You get more done when you work less

According to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in an excerpt from his book “REST: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less

For all the attention the Berlin conservatory study has received, this part of the top students’ experiences—their sleep patterns, their attention to leisure, their cultivation of deliberate rest as a necessary complement of demanding, deliberate practice—goes unmentioned. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell focuses on the number of hours exceptional performers practice and says nothing about the fact that those students also slept an hour more, on average, than their less-accomplished peers, or that they took naps and long breaks.

This is not to say that Gladwell misread Ericsson’s study; he just glossed over that part. And he has lots of company. Everybody speed-reads through the discussion of sleep and leisure and argues about the 10,000 hours.

This illustrates a blind spot that scientists, scholars, and almost all of us share: a tendency to focus on focused work, to assume that the road to greater creativity is paved by life hacks, propped up by eccentric habits, or smoothed by Adderall or LSD. Those who research world-class performance focus only on what students do in the gym or track or practice room. Everybody focuses on the most obvious, measurable forms of work and tries to make those more effective and more productive. They don’t ask whether there are other ways to improve performance, and improve your life.

This is how we’ve come to believe that world-class performance comes after 10,000 hours of practice. But that’s wrong. It comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep.

“I work,” Parfit replied with a smile, “on what matters.”

[Following up to “The Priorities of Beethoven“.] According to Jeff McMahan in his remembrance of Derek Parfit.

When the ventilator tube was removed and he could again speak, he immediately began to discuss with me the ideas and arguments on which he had been working when I had to rush him to the emergency room. […] The next day […] the graduate student whose thesis Parfit was scheduled to examine, came for a visit, during which Parfit delightedly insisted on discussing the thesis with him for several hours. A nurse, having noticed how many visitors Parfit had had, exclaimed, “Jesus Christ had only 12 disciples – but look at you! You’re clearly a very important man. What do you do?” “I work,” Parfit replied with a smile, “on what matters.”


The one exception to his monomaniacal commitment to his philosophy was his architectural photography, samples of which appear on the covers of his four books. But he gave that up many years ago when he came to fear that he might not live long enough to complete his remaining work in philosophy.

There are many anecdotes about the ways in which Parfit simplified his life to take as little time as possible away from his work. He ate only twice a day, with almost no variation in what he had at each meal. He ate cold food only, mostly fruits and vegetables without any preparation. Even when he could have had freshly ground coffee with only a minute’s additional preparation, he drank instant coffee, often with water straight from the tap. He sometimes kept a book open on the chest-of-drawers so that he could read while putting on his socks. His speed in reading was phenomenal, in part because his power of concentration was prodigious. Wanting to preserve his mental and physical capacities, he took an hour every evening during his last decade to get vigorous exercise on a stationary bicycle, but never without reading philosophy (or occasionally physics) while furiously pedalling.

Just say no

Brad Pierce's Blog

According to Edwin Bliss

Of all the time-saving techniques ever developed, perhaps the most effective is the frequent use of the word no.  You cannot protect your priorities unless you learn to decline, tactfully but firmly, every request that does not contribute to the achievement of your goals.

If you don’t, you live your life “according to other people’s priorities”.

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You are never going to get caught up

Brad Pierce's Blog

According to Brian Tracy

There is never enough time to do everything you have to do. You are literally swamped with work and personal responsibilities, projects, stacks of magazines to read, and piles of books you intend to get to one of these days—as soon as you get caught up.

But the fact is that you are never going to get caught up. You will never get on top of your tasks. You will never get far enough ahead to be able to get to all those books, magazines, and leisure time activities that you dream of.

And forget about solving your time management problems by becoming more productive. No matter how many personal productivity techniques you master, there will always be more to do than you can ever accomplish in the time you have available to you, no matter how much it is.

You can get control of your…

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Making the best of a bad interruption

According to Edwin Bliss

Amount of time spent on a project is not what counts: it’s the amount of uninterrupted time.


One of the most prolific of modern novelists was […] Georges Simeon. [His] method was to cut himself off completely from the outside world while working on a book: no phone calls, no visitors, no newspaper, no mail; living, as he said, ‘like a monk’. After about eleven days of total immersion in his writing he would emerge with another best-selling novel.

Few of us would carry concentration to that extreme – but what if we did, who knows what we might accomplish.

Stephen B. Jenkins wrote an excellent article (with a boring title) called “Concerning Interruptions” on the huge cost of interruptions to the productivity of computer programmers and gave practical advice on how to reduce that cost. (Strongly recommended read.)

For the historical context, a good source is Christine Rosen’s “The Myth of Multitasking“.

Making the best of a bad interruption

On longer time scales, when you must drop something for a while, it’s important, before doing so, to leave behind enough context for yourself to swap it back in. Write down some organized notes about where you were, what still needed to be done, etc. Keeping a log can be a big help, too, but it’s not a substitute for a high-level summary before suspending the task.

(For programming in particular, when you consider that you will need to revisit most computer code someday in the future, this is also a selfish reason to build a legacy of great comments and documentation.)

A good mental model for suspending a task is to leave behind the sort of information that you would need to hand it off to another person to finish.

Pretend that you are handing off the task to another person and you will be going away on a long vacation and unavailable to answer further questions, because when you come back to the task you will effectively be that other person.

Swapping in a new context is very expensive. Saving your state well when you suspend is actually much, much cheaper overall, assuming that you’ll need to come back to the task eventually.

This is one reason it’s important to write your to-do list at the end of the working day, instead of waiting until the start of the next working day.

Advice to a college freshman on not knowing what one wants to do

It’s rare to know what one wants to do. Maybe it would help ease your mind to contemplate that this apparent dilemma is actually one of the great luxuries of our modern age — because choice and freedom, far from being the inevitable state of affairs, is actually a huge cultural accomplishment, a gift to us from previous generations.

At this point in your career, I’d recommend emphasizing two priorities, one a skill, the other an attitude.

The skill is effective studying. A person can be very smart and hard working, yet be unaware of the most effective techniques, and so be stuck in first gear spinning their wheels. It’s odd that schools don’t have courses in this, since it’s the skill that underlies the rest of their mission.

The attitude is hard to name, but I’ll try some possibilities. Quality vs. quantity, or mastery, or everyday genius, or intensity. The idea is that once you commit to something, then hit it with 100% energy and concentration, instead of wasting your precious time. But don’t commit to too many things at once.