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

The Bit Player Who Changed the World

July 29th, 2020 · 17 comments

In 1937, at the precocious age of 21, an MIT graduate student named Claude Shannon had one of the most important scientific epiphanies of the century. To explain it requires some brief background.

Before coming to MIT, Shannon earned two bachelors degrees at the University of Michigan: one in mathematics and one in electrical engineering. The former degree exposed him to Boolean Algebra, a somewhat obscure branch of philosophy, developed in the mid-nineteenth century by a self-taught English mathematician named George Boole. This new algebra took propositional logic, a fuzzy-edged field of rhetorical inquiry that dated back to the Stoic logicians of the 3rd century BC, and cast it into clean equations that could be mechanically-optimized using the tools of modern mathematics.

Shannon’s degree in electrical engineering, by contrast, exposed him to the design of electrical circuits — an endeavor that in the 1930s still required a healthy dollop of intuition and art. Given a specification for a circuit, the engineer would tinker until he got something that worked. (Thomas Edison, for example, was particularly gifted at this type of intuitive electrical construction.)

In 1937, in the brain of this 21-year-old, these two ideas came together.

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On Confronting the Productivity Dragon (take 2)

July 23rd, 2020 · 24 comments

On a recent episode of my podcast, Deep Questions, a listener asked me what to do when one feels overwhelmed with incoming tasks, requests, and ambiguous obligations — a problem that has become unfortunately common in our current period of largely remote and persistently frenzied work.

The temptation in such moments is to curl up as the onslaught engulfs you; perhaps answering the most recent emails to arrive, or tackling a sampling of tasks that seem particularly urgent, but otherwise just hoping the rest will dissipate.

In the mythology of your professional life, in other words, you decline to confront the dragon, and instead put up a half-hearted warning sign, or rage to anyone in earshot about the unfairness of the dragon’s existence in the first place.

My advice was to resist this temptation.

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On Deep Work Tents and the Struggle for Focus in an Age of Social Distance

July 15th, 2020 · 34 comments

Jessica Murnane is a wellness advocate, writer, and podcaster who interviewed me on her show not long ago. Earlier this year she signed a deal with Penguin Random House to write a new book. This was great news, except for one wrinkle: the coronavirus.

“Writing a book during a pandemic was one of the most challenging things I have ever done,” she told me. Like many working parents during the past few months, she was trying to balance homeschool with the need to accomplish serious, mind-stretching deep work; all without any easy means of finding some peace and quiet.

So Jessica went to an extreme: she setup a beach tent in her backyard, so she could work outside without the sun glaring on her laptop screen (see above). She’s not alone in this innovation: I can think of at least two other people I personally know well who deployed similar tent setups in their yards for similar purposes.

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Has the Shift Toward Neuro-Productivity Already Begun?

July 7th, 2020 · 20 comments

A reader recently pointed me toward an interesting new feature Microsoft added to its widely-used Outlook email and calendar software: support for deep work.

Outlook users can now create a personal “focus plan” that measures how many hours they’re spending dedicated to undistracted work, and can automatically schedule these blocks. Though the tool uses the term “focus time” to label these efforts on your calendar, it also directly uses the term “deep work” in its interface when describing what it’s helping you accomplish (see above).

This is an important shift.

In the first decades of digital knowledge work, human productivity was often viewed through a computer processor metaphor. People were understood as unbounded processors and the goal was to leverage technology to get them as much useful information as possible, with the least amount of friction. In this metaphor, getting more done meant getting more information through the pipeline.

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A Deliberate Tribute

July 3rd, 2020 · 27 comments

I was saddened to learn earlier today that Anders Ericsson, creator of deliberate practice theory, recently passed away. Longtime readers of mine know that his work greatly influenced me. I never met Anders in person, but we shared a sporadic correspondence that I cherished. I thought it appropriate to offer a brief personal tribute to his powerful ideas.

Anders tackled the fundamental question of how experts get really good at what they do. The framework he proposed, which clarified a lot of confusion in the field at the time, introduced these two big ideas (among others):

  1. When trying to get better at a skill, an effort called “deliberate practice” is most effective. Deliberate practice, which aims to isolate areas that need improvement and then stretch you past your comfort zone to induce growth, is the critical activity that helps individuals move past amateur status in many endeavors, both physical and cognitive.
  2. To reach an expert level often requires a lot of deliberate practice. In some of Anders’s more engaging studies, he would sift through accounts of so-called “prodigies”, and identify, time and again, prodigious quantities of deliberate practice surreptitiously squeezed into their early childhood years. As his New York Times obituary recalls, Anders once summarized this finding as follows in an interview: “This idea that somebody more or less discovers, suddenly, that they’re extremely good at something, I’ve yet to find even a single example of that type of phenomenon.”

I first came across Anders’s work in Geoff Colvin’s 2008 book, Talent is Overrated, which blew my mind, and led to a deep dive into deliberate practice theory. It provided an antidote to an increasingly frenetic, digital-mediated world, where everyone was trying to find their passion or seek to somehow transmute social media busyness into accomplishment. It explained a lot about what seemed to resonate for me when I reflected on my own life, or surveyed those I admired around me at MIT or in the biographies of big thinkers I was devouring at the time.

The theory laid the foundations in my own writing for the idea that the type of work you’re doing matters (elaborated in Deep Work), and that meaningful accomplishment often requires the diligent application of such efforts over a long period of time (elaborated in So Good They Can’t Ignore You.)

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