Study Hacks Blog Posts from March, 2013 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

How to Write Six Important Papers a Year without Breaking a Sweat: The Deep Immersion Approach to Deep Work

March 24th, 2013 · 61 comments


The Productive Professor

I’m fascinated by people who produce a large volume of valuable output. Motivated by this interest, I recently setup a conversation with a hot shot young professor who rose quickly in his field.

I asked him about his work habits.

Though his answer was detailed — he had obviously put great thought into these issues — there was one strategy that caught my attention: he confines his deep work to long, uninterrupted bursts.

On small time scales, this means each day is either completely dedicated to a single deep work task, or is left open to deal with all the  e-mail and meetings and revisions that also define academic life.

If he’s going to write a paper, for example, he puts aside two days, and does nothing else, emerging from his immersion with a completed first draft.

If he’s going to instead deal with requests and logistics, he’ll spend the whole day doing so.

On longer time scales, his schedule echoes this immersion strategy. He teaches all three of his courses during the fall. He can, therefore, dedicate the entire semester to two main goals: teaching his courses and conceiving/discussing potential research ideas (the teaching often stimulates new ideas as it forces him to review the key ideas and techniques in his field).

Then, in the spring and summer that follow, he attacks his new research projects with the burst strategy mentioned above, turning out 1 – 2 papers every 2 months. (He aims for — and achieves — around 6 major papers a year.)

Notice, this immersion approach to deep work is different than the more common approach of  integrating a couple hours of deep work into most days of your schedule, which we can call the chain approach, in honor of Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” advice (which I have previously cast some doubt on in the context of writing).

There are two reasons why deep immersion might work better than chaining:

  1. It reduces overhead. When you put aside only a couple hours to go deep on a problem, you lose a fair fraction of this time to remembering where you left off and getting your mind ready to concentrate. It’s also easy, when the required time is short, to fall into the least minimal progress trap, where you do just enough thinking that you can avoid breaking your deep work chain, but end up making little real progress. When you focus on a specific deep work goal for 10 – 15 hours, on the other hand, you pay the overhead cost just once, and it’s impossible to get away with minimal progress. In other words, two days immersed in deep work might produce more results than two months of scheduling an hour a day for such efforts.
  2. It better matches our rhythms. There’s an increasing understanding that the human body works in cycles. Some parts of the week/month/year are better for certain types of work than others. This professor’s approach of spending the fall thinking and discussing ideas, and then the spring and summer actually executing, probably yields better results than trying to mix everything together throughout the whole year. During the fall, he rests the part of his mind required to tease out and write up results. During the spring and summer he rests the part of his mind responsible for having original thoughts and making new connections. (See Douglas Rushkoff’s recent writing for more on these ideas).

I’m intrigued by the deep immersion approach to deep work mainly because I don’t usually apply it, but tend to generate more results when I do. I’m also intrigued by its ancillary consequences. If immersion is optimal for deep work, for example, do weekly research meetings make sense? When you check in weekly on a long term project, it’s easy to fall into a minimal progress trap and watch whole semesters pass with little results. What if, instead, weekly meetings were replaced with occasionally taking a couple days to do nothing but try to make real progress on the problem? Even doing this just a few times a semester might produce better results than checking in every week.

I don’t know the answers here, but the implications are interesting enough to keep the immersion strategy on my productivity radar.

(Photo by moriza)

Prioritizing Deep Thought in a Distracted World: A Case Study

March 13th, 2013 · 14 comments

DeepWorkScheduleA Deep Day

I’m a big supporter of deep work. People often ask, however, how to fit this type of persistent concentration into a fractured knowledge work schedule.

To demonstrate my personal answer, I took a snapshot of my calendar from Monday (see the image to the right).

At 9:30, I began my commute, having already tackled enough small logistics to clear my head and allow me to start obsessing on a problem I’m trying to solve (I love thinking in the car). Once I arrived on campus at 10:00, I continued to obsess about this problem until an 11:00 meeting. I then had 2 more hours to obsess. At 2:00, I had another call. Then at 3:00, now mentally exhausted, I turned to a less cognitively demanding logistical task that I’m chipping away at, bit by bit, with the goal of avoiding a schedule-busting scramble the day before the deadline.

(I should note that I teach on Tuesday and Thursday, and, accordingly, devote those full days to class related work — which is why you don’t see such tasks on the sample Monday shown here.)

Here’s the take-away message: On non-teaching days I start with the assumption that the full day will be dedicated to thinking deeply on the projects that will best increase my career capital. I then (only reluctantly) squeeze in the other stuff that simply cannot be ignored. Because I assume the day is mainly about deep work, I tend to ruthlessly batch this extra stuff and push it toward the borders of my day, where it will have a minimal effect on what matters.

How Can Two People Feel Completely Different About the Same Job? — Career Drift and the Danger of Pre-Existing Passion

March 3rd, 2013 · 32 comments


The Emersonian Doctoral Candidate

I’m flying down to Duke on Tuesday to speak with their graduate students. Preparing for the event inspired me to reflect on my own student experience. In doing so, an Emerson quote came to mind:

“To different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven”

Emerson does a good job of capturing the reality of a research-oriented graduate education. Even though students enter such programs — especially at top schools — strikingly homogenous, in terms of their educational backgrounds and achievements, after a few years, the group tends to radically bifurcate.

Some students love the experience and thrive. They dread the possibility that they might have to one day leave academia and take a “normal job.” To them, graduate school is Emerson’s heaven.

Other students hate the experience and wilt. They complain about their advisors, and their peers, and the school, and their busyness. They can’t wait to return to a “normal job.” To them, graduate school is Emerson’s hell.

I began to notice this split about halfway though my time at MIT. I loved graduate school, so I was mildly surprised, at first, to encounter cynical students secretly plotting to abandon ship after earning their masters degree, or to stumble into dark blogs with titles such as, appropriately enough, Dissertation Hell (” a place to rant…about the tortures of writing a dissertation”).

Why do such similar students end up with such different experiences?

Because I happened to be a professional advice writer at the same that I was a student, I studied the issue. I think the answers I found are important to our broader discussion because this Emersonian division is common in many professions, and understanding its cause helps us better understand the complicated task of building a compelling career and the pitfalls to avoid.

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