Study Hacks Blog Posts from November, 2011 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

MindMaple Gives, I Give Back…

November 27th, 2011 · 13 comments

I don’t accept paid advertisements. I do, however, have a standing offer to write an honest post about a student-related product if I like it and the company is willing to donate to a charity of my choice. (See here for more details.)

MindMaple, the makers of an exceptional piece of mind mapping software, recently took me up on my offer by donating money to Bottom Line, a great Boston-based organization that helps more students get access to college.

Intuitive, Elegant Mind Mapping Software…

Mind mapping is a method of visually organizing connected ideas, tasks, and information. It has been embraced by many students, for example, as a way to structure information from a class to make it easier to understand and recall (e.g., as explained in this article by Scott Young).

The reason I’ve been slow to suggest this strategy is that mind maps are hard to draw well by hand (you inevitably run out of room) and much of the early software I encountered was too clunky for inclusion in a streamlined study system.

MindMaple has solved these problems. Its interface is perfectly intuitive and uncluttered (especially if you’re using a tablet) allowing you to create beautiful maps quick. You can then export them to any number of formats. The video at the top of the post shows what I mean.

Conclusion: If you’re interested in mind mapping, you need to check out Mind Maple.

Perfectionism as Practice: Steve Jobs and the Art of Getting Good

November 25th, 2011 · 24 comments

The Perfectionism of Steve Jobs

While designing the original Macintosh, Steve Jobs became frustrated with the title bars. As Malcolm Gladwell summarizes in a recent essay on industrial innovation:

“[Jobs] forced the developers to do another version, and then another, about twenty iterations in all, insisting on one tiny tweak after another, and when the developers protested…he shouted, ‘Can you imagine looking at that every day? It’s not just a little thing. It’s something we have to do right.'”

Gladwell told this story to emphasize a truth about Jobs that many found frustrating: “He needed things to be perfect.”

A Different Type of Practice

Like many in the advice community, the death of Steve Jobs drove me to a period of morbid, posthumous anthropology, seeking some insight into what made this icon who he was. In this scavenging, it was the tales of perfectionism — emphasized by many different commentators — that caught my attention.

Jobs’ quest for perfection made him “complicated and exhausting,” but it also made him and his team really good at what they did.

On reflection, this makes sense. When we declare something to be “good enough,” we are declaring that we have reached the limits of our comfort zone. A “good enough” outcome, in this respect, is a snapshot of our current ability level. Pushing something beyond this point crosses a threshold into an ambiguous and uncomfortable territory, where we need skills we don’t yet have and which might be difficult to acquire and apply.

This is a territory most of us avoid.

People in the orbit of Steve Jobs could not.

And they became the best technologists in the world.

Defusing the Dangerous Allure of Perfect

We have now entered a precarious situation. Perfectionism, I’m arguing, can be a powerful technique for injecting deliberate practice into your working life, as the quest for perfection forces you to strain and develop new abilities in a way that you would otherwise naturally avoid. Because of this, it provides a nice case study of our deliberate practice hypothesis in action.

But perfectionism is also dangerous. It’s the source of workaholism and the bane of elite college students. It drove Harvard’s happiness guru, Tal Ben-Shahar, to write a book with the subtitle, How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life.

To harness this technique, therefore, requires nuance.

Read more »

Complicate the Formula: John McPhee’s Deliberate Practice Strategy

November 16th, 2011 · 42 comments

The Mathematical Logic of John McPhee

In the nineteen-sixties, a young John McPhee had made a name at The New Yorker as a profile man. As McPhee explained in a recent essay, writing a profile is an exercise in the peripheral. You interview everyone who can “shed light on the life and career of [your subject]” until “you meet yourself coming the other way.” Then you’re ready to write.

McPhee was really good at this process.

He was also really quite bored.

“I was a little desperate to escalate,” he recalls.

In search of escalation, McPhee complicated the formula. If the standard profile focuses on one subject, why not, he thought, try to profile two subjects who shared some peripheral connections? That is, go from A to  A + B.

This challenge lead to “Levels of the Game,” a dual profile, published in The New Yorker, of two American tennis stars who met in the semifinals of the first US Open.

“The double profile worked out,” McPhee recalls, “and my aspirations went into vaulting mode.”

So he complicated things again, pinning onto the bulletin board above his desk a card with a new, more daring formula: ABC/D.

His idea was to profile four people. The first three, A, B, and C, would all be connected through the fourth, D.

For his D, McPhee choose famed environemntalist David Bower, and then went searching for enemies of the environment to fill the roles of A, B, and C.

These efforts led to Encounters with the Archdruid, which was promptly nominated for a National Book Award.

The Deliberate Practice Hypothesis

I’m telling this story because it provides a sample answer to a question many of you have asked.

Recently, I’ve been exploring what we can call the deliberate practice hypothesis. This hypothesis says if you apply deliberate practice (a technique well known to athletes, musicians, and chess players) to the world of knowledge work, you will experience a significant jump in ability.

The natural follow-up question, of course, is how does one apply deliberate practice if you work at a desk?

McPhee’s strategy provides one possible answer out of uncountably many. He reduced his work to a formula so he could then purposefully complicate it. This approach stretched his abilities more — I assume — than if he had simply set out with a goal of “writing better.”

More generally speaking, my guess is that once you start looking closer at the lives of true craftsmen, these types of deliberate strategies will be common.

Perhaps its time to start looking…

(Photo by tnarik)


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:


If You’re Busy, You’re Doing Something Wrong: The Surprisingly Relaxed Lives of Elite Achievers

November 11th, 2011 · 315 comments

The Berlin Study

In the early 1990s, a trio of psychologists descended on the Universität der Künste, a historic arts academy in the heart of West Berlin. They came to study the violinists.

As described in their subsequent publication in Psychological Review, the researchers asked the academy’s music professors to help them identify a set of stand out violin players — the students who the professors believed would go onto careers as professional performers.

We’ll call this group the elite players.

For a point of comparison, they also selected a group of students from the school’s education department. These were students who were on track to become music teachers. They were serious about violin, but as their professors explained, their ability was not in the same league as the first group.

We’ll call this group the average players.

The three researchers subjected their subjects to a series of in-depth interviews. They then gave them diaries which divided each 24-hour period into 50 minute chunks, and sent them home to keep a careful log of how they spent their time.

Flush with data, the researchers went to work trying to answer a fundamental question: Why are the elite players better than the average players?

The obvious guess is that the elite players are more dedicated to their craft. That is, they’re willing to put in the long,Tiger Mom-style hours required to get good, while the average players are off goofing around and enjoying life.

The data, as it turns out, had a different story to tell…


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Welcome to the Post-Productivity World

November 5th, 2011 · 36 comments

The Age of Productivity

September 8, 2008 was an important date in the world of self-improvement writing. Yet almost no one knows this.

To understand what happened on this date we should return, briefly, to 2004 — the early days of blogging. It was then that a web programmer named Merlin Mann stumbled onto a powerful formula: blogging about becoming more productive. He called his site 43 Folders, a tribute to the tickler file from David Allen’s Getting Things Done system.

43 Folders’ timing was good. A new generation of tech-savvy knowledge workers needed help navigating a work environment defined by information overflow, and Mann offered them a tantalizing promise: with the right combination of high-tech productivity tools, you could find your way into a utopian state where work becomes effortless.

Especially if you used a Mac.

In 2005, when Clive Thompson wrote his famous “Meet the Life Hackers” feature for The New York Times Magazine, he quoted Mann as a spokesperson of the new tech-driven self-improvement movement.

43 Folders’ subscriber count shot past the 100,000 mark and Mann was able to quit his programming job and support himself full time with his writing.

This was, to use my own terminology, the birth of The Age of Productivity. Mann paved the way to a powerful ecosystem of blogs that focused on how to become more efficient.

Gawker Media’s Lifehacker blog became its most popular site, eventually cracking Technorati’s top 10 list. became a major force. Leo Babuta paid off his credit card debt with an ebook that merged Getting Things Done with Zen philosophy.

This was a good time to be telling the world how to become more productive.

But then we get to September of 2008.

The Post-Productivity World

It was on the eighth day of this month that Mann posted an odd little essay on his personal blog. He titled it “Better.”

It was the tantrum of a talented writer whose pursuit of readers had led him astray. He expressed frustration with the superficiality of online writing, calling it “a diet comprised mostly of fake-connectedness [and] makebelieve insight.”

“All I know right now is that I want to do all of it better,” he wrote. “Everything better. Better, better.”

The impact on 43 Folders was immediate. That same day, Mann posted a short note on 43 Folders saying that the site was no longer a “blog about productivity.” He would, instead, help people embrace the hard work of “making something that you love — and making it better.”

I rarely hear people mention the 43 Folders transformation, which may have to do with the fact that soon after Mann had his first child which turned his attentions understandably elsewhere.

But its impact, I argue, was profound.

Survey the current landscape of self-improvement blogs. It’s no longer popular to post about productivity pr0n. The idea that all that stands between you and workplace bliss is the right OmniFocus configuration no longer holds its allure.

The Age of Productivity began its decline around the time Mann, its Prometheus, turned his back on it. We are now in a new age, one in which the big picture trumps the small. What matters in this new age is your work philosophy — not your systems.

  • Mann’s new work philosophy, for example, focuses on creating excellent things that you care about.
  • My Career Craftsman philosophy, to name another example, focuses on becoming excellent to provide the capital needed to shape a compelling career.
  • Tim Ferriss, by contrast, rethought what currencies matter, moving emphasize from money to time — with profound effect.
  • While Leo Babuta has quietly and effectively molded Zen Habits in the spearhead of the Minimalist movement, perhaps the most successful of the recent re-imaginings of work.

Productivity, of course, is still important. Most mature work philosophies require that you can organize what’s on your plate. But when you’re guided by a philosophy, this organization becomes the easy part. Your drive to accomplish what you believe needs to be accomplished has a way of sweeping away the ineffective.

It’s hard to judge an era while still in the middle of it, but from all accounts I think this Age of Workplace Philosopher represents an exciting shift in our thinking about work and happiness. The more seriously we struggle with the question of “What defines a good working life?”, the better off we are. (And I mean “seriously struggle;” falling back to a vague, unverified cliche, like “follow your passion!”, no longer holds water in this new age.)

I miss 43 Folders, and am still hoping that Mann will soon return to more regular updates on how his new philosophical outlook is taking shape. In the meantime, I’ll continue to struggle away with the growing number of other writers who have taken up Mann’s call to move our online conversation, dare I say it, productively forward.

(Photo by zen)