Study Hacks Blog

The Neuroscience of Busyness

May 6th, 2021 · 12 comments

In a paper published last month in the journal Nature (summary), a group of scientists from the University of Virginia reported on a series of experiments designed to assess how we solve problems. When presented with a challenging scenario, humans cannot evaluate every possible solution, so we instead deploy heuristics to prune this search space down to a much smaller number of promising candidates. As this paper demonstrates,  when engaged in this pruning, we’re biased toward solutions that add components instead of those that subtract them.

This quirk in our mental processing matters. Potentially a lot. As the authors of the paper conjecture:

“Defaulting to searches for additive changes may be one reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape, and damaging effects on the planet.”

As I read about this finding, I couldn’t help but also think about the epidemic of chronic overload that currently afflicts so many knowledge workers. The volume of obligations on our proverbial plates — vague projects, off-hand promises, quick calls and small tasks — continues to increase at an alarming rate. There was a time, not that long ago, when the standard response to the query, “How are you?”, was an innocuous “fine”; today, it’s rare to encounter someone who doesn’t instead respond with a weary “busy.”

Does the wiring of our brains play a role in this reality?

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Favorable Conditions Never Come

April 30th, 2021 · 26 comments

In a sermon delivered at the height of World War Two, a period awash in distraction and despair, C.S. Lewis delivered a powerful claim about the cultivation of a deep life:

“We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.”

This quote reminds me of one my favorite Teddy Roosevelt stories, first recounted in his 1888 memoir, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail. The tale begins in the spring, as the ice began to thaw on the Little Missouri River that passed through Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch. Under the cover of night, a band of infamous local horse thieves steal a boat from the Elkhorn.

Though the swollen river was treacherous, and the thieves dangerous, there was no doubt that Roosevelt had to pursue them. “In any wild country where the power of law is little felt or heeded, and where every one has to rely upon himself for protection,” he writes, “men soon get to feel that it is in the highest degree unwise to submit to any wrong.” With the help of his ranch hands, Bill Seward and Wilmot Dow, Roosevelt builds a new flat-bottomed scow, which the trio then pushes out into the ice-choked river to initiate a three-day journey to hunt down the fugitives.

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The Productivity Funnel

April 20th, 2021 · 22 comments

In light of our recent discussions of “productivity,” both in this newsletter and on my podcast, I thought it might be useful to provide a more formal definition of what exactly I mean when I reference this concept.

In the most general sense, productivity is about navigating from a large constellation of possible things you could be doing to the actual execution of a much smaller number of things each day.

At one extreme, you could implement this navigation haphazardly: executing, in the moment, whatever grabs your attention as interesting or unavoidably urgent. At the other extreme, you might deploy a fully geeked out, productivity pr0n-style optimized collection of tools to precisely prioritize your obligations.

To make sense of these varied journeys from a broad array of potential activity to the narrowed scope of actual execution, I often imagine the three-level funnel diagramed above.

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On Slow Productivity and the Anti-Busyness Revolution

April 7th, 2021 · 27 comments

Seven years ago, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang was a typical overworked, multitasking, slave to the hyperactive hive mind, Silicon Valley consultant.  Feeling the symptoms of burnout intensify, he arranged a three-month sabbatical at Microsoft Research Cambridge. Here’s how he later described this period:

“I got an enormous amount of stuff done and did an awful lot of really serious thinking, which was a great luxury, but I also had what felt like an amazingly leisurely life. I didn’t feel the constant pressure to look busy or the stress that I had when I was consulting. And it made me think that maybe we had this idea about the relationship between working hours and productivity backward. And [we should] make more time in our lives for leisure in the classic Greek sense.”

The experience led him to ultimately publish a book titled, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. I remember this book because it came out the same year as Deep Work, and the two volumes were often paired as variations on a common emerging anti-busyness theme.

In the half-decade that has since transpired, an increasing number of new books have taken aim at our accelerating slide toward overload in both our work and our personal lives. Many of these new titles, somewhat in contrast to my writing, or that of Pang,  have adopted a more strident and polemical tone — not only underscoring the issues, but also pointing a defiant finger at the forces which are supposedly to blame. Clearly the overwhelmed and overscheduled manner in which we currently operate isn’t working.

Which brings me to a question that more and more has been capturing my attention: What can we do about this unfortunate state of affairs?

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In Defense of Thinking

March 31st, 2021 · 45 comments

I recently came across a Hemingway quote that caught my attention:

“My working habits are simple: long periods of thinking, short periods of writing.”

It reminded me of a time I used to spend each spring as a young professor, back when my schedule allowed it, giving short talks at so-called “dissertation bootcamp” events. The point of these multi-day affairs was to help graduate students gain some momentum on their doctoral theses. I would stop by to talk about productivity and focus, and when possible, grab a free lunch.

Attending these bootcamps, I was often struck by how much the conversation centered on “writing.” The informal advice passed around was about “getting in your writing hours,” or making sure “to write every day,” or committing to “hit your target word count.”

I always found this somewhat confusing, as my experience with writing — both popular and academic — matched Hemingway’s self-description, in that the actual act of putting words on the page came only after many more hours  spent thinking through what I wanted to say. This contemplation was where the real intellectual action was to be found.

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On Robert Heinlein’s Analog Autoresponder

March 23rd, 2021 · 7 comments

A reader recently pointed me toward a fascinating post on Kevin Kelly’s CT2 blog. It concerned the fan mail received by the famed science fiction author Robert Heinlein. Unable to keep up with the deluge of incoming correspondence, Heinlein devised a form letter (pictured above), which included responses to twenty-one common questions and requests.

These canned replies include, for example, a pointer to the book Writer’s Market for more information on how to prepare manuscripts for submission, and an apologetic note explaining that Heinlein is unable to participate in class assignments. (I empathize with this last one. I’m honored by the surprisingly large number of classes that assign my books or articles, but to my regret, I rarely have enough time to participate in evaluating this work.) To answer fan mail, Heinlein would simply check the box on the form letter next to the most appropriate response.

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Combating Zoom Overload with Reverse Meetings

March 18th, 2021 · 8 comments

In a recent episode of my podcast, I dove deep on the topic of meeting overload during our current moment of pandemic-induced remote work. I want to expand here on one of the more radical (but intriguing) solutions I mentioned: the reverse meeting.

First, a little background. Why are we suddenly spending so much more time in meetings now that we’re working from home? There are multiple factors involved.

For example, the sudden shift out of the office created a lot of unexpected new questions that had to be answered. In the moment, scheduling a meeting is an easy way to relieve the anxiety of having these new and pressing demands on your plate.

(Remember: the one productivity system that is universally trusted is the calendar, so if a meeting related to a new issue is scheduled, you can trust that it won’t be forgotten, and you therefore no longer have to keep track of it in your head. This grants immediate relief.)

Another factor is a reduction in the energy and social capital expended when organizing online gatherings. Pre-pandemic, setting up a meeting meant reserving a conference room and requiring your colleagues to physically relocate themselves at your request. There’s enough of a cost here that you might think twice before casually convening these conversations.

In a remote setting, however, we’re all just on our laptops all day anyway, so the cost of shooting off a digital calendar invite for a Zoom discussion is much lower. It takes only a couple clicks and the social consequences seem minimal. The result: we setup many more meetings.

This brings us to the question of how to reduce this overload, and therefore back to the idea of reverse meetings. Here’s the concept:

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One Step Closer to a World Without Email

March 15th, 2021 · 10 comments

My new book, A World Without Email, was released two weeks ago. I’m pleased to announce that it was an immediate New York Times bestseller, so I want to thank you, my long time readers, for supporting this launch.

I thought before I return to my regularly scheduled programming (trust me, I’m eager to start writing on topic others than just email), it might be useful to round up a few of the more interesting articles and interviews about the book from the launch week.

So here we go…

Featured Articles Written By Me

  • “Email is Making Us Miserable,” The New Yorker
  • “Email and Slack Have Locked Us in a Productivity Paradox ,” WIRED
  • “Had It With Email? Give Personal Office Hours a Try,” Fast Company
  • “Stop Giving Clients Your Personal Email. Here’s Why,” Entrepreneur

Featured Reviews

  • “The Battle with the Inbox,” Wall Street Journal
  • “Email Broke the Office. Here’s how to Fix It.” GQ
  • “Technology has Turned Back the Clock on Productivity,” The Financial Times
  • “The Scourge of Work Email is Far Worse Than You Think,” The Financial Times
  • “Can we really banish email from the workplace? Author Cal Newport says yes,” Fortune
  • “How to drastically reduced the time you spend on emails,” Fast Company
  • “The Man Who Thinks We Should Ignore Our Email,” The Sunday Times
  • “A World Without Email by Cal Newport review — overthrowing the tyranny of email,” The Times of London

Featured Interviews