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

Einstein’s Rubber Ball

November 30th, 2012 · 18 comments

Detecting Deep Work

An interesting nugget from Robert Greene’s new book, Mastery: when Einstein was working on the theory of relativity, he held a rubber ball that he would squeeze when straining his mind to grapple with a particularly hard piece of the theory.

Elsewhere in the book, Greene talks about Einstein’s lifelong commitment to the violin as a tool with which he trained himself to focus. (This might be from Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code; I’m reading both simultaneously and often confuse the two)

These are tantalizing hints supporting my hypothesis that the ability to think deeply and produce real value is something that requires technique and practice. They’re also another reason why I get annoyed when people begin and end a discussion on making an impact with a dumbly simple slogan like “follow your passion!”


Some Notes on Deep Working

November 27th, 2012 · 30 comments

Diving into Deep Work

Last week I introduced the deep work philosophy — an approach to knowledge work that (in theory) increases the quality and quantity of your output. Since then, I’ve put the philosophy to the test in a mini-experiment. Starting last Saturday, I’ve dedicated roughly 1 hour of my day to deep work on a specific proof that’s been on my queue for a while.

This is a small scale experiment. My goal is to develop a preliminary understanding of how my deep work philosophy translates to practice.

Here are my observations so far…

  1. I was surprised by the amount of output produced in a small amount of time. The image above shows the notes produced so far by my experiment. These notes capture an essentially complete proof for the problem I was tackling.
  2. Deep work definitely induced the deliberate practice of new concepts. To work out the proof notes above I had to re-learn a bunch of geometry that I hadn’t touched since high school. My tendency in these situations is to look for a theorem somewhere that proves exactly what I need, and, failing that, ask someone for the answer. The deep work mindset, however, inspired me to actually go to first principles and prove the properties I needed from scratch. I now know a little more about geometric proofs than I did four days ago.
  3. It helps to explain things out loud. My mind, like most minds, resists the energy demands of concentrating deeply on something complicated. If I explained what I was working on out loud, however, it helped keep me focused.  Yesterday, for example, I gave Max a mini-lecture on the derivatives of trigonometric functions. He responded, naturally, by crying. But I still found it useful.
  4. Clarity is crucial. The problem I was working on this week didn’t come out of nowhere. Over the path month, I dedicated a dozen hours toward learning the main results in the relevant model. Since then I’ve been discussing these ideas with a specialist. By the time I started deep work on this particular result I had confidence that the problem was useful and had a good general strategy for solving it. Without this clarity, mustering the resources for deep work would have been harder. (A couple years ago, I wrote an article for Ramit Sethi’s blog about this idea that “just get started’ is bad advice.)
  5. I need a stronger ritual. I was working at home without much transition into this deep work. I had the feeling that I wasn’t 100% committed to what I was working on, which probably blunted my effectiveness some. I’m working on the details of my ritual.
  6. I assume I’ll get better with practice. There were many moments in this experiment where I felt strain and still persisted (the key to optimal quality and improvement). But I also felt like this strain was of a lightweight variety (at least, as compared to what’s possible in academic theory). With practice, I think I’ll be able to tackle increasingly complex mental puzzles — which inspires me to maintain this practice much like a runner maintains a running habit to build mileage.

Knowledge Workers are Bad at Working (and Here’s What to Do About It…)

November 21st, 2012 · 209 comments

An Inconvenient Observation

Knowledge workers are bad at working.

I say this because unlike every other skilled labor class in the history of skilled labor, we lack a culture of systematic improvement.

If you’re a professional chess player, you’ll spend thousands of hours dissecting the games of better players.

If you’re a promising young violin player, you’ll attend programs like Meadowmount’s brutal 7-week crash course, where you’ll learn how to wring every last drop of value from your practicing.

If you’re a veteran knowledge worker, you’ll spend most of your day answering e-mail.

As I’ve argued here in my new book, this represents a huge opportunity for knowledge workers. If you can adopt a culture of systematic improvement, similar to what’s common in other skilled fields, you can potentially accelerate your career far beyond your inbox-dwelling, discomfort-avoiding peers (and cultivate passion for your livelihood in the process).

But how do you adopt this approach in your specific job? This is the most common question I’m asked in response to this idea.

In this post, I want to propose a (tentative) answer…

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