Study Hacks Blog

Nick Saban Just Got Email

April 11th, 2020 · 14 comments

By most measures, Nick Saban is one of the most successful college football coaches in the history of the sport. As revealed in a recent interview with ESPN, however, he’s not exactly tech savvy. During this discussion, Sabin revealed that up until the last few weeks, when unavoidable remote work forced some changes, he had never used email.

I think this is an important story. Not because Saban’s specific work habits can be widely replicated (Saban, who was paid $8.6 million last year, has a staff who handles incoming requests), but because it underscores a point that we often forget. Low friction communication makes a lot of modern work easier, because it allows you to avoid the pain of setting up and optimizing systems that organize your efforts. But easy is not the same as effective.

Read more »

More Thoughts on Amplifying Meaning in Your Work

April 10th, 2020 · 12 comments

Earlier this week I explored how practitioners of the deep life sometimes use inspiring environments to amplify the meaning they derive from their work. Today, I want to briefly elaborate on two other strategies I’ve observed for accomplishing this same goal…

The first is establishing cultures of meaning. This is common, for example, in many military communities which emphasize a shared narrative about the honor and noble sacrifice of martial endeavors. If you want to see a contemporary example of this strategy in action listen to basically any episode of former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink’s podcast. He doesn’t dispense advice or opine about the state of the world; he instead mainly interviews war heroes to discuss the gritty reality of their experience. I’ve noticed similar cultures of meanings among teachers, fine craftsmen, and, relevant to recent events, medical professionals, who time after time demonstrate they are willing to keep returning to dangerous and unbelievably trying circumstances. That’s a powerful culture.

Read more »

Work and the Deep Life

April 5th, 2020 · 22 comments

One of the key elements of my deep life philosophy is its emphasis on craft. This topic applies to both professional and leisure pursuits, but in this post, I want to focus on the former. (See Digital Minimalism for more on the latter.)

I became really interested in career development ideas around 2010, when I began the research for what eventually became my fourth book, So Good They Can’t Ignore YouHere’s what I discovered about the standard career thinking embraced by many college-educated young people in our country:

  • It understands jobs to be like a contract: you do the work assigned, you get to keep the position.
  • It believes career satisfaction results from finding the right job for your natural pre-existing interests. This mindset is summed up by the ubiquitous advice to “follow your passion.” If you don’t like your job, it’s because you chose the wrong field.

The deep life philosophy offers an alternative vision centered on valuable skills:

  • It believes security comes from being able to do things that are valuable, and, more generally, being comfortable picking up new valuable skills quickly when circumstances require.
  • It believes that satisfaction comes from some combination of autonomy, impact and/or a sense of mastery, which (as I argue in So Good) require valuable skills as a necessary precondition.

Read more »

Thoreau on Hard Work

April 3rd, 2020 · 15 comments

Writing in his journal in March of 1842, at the precocious age of 24, Thoreau noted the following about the difference between quality and quantity in work:

“The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen set all day? She can lay but one egg, and besides she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard.”

At the age of 27, having just finished writing a book concurrently with my doctoral dissertation, I was afflicted with a similar revelation, which I captured in a blog post published in the summer of 2009, titled: “Focus Hard. In Reasonable Bursts. One Day at a Time.” The main distinction I emphasized in this piece (admittedly, with much less eloquence than Thoreau) is that there’s a difference between “hard work” and “hard to do work.” Deep endeavors are often difficult, but they need not be exhausting.


For the past three weeks, I’ve switched over to a daily blog schedule. My idea, as explained here, is to be the one source of information in your life that is not specifically about public health concerns (if you want more on my take on that particular topic, see this post or my recent interview with GQ). Now that people are settling down into a regular rhythm of socially-distant living, I’m thinking of adjusting my post frequency for now to be roughly every other day, so that you’ll still hear from me regularly, but not so fast that you’re unable to keep up!

On Productivity, Part 3

April 3rd, 2020 · 17 comments

In March of 2009, only a couple years into the life of this blog, I wrote a post that attempted to summarize what I was up to. I titled it: “What the Hell is Study Hacks?” At the time, I was focused exclusively on advice for students. I had published two books for this audience with Random House and had a third about to come out. But as I reread this post recently, I was surprised by the degree to which my circa-2009 ideas for students seemed to resonate with our current conversations. Here’s what I wrote:

Read more »

On Productivity, Part 2

April 1st, 2020 · 28 comments

Yesterday’s discussion about productivity and the deep life sparked a really interesting conversation, both in the comments section and my inbox. I thought it might be useful to continue with this topic and see where we end up.

A crucial distinction that seemed to arise from this back-and-forth was between productivity in the business context versus the personal context.

In the business context, productivity refers to the efficiency with which an input is converted into a more valuable output. When applied to workers it refers to the amount of value they are able to produce per unit time spent working. The goal of increasing productivity, roughly speaking, becomes to increase the output reaped for a given salary investment.

It’s this formulation that seems to be creating unease, as it’s one in which productivity is about reducing the quality of the worker’s life, by pushing for ever more frantic output, to increase the return on capital.

Read more »

On Productivity and the Deep Life

April 1st, 2020 · 26 comments

Earlier today, a reader and fellow professor sent me an interesting question:

“Everything you write is underpinned by productivity discourse. As I note above, I do embrace your approach to writing and thinking—the need for sustained thinking in quiet (sometimes outdoor) places, its deep pleasures (as well as difficulties), and its contribution to a deep life—but the productivity language is an impediment for me…The pleasure in thinking and doing things well is such a deep-wired human pleasure, if we attend to it, and it feels (to me) diluted when it’s linked to productivity…Short question, then, is: could you promote deep work without linking it to productivity?”

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the connection between productivity and the deep life, so the timing of this question is good (though let me caveat the following answers by underscoring their preliminary status).

Read more »