Study Hacks Blog

Your Work Matters. Build Your Schedule Accordingly.

September 20th, 2022 · 11 comments

About halfway through Laura Vanderkam’s sharp new productivity guide, Tranquility by Tuesday, we’re introduced to Elizabeth, an education professor who, worried about her ticking tenure clock, came to Laura for time management advice.

Elizabeth was struggling to find time for her research. Her husband and two children had followed her to northern Long Island to be close to the university were Elizabeth taught. As a result, however, her husband now faced an hour-long commute into the city each day, leaving Elizabeth with the primary responsibility for taking care of the kids before and after school. This created tight constraints on her available work hours, and the time that did remain was all too easily devoured by the demands of the classroom and teaching assistant supervision.

Laura asked Elizabeth to come up with a set of fixed time slots she could dedicate to research, to help ensure progress would be made even during busy weeks (longtime readers might recognize this as a variation of the autopilot schedule strategy). Elizabeth came back with the following options:

  • 6:00 – 7:30am on Monday and Fridays, before her husband left for work.
  • 5:45 – 6:45pm on Wednesday night, when she had childcare coverage before a night class.

Laura knew these meager options weren’t going to produce a lot of new research. “You don’t need to be a professor to deduce how easily those three small spots could disappear,” she writes. With this reality in mind, Laura pushed Elizabeth to be more aggressive in carving out time for deep work. The result was the following more substantial schedule:

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Whitman in the Knapsack: Mary Oliver and the Power of Walking in Nature

September 9th, 2022 · 10 comments

Among those who find pleasure in cataloging the habits and rituals of prodigious creatives, the poet Mary Oliver is a familiar companion. Her commitment to long walks outdoors, scribbling notes in a cloth-bound notebook, is both archetypical and approachable.

This vision of Oliver finding inspiration in her close observations of nature, made as she wanders past ponds and through forest-bound glades, matches our intuitions about the artistic process. As Oliver writes in her poem, The Summer Day:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

We can also, if we’re being honest, imagine ourselves extracting a diluted version of this inspiration, if only we too could find the time to take our moleskin into the woods. It’s here, in other words, that we find a key piece to Oliver’s enduring appeal.

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The Most Important Piece of Career Advice You Probably Never Heard

August 25th, 2022 · 3 comments

This essay was inspired by Top Performer, the online course about engineering a more meaningful and satisfying career that I designed with Scott Young. The new and improved version of this course will be open for new registrations next week. Find out more here.

In the spring of 2008, I published one of the more consequential essays in the history of this newsletter. It was titled: “The Most Important Piece of Career Advice You Probably Never Heard.” At the time, I was a doctoral student at MIT, still more than a year away from defending my dissertation. I was also, as I explain in the opening of the essay, about to attend my second college graduation in less than three weeks. As a result, my mind was mired in thoughts about career advice.

As I considered what I might write on this topic an insight struck me with a jolt of electric clarity. In the end, what matters is your lifestyle. The specifics of your work are important only in how they impact your daily experience. As I summarized, when choosing a career path:

“Fix the lifestyle you want. Then work backwards from there.”

This idea, which I dubbed lifestyle-centric career planning, subverted popular advice from that period which tended to emphasize the importance of passion and dream jobs. In this widely-accepted schema, the full responsibility for your ongoing satisfaction was offloaded to the minutia of your professional endeavors.

This didn’t strike me as correct. There are so many other aspects of your life that matter in your contentment, including, as I enumerated in my original essay, the following:

  • How much control do I have over my schedule?
  • What’s the intensity level of my job?
  • What’s the importance of what I do?
  • What’s the prestige level?
  • Where do I live?
  • What’s my social life like?
  • What’s my work life balance?
  • What’s my family like?
  • How do other people think of me?
  • What am I known for?

Confident answers to these types of questions might identify many different jobs that, if properly pursued, move you toward the life you desire. They can also help you direct the job you already have in directions that will provide you the most benefit.

The conceptual seed planted by this essay soon began to grow in my work. My very next essay, published three days later, was titled, “The Problem with Passion.” This was one of the first examples of me taking direct aim at the all-too-popular recommendation to “follow your passion.” But it was not the last.

Four years later, I published my first hardcover idea book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which explicitly rejected passion-centric career advice and promoted an alternative approach more aligned with the philosophy of lifestyle-centric career planning I had first sketched out back in the spring of 2008. It went on to sell 300,000 copies, and counting.

Two years after that, in 2014, Scott Young and I launched the first version of our online course Top Performer, which operationalized many of the ideas from that book. Eight years and more than 5,000 student later, we’re opening the latest evolution of this course to new registrations starting Monday, August 29th. It was this upcoming launch — one of many of over the years — that got me reminiscing about my long history with thinking critically about career satisfaction, and led me, eventually, back this pragmatic gem of an essay from all the way back in 2008. It’s sometimes the smallest ideas, articulated at just the right moment, that end up most changing the trajectory of your life.

New Study Confirms the Value of Solitude

August 8th, 2022 · 9 comments


In my book Digital Minimalism, I emphasized the danger of a newly-emerged condition that I called “solitude deprivation.” As I wrote, the introduction of the smartphone caused our relationship with distraction to mutate into something new:

“At the slightest hint of boredom, you can now surreptitiously glance at any number of apps or mobile-adapted websites that have been optimized to provide you an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds. It’s now possible to completely banish solitude from your life.”

I went on to argue that this condition was worrisome. Us humans evolved to experience significant amounts of time alone with our own thoughts. Remove this solitude from our lives and we’re not only bound to get twitchy and anxious, but we miss out on much of the subtle but deep value generated by a wandering mind.

A new paper, published by researchers at the University of Tübingen, and appearing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, provides some support for these claims. “Psychologists who studied a group of more than 250 people encouraged to engage in directionless contemplation or free-floating thinking,” summarizes The Guardian, “said that the activity was far more satisfying than the participants had anticipated.”

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TikTok’s Poison Pill

August 1st, 2022 · 12 comments

Just a few months ago, it seemed that the biggest social media news of the year would be Elon Musk’s flirtations with buying Twitter (see, for example, my article from May). Recently, however, a new story has sucked up an increasing amount of oxygen from this space: TikTok’s challenge to the legacy social platforms.

Last February, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, released a quarterly report that revealed user growth had stalled. Analysts were quick to attribute this slow down, in part, to fierce competition from TikTok, which had recently blasted past the billion user mark. The valuation of Meta plummeted by over $200 billion in a single day.

Forced by investor pressure to respond, Meta began a sudden shift in its products’ features that moved them closer to the purified algorithmic distraction offered by its upstart rival. This spring, a leaked memo revealed Facebook’s plan to focus more on short videos and make recommendations “unconnected” to accounts that a user has already friended or followed. More recently, Instagram began experimenting with a TikTok-style full screen display, and has emphasized algorithmically-curated videos at the expense of photos shared by accounts the user follows.

From a short-term business perspective, these might seem like necessary changes. But as I argued in my most recent article for The New Yorker, published last week, the decision by companies like Facebook and Instagram to become more like TikTok could mark the beginning of their end.

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LBJ’s Poolside Phone and the Connectivity Revolution

July 11th, 2022 · 11 comments

A reader named Peter recently sent me a perceptive note. He had just returned from a visit to Austin, where he had visited the LBJ Ranch, now operated as national historical site, located about 50 miles west of the city in the Texas Hill Country.

As Peter recalled, during the tour, the guide emphasized that as president, Lyndon Johnson was so obsessed with connectivity that he had a telephone installed beside his pool. “Everyone in the tour group laughed,” wrote Peter. But as he then correctly pointed out, this collective mirth may have been hasty.

In an age of smartphones, everyone has access to a phone by the pool. Also in the bathroom. And in the car. And in every store, and on every street, and basically every waking moment of their lives. The average teenager with a iPhone today is vastly more connected than the leader of the free world sixty years ago.

I thought this was a good reminder of the head-spinning speed with which the connectivity revolution entangled us in its whirlwind advance. We haven’t even begun to seriously consider the impact of these changes, or how us comparably slow-adapting humans must now adjust. Be wary of those who embrace our current moment as an optimal and natural evolution of our species’ relationship with technology. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to figure out what exactly we want. After sufficient reflection, it might even turn out that taking a call by the pool, LBJ style, isn’t as essential as we might have once imagined.

The 3-Hour Fields Medal: A Slow Productivity Case Study

July 5th, 2022 · 12 comments

Earlier today, June Huh, a 39-year-old Princeton professor, was awarded the 2022 Fields Medal, one of the highest possible honors in mathematics, for his breakthrough work on geometric combinatorics.

As described in a recent profile of Huh, published in Quanta Magazine (and sent to me by several alert readers), Huh’s path to academic mathematics was meandering. He didn’t get serious about the subject until his final year at Seoul National University, when he enrolled in a class taught by Heisuke Hironaka, a charismatic Japanese mathematician who had himself won a Fields back in 1970.

Given his recent conversion to the mathematical arts, Huh was only accepted at one of the dozen graduate schools to which he applied. It didn’t take long, however, for him to stand out. As a beginning student, Huh managed to solve Read’s conjecture, a long-standing open problem concerning the coefficients of polynomial bounds on the chromatic number of graphs. The University of Michigan, which had previously rejected Huh’s graduate school application, soon recruited him as a transfer student. Along with his collaborators, Huh generalized the approach he innovated to tackle Read’s conjecture to prove similar properties for a much broader class of objects called matroids. The new result stunned the mathematics community. “It’s pretty remarkable that it works,” said Matthew Baker, a respected expert on the topic.

The reason so many readers sent me the Quanta profile of Huh, however, was not because of its descriptions of his mathematical genius, but instead because of the details it shares about how Huh structures his deep efforts:

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On Wendell Berry’s Move from NYU to a Riverside Cabin

June 22nd, 2022 · 7 comments

In my previous essay, I wrote about how novelist Jack Carr rented a rustic cabin to help focus his attention on completing his latest James Reece thriller. This talk of writing retreats got me thinking again about what’s arguably my favorite example from this particular genre of aspirational day dreaming: Wendell Berry’s “camp” on the Kentucky River.

In February, Dorothy Wickenden, whose father Dan Wickenden was Berry’s original editor at Harcourt Brace, featured Berry’s camp in a lengthy New Yorker profile of the now 87-year old writer, farmer, and activist. Berry brought Wickenden to a twelve-by-sixteen foot one-room structure, raised on concrete pilings high on the sloped bank of the river, only on the condition that she not reveal its exact location.

In the summer of 1963, Berry, all of twenty-nine, and just a few years into a professorship at New York University, built the current cabin on the same site where his great-great-great grandfather, Ben Perry, one of the first settlers in the valley, had long ago erected a log house. Berry remembered the location from his childhood. As Wickenden explains, Berry returned that summer to build an escape where he could “write, read, and contemplate the legacies of his forebears, and what inheritance he might leave behind.”

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