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

37 Signal’s Formula for a Satisfying Career (Hint: It’s Not Passion)

December 29th, 2013 · 9 comments


Rethinking the Laborious Slog

Supporters of the passion hypothesis assume that the key to enjoying your career is choosing the right type of work.

I’ve been arguing that there are many other (and often way more important) factors that help determine whether you end up loving your career.

What you do for a living, in other words, is just a small piece in the satisfaction puzzle.

A recent Fast Company article by 37 Signal’s David Hansson (promoting his new co-authored book, REMOTE), provides a nice case study for my philosophy. Here’s Hansson:

“[T]he problem isn’t actually the work itself. It’s the fight against the hostile environment surrounding the work that’s the laborious slog…The fact is that most people like to work. Really work, that is. Engage their brain and their talents in the creation of value.”

As the article then elaborates, the “hostile environment” causing people to be unhappy with their jobs includes factors such as long commutes, requirements to live near the company offices (even if you otherwise dislike the location), and hyper-distracting office cultures.

If you can minimize these environmental negatives (i.e., by promoting remote work agreements), Hansson notes, you can significantly increase peoples’ happiness.

As career advice, “follow flexible work arrangements” sounds less sexy than “follow your passion,” but Hansson reminds us that career satisfaction is not a particularly sexy pursuit, but is instead the outcome of many careful decisions about many subtle factors.

(Photo by The Other Dan)

Deep Habits: The Importance of Planning Every Minute of Your Work Day

December 21st, 2013 · 271 comments


Time Blocking

The image above shows my plan for a random Wednesday earlier this month. My plan was captured on a single sheet of 24 pound paper in a Black n’ Red twin wire notebook. This page is divided into two columns. In the left column, I dedicated two lines to each hour of the day and then divided that time into blocks labeled with specific assignments. In the right column, I add explanatory notes for these blocks where needed.

Notice that I leave some extra room next to my time blocks. This allows me to make corrections as needed if the day unfolds in an unexpected way:


I call this planning method time blocking. I take time blocking seriously, dedicating ten to twenty minutes every evening to building my schedule for the next day. During this planning process I consult my task lists and calendars, as well as my weekly and quarterly planning notes. My goal is to make sure progress is being made on the right things at the right  pace for the relevant deadlines.

This type of planning, to me, is like a chess game, with blocks of work getting spread and sorted in such a way that projects big and small all seem to click into completion with (just enough) time to spare.

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The Difficulties of Depth: A Case Study in Getting Important Things Done

December 13th, 2013 · 32 comments


Deep Tracking

I’m obsessed with deep work. I believe it’s the key to crafting a meaningful and interesting career. And yet, even I — Dr. Deep Work himself — sometimes struggle to fit enough of it into my weekly schedule.

I recently set out to find out why…

Fortunately, I have a good data set to use in this effort. As readers of STRAIGHT-A know, I believe in time blocking (if you don’t plan every minute of your day in advance, your efficiency will plummet).

I use Black n’ Red notebooks for this purpose, one page per day. As shown in the above picture, I hold on to my old notebooks so I can study my habits when needed.

I went back through the notebook I used during my fall semester and identified two weeks: one which was good (close to half my time was dedicated to deep work on research and writing), and one which was bad (less than a quarter of my time was dedicated to these efforts).

My goal was to understand the difference between these two weeks, and by doing so, hopefully identifying the scheduling traps most damaging to efforts toward depth.

(I recognize that even my bad week represents more deep work than most are able to fit into their schedule [I’ve been at this for a while], but what matters here is the relative difference in time, not the absolute values.)

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How Dirty Jobs Disrupt the Idea that Pre-Existing Passion Matters

December 2nd, 2013 · 34 comments


Wisdom from Dirty Jobs

I wrote an article for the Huffington Post’s most recent installment of its TED Weekends series. The theme for this week was “A Lesson From Some of the World’s Dirtiest Jobs,” and the motivating TED talk was by Mike Rowe, former host of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs program. Many of you sent me a link to Rowe’s talk when it was first released, mainly due to the following phrase he quips about halfway through:

Follow your passion…what could possibly be wrong with that? Probably the worst advice I ever got.

His contrarian streaks seems to have struck a nerve. His talk has been viewed over 1.3 million times.

In my article, I try to explain what made Rowe’s talk so disruptive. You can read the full text at the Huffington Post, but I want to summarize here the take-away message, as I think it’s important:

In his talk, Rowe points out that many of the happiest people in the country have jobs that no one would ever identify as a pre-existing passion. He cited a sheep herder, a pig farmer (“smells like hell, but God bless him, he’s making a great living”), and a guy who makes flower pots out of cow dung, as examples of unexpected professional contentment. These observations are powerful for a simple reason: They separate career satisfaction from the specifics of the work.

We’ve heard the passion hypothesis so many times that it’s easy to accept as fact that matching the right job to a pre-existing interest is the primary source of occupational happiness. But Mike Rowe’s focus on the satisfaction found in the trades, in jobs for which no kid ever thinks, “that’s what I want to do when I grow up!”, have dealt a devastating blow to this belief.

If you’re twenty-three, in your first job out of college, not yet that good at what you do and starting to wonder if maybe this isn’t your true calling, or if you’re nineteen, and thinking about switching your college major because you don’t love every minute of every class, and worry that a “true passion” should always feel inspiring: I suggest taking an hour or two to watch some episodes of Rowe’s show.

“Roadkill picker-uppers whistle while they work,” he said at one point during his talk. “I swear to God — I did it with them.”

It only takes a few examples like the above before you begin to realize that career satisfaction is about something deeper than simply picking the right job.