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

On the Neurochemistry of Deep Work

September 29th, 2020 · 40 comments

Andrew Huberman is a neurobiologist at Stanford Medical School. His lab specializes in neuroplasticity, the process by which the human brain changes its neuronal connections.

A reader recently brought to my attention a fascinating discussion about learning. It’s from a podcast episode Huberman recorded with Joe Rogan back in July.

Around the two minute mark of the clip, Rogan provides Huberman with a hypothetical scenario: “You’re 35, and want to learn a new skill, what is the best way to set these patterns?”

As someone who is in my thirties and makes a living learning hard things, I was, as you might imagine, interested to hear what Dr. Huberman had to say on this issue. Which is all to preface that I was gratified to hear the following reply:

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Do Smartphones Make Us Dumber?

September 22nd, 2020 · 38 comments

A reader recently pointed me toward an intriguing article published in 2017 in the Journal for the Association of Consumer Research. It was titled, “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.”

The authors of the paper report the results of a straightforward experiment. Subjects are invited into a laboratory to participate in some assessment exercises. Before commencing, however, they’re asked to put their phones away. Some subjects are asked to place their phone on the desk next to the computer on which they’re working; some are told to put their phone in their bag; some are told to put their phone in the other room. (The experimenters had clever ways of manipulating these conditions without arousing suspicion.)

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Eric Posner Thinks It’s a “Serious Mistake” for Law Professors to Use Twitter

September 16th, 2020 · 28 comments

Eric Posner is arguably one of the most influential and prolific law professors in the country at the moment. Which is why I paid attention when around the 39 minute mark of a recent interview, Posner was asked his thoughts on law professors using Twitter.

“I’ve thought about this a lot because it now seems like every law professor wants to have this public presence,” Posner replied. “And I increasingly think this is a serious mistake.”

As he elaborates, becoming a “good” academic who is “serious” about research is a hard job:

“It requires a huge amount of work, especially at the beginning, to absorb the literature, to absorb the norms…I think a lot of junior people who are on Twitter…should be educating themselves.”

As he then clarifies, most of what transpires on Twitter is people “ranting” and reading other peoples’ “rants.” Participating in that culture, he says, doesn’t contribute in a meaningful way to the public debate.

The interviewer then presents Posner with another standard argument for why academics should engage with social media: it’s a way to “establish prominence in a field or establish name recognition.”

Posner doesn’t buy it:

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Michael Connelly Starts Writing Before the Sun Comes Up

September 11th, 2020 · 30 comments

One of the notable realities of my life, given the topics I write about, is the regularity with which people send me various articles about the work habits of the novelist Michael Connelly. Here’s a representative sample from an interview published in The Daily Beast: 

“I get up to write while it’s still dark, 5 or 5:30. I start by editing and rewriting everything I did the day before, and that gives some momentum for the day. I get to new territory when the sun is coming up. I take a break to take my daughter to school…then I get back to it. If it’s early in a book, I’ll only write til lunch, because it can be hard for me to get that momentum going. If it’s late in a book and really flowing, I’ll just keep writing and writing until I’m either too tired or have been called to dinner.”

He later elaborates that he uses blackout shades to transform his writing office into a space beyond time. “You don’t know if it’s light or dark,” he explains. “I just try to put everything else out of focus and look only at the screen of my laptop.”

This routine is common among popular genre fiction writers (see, for example, John Grisham or Lee Child). To fulfill the economic necessity of publishing one book per year — which, as I can tell you from experience, is really hard — they strip down their work habits to support maximum cognitive output.

For the rest of us, drowning in our inboxes and Zoom invites, this should be more than a source of aspirational escape. It represents a reminder that getting the most out of the messy jumble of neurons known as the human brain requires sacrifices. To instead orient work around pleasing everyone who might need you in the moment is to ultimately please no one with the quality of what you produce.