Study Hacks Blog

The Importance of Auditing Your Work Habits

October 11th, 2012 · 26 comments

An Autumn Audit

I had to travel unexpectedly last weekend, so I missed my normal household chores. This morning, I woke up to the lawn picture above. Because I don’t have class or meetings scheduled today (a miracle!), I decided to take an hour or so to clean things up.

I never mind working outside, as it has the nice effect of moving my thoughts beyond the immediate future, and allowing me to perform a bigger picture audit of where things stand in my life. Today, I was thinking a lot about my work habits.

By the time I had the lawn looking like this…

…I had wrapped up some nice epiphanies.

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Solutions Beyond the Screen: The Adventure Work Method for Producing Creative Insights

September 5th, 2012 · 26 comments

Fog marching down the Berkeley hills (photo by Ianan).

Battling the Beast

A couple weeks ago, I made a brief visit to Berkeley, California, for a wedding. My wife, Julie, had to take a conference call the first morning after we arrived, so I decided to get some work done myself. I didn’t bring a computer, so “work” couldn’t mean e-mail replying (the standard instinct in this situation).

Instead, I decided to log some hard focus hours on what I like to call The Beast: a particularly vexing theory problem that my collaborators and I have been battling for many months.

I got some coffee and headed toward the Berkeley campus on foot. It was early, and the fog was just starting its march down the Berkeley hills (as shown above).

I eventually wandered into a eucalyptus grove:

(Photo by letjoysize)

Once there, I sipped my coffee and thought.

Our existing strategy for The Beast included a complicated algorithm which none of us looked forward to analyzing. Deploying a trick I learned while a grad student, I avoided needing to understand why the complicated algorithm worked by instead turning my attention to understanding why simpler strategies failed (I’m surprised by how often the study of things that break lead to simple things that don’t).

After only an hour, which included a strategic fill-up at the Free Speech Cafe, I had an idea for a more concise (and easier to analyze) algorithm that seemed to work.

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Henri Poincaré’s Four-Hour Work Day

August 31st, 2012 · 21 comments

John Cook, an applied mathematician and blogger, recently highlighted the following quote from a new biography of Henri Poincaré:

Poincaré … worked regularly from 10 to 12 in the morning and from 5 till 7 in the late afternoon. He found that working longer seldom achieved anything …

At first, we might marvel at how little time Poincaré spent working. But then we realize that “work” in this context probably means super-intense, hard-focused, uber-concentration; the type of “work” that required him to ponder things like a triangulated homology 3-sphere (pictured to the right).

Still, it doesn’t seem that hard to get 4 hours of hard focus out of an 8 – 10 hour work day. Most probably assume that they hit this mark easily. But then we measure this assumption and get a cold dose of reality.

At which point, we stop marveling at Poincaré’s supposed laziness, shut down our e-mail, and turn back to the metaphorical (or, in my case, literal) chalkboard.


This post is part of my Craftsman in the Cubicle series which explores strategies for building a remarkable working life by mastering a small number of rare and valuable skills. Previous posts include:


You Probably (Really) Work Way Less Than You Assume

August 23rd, 2012 · 37 comments

The 6-Hour Work Week

Last weekend, I decided it would be an interesting experiment to start tracking the hours I spent in a state of hard focus. I only counted hours where I was mastering new material (e.g., with the textbook method), engaging in a serious research discussion, or trying to formally write up new results.

I have done such tracking before, but not recently. I figured it would provide a helpful metric for my craftsman in the cubicle project. Here’s my tally for the four days I’ve tracked so far:

It’s depressing.

I have caveats — I was traveling through late Monday night and I was at a retreat most of the day yesterday — but still. I’m embarrassed by how few hours I managed to spend on work that really matters.

I have a general and a specific conclusion to make here…

The general conclusion: I think most knowledge workers probably way overestimate how much time they actually spend improving and applying the core skills that make them valuable. Keep a similar tally for a week, you’ll be surprised by what you find. This underscores the importance of the type of project I’m running here: if we don’t apply deliberate efforts in our quest to become craftsmen, our progress will be glacial. On the flip side, if we do apply these efforts, we have an opportunity to jump far ahead in our value.

The specific conclusion: As the summer gives way to the school year, I have my work cut out for me. I’m going to continue to track these hours for the near future, and let this tally drive me toward the hard decisions necessary to continue my quest to become “so good they can’t ignore you.”


This post is part of my Craftsman in the Cubicle series which explores strategies for building a remarkable working life by mastering a small number of rare and valuable skills. Previous posts include:


Experiments with the Textbook Method

August 16th, 2012 · 21 comments

Tailoring the Textbook Method

I spent this past week experimenting with the textbook method. I began by creating a template — a blank LaTex document — for collecting research notes:

When compiled into a pdf, it looks like this:

My plan was to minimize friction when starting work on a new idea or project — all I have to do now is copy the blank document to a new directory, change the title, and start capturing notes.

With my system in place I could take it out for a spin.

I decided to apply the method to a big hairy graph theory problem that my collaborators and I have been battling for months. This big problem keeps branching off into many promising smaller problems, one of which I have been pursuing recently with my grad student. This sub-problem provided a perfect case for applying the method.

I started a new write-up to capture, in my own words, what we thought we knew so far:

This well-constructed plan worked well…for about twenty minutes.

As I was writing, this process of formalization led me to a new approach to the idea. I quickly generated a new blank document (easy to do now that I have a template) and spent the rest of the afternoon, textbook open in front of me, office whiteboard filling with diagrams, trying to work though the details:

At first, I felt somewhat uneasy about leaving that first document half-written. My task-oriented instinct is to finish each write-up, once started. Instead I had abandoned the document as soon as something more relevant popped onto my radar.

But on reflection, I think what is happening — rapid idea abandonment and spawning —  is exactly what I want from the method. The write-ups, I must remind myself, are not a goal in themselves (most likely, no one will ever see them). They’re instead a tool to induce fast learning, and this fast learning, in turn, increases the rate at which I can explore a problem space — exactly what I need in my research.

To summarize: I’m testing this method in my applied mathematics research, but it’s becoming clear that it should work equally as effectively in most scenarios where you need to master complicated things fast — be it a new programming language or marketing strategy. We’ll see how it holds up as I apply it to multiple concurrent projects and more complicated topics.


This post is part of my Craftsman in the Cubicle series which explores strategies for building a remarkable working life by mastering a small number of rare and valuable skills. Previous posts include:


You Know What You Write: The Textbook Method for Ultra-Learning

August 10th, 2012 · 53 comments

Less Than Ultra Learning

The surprisingly useful Riemann Zeta function in action. (Image from MathWorld.)

As part of my craftsman in the cubicle project, I spent this past week monitoring how I learn new information.

I wasn’t impressed.

At one point, for example, I needed to dive into a topic I didn’t know much about: how information disseminates in random power law graphs. I went to Google Scholar and begin downloading papers with promising abstracts. I printed three and skimmed another half-dozen or so online. In retrospect, I think I was hoping to find a theorem somewhere that described exactly what I was looking for in notation I already understood.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t find this magic theorem. The two hours I spent felt wasted. (Well, not completely wasted, I did learn about the Riemann Zeta function, which turns up way more often than you might expect.)

This experience recommitted me to cracking the code of ultra-learning. Mastering hard knowledge fast, I now accept, requires more than blocking aside time on a schedule; it also demands technique.

The Chair

With this in mind, here was my first stab at cracking ultra-learning:

I bought a traditional leather chair (a longtime dream of mine). My wife and I still need to add some bookcases, a rich rug, and an old brass lamp — but my general  theory here is that this library nook will be make it impossible to avoid mastering new bodies of knowledge, and perhaps also pipe smoking.

Under the assumption that I might need more than the power of The Chair to become an accomplished ultra-learner, I do have one more strategy to deploy — which is what I want to talk about in this post. It’s actually a strategy I’ve known for years (my PhD adviser taught me soon after my arrival at MIT), but have seemed to forgotten recently.

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Work Less to Work Better: My Experiments with Shutdown Routines

August 2nd, 2012 · 43 comments

My dissertation. The pages shown here are from a proof that caused significant consternation.

A Novel Dissertation

I began working on my PhD thesis in the summer of 2008. I defended a year later, in early August, 2009.

There’s nothing unusual about this timing. What was unusual, however, was my approach.

By June 2008, I had a fair-sized collection of peer-reviewed publications. The standard practice in computer science would be for me to take the best of these results, combine them, fill in the missing details, add a thorough introduction, and then call the resulting mathematical chimera my dissertation.

To me, naive as I was, this sounded like a waste of a year. So I decided I would prove all new results.

This strategy worked fine for a while, keeping me engaged and happy, but then, in April, 2009, things took a turn toward the difficult. It was during this month that I accepted a postdoc position that would start in September.  This meant that I had to defend my thesis over the summer. Suddenly the allure of tackling all new results began to wane.

Here’s a scenario that became common:

  • I would be working during the day on an important proof.
  • At some point in the late afternoon I would find a flaw.
  • A helpful voice in my head would point out that my whole future depended on finding a fix — without a fix, it argued, the thesis would crumble, I would be kicked out of graduate school and end up homeless, likely dying in a soup kitchen knife fight.
  • After heading home, I would continue, obsessively, seeking a fix — ruining any chance at relaxation that night.

After two weeks of this exercise, I decided something needed to change.

It was then that I innovated my shutdown philosophy…

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