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

Henri Poincaré’s Four-Hour Work Day

August 31st, 2012 · 21 comments

John Cook, an applied mathematician and blogger, recently highlighted the following quote from a new biography of Henri Poincaré:

Poincaré … worked regularly from 10 to 12 in the morning and from 5 till 7 in the late afternoon. He found that working longer seldom achieved anything …

At first, we might marvel at how little time Poincaré spent working. But then we realize that “work” in this context probably means super-intense, hard-focused, uber-concentration; the type of “work” that required him to ponder things like a triangulated homology 3-sphere (pictured to the right).

Still, it doesn’t seem that hard to get 4 hours of hard focus out of an 8 – 10 hour work day. Most probably assume that they hit this mark easily. But then we measure this assumption and get a cold dose of reality.

At which point, we stop marveling at Poincaré’s supposed laziness, shut down our e-mail, and turn back to the metaphorical (or, in my case, literal) chalkboard.


This post is part of my Craftsman in the Cubicle series which explores strategies for building a remarkable working life by mastering a small number of rare and valuable skills. Previous posts include:


Following Passion is Different than Cultivating Passion

August 29th, 2012 · 42 comments

My article from, featuring what is arguably the creepiest photo ever associated with a discussion of career advice.

Concerning Comments

Earlier today, published an article I wrote. It summarizes the main idea from my new book: “follow your passion” is bad advice.

What interests me are the comments on the CNN website. Here’s a sample quote:

Following you passion should be a given. What’s the point of life if you’re a robot on a factory line…

As Study Hacks readers will notice, this commenter completely misunderstood my point. He thought I was arguing that you shouldn’t aim for a career that you feel passionate about. This couldn’t be more distant from the truth. I think passion is great. But it’s not something that you “follow” (which implies you can identify it in advance). It’s instead something you have to purposefully cultivate over time.

The key observation here is that the majority of the 60+ comments on the website made a similar mistake. I think this tells us something important about the American cultural conversation surrounding career satisfaction. The reason “follow your passion” has such a hold on our thinking is that many mistakenly equate this strategy with the generic and near-tautological statement that it’s good to love your job.

Of course it’s good to love your job. But “following” your passion suggests something more specific — a strategy that’s not supported by the evidence.

My challenge here is clear: To successfully spread this idea to a larger audience I need to be careful to separate the goal of developing passion from the flawed strategy of following it. (If you want to help me in this challenge, consider retweeting the CNN article with a more accurate description; e.g., “Don’t follow passion, cultivate it“).

You Probably (Really) Work Way Less Than You Assume

August 23rd, 2012 · 37 comments

The 6-Hour Work Week

Last weekend, I decided it would be an interesting experiment to start tracking the hours I spent in a state of hard focus. I only counted hours where I was mastering new material (e.g., with the textbook method), engaging in a serious research discussion, or trying to formally write up new results.

I have done such tracking before, but not recently. I figured it would provide a helpful metric for my craftsman in the cubicle project. Here’s my tally for the four days I’ve tracked so far:

It’s depressing.

I have caveats — I was traveling through late Monday night and I was at a retreat most of the day yesterday — but still. I’m embarrassed by how few hours I managed to spend on work that really matters.

I have a general and a specific conclusion to make here…

The general conclusion: I think most knowledge workers probably way overestimate how much time they actually spend improving and applying the core skills that make them valuable. Keep a similar tally for a week, you’ll be surprised by what you find. This underscores the importance of the type of project I’m running here: if we don’t apply deliberate efforts in our quest to become craftsmen, our progress will be glacial. On the flip side, if we do apply these efforts, we have an opportunity to jump far ahead in our value.

The specific conclusion: As the summer gives way to the school year, I have my work cut out for me. I’m going to continue to track these hours for the near future, and let this tally drive me toward the hard decisions necessary to continue my quest to become “so good they can’t ignore you.”


This post is part of my Craftsman in the Cubicle series which explores strategies for building a remarkable working life by mastering a small number of rare and valuable skills. Previous posts include:


Experiments with the Textbook Method

August 16th, 2012 · 21 comments

Tailoring the Textbook Method

I spent this past week experimenting with the textbook method. I began by creating a template — a blank LaTex document — for collecting research notes:

When compiled into a pdf, it looks like this:

My plan was to minimize friction when starting work on a new idea or project — all I have to do now is copy the blank document to a new directory, change the title, and start capturing notes.

With my system in place I could take it out for a spin.

I decided to apply the method to a big hairy graph theory problem that my collaborators and I have been battling for months. This big problem keeps branching off into many promising smaller problems, one of which I have been pursuing recently with my grad student. This sub-problem provided a perfect case for applying the method.

I started a new write-up to capture, in my own words, what we thought we knew so far:

This well-constructed plan worked well…for about twenty minutes.

As I was writing, this process of formalization led me to a new approach to the idea. I quickly generated a new blank document (easy to do now that I have a template) and spent the rest of the afternoon, textbook open in front of me, office whiteboard filling with diagrams, trying to work though the details:

At first, I felt somewhat uneasy about leaving that first document half-written. My task-oriented instinct is to finish each write-up, once started. Instead I had abandoned the document as soon as something more relevant popped onto my radar.

But on reflection, I think what is happening — rapid idea abandonment and spawning —  is exactly what I want from the method. The write-ups, I must remind myself, are not a goal in themselves (most likely, no one will ever see them). They’re instead a tool to induce fast learning, and this fast learning, in turn, increases the rate at which I can explore a problem space — exactly what I need in my research.

To summarize: I’m testing this method in my applied mathematics research, but it’s becoming clear that it should work equally as effectively in most scenarios where you need to master complicated things fast — be it a new programming language or marketing strategy. We’ll see how it holds up as I apply it to multiple concurrent projects and more complicated topics.


This post is part of my Craftsman in the Cubicle series which explores strategies for building a remarkable working life by mastering a small number of rare and valuable skills. Previous posts include:


Hacking Education with Udemy

August 10th, 2012 · 10 comments

I few times a year, I offer to write an honest review about a relevant product if the company is willing to donate to a charity of my choice. Udemy, a web site that makes it easy to take and design courses online, recently took me up on my offer, donating money to Urban Teaching Center, a D.C.-area non-profit that sends highly-qualified teachers to the schools that need them most.


Hacking Education

Education is being disrupted. There’s near universal agreement on this point.

Experts can now reach students directly online. These students, in turn, can now hack their education experience — building valuable expertise in exactly the areas they need, all for a fraction of the cost of traditional schooling. (If you doubt the power of this disruption, check out Scott Young’s MIT Challenge.)

The question now is what will this new world look like?

Udemy, an online education platform, offers a glimpse of this future. I recently spent an entertaining morning exploring this site, and was impressed by the scope of their offerings: over 1000 courses in topics that range from geeky (I was drawn to Zed Shaw’s Learn Python the Hard Way) to artistic (Carol Robinson’s free Music Theory course has over 2700 students).

Turning toward the details, the underlying idea driving Udemy is simple: the site makes it easy to both take and offer courses (free and paid).

The most basic courses consist only of video lectures. The more advanced courses mix video lectures with workbooks, samples, and sometimes audio that can be downloaded to your iPod.

All the courses I sampled provide lifetime access (once you buy the course, the material is yours forever) and a 30-day guarantee (a sign of confidence given that 30 days is enough to watch all the material for most courses).

The platform is cleverly setup so that you can access your courses from any Internet-connected device, and the user interface is crisp and intuitive.

Summary: As the education model continues to be disrupted, there will be lots of sites trying to match students with teachers. Udemy’s advantage is that they’re taking the time to get the details right.

You Know What You Write: The Textbook Method for Ultra-Learning

August 10th, 2012 · 53 comments

Less Than Ultra Learning

The surprisingly useful Riemann Zeta function in action. (Image from MathWorld.)

As part of my craftsman in the cubicle project, I spent this past week monitoring how I learn new information.

I wasn’t impressed.

At one point, for example, I needed to dive into a topic I didn’t know much about: how information disseminates in random power law graphs. I went to Google Scholar and begin downloading papers with promising abstracts. I printed three and skimmed another half-dozen or so online. In retrospect, I think I was hoping to find a theorem somewhere that described exactly what I was looking for in notation I already understood.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t find this magic theorem. The two hours I spent felt wasted. (Well, not completely wasted, I did learn about the Riemann Zeta function, which turns up way more often than you might expect.)

This experience recommitted me to cracking the code of ultra-learning. Mastering hard knowledge fast, I now accept, requires more than blocking aside time on a schedule; it also demands technique.

The Chair

With this in mind, here was my first stab at cracking ultra-learning:

I bought a traditional leather chair (a longtime dream of mine). My wife and I still need to add some bookcases, a rich rug, and an old brass lamp — but my general  theory here is that this library nook will be make it impossible to avoid mastering new bodies of knowledge, and perhaps also pipe smoking.

Under the assumption that I might need more than the power of The Chair to become an accomplished ultra-learner, I do have one more strategy to deploy — which is what I want to talk about in this post. It’s actually a strategy I’ve known for years (my PhD adviser taught me soon after my arrival at MIT), but have seemed to forgotten recently.

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The Recorded Life

August 7th, 2012 · 10 comments

A snapshot of the mind of Cal…

Personal Hacks

A reader recently noted the following:

It strikes me that you haven’t said much at all on your blog — or for that matter, in your books — about how one ‘succeeds’ at one’s personal life.

It’s true that I tend to keep things professional here at Study Hacks. But this doesn’t mean my personal life escapes similar scrutiny.

Exhibit A is the stack of moleskin notebooks shown at the top of this post.

They’re all full.

I keep one such notebook with me at all times for recording any “important thought” that I might want to revisit later during my monthly check-in. Some of the ideas, of course, relate to my work as a professor or a writer. The page below, for example, which is from September 2, 2010, shows the genesis of my Romantic Scholar series (though, at the time, I was calling it, ill-advisedly, the “aesthetics of student knowledge” series):

At least three-quarters of the notes, however, deal with living a better life outside of work. In other words, I put a lot of thought into hacking the personal — I just tend to be too private to share.

To understand my hesitance, I present Exhibit B:

This page, recorded on May 21, 2009, is one of several entries on the importance of the “500 push-ups project.” Something which I clearly deemed urgent.

Don’t ask…

Work Less to Work Better: My Experiments with Shutdown Routines

August 2nd, 2012 · 43 comments

My dissertation. The pages shown here are from a proof that caused significant consternation.

A Novel Dissertation

I began working on my PhD thesis in the summer of 2008. I defended a year later, in early August, 2009.

There’s nothing unusual about this timing. What was unusual, however, was my approach.

By June 2008, I had a fair-sized collection of peer-reviewed publications. The standard practice in computer science would be for me to take the best of these results, combine them, fill in the missing details, add a thorough introduction, and then call the resulting mathematical chimera my dissertation.

To me, naive as I was, this sounded like a waste of a year. So I decided I would prove all new results.

This strategy worked fine for a while, keeping me engaged and happy, but then, in April, 2009, things took a turn toward the difficult. It was during this month that I accepted a postdoc position that would start in September.  This meant that I had to defend my thesis over the summer. Suddenly the allure of tackling all new results began to wane.

Here’s a scenario that became common:

  • I would be working during the day on an important proof.
  • At some point in the late afternoon I would find a flaw.
  • A helpful voice in my head would point out that my whole future depended on finding a fix — without a fix, it argued, the thesis would crumble, I would be kicked out of graduate school and end up homeless, likely dying in a soup kitchen knife fight.
  • After heading home, I would continue, obsessively, seeking a fix — ruining any chance at relaxation that night.

After two weeks of this exercise, I decided something needed to change.

It was then that I innovated my shutdown philosophy…

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