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The Importance of Deep Work and the 30-Hour Method for Learning a New Skill (azeria-labs.com)
1331 points by ingve on May 26, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 197 comments

The author references Cal Newport's Deep Work [1]. I recently read this book and I can't recommend it enough. It's not just a productivity fluff piece about the importance of focus. He brings an academic rigor to the debate and backs up his claims with legitimate evidence. Best of all, the book is not just theory, it's 100% actionable.

I used Newport's recommendations to reclaim 4+ solid hours of deep focus and it's had a tremendous impact on my productivity and general quality of life.

Here are a few strategies I found successful:

* Create a TODO list each day and separate tasks into shallow and deep categories

* Block off each hour of the day and and fill it with one of the TODO items

* Restrict shallow work to 2 hours (after 2 hours, say no to everything shallow)

* Create a scorecard and track the number of deep hours each day (this number should increase)

* Experiment with Newport's recommendations for two weeks and see which ones increase your deep hours

* Become comfortable saying no

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Deep-Work-Focused-Success-Distracted/...

>Block off each hour of the day and and fill it with one of the TODO items

Generally agree with the points but I'd like to note that this point is the most likely failure point in the method. Organizing the day by hours doesn't work for a lot of people. Most productivity books in the old days (60's) recommended it. They generally don't anymore due to the low success rate. That was one of the first things I tried as a student and it didn't work.

I find time and productivity management similar to dieting. It's not about which one is theoretically or objectively the best. It's about which method you personally can stick to. What works for one person will not for the next guy.

This is addressed in Cal's book. He acknowledges no plan will survive the day perfectly. Basically, you just re-prioritize your blocks throughout the day. The goal is not to break the day into hour long blocks as much as it is to always have a priority and to maintain focus on that priority. Things happen and no plan survives contact with reality. I have found this method to work well and fit with a modern knowledge worker's work patterns for the most part.


"No plan survives contact with the enemy." - Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

Some clarification for readers: this generally doesn't mean that a plan is scrapped entirely; it means that changes are normal and anticipated (i.e. NOT an automatic sign of failure) that as new information comes to light and circumstances shift, those executing a plan should be adaptable enough to make adjustments where prudent. In fact, decentralized command was developed in order to allow highly-functioning teams to actively exploit unforeseen advantages which develop as a battle/campaign unfolds.

Although these concepts were forged on the battlefield, they are 100% relevant to civilian 'battles' as well - in this case, time management.

Fwiw I prefer Mike Tyson's:

"Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth."

Or something like that. Life and work are random and sometimes chaotic. That's never going to change. Plans __and (personal) expectations__ should be recalibrated to align with reality.

“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – General Dwight D Eisenhower

“Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

"Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance"

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth - Mike Tyson

There's a lot of truth and value in that quote, but understanding the context behind it is important. It's boxing - everyone understands they will be punched in the mouth, has practiced getting punched, etc.

You need a plan, but have to be able to adapt to changing circumstances.

For reference, that quote was given in an interview about his upcoming fight against Evander Holyfield. Holyfield dominated the fight, Tyson bit him twice, and the fight was stopped in the 11th round with Holyfield as the winner.

(It would have been more arrogant to say, but perhaps more honestly stated as "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth by Mike Tyson". Tyson is widely considered to be the hardest hitting boxer in history. He retired with a record of 50-6, with 44 wins by knockout and 22 of those knockouts were in the first round.)

I feel like "reality" is a good placeholder for Mike Tyson. It hits quite hard at times :)

You're conflating the two Tyson/Holyfield fights. Tyson bit Holyfield twice in the second fight which was stopped in the third round (with Tyson being disqualified).


> "You need a plan, but have to be able to adapt to changing circumstances."


Unfortunately, not all us are the masters of our own universe of deadlines. Too often they're semi arbitrary, set by someone who's not aware of the intricacies, etc.

The point being, even when you have a great plan to get something done, it might not be good enough in the broader (distorted) context? Then what?

You do the best you can? You are always the master of your dealing with your reality.

Communicate. Express your perspective. Manage your reaction. Master what you have domain over, your reactions to the world. Do not be a slave to disappointment.

Sou, let's say a new deadline sets you up for failure. You communicate this perspective. You manage the pang of panic, get to work, do your best.

It's still failure.

It's not that you disappoint yourself, since you _knew_ it was practically impossible to succeed. You dealt with your reality, you mastered your domain. People will still get angry and disappointed that the deadline was not met. Not always, but some (most) of the time, you'll end up taking the blame, or even disciplined/fired.

What you're met with is "So what, change jobs, reframe your perspective, grab life by the balls".

This kind of positive thinking does not solve anything. It's simplistic and misdirected. You'll eventually find this situation in every job you take (or make). What can you learn from the experience? No amount of "mastering your reality" will make this a positive experience. Ok, maybe the first time, you learn that you can't always win. But that is all, no lessons learned for all subsequent ocurrences.

Yes, I'm bitter. But you're saccharine.

Not your fault, but i'm sick of seeing this kind of naive responses that belong in mugs or motivational posters.

That was my point. The ancient stoics would advise you to administer control over what you can. If you did the best you can to influence the situation to a positive result, and it still failed, there is nothing you can do. All that is left is how you react to the situation. Modern psychology would call this CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). Basically, your reaction and how you deal with things internally is all that is left after you have done what you can. Life has so many elements beyond our control. Focus on what you can change and do not let the unchangeable pull you down. I appreciate your frustration at my advice. If I didn't practice it myself and know how hard it can be to follow, I would never blithely hand it out as some sort of cure all to what ails your mind. It is hard. The mindset takes work. It isn't a magical switch to flip. This is /not/ positive thinking. Stoics did not practice positive thinking in the way pop culture does. In fact they embraced reflecting on negative aspects of life. People will get angry at you for things beyond your control. Your friends or loved ones may die tomorrow. You might get fired. The goal is not to make bad experiences as positive. It is to acknowledge the bad things happened and return to a neutral or centered mental state so you can go on living life. It is kind of a Zen philosophy on that never aiming for "positive" outcomes all the time that we experience fulfillment and joy. There is a lot more to CBT and Stoicism, but this is the high level of it. Hope this explains it some more.




I don't think that this belongs on a mug. What is your alternative? What would you do instead?

I'm not saying that this response will fix the problem. But it seems that the first part: communicate your perspective; is crucial. If you don't, then you still fail, but people will believe you thought it possible.

I like to disagree and commit. Keeps me sane, and at least I can show that I knew shit would hit the fan.

You've hit one of the core problems, but your perception of what Cal recommends and what you should do to achieve deep work is wrong.

For deep work, you should be able to block a chunk of your day to do important tasks without being interrupted. That's not the same as organizing the day by hours. This blocked chunk can be dynamic to accommodate emergencies, but you must be able to say nobody should interrupt me for the next few hours at some point in your day.

Otherwise how can you engage in something deep? I've been in this situation many times. I can't do any productive work in my office because there's an endless stream of interruptions, emergencies and stupid things going on. That's why I have to resort to doing all significant work at home, where nobody can annoy me.

I was not in position to block away time like that for years. Currently I am in such position, but that is rather exceptional state. (Home was worst than in work actually.)

Home was worst than in work actually

Yeah, finding that at the moment.

There's a very relevant article on this subject by Paul Graham: http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html

This is a great article. I’ve come back to it many times over the years.

But it always puzzles me why Y Combinator companies don’t organize with the built-in default of private offices, even in brand new startups, but at least for sure in YC companies that grow to tens of employees or more.

Given such an impassioned writing about the need for privacy in workspace, why don’t we see YC putting out articles or blog posts on the value of private offices, for example like Stack Overflow does.

It’s like YC wants to be viewed as progressive (for recognizing how bad open-plan offices were ahead of the curve) but then to ignore this to just grift from unwitting junior employees who may unquestioningly join a startup and not think to negotiate for protection of the privacy they need as a basic workspace tool.

I can stick to eating candy and cake.

For how long?

Until it is all empty and my stomach is sick ...

And then I don't like it for a while...

When I crave chocolate pudding, I'll eventually make a bowl, and instead of splitting it into many desert cups (which I would just crave for), I eat the entire bowl in one go. Then I'm cured from pudding for a while.

Chips (or fries) though, I can't resist. Better not to buy any...

This is a common way to deal with diets and other things.

Do enough of the bad stuff to get sick of it enough to associate it with bad feedback, and that should keep you away from it in the future.

I try this with beer from time to time, the hangover isn't enough to make me quit for any significant amount of time :p.

I recall that Cal Newport suggests three ways of scheduling deep work. 1) dedicate a portion of the day: Writer John Grisham regularly writes from 7 to 10 every morning. 2) dedicate a portion of the year: Cal gives the example of a professor who moves out to a remote cabin for several months each year to be away from distraction and do deep work. 3) ad hoc with tracking: Cal himself fits in deep work whenever he can and tracts it, making sure that he is spending the desired amount of hours every week. Any of these methods can work.

Yes, and the article also lists them out. Cal Newport gives these strategies for scheduling deepwork:

- Monastic: “This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.” — isolate yourself for long periods of time without distractions; no shallow work allowed.

- Bimodal: “This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.” – dedicate a few consecutive days (like weekends, or a Sunday, for example) for deep work only, at least one day a week.

- Rhythmic: “This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.” – create a daily habit of three to four hours every day to perform deep work on your project.

- Journalistic: “in which you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule.” — Not recommended to try out first, since you first need to accustom yourself to deep work.

What has worked for me in the past has been to create an initial list of TODO items comprising a mix of vague inquiries, curiosities, and specific tasks.

During the day I work from that list, either performing the work for the item or expanding an item into additional more detailed items. Most items will expand into multiple smaller items as they are picked up.

Completed items get a few comments and are moved below the unfinished items, so that a historical stack gets built up over time which can be fodder for monthly progress reports.

I have found this to be incredibly useful from a productivity standpoint, a morale boost, and as a historical record. It requires some discipline to sit down for 15 minutes at the end of each workday to update the list.

This just seems like a crazy amount of micro-management when often the answer is to just set a goal and complete it. Categorising and reducing tasks in this way is surely not healthy long term. Sorry! No more shallow work today. Can't do that. It simply can't work for most people.

Yeah, but just setting a goal and completing it is something a lot of people just don't do anymore - not when you let yourself get distracted by things like emails, messages, or people appearing at your desk. Focusing on getting a task done (and not tolerating any distractions from that) is the main point of the "technique", I'd say.

As with goals, this will just push you in a direction. You don't have to be absolutely rigid, but at least you'll start to feel when you are straying from your real goals.

> * Restrict shallow work to 2 hours (after 2 hours, say no to everything shallow)

Except when the initial classification of a task as “shallow” is incorrect, and it actually should’ve been “deep” (although, this shouldn’t happen too often, except when it does happen).

Agreed, really a great book!

One thing I cannot understand is why we have both:

(a) a long history of research proving to us that principles like "High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)" are accurate and highly related to extracting the most economically valuable outputs from knowledge workers.

(b) open plan offices.

Maybe the tech industry is daunting for newcomers because we cram people into a sardine can, give them a ping pong paddle and a craft beer, and say "don't go home tonight until you've Disrupted Everything."

I’ve worked both in private offices and in open plans. And my experience is that private offices are good for those occasional long deep work sessions but overall the team in total is more productive and happier in open plan. Not everything is about your personal productivity and it’s all too common to see separate team members deeply focused on non-aligned items which makes the joined work much much less than the sum of the parts.

I've worked in private offices, private cubes, and open office.

As much as I personally prefer isolated offices/cubes, the last 4 years in a mostly open office have definitely given me sympathy to the argument for them. I personally have noted a level of collaboration and information sharing that just didn't happen in the more isolated environments. There is something pragmatically useful about having people be able to jump in with their feedback or expertise.

The more isolated people are the more you have to go out of your way to ensure information dissemination and feedback channels are available and utilized. It certainly can work, but I haven't seen it work as well.

Open rooms promote teaching, spontaneous design discussions, etc, that just doesn't happen in the same way over e-mail, chat, stand-up meetings, etc.

There are arguments to go both ways. I used to hate open offices, now I'm sympathetic to them.

A key to making the open office tolerable is that it should not mean no isolation. There are ways to address their concerns. eg, headphones are essential. Obscuring line of site is very helpful. My current situation has me in an area of "open rooms", where rooms with ~11 desks are arraigned in an open office-esque fashion. It's pretty decent. Not super-open, but people can "share space" with the people relevant to them.

> I personally have noted a level of collaboration and information sharing that just didn't happen in the more isolated environments

I think it's important that we don't overly focus on one isolated experience point like yours, because empirically this is highly disputed.

In my experience, information sharing has plummeted after moving to an open-plan layout. People are forced to use noise-cancelling headphones to avoid impromptu exchanges, because the impromptu exchanges are value-destructive in the first place. And when someone gets co-opted into an impromptu discussion, they try to keep it superficial and share less substantive info, to get away from the unplanned distraction as fast as possible.

Not to mention the huge increase of totally not-work-related or irrelevant distractions, like loud sales calls, product discussions that don't affect anything for my team, discussions about weekend plans, etc.

It's a very shallow notion of information sharing, which could happen asynchronously through code, documents, email, or with a scheduled video call, or a short scheduled meeting, etc.

As I mentioned elsewhere, this horribly misguided idea that somehow constant, real-time audio communication == sincere collaboration or information sharing, this idea is really destructive and doesn't map very well to how engineers actually work.

> I think it's important that we don't overly focus on one isolated experience point like yours, because empirically this is highly disputed.

I'm not saying my experience generalizes, I doubt every environment would see the same benefit. My point is that even though I started exclusively preferring one side, I can see value on the other side.

> It's a very shallow notion of information sharing, which could happen asynchronously through code, documents, email, or with a scheduled video call, or a short scheduled meeting, etc.

Far from shallow. Technically anything can be communicated in any environment, that's not very interesting. What's interesting is how pragmatically an environment actually works and what it's real life pros/cons are.

But an open-plan office layout assumes that all communication happens most effectively with only one possible type of communication: real-time, constantly preemptible audio streams.

It’s shallow to say that “information sharing” happens this way, since for many people it obviously impedes or completely prevents information sharing.

> “What's interesting is how pragmatically an environment actually works and what it's real life pros/cons are.”

I agree on this, which is why it only requires such a short analysis to see that open-plan offices fail so one-sidedly. They are empirically shown to be widely disliked, to lower morale, to lower producivity (both individually and overall), to lead to more superficial interaction and less deep communication, to lead to more defects in knowledge work outputs, to increase communicable disease transmission and negatively affect sick time and vacation time habits, all while entirely discounting the most pragmatic working styles of at least one huge group of people (introverts) and, when all is said and done, they don’t even save money except in the shallowest, short-term sense, and often companies spend on opulent luxury features in order for the workers to appear essentially as decorative office furniture for when investors or upper management walk by.

It is more than fair to call this phenomenon shallow.

I'm in a similar setup right now - open rooms with 12 people per room. We have huge desks that leave plenty of space between each other and dividers separating desks that face each other. You only see another person if you turn 90 degrees from your forward facing position. We also have private rooms of various sizes that can accommodate one, two or five people if you need to be alone. Some of my colleagues use the rooms a lot, I personally rarely do. Overall, I really really like it, my experience mirrors your own.

The best for me was at a prior company with high partition walls blocking the office into large cubes each with 3 or 4 people in. It was flexible enough to reconfigure and as long as you were on the same wavelength as your cubemates regarding distractions, it offered the privacy to focus too. I think that company shifted to fully open plan with hot desking sometime after I left.

I've also worked in a variety of different floor designs, and have found open-plan to be dramatically inhibiting, not just for me but also for direct reports who tell me the open plan setup prevents them from getting things done most hours of the day.

What do you propose for developers whose jobs consist primarily of deep focus tasks that require quiet, privacy, and states of flow?

(I would argue this is the majority of developers, but that is beside the point. Even if it's a minority, yet their work output is very important for a given company, it would still seem that embedding them in an open-plan layout they must sit in for the majority of the time would clearly be throwing away more money they could possibly be saved on the real estate. Or you disagree?)

You say, "Not everything is about your personal productivity" but this seems mostly irrelevant, because we're in a section of the possible solution space that focuses on never accounting for developers' personal productivity. Separately, if you're on a team where developers have to invest deep focus into disparate parts of a system or disparate solution approaches (the majority of teams I've ever seen), then it does boil down to the sum of individual productivity for most things.

Absolutely, this discussion always devolves into good vs bad and understandably so because it's very frustrating when your work environment doesn't facilitate your performance. But the typical knowledge worker actually functions on some blend of the manager and maker schedules -- sometimes they need to do deep work without interruptions, sometimes they need to look up from their desk and communicate to make sure their output is aligned with the company. A private space free of distractions facilitates the former but an open plan is actually pretty good for the latter.

The best solution (I'm surprised more companies have not implemented this) is to provide both environments and give the employee some guidance in terms of where they choose to work. Most knowledge workers will not benefit from the monastic strategy described in this article but almost all will benefit from a bimodal or rhythmic strategy.

If you already have an open plan office this is as easy as telling the employee he/she can work remotely a few days a week as long as they select a quiet space that's free of distractions (so if they have kids running around at home during the day, maybe better to advise them to go to the library instead).

The manager should provide some guidance in terms of how much time the employee spends remotely vs. "on the floor" with everyone else. Graham's maker vs. manager article is great on this topic,engineers often err a little too far in the direction of isolation, managers err too far in the direction of having everyone in the collaborative environment, the solution is a little dialogue.

With very light guidance and very little additional cost to the business you can improve both productivity and morale this way. Our team functions best very far down the deep work end of the spectrum -- we have one day a week where everyone goes into the office or gets on calls and gets aligned. For the rest of the week communication is mostly async and work is mostly remote.

The trouble is that the distribution of work is not an even split between work that requires deep focus and other work that benefits from disruptive audio communication.

Most engineering work requires deep focus. So if the office was designed to allow the majority of work to be private, quiet, and deeply focused, but with occasional meetings or break-out social rooms for the dynamic discussions, that would be great.

Instead, it is designed in the wrong-headed, opposite way: all work is embedded into the dynamic, real-time audio distraction stream. You end up needing to compete for conference room reservations, or hide form people, or listen to music when you don't want to, or abuse a work-from-home privilege, just to get work done, because every day you need privacy and quiet for most of the day, and the default setting of the environment disallows it.

I would agree with your comment if the work divide was more 50/50 between work that needs dynamic communication and work that needs privacy.

But that's just not how reality actually functions.

(A separate part of this which irks me is the assumption that employees can (or want to) 'just work from home' to solve it. It externalizes the costs of privacy onto workers with all kinds of trade-offs not in the employees favor. And a lot of companies actually micromanage this option and are bitterly strict about limiting work from home time.)

Your comment is not wrong but it's all problems and no solutions. If I was designing an engineering office I would not go open plan (or the open plan area would be small). But today we have a lot of open plan offices that inhibit productivity. I identified a way that a company can quickly and inexpensively improve productivity and happiness by creating more opportunities for deep focus. Perfect is the enemy of good.

That is a fair point.

My concern though is that when companies see an example in which someone deflects on addressing a real need for private space, and externalizes the cost onto the employee (via micromanaged work-from-home), it sets a precedent that further entrenches open plan designs for new offices later on, and also discounts the value of investing to rebuild office dividers and spending to change from an open plan back to offices.

I’ve had fully remote jobs before and jobs where I could generally WFH when needed, but neither option provides a good solution.

If your spouse lives with you, they might need to generate noise at home, especially if there are young children. Or you might just live in a cramped city apartment with no space for a desk, or noisy neighbors, etc.

The point is that this pushes the costs onto the employee: “here, you figure this out.” But providing good tools to get the work done is the employer’s responsibility. WFH solutions let them try to absolve that duty, often without actually resulting in private or quiet space for the worker anyway.

A better proposal might be that an employer will pay the cost to fully rent dedicated private offices at a coworking space, and then let the employees who want offices simply work from that company-rented private office space.

This way the employer bears the costs, and doesn’t view it as “right” to just lob the grenade back at the employees by leaning on WFH as the only possible way to work in a quiet setting.

There is middle ground where the team is together, but only the team and it means 4-10 collaborating people. You are not alone and you are not in one room with other teams (especially often calling teams) and not with over 40 people - which generates too much

It should be not one extreme against another.

In my experience, even when managing a team of engineers, it doesn't matter if the people in your nearby open environment are working on the same team or a different team. It's much more about the basic environmental factors (e.g. not having people walking around nearby, having adequate privacy, being able to customize your own lighting, have a personal window to glance out, etc.)

Even when there are only 5-10 people nearby and they are all working on my same team, the open-plan environment is completely untenable and really damages productivity. I would say above all, you need privacy to get into states of flow, and after that, you need to know that you personally control your own schedule, and are in charge of planning when interruptions will possibly affect you.

Whether someone can interrupt you with a relevant question about your team's work, or someone can interrupt you with annoying chatter about weekend golf plans, they both equally prevent flow and productivity.

Environmental noise is much lower with 6 people then with 30. It is huge difference in amount of noise and interruptions. On average, 30 people generate five time as much "weekend golf" discussions and all on-topic debates of other teams are off-topic to you. It is also easier to police interruptions with around 6 people, unless they are jerks - but chance of jerk among 6 is still lower. By policing I mean saying something like: "you are noisy today and I cant focus, take it please elsewhere".

You don't get zero interruptions, but there is significantly less of them and the barrier to communication in team is still small.

Unless the colleges are very noisy, I would say that most people can focus in reasonably large room with 6 people. I guess it is individual, but the need to be completely alone with everything completely as you like it is rather on the more extreme side of spectrum. Most people can make compromise about lighting, are able to share window etc and can still focus. (I am absolutely cool with home office or whatever for those who cant. Just that the average worker should be both able to work in non-perfect privacy and simultaneously not to consistently disrupt those who are focused.)

If the relevant questions happen too often and you are not an analyst or pm or senior responsible for teaching new person (in such case it is your job to answer questions as they arise to speed up process), then it warrants organizational discussion in team and bundling questions into one meeting. After all, if private office would stop them, then they are not that necessary and it should be possible to lower them down by discussion.

The example of colleges seems odd to me, since it’s a common resource at most colleges to get a study carel or private study room at the library, and it’s a place where even in common areas, there is rather strict enforcement of silence, lack of cell phones, and certainly nothing like modern open plan office noise or distraction.

Also, I think it misses the point to talk about whether or not people can make compromises. The question is about how to empower and enable workers to generate their best output.

For example, you could also say something like, “even though people like having two 27-inch monitors, I find they can make compromises and just use one 17-inch model.”

It’s myopic, because the question has nothing to do with whether or not workers can compromise. It’s about whether it’s cost-effective to pay for quality tools (monitors, offices, private workspace).

So when you say something like, “Just that the average worker should be both able to work in non-perfect privacy and simultaneously not to consistently disrupt those who are focused,” it just misses the mark.

The question is, why would a company wrongly think that providing “non-perfect” privacy is somehow good when empirically it’s known to be bad, even for the company’s own bottom line.

Lastly, I think it’s important to totally avoid framing the desire for adequate private space as if the worker wants “perfect” privacy or they are inflexible and uncompromising. This is a false and worker-unfriendly way to look at it.

Having a private office is not “perfect” or overly demanding to request. Rather an office is just a simple, cost-effective tool. Workers who use offices are still good at compromising to have good communication and collaboration, for example with open door policies, scheduled meetings, and all sorts of non-audio collaboration, in addition to getting to use their extra productive time for dedicated focus on things like code review, to directly collaborate in ways that help the whole team.

Open plan offices on the other hand represent zero willingness to compromise on the part of the employer. The employer is saying they will not invest in good tools for you, and instead dogmatically insist there is only one type of communication (real-time, constantly preemptible audio stream) that is permitted, and anything else has to require contortions and inconvenience on the part of the worker (e.g. working from home, using headphones when it is uncomfortable or distracting to do so, etc.)

So really, we have to move past the anti-employee attitude that a private office is some type of primadonna special request from someone who doesn’t compromise. That is what greedy employers would want us to falsely think.

In reality, an office is just a simple, cost-effective tool literallyno different than ergonomic desk chairs, monitors, or the company’s commuter benefits.

I can't imagine any non-senior employee (for instance) asking for a dedicated private office and not being laughed at, of course exempting any employees who require a private office to perform the core function of their job (not sure if any of these exist, though).

I can't imagine how you believe that private offices are not a luxury. Depending on where the company is operating out of, the rent for the floor space of their office could cost more than the company pays the employee.

This comment seems like pure provocation or something. What does it matter what you can imagine?

Stack Overflow, for instance, famously gives private offices to all developers, even junior ones, and even in Manhattan.

I worked previously at a defense research lab in the eastern US, and had my own office straight out of undergrad (it didn’t even occur to me to ask).

I have former colleagues or friends working in private offices in: computer graphics form film, defense research, hospital research, quantitative investing, adtech, large ecommerce retailer, and education tech.

Private offices are utterly not a luxury. They are a basic tool. One simple reason is because they are cost efficient, so you don’t spend more on offices in any sense but the most narrow-minded. Other reasons include all of the decades of research on their basic ergonomic benefits.

This would be like calling an ergonomic chair or a trackball mouse “a luxury” because they superficially appear to cost (slightly) more than basic alternatives, without accounting for the cost-savings they cause. And, like offices, it’s a trivial extra cost for the company.

> “Depending on where the company is operating out of, the rent for the floor space of their office could cost more than the company pays the employee.”

Given that this is not true in Manhattan (e.g. see Stack Overflow’s big write-ups on it), can you provide data to show where this is true?

You're absolutely right about the floor space, I had not considered 3x4m glass boxes, and I apologise that my post came across that way (pure provocation) -- perhaps I was in a sour mood. I have not worked for a significantly wealthy company in my history, and so it has never been the case that a private office has been the most cost-effective way to improve profits. To make a reasonable argument: Typically the equation is simply money-in vs money-out. If you can spend an extra 100k a year on private offices for developers and get 300k a year in chargeable services/development effort, vs spending 100k on another salesman and get an extra $1m in net profit, which would you choose? The choice here is clear and 2 monitors vs 1 monitor is a $100 cost for 1.5x efficiency, and is an absolute no-brainer. An office on the other hand is usually not the most cost-effective option, but if you have enough cash to fund all of the other more cost-effective strategies plus private offices, then it is another place in which management can increase profits.

Please follow up with your thoughts, and again, I apologise if what I wrote was inflammatory or came across that way. It was likely coming from a position of "unknown unknowns".

The Cal Newport book on Deep Work that this article is based on has inspired a push for the Eudaimonia Machine [0] (an updated version by Newport himself here [1]). It’s a concept for an office that is designed to promote effective deep and shallow work. It’s a wonderful idea, though discussions on HN about it have pointed out that it’s difficult in startups, especially during high growth: allocating space for deep work (sound proofed rooms for individuals) takes up quite a bit of space that would be otherwise needed for a fast growing employee base.

[0] https://medium.com/@jsmathison/i-cant-stop-dreaming-of-eudai...

[1] http://calnewport.com/blog/2016/10/19/the-opposite-of-the-op...

> space that would be otherwise needed for a fast growing employee base

I'm not sure what "otherwise" is supposed to mean here. Isn't the whole point of the "space" in the first place to enable the "employee base" to be more productive there than at home or remote?

Maybe that employee base wouldn't need to grow so fast if the existing employees could be more productive by, say, using existing space more effectively.

Lastly, it seems to be something of a cliche how hard and/or expensive it is for startups (especially, as you mention, when growing) to deal with space. I am, however, skeptical that the decision of having open plan offices is based on any kind of rigorous decision making rather than trend-following and following the path of least (initial) resistance.

Thank you for sharing. Some of these design ideas remind me a lot of the discussions in The Timeless Way of Building, particularly the hub-and-spoke idea compared with Christopher Alexander's passages about the importance of windows, with examples from Scandinavian designs that prioritize surface area of new buildings to give more people dedicated, personal windows (at least at the time of his writing).

The reason is because management is almost never driven by science or productivity maximization but maximization of either narrow subdivided metrics (like costs for a particular function) or absolute cargo cult conventional wisdom. Even when there is an empirical, data driven culture somewhere in an organization, it rarely extends to the board, often doesn't extend to the executive suite, and almost never extends into, say, facilitues management.

I'm not sure I agree with this because if it were thus, I think 'most organizations' would be out of business quickly.

I think the answer is more plain: shared offices cut cost, and and the resulting immediate an ongoing increase in profit is 'the most important of all benchmarks' for most companies, in fact it's not even a 'benchmark' ... it's 'the point'.

So - essentially, 'private offices' are an 'investment' and an investment has to be clearly and obviously justified, otherwise the default is to go to open office plans.

The vast majority of work simply is not deep work - and yes, even things like 'Marketing' - although most operational marketing people have a 'creative bone' - and brilliant marketers are as useful and brilliant as equivalent Engineer, the actual creative/deep thinking Marketing stuff is usually done in agencies, which are like architecture firms. Similarly I don't doubt creative financial structuring or deal making, 'deep time' is just not as consistent for them as it is for most Engineers.

There is actually rather scarce 'deep work' to be done, and so, as so few companies willingly require people to be 'learning very important new skills' ... offices become less common due to the simple economics of it all.

“Deep work” is the vast majority of necessary work for software engineers and knowledge workers in most companies.

In fact, these jobs are almost defined by the characteristic that almost all of the work is deep work, requiring privacy, and states of flow.

I keep seeing this unsubstantiated claim that deep work is rare, or at least a 50/50 split with shallow work.

But it’s flat untrue across the board.

"software engineers and knowledge workers " make up a tiny portion of workers in the economy. Tiny. Is my point.

Also, having written software for quite some time, in my experience would be that yes, at the end of the day, 50% of an Eng time is meetings, standups, blackboard discussions, chatting with others, having breaks/wasting time, eating, going to the bathroom. etc.. I think it approaches 50/50. The other issue being that one simply cannot be 'in the flow' for much longer than 4 hours anyhow, pro musicians don't practice 10 hours a day, more like 3. Though for myself, I can see much greater than 4.

Why would the relative fraction of jobs taken up by software matter? Most jobs aren’t police officer jobs, but we still give police officers handcuffs and police cars, because (for that subset of jobs) those tools are needed, just like private workspace is needed for the subset of jobs in software.

> in my experience would be that yes, at the end of the day, 50% of an Eng time is meetings, standups, blackboard discussions, chatting with others, having breaks/wasting time, eating, going to the bathroom. etc..

Other than when a company mandates a poor meeting-oriented policy, like mandating Agile meetings even when it’s counterproductive for everyone, I’ve never heard of anything remotely like what you describe.

Mandating an inappropriate Agile-style meeting schedule is common, but that’s exactly the sort of thing I am saying the open plan office engenders. The fact that unproductive meetings make up 50% of work time in these companies is in no way any kind of endorsement that software engineering (or even other) workers actually benefit (in terms of productivity).

In other words, the engineering tasks demand 80-90% deep work focus, but engineers are forced, like a square peg in a round hole, to contort unproductively to wedge that somehow into a meeting-centric company policy that hurts both the engineers and the people who mistakenly organize & believe in the udefulness of the meetings.

I always just figured it's the "oil change" problem. The day after the oil change interval is up that you skipped, all the trucks are still running great and it feels like you just saved a bunch of money...

It can be very difficult for a bean counter with a spreadsheet to connect the extra broken down trucks at the end of the year to the oil changes that were skipped in February.

Every open office I've ever been in was to put more people in less space for less money. The subsequent burn-outs and defections were, of course, due to "the market" (and once, even uglier, "the poor millennial work ethic").

I don’t buy the argument that bean counters are unable to account for vaguer aspects of productivity loss. For one, bigger corporations invest huge amounts of money into productivity research and take the topic very seriously. They aren’t unsophisticated or naive and corporations will really study the internal incentives they create for cost cutting, to make sure they aren’t mistakenly cutting costs that actually lead to other, unanticipated costs. Sure, bureaucracy makes this imperfect, and some companies are worse than others, but it wouldn’t explain 80% or more of all companies shifting to known productivity-destroying office spaces.

Plus, it’s widely and popularly disputed that open plans are actually cheaper, e.g. even in pop articles like this:

< https://business.linkedin.com/talent-solutions/blog/hr/2016/... >

I’ve also seen sources claiming that an open plan developer is less than 9% cheaper in real estate terms than a private office developer, without any consideration about interruptions, distractions, communicable disease, lower morale, changed vacation or sick time habits, etc.

9% might sound like a lot of savings on a naive glance, but when these employees are costing you $150K of wages and a bunch more in overhead & benefits, you would be hugely sensitive to big, publicly discussed sources of productivity reduction, because it’s immediately obvious, especially to corporate finance, that saving 9% on floor space means nothing if you’re losing 15% of labor ouput from distractions, 5% from increased sickness or vacation habits, 2% from widely reported morale issues, etc.

I think really the issues are much more status driven, seeking to force flow-requiring knowledge work into a commodity, to push down the age and wages of employees.

And part is cosmetic. If you think of a start-up itself as a product, and the investors as the user, and the VCs as the company, then VCs optimize cosmetic attractiveness to create start-ups they can sell for as little substance as possible.

So if grand visions of hoodie-clad developers sipping craft coffee in an exposed brick, glass, ductwork open plan hell will convince the dimwitted actor or retired athlete to invest on visions of the next unicorn, then why would they care about worker productivity?

The whole point is credential and cosmetics to lever up the known-to-be-unrealistic valuation to foster an inflated IPO or acquisition, and it’s not a function of actual economic product of employees.

Then after some unicorns hammer this strategy, everyone else (including big corps trying yo look hip) just start cargo-cult copying it.

My only remaining surprise is at how long this open plan bubble can persist before people realize these companies are not about any type of productivity.

> Plus, it’s widely and popularly disputed that open plans are actually cheaper, e.g. even in pop articles like this:

It is now, but when did that start?

I vaguely recall when it was still actually controversial (perhaps due to lack of data), but that may have been as long as 10 years ago. I also recall when open plan wasn't even a thing and the discussion was merely cubicles vs. hard walls.

> My only remaining surprise is at how long this open plan bubble can persist before people realize these companies are not about any type of productivity.

If I may be flippant for a moment, I'm shocked.. shocked!.. That there is wastefulness going on this VC-fueled establishment.

I'm certainly less surprised, as I believe productivity (and its less sexy cousins efficiency and profit) have long been disregarded as being far less important than growth, ever since the dot-com boom, in the world of (many, if not most) VC-driven startups.

What startles me is just how much VC money is flowing directly up to Amazon via AWS (sometimes actually encouraged by the VCs themselves), as that smells more like inflation of a bubble than merely paying programmers to be distracted.

Your reply made me chuckle and you are right.

For me personally, I derive a lot of self-identity from my own productivity, and end up caring about my work and treating it like a craft.

I wish I could turn this off and just accept better paying jobs that embed me in a distraction-filled room where nobody really cares about my productivity so long as I superficially appear to try hard and evangelize the company line.

But I just can't. I am too intrinsically quixotic. For me, and the I guess dying breed of people like me, the side effect of the VC behavior you mention is like death by a thousand cuts.

I'm not sure we're so much a dying breed as that we were always a small minority to begin with.

We just have to hold out hope for the even rarer manager that recognizes such objective value and can transform it into subjective value to sell up the chain.

Not all open spaces are created equal. If a bunch of the square footage is allocated to non-work purposes (entertainment, artwork, airy high ceilings, food, staff services, etc) then reducing cost is NOT the primary goal. But in most IT shops, where cost cutting by management through reducing IT's physical footprint is seen as a major win to trimming the budget (wasted) on IT, the savings isn't a mere 9% but more like 75%.

For example, I work at Merck & Co, where management has decided not only to move all of IT into much smaller open spaces, but at my site, they've decided that only 200 chairs are now needed to house the 600 staff. Thus the intended savings due to downspacing is FAR greater than 9%.

Since I can't believe Merck's management is unique in its enthusiasm for human bin packing, a small number like 9% likely applies only to startups in high rent districts where 'open space' truly is a design concept that implies more is sought than just physical space minimization.

But the producivity loss would be correspondingly gigantic in that case. For a big conglomerate like that, it seems more likely it is an IBM-style ageism strategy, to make the conditions so undignified and fundamentally unworkable for experienced adults that over time they quit and are replaced by young workers. The company is placing a wager on the idea that it does not need actual productivity, and benefits from warm bodies doing menial tasks with limited productivity.

It probably should be viewed as a direct statement that the company doesn’t value engineering talent, and experienced people should plan to leave unless they’re OK with this.

This seems more likely than the idea the company believes it’s somehow saving 75% on space with some open plan hot-desking approach without losing engineering productivity.

Maybe all that research you write about does not translate down to workers. Because the corporation around here don't seem to implement any of it and decisions don't seem to be much influenced by productivity considerations.

They are not result of complete stupidity either, but they seem to be result of price, how "representative" space is and similar down to earth considerations.

The research is only focused on the end result for workers. It does translate. Corporate managers just have different (often irrational) incentive schemes related to cosmetics, cargo-cult copying, value signalling, etc. And in some cases outright don't care about worker productivity (e.g. if they get paid just because a credentialed worker is associated with their firm, and not based on that worker's output.)

Reminds me of business ideas that are not instantly obvious vs a sexy "The Team!" page.

I'm split on this personally. I don't like the type of noisy open plan office where you work next to the ping-pong table while someone rides a bike through the office or something like that, but on the other hand, I don't feel like being in total isolation helps to focus either.

I actually like a little bit of background activity, I work better when I listen to music (mostly classical or anything without vocals) or a not too noisy but not totally silent location like a library or a small open plan office with people spaced out

There have been studies going back as far as Peopleware and The Timeless Way of Building that suggest people are generally adversely affected when the noise is more than noise they personally generate (e.g. keyboard clicking), and not in their control (e.g. choosing to listen to music may be fine, but when you’re forced to listen to music because the alternative is a distracting conversation between teammates it has adverse effects).

The other thing, especially mentioned in The Timeless Way of Building, is that you need privacy to reach a state of flow. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re isolated or that no one can interrupt you, but it means nothing in your immediate vicinity is triggering your peripheral vision or any sense of a fight vs flight reflex because someone’s walking around right behind you, etc. Most of that research advocates that individuals should be allowed to customize these aspects of their personal space, like privacy, quiet, lighting, ergonomics..

More generally though, it’s not about what works for you or for me. It’s about what we can empirically learn about states of flow, and on that front it’s utterly beyond dispute that open-plan offices are disastrously bad.

Christopher Alexander's work isn't based on empirical studies, though, is it? Never seen any. It's just his, uh, inspired opinion.

In large part yes, you are right, his writing was more qualitative and sociological, sometimes philosophy.

But seeing your comment made me start trying to dig up a 1987 paper from Alexander titled, "Toward a Personal Workplace," and I am actually amazed and unsettled by how hard it is to find anything online. That article surveys more empirical properties of office interiors. But yes, I would look to the studies cited in the Peopleware chapter called, "Bring Back the Door" for the empirical extensions of what Alexander had inspired.

Here's the best link I could find on that thread of Alexander's work:

< http://zeta.math.utsa.edu/~yxk833/Chris.furniture.html >

You aren't kidding about it being hard to find anything about that paper. I tried finding it a couple of years ago and just spent an hour now and had no luck. Thanks for the link I hadn't seen that before...

I see an office one time with oddly long hallways 3 times the height and width one is used to. It had a marble floor that echoed loudly and ended in a Kremlin sized door with a single employee behind it. When I asked why it was that way they explained it was to force the visitor/coworker to repeatedly reconsider if his thing was really worth disruping that person with. To the question if that realy worked the answer was a description of the previous office where coworkers would fly in and out out of convenience. They would stick their head around the corner for 5 word sentences. Apparently productivity went though the roof in the new building.

The tech industry is not rational. The tech industry right now is a gold rush and you are the shovel.

The only thing people high up in the org-chart know is that if they dig hard enough they might find gold.

Then, they don't even have to find the enough gold, they only need to make it seem that they will find gold and use that hype to raise money, be acquired or go public.

And even if in the end 0 gold is found, a bunch of people will walk out with money and zero liability.

The primary reason is middle an upper management's holy grail quest to commoditize knowledge work and turn software development into an automotive assembly line.

My personal guess is that it's somehow related to fundamentals differences between introvert and extroverted personalities and that the people making theses decisions (floor plans) are mainly extroverted. Just my opinion.

I agree this is part of it. For example, as a high-achieving and socially outgoing introvert who is very sensitive to background noise, I found this paper really depressing:

< https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55dcde36e4b0df55a96ab... >

I definitely learn things from people I don't expect to teach me anything. I'm used to pair programming being frustrating, but if you can put egos aside you pick up on different ways of thinking and way more exposure to life/programming experiences others have had. I think the shared office space is forced information exchange between people.

It's not comfortable, it's not necessarily conducive to YOUR methods - but you put enough interesting people in the same space and you're bound to jumpstart something. Maybe an HR incident, but something.

I actually am prevented from learning when I am forced to overhear exchanges between other teammates. Most of the exchanges are not relevant for me, often they are not discussing anything work-related as well.

It also swiss-cheese's my schedule, because instead of setting aside dedicated time for pair programming and for information exchanges or meetings, like you would think you should do in a professional workplace, those events are now thrust upon me even when I might be trying to finish some other work or I might have to urgently focus on something else.

The entire premise that continuous real-time audio is somehow synonymous with idea-sharing or collaboration is just insane.

Sincere collaboration is respectful of each individual's time and planned work schedule, as well as individual preferences for quiet, privacy, etc. Sincere collaboration can be asynchronous, textual, visual, or auditory (or a mix), can be remote-friendly, etc.

What you describe as "forced information exchange between people" is appropriate maybe for a trading floor or mission control, but the attempt to stylize a bullpen of software engineers in the same way is disaster, and at best it is superficial collaboration.

I definitely agree that it's a balancing act between "find the right person to pair with this other person" and "I can't get anything done, this person is only giving me irrelevant information". Often times it's just forced, and arguably not successful.

I meant that pair programming was often beneficial for me, and I work well with most partners.

It just has to be planned, put in a calendar item I can plan ahead for. If it’s constant pairing or if it’s ad hoc pairing that is thrown, unplanned, into my schedule, then it’s always a bad idea and makes both people worse off.

You also have to ensure the noise generated by pair programming doesn’t affect other workers who happen to sit nearby. They don’t benefit from my pair programming, and shouldn’t be forced to reduce their own productivity by putting on headphones, working from home, trying to find a conference room, etc. just because of my pairing session.

I found loss of autonomy and inability to use own brain completely killing my motivation. It might be fine with someone with high sociAl skills, but pair programming with someone who confuses own subjective preference with "objectively better" and have sever micromanagement tendencies is hell. And don't tell me that we should fire all bordeline autistic coders, I think we should cooperate in a way that does not make it hell to them nor to neurotypicals who work with them.

I don't think we should fire borderline autistic coders. I agree with you that it's not always the best approach to take to force coders to interact in a shared space. I used to enjoy something I had with a friend where we would watch git diffs and write back and forth to each other about the changes.

Personally, I think it's because people don't really believe the research.

I mean, sure, most people aren't aware of the research at all and just follow the herd, and there's a bunch of incentives problems here with people caring more about specific metrics like time saved, etc. And sure, you can't really say that most people are rational.

But more importantly, I think this is one of those ideas that just doesn't really pass the sniff test. People think back to open plan offices, for various reasons believe that it actually worked well (e.g. most major companies started that way, wall street works that way, etc). And therefore, they treat the research like a curiosity - "oh you have some research? that's nice. But it's probably bullshit since I've seen open plan offices work great". And considering the replication crisis happening, it's not a crazy position, either.

This may be part of it, but it’s hard to believe there isn’t a more insensitive / tone-deaf dismissal of the research in favor of different, superficial preferences.

It’s such a widely and publicly disputed topic that it’s not a question of dismissing “mere research”. Rather it’s more like, “can I get away with not giving this important tool to workers?” and some degree of confirmation bias to avoid looking into it at all, like you say.

I really like his example at the end - step-by-step deep dive into a specific topic. 30 hours of learning, direct links to resources, come out the other end as informed and aware of the topic at hand.

I usually find it difficult to wade through the mountains of possible (often outdated) resources on a topic I'm unfamiliar with - At one point I was thinking it'd be useful to crowdsource those kind of step-by-step guides across a variety of verticals. Kind of like an online class, except pulling from the best up to date blog posts and specific resources from around the internet, instead of relying on a singular POV of the guy who made some videos and called it a course.

Anyone know of anything like that? How do you approach deep diving into unfamiliar spaces?

I think this is a great idea. It's really saddened me watching the internet turn from a place where people deeply invested in a topic or passion share their work personally to a SEO-ranked shit show where millions of low-effort 'blogs' compile second hand knowledge for views and commissions.

While compiling great resources in one place is a good stop-gap I'd love to hear some ideas about how we can move towards a Web where people are rewarded for creating original content and putting effort into their work, rather than the current mess of clickbait and rehosted/paraphrased content. Doing a Google search for a technical topic is much less effective now than in the past, by my reckoning.

I have found that good high quality blogs typically link to other high quality blogs. Most of the ones I am familiar with are math/computer science blogs run by researchers.

If those topics are in your wheelhouse there is definitely a ton of high quality original content from the advanced undergraduate level to the research level.

so maybe a lot of the internet is seo ranked shit show...but not all of it.

> so maybe a lot of the internet is seo ranked shit show...but not all of it.

Just the parts you can actually find.


I have found myself asking the same question. While I don’t have an answer I can share my plan. I am studying the social impact of the printing press. I don’t think you can go wrong studying history.

I'm building this right now actually. Superclass [1] is a place to submit online learning resources by topic, then upvote/comment on the most helpful ones.

The goal is eventually something just like you described, kind of a crowd-sourced curriculum builder.

This version is rough and buggy, but would love everyone's thoughts/feedback (sam@directedworks.com)


Edit: sign up for occasional email updates here: http://eepurl.com/dwgBnP

Hey, I just checked your project out and it's awesome. One thing id like to see is a way to filter submission types. Specifically it would be nice to filter out products likes apps and books.

That's a great idea, I definitely plan on doing this soon. Thanks for the feedback!

Why is there a log in button at the top right but not a sign up? I know with the google auth thing it's the same, but as a user you don't know it.

Perhaps make an entire "contact" page, I dislike mailto: links. It opens my company's preferred Email client called IBM Notes and it sucks.

Once you have your MVP, please add transitions/animations. The site is too instant so to say, when clicking a button you expect some small delay. Even if you pre-loaded this, it's sort of important.

Good thoughts—thank you

typo on front page: Superclass makes it easier by "gathing"

It's a good idea. I'd like to see this succeed.

Whoops—thanks, I’ll fix it!

This is a great idea!

This is a great idea, good luck!

Honestly, this is why I just read technical books cover to cover. It’s just about the best point to point resource out there.

I think I remember seeing where Cornell offered a course structure where you’d do one course, all day, for 3 weeks and then move to the next. It was years ago, but I remember thinking I would have loved it.

I've tried that for a couple topics (Reinforcement Learning, Linear Algebra, Bayesian Stats) over the last six months and I found for myself it was much harder to retain information than spacing it out over several months and chipping away at it little by little (which I'm doing with Python, Algorithms, Control Theory). I personally prefer practicing interleaving, as I find that applying one subject to another make me remember a lot more of the concepts than block learning techniques.

Also in the grand scheme of things, three weeks isn't a lot of time. Granted, I'm not a fast learner!

imo you should definitely do linear algebra before learning RL or stats. it will make everything else much easier.

This is generally called a Block Plan[1] and is a great system for some students. Looks like Cornell College offers it, you got my hopes up as I'm a Cornell University student and juggling five technical courses at a time has heavy context switching penalties. On the other hand, last year taking Linear Algebra and at the same time having to apply it in a signals processing class was a good combo.

[1] http://www.expertadmissions.com/ExpertAdmissionsBlog/tabid/7...

Yeah, I used to take intersession courses back in my college days where I focused on one course for four weeks. That fit my mode of study way better than taking 4/5 technical courses at the same time. Doing a deep dive on one subject and then moving on was just way better for subject retention in my opinion.

What makes you think that it was better?

Condensed studying feels easier, but leads to lower long-term retention. Now, there are methods used to help mitigate that, but those can also be used to increase retention of spread out studying too.

Intensive courses in the summer aren’t unusual, especially in the summer and especially for language classes.

This also reminded me of some summer classes. Maybe one month, 5 days/week?

Some of the things that best remember from undergrad were learned over the summer.

I still don't know whether it was the short/intensive set up of the courses that improved learning, or if it was the fact that I was only willing to do summer courses in topics I knew I'd do well in. Either way, it's my best memory of school.

I always took advantage of summer quarter as an undergrad. It was a better experience though course selection wasn’t great (especially for CS).

Just to clarify, that's Cornell College, not Cornell University.

FYI, the author is a woman. And her twitter account is very much worth a follow:


I love her Twitter. Rarely see girls post highly technical content. This is her only non-technical one I guess and all her posts are high quality and about assembly which helped me get started with it although I’ve never done anything in assembly before. I’m a web developer but recently got interested in assembly because of her account

Some great suggestions here already but thought I would add Metacademy [0] and Learn Anything [1] (White Paper here [2]). These are designed to create a map of skills and concepts for a given topic. I find an interactive visualisation to be really effective in understanding the broader ideas before starting out or during the early stages when it’s hard to see how the pieces fit together.

[0] https://metacademy.org

[1] https://learn-anything.xyz

[2] https://github.com/learn-anything/learn-anything/wiki/White-...

One of the big challenges that I've always had is creating this habits. I recently discovered an interesting thing:

* I use email everyday. It's important that it is clean and not full of shit. I care about it.

* At my startup (Happy Scribe), we recently implemented a small feature where the tech team gets emailed/called/sms every 10m if there's any user with a problem, or for wired 5xx request (Stripe style [1]).

* With this simple conditioning, because no one wants to have a bloated inbox, we solved 95% of the issues our customers had in the past 3 months in just a week.

With this observation, we thought it had potential, and we abstracted the concept. It would be great to add to ourselves arbitrary recurrent tasks, where you're forced to do them. Much like if you were a computer doing CRON jobs.

So that's what we did. We built a super simple prototype at https://headfocus.herokuapp.com/ where:

* You can add tasks with recurrence (CRON style)

* It has an Email interface that integrates with our actual workflow.

   * You get emailed once per task with a link to take action

   * If you don't take action, 3h later you start to get emailed/sms/called every 10m.
And so far I've sticked to daily jorunaling, and planning the day in the morning, for 2 months. The journaling also has been pretty interesting, as I'm using google forms, and I have a couple of scalar parameters (like ranking the day 1-5) that I can correlate to the most used words. If anyone is interested in trying it out feel free to create an account and send feedback :)

[1] https://youtu.be/nnllRegL_NI?t=14m29s

BEWARE. This app is severely insecure. Nothing against the creators but they clearly don't have much familiarity with web security. I can list things that are obviously wrong with it that they haven't spotted, but even if they fix those, they still are not qualified to store sensitive data, and you should not put sensitive data into this app.

Now, most obviously: go to https://headfocus.herokuapp.com/activities and go ahead and view every activity that is active, by any user of the site. It appears you can also delete or edit them without authentication, though I didn't try.

Again, to the creators of the site: It's a cool idea, I have nothing against you, but you're clearly not qualified to work with other people's data, and I recommend that you stop at once.

I love this idea! I think it'd fit great for pursuing personal development and side projects.

Some feedback:

- The only documentation in your comment, no I'm guessing at how to use the app

- It looks like you're using a CRUD form generator? I'm confused on which fields I fill in vs which are supposed to be filled by your app.

- It's not clear how to set what time the alert should go off. I'd also consider a setting for "delay before reminder calls" important; if I get the activity when I get home from work, three hours later pretty late to start a lot of things.

- What does 'extra links' do?

That would get me to very quickly do one of two things:


Turn of my phone.

Interesting idea to use google forms and do analysis on correlation of text to rating. I'm going to try this including things like food eaten, time woken up, and time went to bed.

Thanks for the tip.

It makes an interesting reading but I have problems with a few things.

I don't think that "to be good at something", through practice, it's conceptually the same that understanding something new. The article doesn't make a clear difference.

About flow state: it seems that the reason flow state is difficult to achieve is (and I believe Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explain it in its book) because the task have to be in the proper level of difficulty.

Too easy and it's a boring task, too hard it's a frustrating one.

When we are leaning something new, it's very difficult to find a practice that it's just at the proper level. In fact, I would say that it's one of the most important things a mentor can do for his/her pupils: to find the perfect practice for the level of the trainee.

because it's a given that without the effort of practice you will not come to understand the unknown thing to you as you will not seek to understand it, effort must be put first then the understanding comes after one two three many repetitions, this article is just explaining a more finite path of reaching that knowledge by turning off outside distractions and deep concentration, by concentration i mean centering the attention to the subject in question. If you are a fighting a battle with a katana, the first time you hold it would probably be just like any stick in your hand, then with practice you would come to understand many subtleties that improve on perfecting it, like that you hold it with two smallest fingers on hand, how to put your torso, how to set your eyes, and other things i don't remember from the Book of Rings by Mysashi Miyamoto. When it comes to intellect, mathematics or so, you still just keep at it and it comes. But as someone here explained that frustrating helped him to understand the formula he tried to understand, it helped him focus, because of him now I understand a quote by i think Al-ghazali "there is no gaining knowledge without discomfort" , and the article helped also, meaning mindless efortless comfortable repetitive tasks just keep you at the same level. So pretty much this article is like a teacher, and the guy who wrote it is also like a teacher and it helps, but you must not instinctively just argue the opposites but rather try to understand it. Now how do human beings come to understanding of new things, meaning how do we gain knowledge, of course you will not find this in this article as this is beyond our limits of intellect, but you may seek to try to understand, for instance how is it that humans recognize the letter A, and i don't mean the shape, i mean the contrast between the brightness, and the limit of the edges where the day and night meet, black and white in this case, and this edge goes around the letter and the shape of it and we understand it as a letter A. All I know that knowledge comes from Allah, One source, He teaches humans the language, the writing, now as for how that happens I don't think we're capable of knowing as we don't even know how is it we learn to recognize symbols, I mean the workings of the mind, sure we can take a brain scan and learn about neurons and as the article mentions repetitive tasks become almost imprinted and easy to do, like driving, but we don't get better at driving we just drive the rest of our lives the way we drive, most of the times, because we don't focus on learning to drive, we just focus on driving to work and smoking a cigarette or eating a burger. Now driving a car would be like learning a mathematical formula and knowing to implement it without actually understanding what it does, while you still can pass the test and not understand the workings of it, so yes surely practicing singing and sword fighting is different as practicing something intellectual which you have to understand, but even with many intellectual things we just have to learn how to implement it and not actually what it does, we know a high level process and not the processes below it. .... so like what article was talking about is that there is no natural talent, and word naturae meaning in-born, or by-birth, aka genetic, while there are those that are born with say eye sight and others are blind, but regardless, if you're born with a slightly better working brain you still have to put the effort, that deep concentration to understand the new thing and if that new thing is say part of a bigger thing, learning a new formula you become better at math, learning a new stance you get better at holding a sword.... so it is the same thing, to be good at something and to learn a new thing, because you had to learn it first to become good at it, and possibly udnerstand it also, only now we take it for granted as we are at this level, that's why the article doesn't differentiate that, learning two different things is still learning and learning to understand two totally different concepts, in the end it's one same process in our mind, learning a new thing regardless if one is playing soccer and the other physics. So being good at something is actually knowing understanding and learning more and new things about it, only linguistically your mind might play a trick and make you believe this is somehow different. Now if you want to pursuit and seek knowledge of how humans acquire knowledge, how do they learn, and how do we learn how to walk,and how is it possible for us to retain information, hacker news will not teach you these things you must seek this elswhere, key word being seek, just like in the article is 'work' or they call it deep work, both the key word is action. You know that sensation when learning something new and it finally just comes in your head and you now understand it, it's nice isn't it, well learning it might be more important that knowing how it actually happened, although it wouldn't be bad to know how, only today you might do a google search 'how humans recognize symbols' or something, and you will see that we know as much about the subject as we know about how monkeys do the same thing.

Having a baby will really flip this on its head. I used to "geek out" like my wife would say for a few hours on the weekend, sometimes an entire day, uninterrupted. This is all over now. I barely get 3 hours block at best, once or twice a week (rarely).

Thing is, there is hope, I can still get some really big things done. I realise now how much time was wasted in the past, clicking around the web, diverging. When you're on a deadline of productive time, focus goes up 300%.

Because you'll come to hate that feeling of being forced to stop as you were just getting into it.

> focus goes up 300%

I agree with everything you said, except perhaps this - every day is an early morning with young kids, and often I'm so tired that when I get the opportunity to work on side projects in the evenings, I just can't focus at all :(

It gets better as they get older.

had a similar realization not long ago. Health became frail (enough to impede my brain) and still I managed to learn new concepts, this gave me a new perspective on the ability to learn and reflect, even in low resources / high constraints.

being adult you really perceive the world differently, and "productive patience" becomes an important skill

I am glad you found the upside but for those who do not have the life associated with children don’t forget you were happy at the time prior.

if you're referring to a lack of productivity "focus" prior to having kids, sure. I recommend signing-off facebook/twitter/slack/discord/reddit/hackernews and only having them on your phone.

When you feel like geeking out on something, put the phone on airplane mode and put your IDE fullscreen. Focus should be a single goal 'e.g. rewrite that utility I did years ago in AIR and won't work on linux now because AIR is unsupported and I switched to linux because windows 10 screwed me with its forced updates while I was working' (real case ;)

Is there an option to arrange things with your wife so that you can geek out outdoors for a day (or couple hours) a week? Local workspace? Or even just a room in the house.

I'm amazed at how much this person's philosophy for learning mirrors my own. Even down to the details, building habits, pushing yourself to the edge always, deep focused flow based work.

What I would add is you should feel a little bit of stress from the difficulty of the task. As an example, recently, I did research and in an unknown field both for the first time. I was a little tense, it forced me to focus every minute. If I didn't know what a formula or term meant in a paper I had to figure it out, because I had to be able to evaluate and possibly implement it.

I had to look at papers and evaluate them on their quality b/c I was using those to mold my own. I made many,many mistakes and failed hard many times. It was often very unpleasant (like running when you're fit but still not quite getting enough air on the last leg). But I kept pushing through. At the end, I learned more on this project than I had in a very long time.

Anyways, hope my experience can help someone else to push through and see the light on their project.

yeah, it's not really that special, I suspect a lot of people share this knowledge from innate sources. I always looked up derivations in Discrete Mathematics(again, innately as my primary-mode of understanding) and to this day... Anyways, not very special at all.. I bet you too love office hours to discuss the professor's dissertations and enjoy long distance running too?

Pomodoro helps me to stay focused when i'm trying to sustain concentration. I recently discovered this "group pomodoro" virtual study hall [0]. Somehow, committing to doing pomos in a virtual room with strangers committed to the same often gives me just that extra little bit of motivation/accountability I need to stick with the current task and not let myself get distracted.

Disclaimer: No affiliation with Complice nor Less Wrong.

[0] https://complice.co/room/lesswrong

I agree one hundred percent with this. I quit my job a while back to hack on a project and it’s insane how much shit you can accomplish in a good week. I recommend it to anyone questioning their current employment situation. Hit me up (email is in my profile) if you want to explore this life style.

The crazy thing is that even if you fail, you’ll be ten times the programmer as when you left.

If you can swing some kind of work-from-home heavy situation with your employer, it's also astounding the amount of stuff you can get done. At my best, I was going into the office on Monday, for status meetings and planning, then I'd work from home Tuesday through Friday. I got more done in those six months than I have in the two and a half years since, now that I'm back in the office most of the time again.

Unfortunately, people just love to see asses in seats.

> Unfortunately, people just love to see asses in seats.

A related problem I've noticed to this attitude is people's acceptance of it as a "fact of life." I work with a ton of people who recognize that time-in-seat is a meaningless metric, but somebody above them cares about it and they refuse to outrightly act like it's bullshit. I've been told by my manager that my time in the office is important not to him, but to our CEO.

I’d love to do something like this, but without any kind of income I’d probably be homeless in a few months

How do you bring in money while hacking on your passion?

I’d call it investment. If you invest time into a new skill that you can use to switch jobs or get promoted, it’s very worth putting in the time even if it has no direct monetary value at first

I agree one hundred percent. There isn’t really a failure mode to this. Worst case you lose some money, but like when you rejoin the workforce you’ll be somewhere else. Right now I’m like 20x the programmer I was when I quit.

I saved hardcore. I also made some ok stock decisions which helped me somewhat. Besides rent you won’t have too many expenses. But rent sucks.

Unless you have a family.

You can find a way or find an excuse.

What’s the project? It seems hard to find something inspiring to work on.

http://ngrid.io feedback appreciated.

Looks interesting. As a music lover (unfortunately with no talent) I might give it a try (once it's ready). BTW, privacy policy link does not work. :)

Lol thanks, EU fines here I come.

Yeah, just don't try building Kubernetes clusters in 2015 :)

This is delusional. And to be honest I thought I need the same deep and in the zone kind of work/situation. Until I took this Course which is based on real science: https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn

You can get stuff done, learn very sophisticated topics on a highly distractive environment (though you'll probably need short periods of concentrations here and there).

The trick is not to force yourself to work on something, close doors and stop calling anyone. The tricks is simple boring repetition, zooming in and out of complexity of the subject, occasionally jumping through chapters.

You can do it in multiple ways. Say you are learning Crypto. You can be reading a book at home, doing an Online course at school, reading HN related crypto topics while on transportation, coding on some lang/crypto library while on Starbucks, etc... and achieve great levels of mastery.

And boring repetition/testing is the most important here. If you are interested on why this works, check the course.

For me, the whole point of college was learning how to learn. Everyone is forced to learn through traditional academic models and everyone tries their best to efficiently digest everything for exams. That said, I sucked at learning in an academic environment, but I learned what did not work for me.

You didn’t suck at learning in an academic environment. You just realized that what your friends are doing is not learning.

Yes... but I won't do any of those things because whenever I could be doing them I'll read reddit instead, or watch youtube 40k videos.

Perhaps you're the type of person who can just "do" what you've described, but lord knows I can't.

> "The problem most of us, especially newcomers, encounter is that we don’t know what to focus on. Even when we find a topic to focus on, we seem to get stuck in the vast pool of resources that are available to us."

Very true. But deep work does not address the din of "Am I learning the right thing? The right way?", as well as "If I ask a question on a forum am I going to get assaulted and insulted?"

Fear is the opposite of learning. Fear will also demotivate. While it's true that we all have access to extreme amounts of information, and that deep learning is a great hack, there is still fear. How can that be mitigated?

Be very cautious with some of these approaches in a corporate environment. Shallow work can be much easier to measure than deep work. It’s easy to be burned if you push the “monastic” approach too hard and neglect the shallow

Yeah a couple of things. They try to map their equation to productivity, but really it's just level of effort. In corp theyd prefer to see max results with min effort, so this intensity times time is not the thing you want to maximize. Alignment with the end goal is more important than intensity. And ultimately this article is about training. Corp is about execution.

I created a formula that i havent used since i was 13 but worked amazingly well. (Talk about hard to believe stuff eh?)

The trick was to use sleepyness as a resource.(even more hard to believe!)

You simply focus as hard as you can on the thing you wanted to learn/study/memorize. You dont actually focus on the work but you focus in general. As if pointing the eyes at the self. Make large eyes, keep some muscle tense like your jaw. Breath heavily. The idea is to wear yourself out in 20-30 min. Then go to bed and sleep 20-30 min. And repeat!

I dont know how it works but information is proccesed during the powernap.

After doing some 20-30 cycles of this you are starting to mis out on actual sleep and some trance like state with laser like focus activates. It seems the body gets used to using up all the powernap energy as fast as possible.

The blob of memories becomes self referential by lack of other activities.

The partially parsed modules are organized further when you finnish of with 8 hours of proper sleep.

I think the formula skips the 30 min you normally need to get into something and it consumes just the good part of the 3-4 hours that one can normally focus during a day.

this article really hit home for me. With all of the cbt/lynda/udemy/YouTube/blablabla content out there, I'm usually exhausted after the info gathering phase. Putting a time constraint on that is smart.

Like another commenter said, finding the perfect difficulty level to attack is really the hard part. I've finished info gathering just to get bored or frustrated by said info.

I don't understand where people in the security industry find the motivation to learn about exploits. It seems to me that those exploits are something highly transient, and not of fundamental value.

It's about training your brain to spot the type of systemic holes. You can understand the general concept of, say, a side-channel attack but still fail to see a new opportunity to use it in a domain you're highly familiar with if you don't pour over the details of an attack like Spectre.

There's often waves of related exploits being found, which I'd interpret as a sign that studying new exploits is useful to understand the category of bug/issue and find other examples. And even if you are not actively trying to find new exploits, that means that you'll possibly encounter similar ones soon.

I have been following learning to learn on Coursera. The course instructors lay a strong emphasis on deep work, but teach you how to learn. Prior to taking this course, I was getting into periods of deep work on and off but didn’t learn anything substantial. What I mean by learn is that I couldn’t transfer the learned skills easily.

Now, I spend a lot more time learning a topic, and follow the course methodology of chunking. 2 days in and I can already notice the differences. I woke up this morning realising there is a bug in my queue implementation.

An underrated phenomenon to explore in productivity research: so called "supertaskers", or the ~2.5% of the population who are able to multitask without cognitive impairment: https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/PBR.17.4.479

There is any relationship between Pomodoro Technique[1] and Deep Work? Using a tracker to force you to concentrate on the specific task could help to archive the goal?


I have been using the Pomodoro Technique with good results for a while now. What it helps me with is to get started. I noticed that my reluctance to get started increases proportionally with the complexity/difficulty of the task. However knowing that all I have to do is just spend half an hour on TRYING to make progress makes a big difference. This concept of trying instead of the pressure of solving the problem outright made a big difference in my motivation.

I recently reviewed the Deep Work book myself here: https://anantja.in/deep-work-c4a1b7232482

The post has a collection of some of my favorite observations and quotes.

Can't recommend the book enough!

There's no references to the statement that we have a finite amount of willpower per day. This is unfortunate to read as it has been discussed before that the willpower is something that's fluctuating and can be triggered by different things.

Josh Kaufman’s book The First 20 Hours seems relevant here: https://first20hours.com/

(You May recognize Josh as the author of The Personal MBA, which is an excellent book.)

" dedicate a few consecutive days (like weekends, or a Sunday, for example)" - who's parenting the kids? Note that about 86% of adults end up having kids.

In the grand scheme of life, if you have 2-3 kids on a typical age distribution, the years in which at least one needs to be taken care of the majority of the time is 10-15 years. You'll likely have 2-4x as much time where you're both lucid and not responsible for childcare.

Incidentally, that ~decade will likely be the most precious of your life; don't miss it. [1]

1. https://avc.com/2010/06/being-present/

Shift systems end up handling this. Heck, a lot of parents even have shift systems imposed on them by the court.

The advocates of open offices are always non coding managers.

What a post. Really very inspiring and very useful in a college student's life.

Click bait.

I'm worried this is nothing more than intellectuals showing pretty severe selection bias.

Take the archetypes listed. There are non famous failures in each. Selecting the successes is a bit of a sleight. Worse, the logic of, "if it isn't working for you, you should try a different method. It is you that is incompatible, not the methods."

I mean, I want to think that Poirot's "little grey cells" are a thing. And I know I have solved problems by thinking about them. The same problems colleagues were busy trying to solve.

I also know my colleagues have probably done more busily solving things than I have thinking about solutions. More, I know they also think. It is not an either or.

So what is to be learned? Keep trying? Change strategies. But stay away from goto statements. There is not true way, but your way is probably wrong. Or at least, you are wrong for that way? :(

I think what they are trying to convey is that mindless practice simply reinforces current skills.

We've all been in that state of high performance where suddenly its 2am and you think "ok 5 more minutes" then its suddenly 4am.

I would liken a lot of what he is saying there to a kind of trance state, similar to self hypnosis, where there is only the work in front of you.

I get into this state most often when I sit down to produce any kind of art, I spit and spat around starting but then after a while settle into it and can spend hours working on something, its a whole different feeling to just regular doodling, its all encompassing.

I get that they want to convey that. But prove it. There have been some studies into this, I am sure. Show some of the replications. (Specifically, do not show the initial studies.)

Appeal to the times I've been focused for a time gets me to ignore all of the times I did the same and produced nothing. Not only produced nothing, but consumed nothing, as well. Both have happened. I do not keep a solid journal to say that one happens more than the other. One certainly made me happy, so I can remember it better. But that is the definition of selection bias.

>Appeal to the times I've been focused for a time gets me to ignore all of the times I did the same and produced nothing.

Were you really focused then? Not having distractions but still staring blankly at a screen, is not the same as focusing.

Worst case, even if you try 100 things and none of those works, you know that these 100 things are not the solutions to the problem -- something that you didn't before. And you didn't just reject 100 random things, but 100 things that you legitimately could consider as solutions.

I've never not had at least partial results when I have been focused. I've had nothing too many times when I was distracted.

This is just the true Scotsman fallacy, though. I have been plenty focused before and not accomplished anything of note.

More, I've had plenty of brief diversions into a topic that produced more learning than some deliberate attempts I have made.

>This is just the true Scotsman fallacy, though

I think the "true Scotsman fallacy" is often used as a way to dismiss actual classification mistakes.

What one calls focused might not actually be focused -- humans are easy to deceive themselves.

Besides, I don't see what other possibility would there be. That being focused is not important? That people can just as well achieve the same (or even more) things when unfocused vs when focused? That we need special statistical studies to be able to tell that working focused on that work is better? None of these look plausible to me.

If what you're saying is that sometimes non-deliberate attempts can work too, that might be so, but by definition those are non-deliberate, happy accidents.

You can't program these. What you can program is actual work -- and that better be focused, than, "I'll fool around for weeks with other things until inspiration strikes".

So what are you arguing? My point is that "not deliberate, happy accidents," as you call them, likely number in similar magnitude as the result of deliberate focused work.

So, why then don't we encourage more practices that encourage happy accidents?

I accept that the one argument is more appealing to emotional logic. I am highly suspicious of arguments that speak to that form of plausibility.

>So what are you arguing? My point is that "not deliberate, happy accidents," as you call them, likely number in similar magnitude as the result of deliberate focused work.

Then I'm arguing that you're an outlier in that.

And I'll add that for most people, even those happy accidents come when they're engaged in focused work -- not when they're having distractions all the time. Do you really get happy accidents while some colleague annoys you with questions every few minutes, or while checking your Twitter and Facebook and not doing anything specific?

Most of my happy accidents are while I'm biking. When playing with things. When jumping quickly through all the details with a co-worker.

(Twitter and Facebook? Yeah, not so much.)

Do, could I be an outlier? Certainly possible. But I don't think it is a safe thought. More likely, I am a near average person. Which is why I would love studies actually demonstrating this.

Yeah, I get your point, and a lot of this is individual to the person... I personally know that when I am in the zone I perform better and remember the lessons learned for longer.

I would certainly be interested in more/followup studies regarding this matter.

You "know" this. But how? Have you truly tabulated results showing it is the case? Not just collected confirming data, but tried to disprove it?

Would you like me to?

I don't have that big of a horse in this race, all told. So, do I want you personally to do so? Don't care. I would be interested in evidence in the debate, though.

>I'm worried this is nothing more than intellectuals showing pretty severe selection bias.

What intellectuals? These plans can equally apply to a high-school educated person learning to cook or whatever.

>Take the archetypes listed. There are non famous failures in each. Selecting the successes is a bit of a sleight.

What archetypes? The post never mentions any archetypes or lists any chery-picked successes. Perhaps you mean the "strategies" listed? Those are mere ways to approach the issue.

Besides what's important is not whether this practice will have failures -- as it doesn't guarantee a success nowhere in the post. The real question is whether it's more successful than alternative approaches.

>So what is to be learned?

That minimizing distractions, and focusing for some time even if you are if you are confused at first, is better than not doing it.

And that if you want to try the system in practice and see if it works for you, pick a subject, and devote seven 4-hour sessions to it.

Even if you don't learn that much at the end, it would still be better than spending the same time with analysis paralysis about how to study...

The archetypes were the "monastic", "bimodal", etc. Called them strategies, but each is backed by a success.

But, if you have evidence that these are more successful than alternatives, I'm game. Where is the evidence? For that matter, what are the alternatives?

(Currently typing with my 4mo old. So... apologies for any typos.)

>But, if you have evidence that these are more successful than alternatives, I'm game. Where is the evidence? For that matter, what are the alternatives?

The strategies (or archetypes) are just 4 different ways to achieve a focus period for doing some work.

Regardless of which you pick, the core thing you look for in each (and possibly others, but those seem quite an exhaustive list of such strategies, or at least the major ones) is focused work.

I don't think we need any evidence besides the mountains of empirical evidence that focused work is better - not any more than people needed evidence that we should breath before we learned about oxygen and the workings of the lungs...

Is there mountains of evidence? Seems like mountains of anecdotes. Most famous work was work for hire. And yet we don't hear how getting paid for what you produce helps you produce. Often we hear the opposite.

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