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

Productivity is Not Dead, Just Downgraded

October 31st, 2012 · 31 comments

The Cautious Return of Nuts and Bolts Productivity

Last year, around this same time, I wrote an article titled Welcome to the Post-Productivity World. In it, I claimed that we had moved on from the early 2000’s dream that David Allen, teamed with the Lifehacker RSS feed, could deliver us to a knowledge work nirvana — a place where success and distinction flowed effortlessly from a well-tuned task-management system.

The attention of the online world, I noted, had shifted toward bigger questions, like “how do I make my work the foundation of a good life?”. Building a remarkable career, we now know, has little to do with organization, and very much to do with focusing ruthlessly on a small number of important skills and becoming so good you can’t be ignored.

And yet…

Now that I’m a professor, I realize that I miss productivity. It’s still true that my level of organization has little to do with my success as a scholar. It’s also true, I’m discovering, that it has everything to do with my stress level.

I spend much of my time focusing deeply on important projects. But I still have a lot of small things to get done in the time that surrounds this concentration. And without a thoughtful system, these tasks are getting done fitfully, often driven by deadlines — causing unnecessary stress.

So this gives us a new vision of productivity. We have dethroned it from its prior role as the center of our workplace universe, but it still plays an important (albeit, downgraded) role as a stress reliever.

I am, in other words, re-embracing nuts and bolts productivity. (God help me, but I just spent 10 minutes browsing the web page for OmniFocus!) But I’m doing so with caution. I want to tune up my organizational systems, but I also want to remember that these systems play only a supporting role in my bigger effort to craft a remarkable career.

Now excuse me while I shift my context…

(Photo by tsmall)

Mastering Linear Algebra in 10 Days: Astounding Experiments in Ultra-Learning

October 26th, 2012 · 103 comments

The MIT Challenge

My friend Scott Young recently finished an astounding feat: he completed all 33 courses in MIT’s fabled computer science curriculum, from Linear Algebra to Theory of Computation, in less than one year. More importantly, he did it all on his own, watching the lectures online and evaluating himself using the actual exams. (See Scott’s FAQ page for the details of how he ran this challenge.)

That works out to around 1 course every 1.5 weeks.

As you know, I’m convinced that the ability to master complicated information quickly is crucial for building a remarkable career (see my new book as well as here and here). So, naturally, I had to ask Scott to share his secrets with us. Fortunately, he agreed.

Below is a detailed guest post, written by Scott, that drills down to the exact techniques he used (including specific examples) to pull off his MIT Challenge.

Take it away Scott…


How I Tamed MIT’s Computer Science Curriculum, By Scott Young

I’ve always been excited by the prospect of learning faster. Being good at things matters. Expertise and mastery give you the career capital to earn more money and enjoy lifestyle perks. If being good is the goal, learning is how you get there.

Despite the advantages of learning faster, most people seem reluctant to learn how to learn. Maybe it’s because we don’t believe it’s possible, that learning speed is solely the domain of good genes or talent.

While there will always be people with unfair advantages, the research shows the method you use to learn matters a lot. Deeper levels of processing and spaced repetition can, in some cases, double your efficiency. Indeed the research in deliberate practice shows us that without the right method, learning can plateau forever.

Today I want to share the strategy I used to compress the ideas from a 4-year MIT computer science curriculum down to 12 months. This strategy was honed over 33 classes, figuring out what worked and what didn’t in the method for learning faster.

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The Joys and Sorrows of Deep Work

October 23rd, 2012 · 28 comments

An Autumn Adventure

To help increase the attention I dedicate to literature-driven research projects, I’ve spent the last couple weeks immersing myself in a new area of my field. Today, for example, I thought the warm weather called for some adventure work. As shown above, I took some papers, a notebook, and my dog into the woods to grapple with some of these new ideas.

Here’s the thing: this type of immersion can be frustrating.

I spent hours today doing intellectual battle with a set of formalisms that still largely confuse me. In the long run, I know this type of battle is crucial (past experience has shown that even just a few dozen hours of such grappling can lay the foundation for multiple publications). But in the short run, it leaves me feeling like I accomplished nothing concrete with my day. (An unfortunate corollary of intellectual immersion is that it doesn’t work if you take time off to answer e-mails or do laundry — ensuring your to-do list remains untouched.)

So here we face a paradox. The very type of deep work that provides the nutriment for remarkable results also defies all our instincts for how a productive day should feel. I don’t have a specific set of strategies to suggest here. Instead, I just want to point out that when it comes to our understanding of how to build towards something important in our working life, there is a lot that our current conversation about work — which focuses on themes like courage, passion and productivity — seems to be missing.

The Importance of Auditing Your Work Habits

October 11th, 2012 · 26 comments

An Autumn Audit

I had to travel unexpectedly last weekend, so I missed my normal household chores. This morning, I woke up to the lawn picture above. Because I don’t have class or meetings scheduled today (a miracle!), I decided to take an hour or so to clean things up.

I never mind working outside, as it has the nice effect of moving my thoughts beyond the immediate future, and allowing me to perform a bigger picture audit of where things stand in my life. Today, I was thinking a lot about my work habits.

By the time I had the lawn looking like this…

…I had wrapped up some nice epiphanies.

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My Article in the New York Times and Other Miscellanea

October 1st, 2012 · 21 comments

I wanted to share a few notes about the SO GOOD launch and some related material that caught my attention recently…

Here’s an article I wrote on passion for this Sunday’s New York Times. If you’re looking for a concise description of the thesis of  SO GOOD — perhaps to share with a passion-obsessed friend or relative — this article is a great way to do it. (As shown on the right, the article moved onto the list of the top 10 most e-mailed articles on the Times this morning, so hopefully the idea is spreading!)

If you’re still looking for more about the book, check out the article I wrote for the Harvard Business Review Blog (still one of their most read articles of the past month), or the excerpt that ran at

In the meantime, on an unrelated note, my friends, The Minimalists, just published a new book: $5 Simplicity. If you’re interested in living a simpler and more meaningful life, few commentators are more thoughtful than Ryan and Josh — definitely check it out. (Also check out their blog; they’re about to move into a Walden-style cabin in Montana…should make for interesting reading.)

Also unrelated to the book, Daphne Gray-Grant has recently launched a series chronicling her experiments in applying the principles of deliberate practice to writing. Thought some of you might enjoy hearing about her adventures in career craftsmanship.

As the busyness generated by my book launch begins to fade, I’m excited to return soon to my normal style of posts. I have a lot to share about my most recent attempts and thoughts regarding the quest for a remarkable career…