Study Hacks Blog

Has the Shift Toward Neuro-Productivity Already Begun?

July 7th, 2020 · 18 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 · 22 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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On the Exceptionalism of Books in an Age of Tweets

June 27th, 2020 · 41 comments

Early in his 1994 essay collection, The Gutenberg Elegies, literary critic Sven Birkerts tells a story about his experience teaching an undergraduate course on short stories. He started his students easy, with some Washington Irving, then moved on to Hawthorne and Poe before arriving at Henry James.

It was here that his class “derailed.”

He tried to solicit opinions on the story he’d selected, but came up short. “My students could barely muster the energy for a thumbs-up or -down,” he writes. “It was as though some pneumatic pump had sucked out the last dregs of their spirits.”

As he probed, Birkerts realized the issue wasn’t localized; it wasn’t just the vocabulary, or the diction, or the specific references. The root drove deeper:

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On Social Media and Character

June 19th, 2020 · 37 comments

Madison Fischer, a professional sport climber, recently pointed me toward an insightful essay she published on her blog about her battle with social media.

Early in her climbing career, Madison was exposed to Instagram. At first she posted pictures of her cat; then pictures of competitions; then her training; then she had a professional account where she could carefully track the demographics of her viewers, optimizing when she posted, and synchronizing her online behavior with a carefully-calibrated content calendar.

This sudden influencer status was impossibly appealing:

“I wanted the congratulations. I wanted admiration. I wanted my follower count to grow. I wanted everyone to envy my life and achievements. I wanted, no, needed people to tell me I was going places…But you can’t blame me. It’s so easy, so stimulating. It’s not even a statement that you have Instagram, it’s assumed. Everyone’s doing it.”

But something didn’t feel quite right about the increasingly artificial life she was constructing online. Beyond the “obvious egotism” issues, she began to lose touch with her true self: “I started believing this narrative of a girl…living the dream,” she writes, “traveling around the world to compete while finding the time for school, work, and a relationship.”

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Facebook’s Fatal Flaw?

June 17th, 2020 · 39 comments

In Episode 4 of my Deep Questions podcast (posted Monday), a reader named Jessica asked my opinion about the future of social media. I have a lot of thoughts on this issue, but in my response I focused on one point in particular that I’ve been toying with recently: Facebook may have accidentally developed a fatal flaw.

To understand this claim, we have to rewind to the early days of this social platform. The original pitch for Facebook was that it made it easier to connect online with people you knew. The content model was simple: you setup a profile, people you knew setup profiles, and everyone could then check each others’ vacation pictures and relationship statuses.

For this model to be valuable, the people you knew had to also use the service. This is why Mark Zuckerberg focused at first on college campuses. These were closed communities in which it was easy to build up enough critical user mass to make Facebook fun.

Once Facebook moved into the range of hundreds of millions of users, competition became difficult. The value of a network with a hundred million users was exponentially larger than one with a million, as the former was much more likely to connect you with the people you cared about. It was on the strength of this model that Facebook emerged as a powerful social internet monopoly.

The problem, however, was that they weren’t making enough money.

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Small Steps

June 15th, 2020 · 23 comments

Last week, I asked for your help in identifying organizations that have had some success working on issues surrounding police violence.

My instinct when facing an overwhelming problem is to find at least one place where some improvement is possible, find people who are having success with these improvements, then give them support to help them keep going.  Such steps are small in the short term, but they have a way of breaking the complacency of standing still, which in the long term can end up making the difference between transformation or frustration.

Over 60 of you sent me notes, pointed me toward organizations, and provided reading lists. This was massively helpful. I have sorted through this information to identify two organizations in particular (among many) that seem to be having success in this policy area, and that apply the type of data-driven approach I thought might appeal to my audience here:

I encourage you to donate if you can. If you do, forward me the receipt. To the extent I’m able, I’ll match these contributions dollar for dollar.

Ancient Complications to Modern Career Advice

June 13th, 2020 · 35 comments

In 2012, I published a book titled So Good They Can’t Ignore You. It argued that “follow your passion” was bad career advice. I didn’t claim that passion was a problem, but instead argued that it was too simplistic to assume that the key to career satisfaction was as easy as matching your job to a pre-existing inclination. For many people, this slogan might actually impede their progress down the more complicated path that leads to true satisfaction.

One of the interesting things I uncovered in my research was that the term “follow your passion” didn’t really emerge in the context of career advice until the 1980s. Where did it come from? I argued that two critical trends converged during this period.

First, the unionized industrial work that characterized mid-century American economic growth gave way to a less rooted knowledge sector. Workers who might have previously taken a job at whatever factory happened to be located in their hometown might now be forced to travel cross-country in search of a suitable office position.

For the first time, the question of what you wanted to do for a living became pervasive — a shift captured well by the emergence in the early 1970s of Richard Bolles’ seminal career guide, What Color is Your Parachute: one of the original books to help readers identify which professions suit their personality and interests. It’s important to remember that this was a radical notion. “[At the time,] the idea of doing a lot of pen-and-paper exercises in order to take control of your career was regarded as a dilettante’s exercise,” Bolles later explained.

The second force at play was Joseph Campbell, the polymath literature professor who was heavily influenced by Carl Jung, and popularized the hero’s journey as a foundational mythology that emerges in many cultures. In 1988, PBS aired a multi-part interview with Campbell hosted by Bill Moyers. This wildly popular series introduced the concept of following your bliss, which Campbell, who read Sanskrit,  had adapted from the ancient Hindu notion of ananda, or rapture.

Combine these two forces — a sudden need to figure out what you wanted to do for a living with Campbell’s mantra — and a strange, secularized, bastardized hybrid emerges: the key to career happiness, we decided as the 80s gave way to the 90s, was to follow your passion.

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Answering Your Questions

June 8th, 2020 · 45 comments

In the early years of this blog, one of my favorite activities was answering reader questions. I used to put aside an hour almost every day for keeping up with these emails. Over time, however, the number of queries became too large to manage.

It occurred to me recently that the podcast format might provide a way for me to return to these roots while reaching many more people with my answers than what’s possible with one-on-one messages.

So this is what I did…

My new podcast, Deep Questions with Cal Newport, is currently available on Apple and Spotify (and soon to be available on other platforms as well).

The format is simple, I answer reader questions about the main topics we discuss here: work, technology, and the deep life. I do my best to avoid rants (spoiler alert: I usually fail).

I’ve released two episode so far (see above for the most recent episode), with a new one on its way. My plan this summer is to test out a season of the podcast between now and August: releasing a new episode roughly each week.

I’m soliciting these questions from my mailing list, so if you want to contribute, sign up for my list using the widget on the blog sidebar or on my homepage at calnewport.com.

And of course, if you like the podcast, leaving a review on your platform of choice helps spread the word…

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A Question of My Own: I’m trying to learn more about organizations that are having success working on police reform (eliminating abuse/brutality, improving community relationships, etc). If you know this field, and are willing to share some of your wisdom about which players seem to be efficacious, please send me a note at interesting@calnewport.com.