your conjecture!)

  11. Your recent theme of posts begs the question: what is the optimal balance between deep and non-deep work? Of course, I’m not expecting you to have a concrete answer here, but it’s interesting to consider what it might be like if certain days of the week were setup such that e-mail and other logistical activities were off limits.

  12. Excellent point-

    Having space in your schedule gives you the mental capacity for creative thinking about what you might want to do and the time capacity to do it in.

    I often see that people who are constantly in survival mode can’t even think through what higher level activities they would want to do.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  13. I’m going to poke hard at your hypothesis that busyness stymies accomplishment. The questions is, What kind of busyness?

    I was just talking to a colleague about space in our schedules. I have too much unstructured time and lean too hard on my own discipline to focus. I need more meetings and deadlines where other people rely on me to show up and deliver. In contrast, his schedule is jammed with meetings. But he feels like he needs only a bit more little unstructured time just to rest.

    I consider him one of the most disciplined and accomplished people I know, yet recently, when he gained a lot of open space in his schedule for a short period, he found himself wasting his time instead of daydreaming, engaging in productive play, and doing deep work. Without the structure he flailed.

    My colleague is a university professor and researcher. He’s organized most of his structured time around managing his research team, teaching, developing patentable ideas, and creating new companies. The structure he set up for his busyness actually drives his accomplishments (which are arguably remarkable). For example, when he has to prepare for a new class, the deadlines drive a productive period where he makes his team’s discoveries understandable in bite-sized chunks.

    It’s true for his health, too. When I told him my own workout schedule, which requires a lot of discipline, he suggested he would never get the exercise he does if he didn’t have exercise commitments in his schedule with other people. His busyness has made him extremely fit. Plus, he loves those activities.

    Obviously there’s not just balance to craft; it’s about what you do with your structured time that effects your accomplishments. I have so much unstructured time that my willpower gets tested too often. In contrast my colleague needs just a little bit of ease in his schedule, but only for the sake of some down-time because it’s the structure of his busyness that keeps his accomplishments flowing.

  14. The ebb and flow of different aspects of our productivity and creativity is important to note. I imagine many of us chide ourselves when we’re not productive in what we want to get done at a given moment. Rather, we should develop our self-awareness so that we can monitor where we are in our various cycles and leverage each moment to do the work prescribed for those cycles.

    Cal, I think you’re right about Terance’s habits, and your idea is substantiated by Terance’s post on time management linked above. In the middle of the 4th paragraph he writes, “Another thing is that my ability to do any serious mathematics fluctuates greatly from day to day; sometimes I can think hard on a problem for an hour, other times I feel ready to type up the full details of a sketch that I or my coauthors already wrote, and other times I only feel qualified to respond to email and do errands, or just to take a walk or even a nap. I find it very helpful to organise my time to match this fluctuation: for instance, if I have a free afternoon, and feel inspired to do so, I might close my office door, shut off the internet, and begin typing on a languishing paper; or if not, I go and work on a week’s worth of email, referee a paper, write a blog article, or whatever else seems suited to my current levels of energy and enthusiasm.”

  15. Very timely post and discussion. I’m planning a 4 month study leave from a senior management position. If you’re familiar with Mintzberg’s classic article you’ll get the gist of my days. I *say* I want to step back, explore, and ponder but do I have effective habits for a new environment or even the temperament? Questions I’m mulling – what level of structure do I need to be productive? And – what will *productive* mean?

  16. You have put my feelings toward school into words I haven’t been able to come up with myself. I was a very successful amateur MMA fighter poised to go professional and be successful before college. I started college because I thought I could do both. But being “busy” with obligatory school work has most definitely demolished my shot at further accomplishment in my sport.

  17. I work in a group of designers and artists and have observed the phasic nature of truly inspired creative work. However, our group is under considerable business pressure to have stable, predictable output. This creates the busyness you describe and it definitely has considerable impact on the quality of our work. While things do need to get done, it seems like all stakeholders should really delve into the create rhythms of the team and try to optimize inspired work with the need to get things done. I wonder if any of you have thought about how best to achieve this balance?

  18. Of course, the question for most of us is how you build this kind of schedule while spending 9 hours of your day at the office shuffling meaningless papers in order to pay the bills.

  19. Cal, why couldn’t it be that because of his success, Terance Tao has downtime. As a episode of family guy a couple of weeks ago said, nothing says success like free on a Tuesday afternoon.

    I bet if you’re successful researcher like Tao, it is very easy to earn downtime. You can turn down so many things easily without having to fight it and the department probably also think a lot of things that they would easily put on a lesser professor is not put on Tao because they think his time is valuable.

  20. I’m in the corporate world and I consistently witness that you cannot be busy AND strategic at the same time. People constantly have the ‘I’m so busy’ conversation, like it’s a good thing.

  21. Oh man this is a relief. The downtime and blog-post-frenzies I get in aren’t a sign that I’m lazy? Hehe. I’ve often worried about that.

    Seems quite true. The truly productive things I have done (that fund my
    downtime), I never would have been able to do had I had a busy schedule.

  22. This is such a nice post me feel good. Someone somewhere started that craze of being busy all the time, appearing busy all the time and making sure we are seen busy all the time !
    Taking time out is not just a luxury but it is essential…
    Thank you,

  23. Give me a break.

    You don’t know what Terence Tao’s schedule is like. You don’t know what his energy levels are – how many hours of sleep he gets per night, how many productive hours he puts into a single day. You don’t say anything that infers that you know about his commitments.
    In other words, you’re basing this whole post on a great deal of things you don’t know.
    Furthermore, would it be safe to say, given the title of your post, that if we were to find a busy person who *is* remarkable, it would disprove your thesis? Is Larry Summers remarkable? Barack Obama? Paul Krugman? Would any of these people be those you consider unremarkable?

    If you stick to a single premise – carve out time where you can do deep thinking – fair enough. I agree. But to slap a sensationalistic headline on it stretches the bounds of credulity.

  24. It depends on what your definition of accomplishment is.
    A “the guy checking e-mail while running to his next meeting” is very probably accomplishing a lot in terms of what is important to him. He may have meetings with students, sit on advisory committees, help out with department projects, etc., but he is indeed accomplishing a lot by contributing to the well-being of society overall. His accomplishment may not be a singular work such as a book or article, but he is advancing the interests of student and co-workers overall. Not all are going to be stars in their fields, but there is a great need for the workers who create the indispensable societal support.

  25. \I’ve seen several negative comments above, but I have to say I tend more to agree with the points in the article (even though they might not be backed too well)
    I’ve read your fixed-schedule productivity blog about a year ago and have been trying to live by it the last two semesters, and it has really left me in much more control of my schedule and also more full-filled. While I don’t claim to be remarkable, I’m definitely more productive and efficient if I work intensely focused during most of the day, but give myself sufficient of the down times you mention before sleep.
    Thanks and keep up your blog posts.

  26. Nice article, I love the last sentence about “don’t look at the busy guy but at the quiet guy”, it’s true, I beleve in this tip.

    By the way, thanks for your website, it helps me improving my english since I work in Asia and I’m not yet billingual.



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