Study Hacks Blog Posts from March, 2012 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

The Satisfying Strain of Learning Hard Material: A Deliberate Practice Case Study

March 28th, 2012 · 40 comments

A Deliberate Morning

This morning I finished my notes for an upcoming lecture in my graduate-level theory of computation course.

There are two points I wanted to make about these notes…

  1. The process of creating them is very hard. On average, it takes me between 2.5 to 3 hours to prepare a lecture. This preparation requires that I work with absolutely zero distractions as the material is too difficult to be internalized if my attention is divided in any way. Furthermore, the work is not particularly pleasant. Learning things that are this hard does not put you in a flow state. It instead puts you in a state of strain, similar to what is experienced by a musician learning a new technique.
  2. I have gotten better at this process. The lecture I prepared today was the twenty-first such lecture I have prepared this semester. The earliest lectures were a struggle in the sense that my mind rebelled at the strain required and lobbied aggressively for  distraction. This morning, by contrast, I was able to slip into this hard work with little friction, tolerate the strain for three consecutive hours, then come out on the other side feeling a sense of satisfaction.

Recently, we have been discussing the deliberate practice hypothesis, which argues that knowledge workers can experience big jumps in value if they apply deliberate practice techniques to their work. My three-month experiment in timed, forced concentration provides a nice case study of this idea. I am now better at mastering hard concepts than I was before. The mental acuity developed from this practice translates over to the research side of my job, helping me more efficiently understand existing results and more deeply explore my own ideas.

To toss the ball back in your court, imagine what would happen if you replaced “graduate-level theory of computation” with a prohibitively complicated but exceptionally valuable topic in your own field, and then tackled it with the same persistence…


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:

“Being Very Good at Anything Involves Being Somewhat Addicted”: Hard Truth on the Sheer Difficulty of Making an Impact

March 15th, 2012 · 53 comments

The Chess Master and the Economist

A reader recently sent me an interesting interview with Ken Rogoff, a hotshot economics professor at Harvard.

As a young man, Rogoff was a world-class chess player. He eventually translated his ability to grad school where he studied economics with a focus, naturally enough, on game theory. What caught my attention in Rogoff’s interview was his dedication to diligence.

Even two interests, in Rogoff’s thinking, represented one too many:

[A]t graduate school he became convinced that dividing his attention meant that both his chess and his economics were suffering. He had to make a decision. [He chose economics.] “Part of my strategy of moving on was to give it up completely. I don’t play chess casually…Not unless it’s incredibly rude to decline playing.”

He elaborates:

“Being very good at anything involves being somewhat addicted.”

Bottom line: I am increasingly stricken by the yawning gap that exists between the feel-good, follow your passion, be the change you want to see-style chatter that fills the online world, and the reality of how people actually end up making a true impact.

(Image by jojoivika)


You’re Working too Hard to Make an Impact

March 9th, 2012 · 12 comments

Professorial Exodus

Living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which I did for many years after college, I learned to recognize a curious ritual. Come June, the academic offices of Harvard and MIT would clear out as a significant fraction of these schools’ professors decamped to New Hampshire, Maine, and, for the more remuneratively famous among them, Martha’s Vineyard.

Some professors I knew would fall off the radar completely, while others would shift to three day a week schedules. But come summer time, you couldn’t take it for granted that a professor would be on campus.

Interestingly, the biggest predictor of a professor leaving was status: the more important a person’s work, the more comfortable they were taking time off. Here’s my hypothesis: once they built confidence in their understanding of value — how to identify what really matters and what it really takes to produce it — they gained the confidence required to push everything else aside.

Are You Busy or Valuable?

When the weather turns nice, as it has been recently down here in DC, I remember this Cambridge ritual. It reminds me of an important point: creating value is unrelated to busyness. When you find yourself — as I sometimes do — working long hours, day after day, reacting and e-mailing and hatching schemes, it’s useful to remember that you’re working more than some of the world’s most respected and impactful thinkers.

The hard part, of course, is that it’s easier to be busy than it is to be valuable — but this shouldn’t stop us from every once and a while taking advantage of a nice day to shut things down and spend a few hours trying to figure out the difference.

(Photo by Christopher Wisker)