Study Hacks Blog Posts from May, 2020 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

Can Remote Work Be Fixed? My Latest Article For The New Yorker

May 26th, 2020 · 11 comments

Earlier today, I published my latest article for the New Yorker. It’s titled: Can Remote Work Be Fixed?

In this semi-epic long-form essay, I dive into the history of the remote work movement, documenting why, after decades of excitement, it ended up falling short of its potential.

I then tackle the big question on a lot of peoples’ mind at the moment: Now that all knowledge workers are forced to work remotely, will we manage to fix these issues? Now that it’s urgent, in other words, can we make remote work actually work?

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The Lost Satisfactions of Manual Competence

May 22nd, 2020 · 126 comments

Chris Anderson opens his 2012 book, Makers, with a story about his maternal grandfather, Fred Hauser. Anderson recalls a childhood experience spending a summer with his grandfather at his bungalow in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles.

“He announced that we would be making a four-stroke gasoline engine and that he had ordered a kit we could build together,” Anderson writes. Familiar with constructing models, Anderson assumed that the box containing the kit would be filled with numerous numbered parts and assembly instructions. “Instead, there were three big blocks of metal and a crudely cast engine casting. And a large blue-print, a single sheet folded many times.”

As Anderson recalls, his grandfather deployed the standard hobby machinist equipment kept in his garage — “a drill press, a band saw, a jig saw, grinders, and, most important, a full-size metal lathe” — to slowly extract and polish from the blocks the many pieces that ultimately fit together into a functioning engine. “We had conjured a precision machine from a lump of metal. We were a mini-factory, and we could make anything.”

There’s great fulfillment in applying skill to slowly create something useful that didn’t previously exist — a reaction that’s likely embedded in our genes as a lost nudge toward survival-enhancing paleolithic productivity. Matt Crawford perhaps summarizes this reality best in Shop Class as Soulcraft, when he writes: “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy.”

And then we consider our current moment.

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Let Go to Grow: On a Blogger’s Decision to Trade Social Media for a Quieter Life

May 20th, 2020 · 47 comments

A reader recently pointed me toward an interesting essay. It was written by a blogger and podcaster named Mika. “I’ve thought about how to start this post FOR MONTHS,” she begins, before building to her reveal:

“When I hear my instincts from my heart, I have learned that it serves me well to listen.

So one day, when I felt a thud in my heart that said “Let social media go” – I paid attention. And then it came again, and again, and again. “Let it go.” I started to question it and ask why I was feeling this. So towards the end of last year, I started questioning the role of social media in my life, comparing and contrasting the pros and cons of it. I’ve even taken breaks before so I thought about those times, too. Then it pretty much dawned on me as the following words were impressed upon me in a real, gut-punching kind of way:

We were not made for this.

I have tears in my eyes just now typing that.”

It’s not that Mika hated social media; she notes that it allowed her to interact with “truly awesome, good-hearted people,” and has helped  her “achieve professional goals.” The problem is that it always demanded more:

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The Deep Reset

May 14th, 2020 · 34 comments

After ten years of waging war against the Trojans, Odysseus, king of Ithaca, set out on the wine-dark sea to begin his journey home. Storms thwarted an easy return voyage, and Odysseus found himself facing many additional years of tragedy and adventure, reaching a mythical nadir when he’s forced to descend into the underworld itself.

Broken down and exposed, Odysseus resists collapse. He instead pulls himself out of Hades, and persevering through additional trials, finally makes it home to his island kingdom, only to find both his family and throne threatened by a conniving horde of suiters. He fights them off.

But he’s not done. Following a prophecy delivered to him by the ghost of Theban Teiresias in the underworld (depicted above), Odysseus makes a humbling journey inland. He carries an oar — a symbol of the maritime world where he reined — farther and farther from the sea, until he arrives at a place where it’s mistaken for a farming implement by locals who have “never heard of crimson-painted ships, or the well-shaped oars that serve as wings.”

It is here, stripped of any of the recognitions on which he’d built his previous life, that he plants the oar in the ground and performs sacrifices to Poseidon, before returning home to live out his life in peace.

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When Technology Goes Awry

May 8th, 2020 · 24 comments

Last month, I published a peer-reviewed essay in the Communications of the ACM, one of the major trade journals in computer science. It’s titled, “When Technology Goes Awry.” At the time of its publication, in mid-April, there were a few other things going on in the world that were distracting me, so I didn’t mention it then. I want to circle back now and briefly highlight the piece’s big ideas, as they’re relevant to many of our discussions here.

This article provides a more academic foundation to some of the themes I explore in Digital Minimalism. In it, I point out that during the 20th century the formal study of the philosophy of technology split into two roughly competing camps: technological determinism and technological instrumentalism.

As I elaborate:

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Another Tale of Finding Depth in a Locked Down Life

May 7th, 2020 · 28 comments

In my last post, I profiled a novelist who took advantage of the lockdown to slow down; giving herself more than enough time and space to inhabit her manuscript revisions. This shift allowed her to tap a “mysterious” source of creativity and finish her work ahead of schedule.

In response, a reader sent me some notes on how he had similarly leveraged the disruption induced by the lockdown to experiment with a deeper, more deliberate lifestyle, despite the fact that he has a typical email-bound knowledge work job and two young kids at home.

Here’s his schedule:

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On Doing Less to Produce More: A Novelist Embraces a Minimalist Lockdown

May 7th, 2020 · 15 comments

I recently received an email from a writer in New York City who sold her debut novel right before the coronavirus lockdown. She had until mid-April to finish her first round of revisions. In an effort to make the process more “fun and fluid and intuitive,” and feature less of the stressful long hours she had experienced working on the first draft, she deployed the following routine:

Around 10pm, I put my phone on a shelf in my living room.

After waking up naturally the next morning, I would eat breakfast and then go to my desk and work on my revision.

At first, it was for around 1 hour. Later, I worked until lunchtime. I always stopped while I still wanted to keep going, so that I would be excited to return to it again the next day.

I only looked at my phone and emails after lunch.

I mostly stopped using social media.

I really cared about resting.

She was convinced that this minimalist approach — a process personification of my exhortation to “do less, do better” — would prove inferior to a more familiar, frenetic work style. She began planning out in her head how she would ask for an extension.

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The Chaotic Factory

May 1st, 2020 · 47 comments

Imagine that you walk into a car factory and encounter a chaotic scene.

Half-built vehicles are scattered across the floor. Workers wander frenetically, grabbing each other as they pass, shouting out random requests.

“Do you know where the wrenches are?”

“When you get a chance, come show me how to install a steering wheel.”

“What happened to those lug nuts I gave you yesterday, did you use those?”

Some of the workers strain under the weight of materials piled high in their arms. Others lounge in the corner.

Vague but emphatic posters on the wall encourage everyone to “hustle” and the shop managers stand on ladders yelling out slogans, trying to inspire intrinsic motivation.

If you saw this, you’d be astounded. Surely this factory wouldn’t be in business for long. The company down the street that knows about computer-controlled assembly lines and Kaizen and inventory supply chain logistics will eat it for lunch.

And yet, in knowledge work, a lot of organizations run more or less like the chaotic car factory. If you replace the half-built cars with shared Google Docs, and the shouted requests with emails and Zoom, it’s the same haphazard dynamics.

Which leads to the interesting question underlying our current state of disrupted affairs: how long until the “smarter company down the street” — with its more disciplined, thoughtful, demanding processes — becomes a reality in the knowledge sector, forcing rapid change in how we work?