Study Hacks Blog

John McPhee’s Slow Productivity

March 9th, 2022 · 13 comments

Earlier this week, the writer John McPhee turned 91. One of the nice things about McPhee’s birthday, in addition to it providing an occasion to celebrate his incomparable output, is that it usually leads to one of my favorite writerly quotes spreading around the internet.

By any reasonable standard, McPhee is productive. He’s published 29 books, one of which won a Pulitzer Prize, and two of which were nominated for National Book Awards. He’s also been penning distinctive articles for The New Yorker since 1965. And yet, he rarely writes more than 500 words a day.

When asked about this paradox, McPhee famously quipped:

“People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so prolific’…God, it doesn’t feel like it—nothing like it.  But, you know, you put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart.”

This is a perfect summary of slow productivity. Being frantically busy in the present moment has very little to do with whether or not in the future you’ll look back at your career with pride about what you’ve accomplished.

(If you’re looking for another way to honor McPhee this week, I recommend reading his very first article for The New Yorker, a profile of Princeton basketball star, and future senator, Bill Bradley.)

Brandon Sanderson’s Advice for Doing Hard Things

February 25th, 2022 · 8 comments

A reader recently sent me a video of a keynote speech, delivered in 2020 by the popular fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson. The title of the presentation was “The Common Lies Writers Tell You,” but its real message was more general.

Sanderson starts (perhaps channeling a young Cal Newport) by pushing back on our common instinct to tell kids “you can do anything you want to” or “follow your dreams.” He argues that these aphorisms inflict a disservice on impressionable minds as they obfuscate the complexity, and frustration, and nuance involved in actually pursuing remarkable goals.

He retorts that the following claim is much more realistic:

“I can do hard things. Doing hard things has intrinsic value, and they will make me a better person, even if I end up failing.”

Sanderson then proceeds to details three tips, drawn from his experience as a successful novelist, to help structure any attempt to tackle hard things. I found his advice both interesting and refreshingly blunt, so I thought it might be useful to summarize his three tips here, annotated with some of my own thoughts…

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Nathan Chen Didn’t Bring His Phone to the Olympics

February 13th, 2022 · 11 comments

Last week, the American figure skater Nathan Chen, a favorite to win gold in the 2022 Olympics, lived up to expectations. In a four-minute free skate performance that included five quadruple jumps, and a joyous dance break, he earned the medal that had eluded him four years earlier in Pyeongchang.

Many of you sent me articles about Chen. You were less interested in what he did than in what he didn’t do: bring his phone to the competition. As the Wall Street Journal (among others) reported, Chen arrived at the 2022 Olympics without his phone so as to escape the cognitive drain induced by “the urge to scroll for hours through social media.” He brought his guitar instead, choosing to replace dopamine hacking with high quality leisure.

Most of us, of course, are not Olympic athletes struggling to live up to impossible expectations. There is, however, still a lesson to be learned from Chen’s disconnection. A life spent subservient to that small glowing screen is not a life where you’re living up to your potential.

Life of Focus is Now Open

February 8th, 2022 · 4 comments

A quick administrative note…

Life of Focus, the three-month training program I co-instruct with Scott Young, is now open for a new session. We will be holding registration until Friday, February 11th, 2022. Check it out here:

This course aims to help you achieve greater levels of depth in your work and life. It’s split into three, one-month challenges. Each challenge contains a guided effort to help you establish and test new routines and skills, supported by specific lessons to help you deal with the inevitable issues you’ll face. The challenges include:

  1. Establishing deep work hours. We all know we could get a lot more done with less stress if we had more time for deep work, but actually achieving this regularly can be tricky. The first month focuses on finding and making the subtle changes you need to get in more deep work — without burning yourself out.
  2. Conducting a digital declutter. Technology can be great, but it can also make us miserable. When we’re given access to endless distraction, it’s hard to engage in meaningful hobbies or enjoy deeper interactions with our friends and family. This month helps you cultivate a more deliberate attitude to the digital tools in your personal life.
  3. Taking on a deep project. In the final month, we’ll reinvest the time we’ve created at work and at home in a project that engages you in something meaningful — not just passively consumption.

Life of Focus, which we debuted last year, is arguably the most popular course we run. It’s also the course in whcih students have reported some of the strongest results we’ve ever encountered. This is because Life of Focus is action oriented. You don’t  just consume information, it requires you to make lasting changes. 

Anyway: registration is open now until Friday. If you want to find out more, click below.

On the Structured Pursuit of Depth

February 2nd, 2022 · 4 comments

Early in the pandemic, driven by the dislocation that characterized the moment, I began writing about a topic I quickly came to call “the deep life.” Though the name was new, the underlying idea was not, as few impulses are more ancient than the pursuit of a richer existence.

The instinct when talking about this topic is to resort to the lyrical: tell motivating stories, or present scenes that spark inspiration. This instinct makes sense because the deep life is nuanced and too complicated to be fully reduced to practical suggestions or a step-by-step program.

And yet, this is exactly what I attempted.

Less than a month after my original post on the topic, I introduced a “30-day plan” in which you focus on four main areas in your life, identifying for each: one habit to “amplify” and one behavior to “reduce.” I even presented a sample table to demonstrate the plan in action:

Later that spring, on my podcast, I elaborated this idea into something I called the “deep life bucket strategy,” which presented a two-stage process for systematically overhauling your life.

Then, over that summer, Scott Young and I completed a new online course called Life of Focus (which, I should probably mention, opens again next week to new students), that included a major module on engineering more depth into your regular routine.

To explain my contrarian shift toward the pragmatic in my treatment of this topic, I should first note that I agree that the deep life cannot be fully reduced to a system. But I’ve also come to believe that systems still have a role to play in this context, as they can help you understand this goal better than simply being exposed to sources of inspiration. This idea is familiar in theological circles. Many religions believe that although the concept of God cannot fully be understood by the human mind, certain ritual practices, such as daily prayers, can spark intimations of the divine that are otherwise unavailable to written accounts.

Something similar (though less grandiose) is at play with systematic attempts to pursue the deep life. Identifying buckets, or amplifying habits, cannot by themselves fully access the life well-lived. But they do require you to take focused action toward this objective, and it’s in this action–including the missteps and surprises–that you gain access to a richer comprehension of what this goal means to you and what you need to achieve it.

The deep life cannot be reduced to concrete steps. But without concrete steps, you’ll never get closer to it.

Watch Me Answer Your Questions

January 24th, 2022 · 10 comments

In the summer of 2020, I launched the Deep Questions podcast. The premise was simple: I answer your questions about all the different topics we talk about here and in my books. The show has been a success, with over 4.5 million downloads and counting. But the one common complaint I keep hearing is that the monolithic podcast format makes it difficult to save or share my responses to individual questions.

I finally have a solution to that problem. Starting today, my team will be releasing standalone videos of each question I answer on my show. We’ll also be releasing videos of my “deep dive” monologues and recordings of the full episodes. You can find these videos here.

Looking ahead to the near future: Right now, the videos are hosted on YouTube. Later this winter, we’ll be launching a standalone portal that will organize the videos in an easy-to-navigate, Netflix-style carousel format, enabling you to avoid the distractions of the YouTube interface altogether. I’ll update you when the portal is live.