Study Hacks Blog Posts from April, 2016 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

What We Learned Teaching Over 1000 Professionals How to Practice Deliberately

April 29th, 2016 · 15 comments


Top Performer Returns

Last October, Scott Young and I launched an online course called Top Performer, which teaches knowledge workers how to apply the insights of deliberate practice to excel professionally. The first session of the course was a big success, so, by popular demand, we’re going to open up a new session later in May.

To help prepare for this new session, Scott and I wrote a series of articles that share the most interesting insights we’ve learned from the over 1000 individuals who have gone through our curriculum to date.

We’ll be posting these articles over the next two weeks only on our email newsletters (to keep our respective blogs tidy).

Therefore, if you’re intrigued by the idea of deliberate practice in the workplace, sign up for my newsletter using the form at the top of my right sidebar.

If you already receive my posts in your inbox from me (e.g., and not from Google) then you’re all set. Similarly, if you already receive Scott’s posts by email — and if you don’t, you should!  — you’re also all set.

What to Expect from the Launch Process

I know some of you don’t like when I sell things (e.g., this course, my books), so I want to let you know in advance exactly what to expect from this launch process…

The article series mentioned above will be published on our email lists over the next two weeks. After those two weeks, we will briefly open Top Performer for sign-ups, so there will probably be a flurry of 2 – 3 posts/reminders on the blog and email list surrounding that short window.

And that’s it.

Talk to Your Boss About Deep Work

April 22nd, 2016 · 21 comments


A Deep Case Study

Tom works in marketing for a venture-backed tech start-up in Silicon Valley. After reading Deep Work, he realized that prioritizing uninterrupted concentration would help him excel in his job, which centers on cognitively demanding research and writing.

But he despaired that regular deep work was impossible given his company’s culture.

As he explained:

Our company uses email and Slack as our primary means of communication. I get so many emails and chat messages every day, and there’s this unspoken expectation in my department that if someone emails/messages you, you should respond almost immediately, even if you were in the middle of something. If you didn’t respond quick enough people would assume that you were slacking off (this expectation was especially strong with instant messages).

Communication environments of this type are increasingly common in knowledge work (and near ubiquitous in tech). And they can be quite distressing.

As Tom admitted, he really didn’t get much “actual work done,” as his days were filled with “putting out fires” and “reacting to other people’s needs.”

Fortunately, however, all hope was not lost…

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Write Longer Emails

April 19th, 2016 · 30 comments


The Switching Cost

I want to close my recent series of posts on email with a practical observation that’s often missed:

The main productivity cost of email is not the time you spend reading and replying to messages, but instead the abrupt context shift caused when you switch your attention from the task at hand to the cognitive cacophony of an inbox.

As I write about in Deep Work (see also: this excerpt), when you shift your attention from one target to another, the first target leaves behind an attention residue that can linger for at least 10 to 20 minutes reducing your cognitive capacity.

(One oft-cited study found the impact of these shifts on your mental ability to be comparable to being stoned.)

The neural damage, in other words, is caused during the first moments of firing up your inbox. Whether you then go on to spend just a couple of minutes or a half hour wrangling your message doesn’t much change this impact.

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Schedule Meeting Margins

April 15th, 2016 · 26 comments


Margin Matters

Sometimes it’s the simplest productivity hacks that end up returning the greatest benefits over time. Here’s one such strategy I’ve been toying with recently:

The Meeting Margin Method
Assume you have to schedule a meeting that lasts X minutes. Instead of blocking off X minutes on your calendar, block off (1.5)*X minutes.

For example, if you agree to attend a 30 minute meeting starting at 2:00 pm, try to block out 2:00 to 2:45 on your calendar. Similarly, if it was a 60 minute meeting, try to block out 2:00 to 3:30. And so on.

The key is that you’re not extending the time of the meeting itself. That is, you still attend the meeting for the originally proposed time. The extra 50% on your calendar is a meeting margin protected for your own personal use.

In particular, the margin can be used for the following purposes:

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To Make Email Easier We Must Make it Harder

April 12th, 2016 · 27 comments


Two Tales of Empty Inboxes

I have a friend who runs an investor-backed online education company. He recently made an interesting change to his email setup. When you send a message to his normal address, you now get back an autoresponder that reads (in part):

“I appreciate you reaching out. I’m currently in hermit-mode creating as much value as I can for all of our stakeholders and having fun seeing if I can eliminate email from my life…Of course, if this is important, we’re here to help! Just email <address of a virtual personal assistant> and we’ll use our evolving email-free strategy to communicate.”

This extra step of re-sending your message to the assistant should add, at most, 10 extra seconds to the process of emailing this individual. Rationally speaking, therefore, it should have minimal impact on the number of messages that make it to my friend.

But this is not what happened.

As he reported to me recently, this additional step has “massively” reduced the amount of communication he receives.

Earlier this week, a reader wrote me with a similar tale. A computer programmer by trade, he setup a custom system that responds to incoming emails with a web form in which the sender can describe his or her purpose and needs in a series of text boxes.

Again, the extra effort of re-entering this information is minimal.

But the effect was significant.

His incoming message count reduced by a factor of 40. (He measured.)

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Alexander Hamilton’s Deep Work Habits

April 8th, 2016 · 12 comments


A Deep Revolution

I’m a little over 300 pages into Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Alexander Hamilton (I also highly recommend his biographies of Washington and Rockefeller).

Hamilton, of course, knew how to get things done.

“His collected papers are so stupefying in length that it is hard to believe that one man created them in fewer than five decades,” writes Chernow.

But this productivity reached an apex during the period when Hamilton, along with Madison, and to a much lesser extent, John Jay, collaborated to write and publish the Federalist Papers.

During one particularly frenzied two-month stretch, Hamilton “churned out” twenty-one of these now immortal essays.

How did he do it?

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Is Email Sinking the U.S. Economy?

April 6th, 2016 · 27 comments


A Productive Mystery

Reading the Washington Post this weekend, Robert Samuelson’s column caught my attention. It was titled, “Solving the productivity mystery,” and it focused on a trend that both concerns and puzzles economists: productivity has stopped growing.

This statement requires some unpacking.

In economics, productivity, roughly defined, measures the ratio of output to inputs. The more valuable output you can produce for the same input costs, the better your productivity.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expends a lot of effort to carefully measure this metric over many different industries in our country as it tends to be a strong indicator of practical things that people care about, like wage increases.

Back to the Samuelson column…

  • From 1995 to 2005, labor productivity increased by an average of 2.5% a year. As Samuelson pointed out, this translates to wage increases of roughly 25% over that period. This is good.
  • From 2010 to 2015, however, the average increase has only been 0.3% a year. If this persists through 2020, it will translate to a “puny” 3% wage increase over the decade. This is not good.

The puzzle, as mentioned above, is understanding why productivity is slowing.

There are no shortage of hypotheses. Samuelson reviews several in his column, including Robert Gordon’s claim that serious innovation is fading (c.f., Gordon’s big deal new book), and Samuelson’s own theory concerning the inefficiency of duplicating sales efforts online and in physical stores.

An Intriguing Angle

I’m not an economist, so it’s with trepidation that I throw one more potential contributing factor into the mix: email.

Hear me out.

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On Using Inspiring Locations to Inspire Deeper Work

April 1st, 2016 · 38 comments


A Rite of Spring

The return of spring marks the return of one of my favorite deep work strategies: the concentration circuit.

This strategy helps you make progress on a cognitively demanding task by having you work in a rotating series of locations that are: (1) not your normal office; (2) novel and/or aesthetically arresting.

As I’ve written before, concentration circuits are like deep work jet fuel:

  • they get you away from your normal energy-draining office routines,
  • they give your mind the sustained freedom from context switches needed to dive deep into a single problem, and
  • they leverage visual and environmental novelty to help shake loose new insights.

At the same time, they provide a reminder that elite-level knowledge work is about creating things with your brain — not just shuffling messages and writing PowerPoints — and that this activity, when isolated and supported, is massively rewarding.

Most important: they’re also a lot of fun.

A Recent Circuit

Anyway, two weeks ago I found myself down near the Capitol to tape an appearance on the Federalist Radio Hour. At the time, I was working on a tricky result.

I decided I would take advantage of the early spring weather to build an epic, Washington D.C.-themed concentration circuit.

Here are some of the locations I visited that morning…

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