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If You’re Busy, You’re Doing Something Wrong (calnewport.com)
259 points by brianwillis on Nov 11, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments



I like the hypothesis the article presents: focusing on working intently hard, followed by relaxation and you will perform better. It's something I would want to beleive.

But, I find his analysis a little suspect. It appears to confuse corellation and causation. It notices a difference in behavior between the "great" and the "average" and assumes those differences to cause the difference in ability.

It completely ignores the possibility that the behavioral difference might be caused by a difference in ability, rather than the behavior changing the ability.

Also, another problem is that student classification is based on faculty opinion. The fact that students with a class of behavior tend to be liked more by their instructors implies something about the instructors, not the students. It does not measure music ability. It measures the ability to be perceived positively by music professors.

I would be interested to see a study that actually measures music ability, using set learning time frames with unfamiliar pieces and double blind assessment of music samples.

If that was correlated with behavior, then it might mean something.

The best the study can say is "if you want music teachers in Berlin to rate you highly, then behave this way".


"It completely ignores the possibility that the behavioral difference might be caused by a difference in ability, rather than the behavior changing the ability."

Exactly why I clicked the comment link. The differences in behavior could also be caused by a difference in psychology between students. e.g. the elite group love what they do and the other group don't. Which could indicate why the other group spread their practice throughout the day - because they're procrastinating all day long.


No, I don't think so.

I love what I do (my hobby - swing dancing). I do it for 3-5 hours a day (after work). I would improve much faster if I danced less, spent most of the time doing hard work (cleaning my moves, learning more moves, more cardio, ...) and rested more.

Right now I'm always on a tired state, and improving quite well, but finding myself lacking in a lot of ways. When I take a break my improvement is greatly enhanced.


My thinking was also along the lines of procrastination vs. discipline, though love of the activity may or may not be correlated strongly.

What it may come down to is simply strength of self-discipline. What separates the achievers from the middle-of-the-roaders is self-control. The classic "marshmallow experiment"[1] would seem to bear this out.

[1]A famous longitudinal, social-psychology experiment in which children were offered a marshmallow (or a cookie, depending on which study), and told that if they didn't eat it, they could receive a second marshmallow in five minutes. Then they were left alone for five minutes. Most children ate the marshmallow. The ones who didn't -- who waited it out and resisted temptation -- were also the ones who grew up to be more successful, earn higher incomes, and perform higher on tests of intelligence.


> The best the study can say is "if you want music teachers in Berlin to rate you highly, then behave this way".

And this is exactly what they should have done. Take two groups of average players, and tell one of them to change their training style to that of the top players, and then after half a year or a year, check if their scoring improved, relative to that of the control group.


>Also, another problem is that student classification is based on faculty opinion.

This is not strictly true. The elite group were taken from students who were violin performance majors. The non-elite group were taken from students who were education majors but played the violin.

There may be bias from teachers built in, but there's the added component of their assessment of their own abilities as well.

I would hope that those excelling as violin performance majors would actually be better performers than education majors that the instructors thought were poor players, bias or no bias.


This is quite important. You'll probably have the brightest kids isolated from the group and practicing at their own pace with their own rules and thinking.


Keep in mind the context-this isn't the first, second, or even tenth study that Cal has posted arguing that intensely focused periods of work are more beneficial than working the same number of hours but spread throughout the day.

For Cal's readers, this article isn't presenting a new argument. It's one more example in a long line supporting his overall thesis.


Yes. You could also say that the study shows how students behave when you tell them they're average. I believe there was another study that showed how a good music student could be turned into a bad music student just by telling him he was bad.


how do you measure musical ability other than by expert assessment ? don't say "can play X notes per second".


All assessment of music ability is subjective. However, you can make it double blind. The students don't know they are being evaluated, and the evaluators don't know who is playing when they make their evaluations.

That would measure "subjective music ability".


I do believe the results of the study is about right.. there's also an awesome book on the topic of deliberate practice called "talent is overrated".

Cheers, Daniel


I wrote up a long critical response and then deleted it. The bottom line is that this is a valid point for studying, which is what the blog is about. Studying 10 hours a day is not productive. Shorter bursts of intense study is indeed very useful.

However, it's important to note that this doesn't extrapolate to the general world. A lot of jobs simply involve doing a lot of stuff. Efficient study of storage technologies might make you an elite expert, but it won't make you the founder of DropBox. That takes a lot of "hard to do" work, and you most definitely will be busy. Most jobs are closer to this than they are to the violinist in a university.


I think the issue revolves around the notion of "busy". The article notes that spreading your work in small chunks distributed around the day decreases your efficiency - something quite obvious if you step back a little from what you do. Still, most people (with myself being guilty) tend do get disrupted and spend time on hackernews, ... interrupting their workflow. So the argument boils down to "being elite is a matter of better focus, not a matter of more work hours."


The thing is, being successful in most things doesn't require being "elite". Instead it requires a ton of traditional work.

Certainly, being focused can be a good thing, and can definitely mean you get more done in the same amount of time. Most of the truly successful people I know, though, are both focused and busy. If you work twice as fast as the average person, but also spend only half the time, them you aren't more productive.


The founders of Dropbox seem like some very bright guys though. How relaxed were they in college? And also in reverse: when those top violinists will start performing their lives will also go from hotel to hotel, playing the same pieces every night..

Success is hard to do work. But that is something completely different than studying.


As much as I appreciate the fact that the original paper was linked in the article, I can't get over the nagging feeling that it may be a slight overreach to take three groups of ten people studying in the same academy, ask them to record their activities for a week, and then generalize the results to recommend certain behaviors to the entire human population.


You can find the article for free at scholar.google.com - http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=The+role+of+deliberate+p... -

With this article you also have to note the estimated number of hours the best violinists and good violinists spent performing. By the age of 20, the best had accumulated 7,410 hours of practice, the good violinists had accumulated 5,301 hours, and the teachers had accumulated 3,420 hours. The best and the good violinists can practice the same amount, but if you are 2,000 hours of deliberate practice behind, it will be really hard to catch up.

If you are interested in expert human performance, I would read this article, the Talent Code, and Talent is Overrated. Every time I hear Gary V say that he is successful because of his DNA, I think of this article because it is the 10,000 hours he spent running a lemonade stand, selling baseball cards, working in a wine store, and deliberately reading wine spectator that made him an expert.


Cal Newport's articles are always interesting to read, but I find them to be less than encouraging. It's not that the advice isn't sound -- it's just that his recommendations generally require the reader to be extremely self-disciplined. I am constantly trying to practice this, but in truth I'm still all over the map. I do poorly in courses where I'm expected to be constantly involved in little incremental pieces (like the course I'm taking in Agile), and I tend to work rather well doing large chunks at once.

Most days I can't bring myself to do real, boring, challenging-but-in-a-sucky-way work. Then I'll realize I'm weeks behind and I'll hammer out everything I need to do in a couple of days. I had a twelve-week internship over the summer, and when it was almost over and I still wanted to get things done, I spent about sixteen hours a day in my office for a week. The reviews of the end result were fantastic.

I am somewhat under the impression that there are some people in the world who are great organizers, who have some record of everything they've committed to and planned for, and that I will never be one of those people.


Being in similar situation myself, I think it's not self-discipline. It's just that deep inside you don't see the point. Although sometimes extrinsic motivation becomes strong enough that you hammer things out, you're not generally interested in doing these.

What is needed here IMO is somewhat opposite of self-discipline.

You don't make something important or interesting by thinking that it's important. It must naturally be important for you, you need to be intrinsically interested in this. That state of affairs we normally don't verbalise or contemplate on.

I doubt that you can come to that with self-discipline. It must be something else. You need to trick yourself.

Possible ways might be introducing some short-term psychological reward, or—better—learning to enjoy the process. My opinion is that some high-achieving people might actually use some psychological tricks like these without knowing about it.


Leo Babauta has an interesting claim on this that discipline therefor is a myth: http://zenhabits.net/discipline/.

In the light of the article: those kids must at least get the organization and scheduling part of their lives from their parents.


Thanks for the link. "Build habits for consistency" is exactly they way I view. I believed strongly in "discipline" for a long time, but never built any strong habits to reinforce what end goal or lifestyle I was trying to attain. Inevitably I would build this heavy daily schedule, work incredibly hard for a period of time, and then just completely break down from exhaustion. Afterwards I would feel guilty about not being able to accomplish even small portions of my daily schedule and then eventually give up all together.

Working hard is admirable; but, when you don't have the capacity to do so, you have to build that capacity first.


You raise an interesting point, and I agree that motivation is largely about what's important to me. This is likely an overgeneralization on my part, but I see life as full of things that I will have to do which don't really have a point. At least all the way through college it's been that way, always the hope that there's less bullshit at the next level and always the disappointment.


If you think about it long enough, it inevitably turns out that nothing really matters.

The bad part is that it's technically correct[0]. The good part is that once you know it, you have the advantage. Things stop being divided into things that have a point and those that don't. Hence your life stops being full of unimportant things, as ultimately they're all equally significant (or insignificant).

After that, my thinking usually goes the following order: 1) Why do anything at all in such circumstances, life has no point, etc. 2) Wait, I still might as well enjoy the process.

For some reason, the latter normally looks superior (if I'm in good shape), so I'm trying to learn to enjoy the process. Turns out it's not as simple as doing what is pleasant. For me, it's pleasant to drink beer and eat junk food, but it hurts the enjoyment part in the long run. The trick is more about ‘loving what you do’. I'm not really there yet.

I'm a dropout. I guess if I had come to above reasoning back then, I would probably finish.

[0] http://twitter.com/#!/codinghorror/status/27857264505257985


The author has never worked on a farm; there is always something to do.


Actually, as a farmer myself, I'm not so sure. I spend about 2-3 weeks each year on my farm (small acre cash crop). Given the amount of time spent, I'm pretty proud of where my business is. I see others spending all day, every day, on their farm and are not making much more at it than I am. Granted, grains are a good business to be in right now.

However, just because there is always something to do doesn't necessarily mean it is smart to be doing it. Are the farmers who are always working on something better off for it? I unfortunately do not have sufficient data, but I wonder if working less could actually lead to increased profitability? Based on my anecdotal experience of observing neighbours, I think there could very well be some truth to it.


I'm not a farmer myself, but spent summer on a farm as a kid. It left me with the impression that there's always stuff to do. I certainly can't argue with your experience, and there's probably more truth to it now with modern tools and methods than there was when I was growing up. I work for a company that provides such tools - one of the things we're able to eliminate is the labour involved in simply driving around and making sure all the bores are drawing water for livestock - on a large farm this can nearly be a full-time job in itself.

It sounds like you've got a hobby farm. I could be way off kilter, but if that's the case, perhaps you're not as financially dependent on every crop, and can afford increasing the risk of disaster? I freely admit to not having any direct on-farm experience for 20+ years, so it's fair to say I'm a bit distanced from the devil in the details now.


I don't think he is addressing people who do physical labor.


It's still worth pointing out, since it's easy to take an aphorism like this and assume it covers everything.


It's also pretty easy not to.


Well, let's use that excuse for everything then. Never advise anyone on anything one person might find 'easy'. It's easy not to fall prey to the constant crap that the news media throws out - but hey, it's 'easy', so let's not remind people that news media has an agenda. It's easy to find flaws in creationist arguments, so screw it, don't oppose the bad science there. It's easy to remember where the assembly point is for the fire drill, so no need to put up signs. Hell, it's easy to remember to brush your teeth, so let's not remind people about the importance of brushing teeth.

What you say is the worst excuse I have heard in a long time, and betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of human psychology.


Farmers do Some physical labor, but their real job is management. Separates the successful (very few) from those that putter around painting fences and tinkering with the equipment, but who never study commodities futures or write a schedule.


I recently picked up a book in an airport called Talent is Overrated. It's all about this theory. There is a ton of evidence given to support it, how to improve your own performance, and that of your team, and how to apply the methods to promote innovation. It's a great book, if you're into this article you should definitely check it out.


What a poorly titled article. The study itself isn't invalid, but the conclusions are.

It's easy to read the evidence -- put in more effective practice/studying, and your rates of success and capabilities will be higher than any marathon/cramming will ever do for you.

A fine sentiment, until its applied to the general world. And in the real world, there is plenty of hard-to-do work that needs to be handled. I guess all my hard-to-do work that I'm responsible for as an employee, friend, father, volunteer, etc. is simply a "busyness" choice that's preventing me from reaching the stars in some focused endeavor.

It's completely anecdotal, but I know several people who follow the focused-drive-limited-busyness approach. I find two common traits about them: 1) they are highly competent in their chosen field, and 2) they are stunningly boring.

The world needs experts, but life needs well-rounded people. I respect the experts, but I much prefer the well-rounded folks.


The hardest thing is to take this learning (and the concept of deliberate practice) and hack it to your startup founder role and your chaotic day. Its easy to say that this concept it not applicable there but I believe it is. I have tried to apply it by splitting my day for new sales calls, existing account management, product dev management and operational issues and it does work well on the days that I can be disciplined enough to not get distracted. There is also a tremendous sense of achievement when it works. So that is my take away from this article - take the core concept and make an attempt to apply it to whatever it is that you are doing - so you can do it better, faster and cheaper ( in terms of energy spent!).


Creative work seems to happen in short bursts. Along with a lot of other writers, I like working in short, intense bursts, especially in the mornings.


Is morning "early in the morning" or "after getting up"?


I see no proof of causality in the article. My assumption is that a teacher needs to be an expert in not only her subject but also in pedagogics. Why wouldn't this multidisciplinary expertise require harder work to attain, resulting in less sleep and a longer work schedule containing tasks not directly related to music?

I also resent the inherent bias in labelling someone with the ambition of becoming a teacher of the arts as average based on this ambition alone. As earlier HN posts have informed us, in Finland it is the top 10% students of a class that go on to become teachers.


Intelligence is perceived on someone's outcomes to society. Playing the violin extremely well is an individual outcome, which denotes individual intelligence. On the other hand, the majority of us work for organizations, groups, teams etc, where the quality of the outcome comes from the group's collective intelligence. I wish I could find a different version of this article named instead: "If your team is busy, it's doing something <research_findings_here>"; because then it would apply to a more significant share of our societies.

I believe that someone being busy working on social interactions (of any type, real or virtual) generates great outcomes both personally and collectively. I don't believe in meditation, reclusion, cocooning anymore. A complex world requires sophisticated groups of talented people working together to solve problems. The busy they are, the better.

Maybe this slides off the topic. But I just wanted to express my view from a different angle.


"The data, as it turns out, had a different story to tell…" No, it doesn't. The data shows that different levels of performance are directly related to the amount of time invested in practice. The author seems to have attempted to re-interpret the data to suit his argument


And sometimes practice doesn't matter much at all. Some people are just great at what they do.

Charles Barkley (well-known NBA future Hall of Famer) was well known for being a slacker at practice. He hated it.

Randy Moss (well-known NFL future Hall of Famer) was also one of the laziest players, poor team player, and hated practice.

Mark Spitz (7-time gold medal winning swimmer) apparently was particularly uninterested in practice, put in the bare minimum yet reaped huge rewards.


these examples show just what the research concluded though -

dont do too much training all day long but rather do effective short period intensive trainings couple of times a day


I think the title is highly misleading. It's not about busy vs not busy, it's about doing the right thing vs doing something that doesn't matter. The A-group was doing three times more work that matters. And work that doesn't matter doesn't count.

In other words, how is that different from 80/20 principle? Looks like the research is just another confirmation of it.


I think it is another example of quality versus quantity. Often people use quantity of time rather than quality of time towards a particular task as a metric of effort and that is unfortunately wrong. Another big point in favor of telecommuting.


I'd say that's a big argument against telecommuting. Time spent directly interacting with your team is often much higher quality than time spent in isolation.


A lot of this is consonant with Tony Schwartz's "Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time" -

http://hbr.org/2007/10/manage-your-energy-not-your-time/ar/1 (paywalled, unfortunately)


I second this. "The Power of Full Engagement" is a rather good book on how to manage your energy. I like Cal Newport's blog, but what I think often goes unmentioned is the energy required to sustain this regime. It's not going to happen over night.

Schwartz and Loehr worked with some of the best tennis players of all time. From there they built a system of how to build up your energy (energy is the term they use.) Some might find their work to be a bit hokey, but I got the book used for $.01 (+ s&H) on Amazon so it's worth a shot.

The deliberative practice literature is pretty consistent on what people do to become better performers. What much of the literature (or at least what I have read) lacks is the recognition that getting to the point of being able to practice deliberately in a consistent manner takes building up endurance over time.


This is why I focus my efforts on reaching certain goals effectively rather than efficiently accomplishing as much as possible.


This article complete ignores the simple fact that if you're talented, you don't need to work hard.


503. Oh, the irony


Awesome. I was about to write the same thing!


I don't get that difference between hard work and hard to do work. It says that the players who were spending time stretching their abilities were higher achieves than the ones who simply worked hard. Does that mean the average ones were working tirelessly to perfect their existing skills while the elite were going beyond that and testing their limits? So then were the elites simply satisfied with their current abilities so to speak and simply moving on to more challenging activities while the average ones wouldn't do that until their existing skills were absolutely perfect? I'm tired so maybe Im missing the obvious.

I love articles like this. It's just so hard to put the results into practice. I'm a programmer. I admit I focus on improving skills that are in my comfort zone most of the time. It has served me well and I see a lot of improvement in my work. I also spend some time working on things I'm not familiar with or not comfortable with but far less time that that which I already have at least a decent grasp of. I tend to improve by getting a passing knowledge of something new and building on it slowly by dissecting examples. Maybe I should spend more time on the skills I don't yet have a firm grasp of rather than perfecting my current skill set?

Interesting read for sure.


Epic fail. 503 status.


503: server unavailable. It's probably busy, not doing anything wrong.


Deliciously ironic given the title of the article though.




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