Study Hacks Blog

Deep Habits: The Danger of Pseudo-Depth

December 12th, 2015 · 64 comments


Depth Deception

A difficulty I’ve faced in promoting the practice of deep work is that many people think they engage in this activity regularly (and don’t get much out of it), even though what they’re really doing is far from true depth.

To better understand this possibility, consider the following two hypothetical scenarios:

  • Scenario #1: Alice has to write a difficult client proposal. She decides to work away from her office for the first half of the day. She begins by going for a long walk to clear her head and play around with the different proposal pieces. She ends up at the local library, where she settles into a quiet corner for an hour and tries to write a rough draft. She feels the pitch is still too muddled, so she walks to a nearby coffee shop for more caffeine and works the outline over and over on paper. Finally she hits a configuration she likes and returns to the library to work it into the draft. After another hour she has something special. For the first time that day, she checks her e-mail before heading into the office.
  • Scenario #2: Alice has to write a difficult client proposal. She checks her e-mail, sends off some replies, then drives into work. At the office she closes her door to work on the proposal. She finds it hard going, but sticks with for a couple hours. She only checks her e-mail a few times an hour during this period (much less than normal) and peeks at Facebook to relieve her boredom only once. She does take a break halfway through to gripe about an unrelated manner in the office kitchen with a colleague.

In both scenarios, Alice dedicated a good stretch of time to working on a cognitively demanding task. Many people, new to the concept, would therefore consider both scenarios to describe deep work.

But they would be wrong.

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Deep Habits: WorkingMemory.txt (The Most Important Productivity Tool You’ve Never Heard Of)

October 27th, 2015 · 33 comments


Productivity Problems

Here’s a typical scenario. Looking at your daily schedule, you see that you’re entering a period of time that’s not dedicated to deep work or a specific large shallow task.

This seems like a good opportunity to tackle some of the small tasks that accumulate in most knowledge work schedules (e.g., e-mails, planning, bills, looking up information, arranging meetings, filling out forms, etc).

Tackling these administrative blocks in an effective manner, however, can be elusive for most people — especially if you find yourself arriving at the office after a weekend, or a trip, or any other instance when an overwhelming number of obligations have been piling up, waiting to ambush you.

It’s easy to start such blocks with a reasonable plan, such as “let me answer some e-mails.” But this will soon generate many more new obligations than you can fit into your limited working memory at one time.

At this point, you might start lurching around, perhaps trying to knock off the new obligations as they arise (so you don’t forget them), then giving up on this goal as futile, then seeing even more urgent messages, and having those generate even more things that you can’t quite finish all at once, and then, the next thing you know, you look up after an hour of frenzied e-mailing and feel more overwhelmed than when you began!


The solution to such scenarios, I will argue, is to augment your limited neuronal capacity with some digital help…

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Deep Habits: Three Recent Daily Plans

September 29th, 2015 · 49 comments


A Blocking Believer

Longtime Study Hacks readers know I’m a proponent of planning in advance how you’re going to spend your time. To this end, each morning I block out the hours of my work day in one of my trusted Black n’ Red notebooks (see above), and assign specific efforts to these blocks.

My goal, of course, is not to make a rigid plan I must follow no matter what. Like most people, my schedule often shifts as the day unfolds. The key, instead, is to make sure that I am intentional about what I do with my time, and don’t allow myself to drift along in a haze of reactive, inbox-driven busyness tempered with mindless surfing.

Though the basic idea behind daily planning is simple — block out the hours of the day and assign work to these blocks — many readers ask me good questions about the details of its implementation. In response to these queries, I thought it might be useful to show you a few of my actual daily plans from recent days during this past month…

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Deep Habits: Process Trumps Results for Daily Planning

August 14th, 2015 · 48 comments


The Planning Pitfall

Daily plans are tricky.

As I’ve long maintained, if you don’t give your time a job, it will dissipate in a fog of distracted tinkering. Simply having a to-do list isn’t enough: you need to provide the executive center of your brain a more detailed target to lock onto.

There is, however, a pitfall with this productivity strategy that I stumble into time and again: it’s easy to start associating “success” for your day with accomplishing your plan exactly as first envisioned, and to label any other outcome as a “failure” — a belief that triggers near constant frustration for most jobs.

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Deep Habits: Write Your Own E-mail Protocols

July 8th, 2015 · 30 comments

The Curse of Process Inefficiency

A couple weeks ago, I posted some ideas about why we have such a love/hate relationship with e-mail. In this post, I want to return to the conversation with a thought on how we might improve matters.

I argue that a major problem with our current e-mail habits is interaction inefficiency.

In more detail, most e-mail threads are initiated with a specific goal in mind. For example, here are the goals associated with the last three e-mails I sent today before my work shutdown:

  • Getting advice from my agent on a publishing question.
  • Moving a meeting to deal with a scheduling conflict.
  • Agreeing on the next steps of a project I’m working on with Scott Young.

If you study the transcripts of most e-mail threads, the back and forth messaging will reveal a highly inefficient process for accomplishing the thread’s goal.

There’s a simple explanation for this reality. When most people (myself included) check e-mail, we’re often optimizing the wrong metric: the speed with which you clear messages.

Boosting this metric feels good in the moment — as if you’re really accomplishing something — but the side effect is ambiguous and minimally useful message that cause the threads to persist much longer than necessary, devouring your time and attention along the way.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. For example, look at this terrible reply to a meeting request that I actually sent not long ago:

I’m definitely game to catch up this week.

Ugh. As I sent the above I knew that in the interest of replying as quickly as possible, I probably tripled the number of messages required before this meeting came to fruition.

E-mail Protocols

What’s the solution?

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Deep Habits: Spend Six Months to Master Skills

June 10th, 2015 · 36 comments


Musical Wisdom

Not long ago, a reader pointed me to an article written by Josh Linkner, a jazz guitarist turned tech entrepreneur. In this article, Linkner recalls a piece of wisdom common among professional musicians: a new (musical) technique takes six months to master. As he expands:

I may have understood the scale, riff, or chord…but it took a good six months to internalize it and make it my own. If I wanted to perform something fresh, new, and bold, I needed to begin the learning process six months prior.

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Deep Habits: Listen to Baseball on the Radio

April 11th, 2015 · 37 comments


Distracted in the Dugout

Last week, the Washington Post featured a front page story about the declining number of kids who play organized baseball. There are various reasons for this decline, but the story emphasized the sport’s lack of action.

Here’s an articulate 15-year old, as quoted in the article, explaining his reasons for quitting baseball:

Baseball is a bunch of thinking, and I live a different lifestyle than baseball. In basketball and football, you live in the moment. You got to be quick. Everything I do, I do with urgency.

This teenager is right. Baseball, undoubtedly, is a slow sport: even more so for spectators than the players.

But while this might be bad news for those hoping to attract the allegiance of the iPhone generation, I’ve found it to be quite useful in my own quest to sharpen my deep work skills.

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Deep Habits: Think Hard Outside The Office

March 17th, 2015 · 15 comments

Reading Under a Tree

Deep Work After Hours

One lesson I learned after becoming a professor is that producing intellectual insights at a professional pace requires deep thinking beyond the confines of the normal workday. Though I’m quite good at protecting and prioritizing deep work against the encroachment of the shallow, the depth I can fit into my regular schedule is not sufficient.

My strategy is to maintain, at all times, a single, clear problem primed and ready for cogitation. I then set aside specific times for this deep thinking in my schedule outside work. I use many (though not all) of my commutes for this purpose. I also leverage long weekend dog walks and the mental lull that accompanies time-consuming house work.

(People sometimes ask what I do with the free time I preserve by not using any social media or web surfing. This is a large part of my answer.)

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