Study Hacks Blog

Projects vs. Tasks: A Critical Distinction in Productive Scheduling

January 2nd, 2021 · 39 comments

In a recent episode of my podcast, an Australian doctor named Nathan asked an interesting question regarding some difficulties he had maintaining and organizing his task list:

“David Allen asked ‘Is it actionable?’; separating tasks from ideas. But I also find that there are different types of tasks. The easiest to deal with are what I’m taking to calling ‘concrete’ tasks, such as taking out the rubbish, or submitting a final report. These are defined, necessary tasks that are cognitively easy to deal with. However, I’m also aware of ‘aspirational’ tasks, such as ‘summarize War and Peace,’ which are open-ended, and don’t really matter if you accomplish them by a specific time…they tend to just pile up.”

This is an important question because it touches on the rare productivity topic that’s both crucial to my personal process, and something that I haven’t already written much about. I thought, therefore, it would useful to briefly review the answer I gave Nathan.

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Theodore Roosevelt’s Focused Advice

December 29th, 2020 · 16 comments

One of my colleagues at Georgetown recently pointed me toward a 1902 letter that Theodore Roosevelt sent to his son Kermit, who at the time was at boarding school.

Here’s the passage that caught my attention:

“I am delighted at all the accounts I receive of how you are doing at Groton. You seem to be enjoying yourself and are getting on well. I need not tell you to do your best to cultivate ability for concentrating your thought on whatever work you are given to do—you will need it in Latin especially.”

As readers of Deep Work know, I’ve previously highlighted Teddy’s fabled powers of focus as playing a critical role in his rise, so it’s not surprising that he’s emphasizing this same skill to his son. What strikes me, however, is that this recommendation isn’t standard for all students.

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Andrew Gelman’s 4 pm Rule (a Knowledge Work Reverie)

December 23rd, 2020 · 22 comments

Andrew Gelman is a professor at Columbia University with a joint appointment in the department of statistics and political science. To say he’s productive is an understatement. He’s written six books, has been cited over 120,000 times, and wields an h-index over 100 (if you’re not sure about this last statistic, ask a professor friend to explain why it’s impressive).

The reason I’m mentioning Gelman is a blog post he published earlier this week. As pointed out by the eagle-eyed reader who sent me the article, in the second paragraph, Gelman casually admits: “I never check my email before 4.”

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Unpacking Our Dialectical Relationship with Slack

December 15th, 2020 · 9 comments

Earlier this week, I published an essay in the New Yorker about Salesforce’s proposed $28 billion acquisition of Slack. You might assume that my feelings toward this slick-interfaced interruption machine are purely negative, but as I admit: “I do not dislike Slack as much as people assume given that I wrote a book titled Deep Work.

What interests me more than easy criticism here is the knowledge sector’s dialectical relationship with this tool. People hate it, but they also kind of love it. Slack fragments your attention into minuscule shards, but it also solves issues that make email nearly untenable as a means of organizing work.

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From Instagram to Insistent Goats: Another Life After Social Media Case Study

December 11th, 2020 · 17 comments

Not long ago, I received a note from a reader named Shandel who wanted to share her experience with social media. She began by noting that she used to “love” these services:

I loved meeting new people and adding them to my friends list. It was a thrill!…I joined a running group and felt super cool to be posting with them and to be tagged in their photos. I was proud of my life and wanted to show it off.”

Then, like many, she began to feel “some unrest.” She worried that she was looking at photos of her kids more than she looked at them in real life, and found herself adjusting her family like models to produce better posts. She started to feel creeped out that “friends” were commenting on these photos even though they’d never actually met.

A breaking point came when the family car got stuck in the snow. Shandel’s instinct was to jump out and begin filming her husband’s efforts to free the tires, as it seemed like a scene that could yield a good haul of likes. “Can you help me!?”, he finally called out in exasperation.

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Rethinking the Internet, Again

December 3rd, 2020 · 23 comments

In October, I wrote a blog post suggesting a framework for the social internet in which users own their own data, including social links, original content, and descriptions of their interests. In my proposal, social networks would compete to offer you the best experience using this common pool of information.

If you don’t like how Instagram is observing your behavior to sell ads, for example, you can now turn to an alternative site that has access to the same pictures and social connections, and can therefore show you the same material, but now with more privacy.

Similarly, if you don’t like Twitter’s content policies, you can turn to any number of alternative applications that have access to the same mini-posts, but can apply their own house rules about what they’ll display or recommend.

A lot of interesting things can happen, in other words, once individual companies can no longer hoard your information.

As many readers helpfully pointed out in response to my October post, I was not the first person to have this idea. I was particularly pleased to discover an open source project that attempts to implement something more or less exactly in line with this vision, and that’s headed by someone who knows a thing or two about the world wide web because, well, he invented it.

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On Technology and Focus: ASMR, VR, and the First Steps Toward Immersive Single Tasking

November 23rd, 2020 · 34 comments

Around 2010, a curious new term arose in obscure but energetic internet chatrooms: autonomous sensory meridian response. ASMR, as it was soon abbreviated, described a peculiar form of paresthesia experienced as a tingling that starts in the scalp and then moves down the back. It’s often triggered by specific sounds, like soft whispering or a paintbrush scraping canvas. Not surprisingly, those sensitive to ASMR sometimes found Bob Ross reruns to be a reliable source of the effect.

What makes ASMR relevant to our interests here is that it happened to emerge as a topic of discussion just as YouTube emerged as a cultural force. Soon a cottage industry arose of AMSR videos featuring meticulously recorded trigger sounds. One such video opens on a straw stirring seltzer water. A little later it zooms in on a knife scraping dried blush on a make-up tray. It’s been viewed over four and a half million times.

The reason I know about ASMR is that as these “tingle videos” grew in popularity, they spawned a sub-genre called ASMR rooms. The goal in these videos was no longer to trigger the classical tingling response, but instead to invoke a sense of meditative calm and focus.

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When Did Productivity Become Personal?

November 17th, 2020 · 19 comments

My latest article for The New Yorker, published on Tuesday, is titled “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done.” It’s not, however, really about David Allen’s productivity system, which longtime readers (and listeners)  know I really admire. It’s instead about a deeper question that I hadn’t heard discussed much before: Why do we leave office workers to figure out on their own how to get things done?

With the notable exception of agile software development teams, companies in this sector largely leave decisions about how work is assigned, reviewed, and organized up to individuals. We promulgate clear objectives and construct motivating corporate cultures, but when it comes to actually executing these tasks, we just hook everyone up to an email address or Slack channel and tell them to rock and roll. This has led to a culture of overload and fragmented attention that makes everyone involved miserable.

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