Productivity advice

We begin with the wise words of Sylvia Plath:

What is my life for and what am I going to do with it? I don’t know and I’m afraid. I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And what do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones, and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life.

Reading productivity advice is really fun for me. It’s a great way to procrastinate. Don’t worry about all the work I’m not doing now. I’m improving my system, which is even more important! In fact, with this new system I’ll be so much more productive than I was before. I’ll easily make up for not working now, right?

At the same time I take productivity advice too seriously. If you’re actively looking for productivity essays to read (like me), you might be like me. This section is for you. Some of the worst I’ve felt about myself was guilt over not being more productive after reading other people’s advice. Here are these Really Smart and Successful People who are Productive Forces of Nature. They have it all figured out, and they’re even feeding me the steps. Why can I not simply Be Better.

I can identify “this one weird trick” and “doctors hate ‘em!” as scams pretty easily. Productivity advice is a better concealed scam. Nobody ever becomes 10X or even 2X more productive after reading a self-help book or starting the Pomodoro Technique.

Honestly! Here are two hopefully clarifying reasons why, with very original names from me:

  1. No Free Lunch: You are no more productive after implementing a productivity trick than you were before.
    • You’re using the same willpower to adhere to your new productivity trick as you were to stop procrastinating. It’s the same crappy willpower.
    • You will optimize to be as lazy as possible within the constraints of your new trick.
    • You will exploit the unique weaknesses of your new trick.
    • You will feel a false sense of productivity having implemented your new trick.
  2. Efficient Markets: If there existed a productivity trick that you could feasibly implement and actually made you 2X more productive, you’ve already implemented it.
    • I’ve met people who are 2X more productive than other people. But have you met anyone who suddenly forced themselves to be 2X more productive? Not me.

Oh you want some “empirical evidence” ok:

So what to do. Well I try to:

Okay now that you know that time for what you came for.

Everybody is saying the same thing. At least, it looks that way from the quotes I picked. I grouped the things people into what I think is the same about them. You should read the original essays just to make sure. Another reason to read them in full is because I quoted only the parts that are relevant to my life, which is not your life.

By the way, the counterexample to “everybody is saying the same thing” is Agnes Callard. And remember also it is not all up to you.

Think about direction

Christopher Alexander, in the foreword for Patterns of Software:

In my life as an architect, I find that the single thing which inhibits young professionals, new students most severely, is their acceptance of standards that are too low. If I ask a student whether her design is as good as Chartres, she often smiles tolerantly at me as if to say, “Of course not, that isn’t what I am trying to do. . . . I could never do that.”

Then, I express my disagreement, and tell her: “That standard must be our standard. If you are going to be a builder, no other standard is worthwhile. That is what I expect of myself in my own buildings, and it is what I expect of my students.” Gradually, I show the students that they have a right to ask this of themselves, and must ask this of themselves. Once that level of standard is in their minds, they will be able to figure out, for themselves, how to do better, how to make something that is as profound as that.

Two things emanate from this changed standard. First, the work becomes more fun. It is deeper, it never gets tiresome or boring, because one can never really attain this standard. One’s work becomes a lifelong work, and one keeps trying and trying. So it becomes very fulfilling, to live in the light of a goal like this. But secondly, it does change what people are trying to do. It takes away from them the everyday, lower-level aspiration that is purely technical in nature, (and which we have come to accept) and replaces it with something deep, which will make a real difference to all of us that inhabit the earth.

autotranslucence, Becoming a magician:

The way to extraordinary growth and changes often involves a fundamental ontological or ‘lens’ shift in how you see the world. Magicians are wearing not just better, but fundamentally differently shaped lenses to the rest of us…

‘What are the things I say I value but don’t act as if I value, and what would my life feel like on inside if I actually acted as if I valued those things?’

Sam Altman, Productivity:

It doesn’t matter how fast you move if it’s in a worthless direction. Picking the right thing to work on is the most important element of productivity and usually almost ignored. So think about it more!…

I make sure to leave enough time in my schedule to think about what to work on. The best ways for me to do this are reading books, hanging out with interesting people, and spending time in nature…

The right goal is to allocate your year optimally, not your day…

Finally, to repeat one more time: productivity in the wrong direction isn’t worth anything at all. Think more about what to work on.

Ira Glass, The Gap:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this.

Simone Weil, Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God:

Will power, the kind that, if need be, makes us set our teeth and endure suffering, is the principal weapon of the apprentice engaged in manual work. But, contrary to the usual belief, it has practically no place in study. The intelli gence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indis pensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.

Maggie Hambling, to Mason Currey

It is not difficult to make a work of art, the difficulty lies in being in the right state to do it.

Brie Wolfson, Notes on “Taste”:

Though taste may appear effortless, you can’t have taste by mistake. It requires intention, focus, and care. Taste is a commitment to a state of attention. It’s a process of peeling back layer after layer, turning over rock after rock. As John Saltivier says in an essay about building a set of stairs, “surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality.”

Dan Wang, 2017 letter

Here’s a general principle I’d like to put forward: That learning, broadly defined, ought to accelerate over time. It’s an analytical error to analogize the growth rate of knowledge (and I’m going to be vague about this) to something like the growth rate of a country’s GDP. Instead of expecting it to slow over time, we should spend our days trying to accelerate the growth of our knowledge base.

My observation is that most people expect learning to decelerate. It’s not uncommon to see this attitude among fresh college grads: “I’m done with school and it’s time to join the workforce so that it’s time to implement all the stuff I’ve learned.” They tend to tie learning together with being forced to read books and attend lectures, and since they no longer need to do these things, therefore they don’t have to keep learning. The result is that they more or less lose interest in improvement.

Countries generally can’t maintain high growth rates, but that doesn’t equally have to affect individuals. I’d like for people to think in different terms. The world is big enough, and any individual is small enough, that we can accelerate learning over time. And I submit that positive belief that this claim is true would make it so.

Now a few quotes about research.

Michael Nielsen, Quick thoughts on research

Given all that: the problems you work on matter enormously. I say “work on” but that’s not the same as “pick”. Einstein got interested in some strange transformation properties of Maxwell’s equations; in trying to resolve that, he discovered that space and time, mass and energy, are not as they seemed, but fundamentally different. Darwin went on a geology expedition, but was so curious and observant that he ended up understanding the origin of species. Great problems have to be discovered; often the solution of the problem is only a tiny part of the story, most of it is really about discovering the problem.

Edsger Dijkstra, untitled research advice:

Remember that research with a big R is rarely mission-oriented and plan in terms of decades, not years. Resist all pressure —be it financial or cultural— to do work that is of ephemeral significance at best.

Richard Hamming, You and your research:

There are many right problems, but very few people search carefully for them. Rather they simply drift along doing what comes to them, following the easiest path to tomorrow. Great scientists all spend a lot of time and effort in examining the important problems in their field. Many have a list of 10 to 20 problems that might be important if they had a decent attack. As a result, when they notice something new that they had not known but seems to be relevant, then they are prepared to turn to the corresponding problem, work on it, and get there first.

Nima Arkani-Hamed, The Power of Principles, Physics Revealed Part II:

The wonderful thing about truth is that it’s a great attractor. All you have to do is to get somewhere in its vicinity, and also not fight it.

If more people realized this, I think we’d get many more people interested in doing physics, in actually doing it, because having the truth out there as a friend and something that you’re sort of looking for and trying to head towards, is a tremendous leveler of the playing field when it comes to talents, inclination, are you strong mathematically, not strong mathematically. Having nature as a guide and a friend makes a humongous difference, because people of vastly different levels of talent and, of course you have to be very dedicated, but still, I mean, you can have very, very, you can be fast worker, slow worker. All of these things sort of pale to being somewhere in the vicinity of the right answer.

And you just have to sort of head towards there, figure out some way of getting there, and just sort of keep at it, keep asking, keep following the important questions, and see the light sort of through the thicket and get closer and closer to it… it doesn’t much matter if you have a bulldozer or if you have just a machete, or even a little crappy knife to go through the thicket. You’ll get there. But it’s important to get in its vicinity.

Richard Feynman, letter to his former graduate student Koichi Mano:

The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile…

You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself - it is too sad a way to be. now your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of your naive ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher’s ideals are.

Shengwu Li, preface to his problem sets:

Pedagogic note: Part of what makes research hard is that you work on problems without knowing the answer in advance. A key skill is to learn to be at peace when working under uncertainty, and to be comfortable making guesses and seeing where they lead. To build this skill, these problems pose conjectures but do not indicate whether you should seek a proof or a counterexample. If you get stuck on finding a proof, try switching to search for counterexamples, and vice versa. Another way this resembles research is that you probably will not find the answers to every question. (If you can answer 3 out of 5, you’re doing fine!)

Paul Graham, How to Do Great Work:

Many more people could try to do great work than do. What holds them back is a combination of modesty and fear. It seems presumptuous to try to be Newton or Shakespeare. It also seems hard; surely if you tried something like that, you’d fail. Presumably the calculation is rarely explicit. Few people consciously decide not to try to do great work. But that’s what’s going on subconsciously; they shy away from the question.

So I’m going to pull a sneaky trick on you. Do you want to do great work, or not? Now you have to decide consciously. Sorry about that. I wouldn’t have done it to a general audience. But we already know you’re interested.

Don’t worry about being presumptuous. You don’t have to tell anyone. And if it’s too hard and you fail, so what? Lots of people have worse problems than that. In fact you’ll be lucky if it’s the worst problem you have.

In some sense, the following is also about direction, from world and Olympic speed skating record holder, and world and Olympic speed skating champion,

Nils van der Poel, How to skate a 10k:

But as soon as the Specific season started I changed focus to doing laps at competition speed on the ice. I now completely subsided from the threshold training in order to free up energy to spend on skating laps on the ice. I never skated slower than competition speed due to two reasons. Firstly (1) I consider technique to be altered to a specific speed. So as I was skating at a slower speed I contaminated my competition speed technique. Secondly (2) I didn’t want to wear out, or tire, my legs by skating slowly as the number of competition speed-laps I could perform weekly would decrease if I wasted my energy by also going slow on the ice.

There’s nothing special about being good (rather, work really hard)

Yeah, I know this just sounds like “be better.” Sorry. But this is a big section, it really is what people say.

Daniel Chambliss, The Mundanity of Excellence:

The mundanity of excellence is typically unrecognized. I think the reason is fairly simple. Usually we see great athletes only after they have become great-after the years of learning the new methods, gaining the habits of competitiveness and consistency, after becoming comfortable in their world. They have long since perfected the myriad of techniques that together constitute excellence. Ignorant of all of the specific steps that have led to the performance and to the confidence, we think that somehow excellence sprang fullgrown from this person, and we say he or she “has talent” or “is gifted.” Even when seen close up, the mundanity of excellence is often not believed:

Every week at the Mission Viejo training pool, where the National Champion Nadadores team practiced, coaches from around the world would be on the deck visiting, watching as the team did their workouts, swimming back and forth for hours. The visiting coaches would be excited at first, just to be here; then, soon-within an hour or so, usually-they grew bored, walking back and forth looking at the deck, glancing around at the hills around the town, reading the bulletin boards, glancing down at their watches, wondering, after the long flight out to California, when something dramatic was going to happen. “They all have to come to Mecca, and see what we do,” coach Mark Schubert said. “They think we have some big secret.”

But of course there is no secret; there is only the doing of all those little things, each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of one’s everyday life.

David Foster Wallace, The String Theory:

If you’ve played tennis at least a little, you probably have some idea how hard a game is to play really well. I submit to you that you really have no idea at all. I know I didn’t. And television doesn’t really allow you to appreciate what real top-level players can do–how hard they’re actually hitting the ball, and with what control and tactical imagination and artistry. I got to watch Michael Joyce practice several times right up close, like six feet and a chain-link fence away. This is a man who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a one-foot square area seventy-eight feet away over a net, hard. He can do this something like more than 90 percent of the time. And this is the world’s seventy-ninth-best player, one who has to play the Montreal qualies…

Americans revere athletic excellence, competitive success, and it’s more than lip service we pay; we vote with our wallets. We’ll pay large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we’ll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.

But it’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think. Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life–outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence. An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very small.

Read the last two essays in full. It’s worth it.

Nils van der Poel, How to skate a 10k:

Instead the main idea of my training program was that you will become good at whatever it is that you train. The idea was that whoever skated the most laps of 30,0 during the last three months prior to the competition would win the 10k.


True self confidence comes from experience. My very race specific ice sessions supplied me with the facts of my capacity and the trust in myself. I wasn’t mentaly strong as a kid, I hated to compete ever since I started speed skating, I truly hated it. It is still a little anxiety provoking for me, I think it always will be when I test myself in an activity that I really care about. But today it’s a walk in the park compared to when I was a kid. This development was mainly acquired through continuous voluntary confrontation with the challenge (read that sentence again and emphasize voluntary). It was first when I understood that, or felt like, I volunteered, that I was able to compete with a free mind.

Michael Nielsen, Quick thoughts on research

Learn what it means to work hard: this is surprisingly difficult. It means knowing when to push, when not. It means knowing how to vacation well and how to enjoy your life. You must not become a drudge – a surprisingly common problem among the ambitious. You must become alive to moments of leverage and creative opportunity and insight. And, of course, it also means knowing how to work incredibly hard and with great courage and determination.

Bruce Lee, is quoted as saying:

Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.

The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity; the ability to express the utmost with the minimum.

Ava, routines, rituals, meaning:

Your job is to make sure the muse knows where to find you. In other words, consistency makes epiphanies possible. If you’re searching and you’re susceptible, you’ll be ready to receive inspiration when it comes.

To put it another way: consistency is a way of paying attention. By showing up every day, you’re saying, hi, I’m here and I’m listening. I’m here and I’m trying. Carefully directed attention is the best way to solve any problem.

Tyler Cowen, How I practice at what I do:

Recently, one of my favorite questions to bug people with has been “What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?” If you don’t know the answer to that one, maybe you are doing something wrong or not doing enough. Or maybe you are (optimally?) not very ambitious?

Dan Luu, 95%-ile isn’t that good:

My belief is that it’s easier to become relatively good at real life activities relative to games or sports because there’s so little delibrate practice put into most real life activities…

One thing to note here is that it’s important to actually track what you’re doing and not just guess at what you’re doing. When I’ve recorded what people do and compare it to what they think they’re doing, these are often quite different.

Nabeel Qu, How To Understand Things

I concluded that what we call ‘intelligence’ is as much about virtues such as honesty, integrity, and bravery, as it is about ‘raw intellect’.

Intelligent people simply aren’t willing to accept answers that they don’t understand — no matter how many other people try to convince them of it, or how many other people believe it, if they aren’t able to convince them selves of it, they won’t accept it.

Importantly, this is a ‘software’ trait & is independent of more ‘hardware’ traits such as processing speed, working memory, and other such things.

Moreover, I have noticed that these ‘hardware’ traits vary greatly in the smartest people I know – some are remarkably quick thinkers, calculators, readers, whereas others are ‘slow’. The software traits, though, they all have in common – and can, with effort, be learned.

Michael Nielsen, Principles of Effective Research:

It is a tempting but ultimately counterproductive fallacy to believe that self-discipline is merely a matter of will, of deciding what it is that you want to do, and then doing it. Many other factors affect self-discipline, and it’s important to understand those other factors. Furthermore, if you believe that it’s all a matter of willpower then you’re likely to get rather depressed when you fall short, sapping your confidenc, and resulting in less disciplined behaviour.

I now describe three factors important in achieving self-discipline.

The first factor is having clarity about what one wants to achieve, why one wants to achieve it, and how to go about achieving it. It’s easy to work hard if you’re clear about these three things, and you’re excited about what you’re doing. Conversely, I think the main cause of aimlessness and procrastination is when you lack clarity on one or more of these points.

The second factor affecting self-discipline is one’s social environment. Researchers are typically under little immediate social pressure to produce research results. Contrast this with the example of professional athletes, who often have an entire support system of coaches, managers and trainers in place, focused around the task of increasing their effectiveness. When a researcher stays out late, sleeps in, and gets a late start, no-one minds; when a professional athlete does, they’re likely to receive a blast from their coach.

Access to a social environment which encourages and supports the development of research skills and research excellence can make an enormous difference to all aspect of one’s research, including self-discipline. The key is to be accountable to other people. Some simple ways of achieving such accountability are to take on students, to collaborate with colleagues, or to set up mentoring relationships with colleagues.

The third factor affecting self-discipline is a special kind of honesty, honesty to oneself, about oneself. It’s extremely easy to kid ourselves about what we do and who we are. A colleague once told me of a friend of his who for some time used a stopwatch to keep track of how much research work he did each week. He was shocked to discover that after factoring in all the other activities he engaged in each day – interruptions, email, surfing the net, the phone, fruitless meetings, chatting with friends, and so on – he was averaging only half an hour of research per day. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was typical of many researchers.

Laura Deming, Advice for ambitious teenagers:

Action comes before motivation. Learn to get work done even if you don’t feel like it at first. Find which actions lead to the flywheel of effects (positive reinforcement from others, successful completion of tasks you enjoy) that will motivate you to pursue a certain path. Carefully design systems for yourself. You may feel extreme motivation after watching the Social Network movie, but in the 11th hour get bored and tired of chasing down some abstract programming bug—you must ensure that, if there is an important goal you’d like to achieve, the clear-eyed version of yourself sets up a system to ensure that a later, less motivated of yourself will get it done.

Sam Altman, How To Be Successful:

You can get to about the 90th percentile in your field by working either smart or hard, which is still a great accomplishment. But getting to the 99th percentile requires both—you will be competing with other very talented people who will have great ideas and be willing to work a lot…

Almost always, the people who say “I am going to keep going until this works, and no matter what the challenges are I’m going to figure them out”, and mean it, go on to succeed. They are persistent long enough to give themselves a chance for luck to go their way.

Po Bronson, How Not to Talk to Your Kids:

Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent.

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you think, ‘Man, this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The ‘hurt’ part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself.

How Murakami convinced himself to put in the work,

I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead.

Steven Weinberg, Four golden lessons:

Another lesson to be learned, to continue using my oceanographic metaphor, is that while you are swimming and not sinking you should aim for rough water. When I was teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1960s, a student told me that he wanted to go into general relativity rather than the area I was working on, elementary particle physics, because the principles of the former were well known, while the latter seemed like a mess to him. It struck me that he had just given a perfectly good reason for doing the opposite. Particle physics was an area where creative work could still be done. It really was a mess in the 1960s, but since that time the work of many theoretical and experimental physicists has been able to sort it out, and put everything (well, almost everything) together in a beautiful theory known as the standard model. My advice is to go for the messes — that’s where the action is.

Nima Arkani-Hamed, The Power of Principles, Physics Revealed Part I:

Interviewer: Why haven’t you written a popular [science] book?

Arkani-Hamed: I think our real job is to push physics forward, and to try to learn something new about the way nature works, and that’s a very tough business. It sounds obvious, but it really is a very tough business… I think it’s conceivable that I might be able to make some really important impact, and push physics forward. It’s not obvious. It’s not completely obvious. And especially in a case like that, I think the only thing that’s in our control, the only thing that is in my control, is single-minded, concentrated focus on the most important problem, the hardest problem, the most important problem that you have any hope of making some small progress on at any time, and the ability to concentrate and focus like that is absolutely crucial. My actual job is to try to figure out something about the way the world works, and I’ve been both blessed and cursed I think with just the right amount of talent, ability, motivation, to have a chance of doing it.

Interviewer: Cursed because what? Because you feel you’d like 10 times more or-

Arkani-Hamed: Well, I mean 10 times more would be fantastic. 10 times less it would be fairly clear that I couldn’t do it, and it would also lead to a very different life… But it means that the aspect of this business, which is just flat-out hard work, is very important to me. It’s very, very important, and it’s the one thing that I feel is really in my control. If I didn’t do that, I would sort of kick myself forever, for not having actually given everything I have to try to actually do the things which are really important.

And some of his advice for working hard,

Nima Arkani-Hamed, The Morality of Fundamental Physics:

Einstein and Grothendieck and these people who managed to work solid on a problem for eight years. Trust me, you don’t get up in the morning able to do that. The way you’re able to work on a problem for eight years is you first manage to work on a problem for two months, three months, four months, a year. You have to exercise these muscles. You have to get good at it. You have to bite off as much as you can chew. And it’s a hard balance, but you will know. You will know if you’re honest with yourself—if what you’re doing is just really easy and it’s not challenging you at all, or if what you’re doing is so hard that it’s also not challenging you at all because you’re not doing it. You have to find the perfect intermediate stage where you’re in pain all the time. You’re in pain all the time but it’s a good kind of pain, because you’re making a little bit of progress.

Albert Einstein, is quoted as saying:

In light of knowledge attained, the happy achievement seems almost a matter of course, and any intelligent student can grasp it without too much trouble. But the years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, their alterations of confidence and exhaustion and the final emergence into the light—only those who have experienced it can understand it.

Einstein worked on relativity for eight years. Imagine the patience! I’d get concerned working on a project if nothing happened for six months.

Timothy Gowers, Mathematics, A Very Short Introduction:

While the negative portrayal of mathematicians may be damaging, by putting off people who would otherwise enjoy the subject and be good at it, the damage done by the word genius is more insidious and possibly greater. Here is a rough and ready definition of genius: somebody who can do easily, and at a young age, something that almost nobody else can do except after years of practice, if at all. The achievements of geniuses have some sort of magic quality about them - it is as if their brains work not just more efficiently than ours, but in a completely different way. Every year or two a mathematics undergraduate arrives at Cambridge who regularly manages to solve a in a few minutes problems that take most people, including those who are supposed to be teaching them, several hours or more. When faced with such a person, all one can do is stand back and admire.

And yet, these extraordinary people are not always the most successful research mathematicians. If you want to solve a problem that other professional mathematicians have tried and failed to solve before you, then, of the many qualities you will need, genius as I have defined it is neither necessary nor sufficient. To illustrate with an extreme example, Andrew Wiles, who (at the age of just over forty) proved Fermat’s Last Theorem (which states that if x, y, z, and n are all positive integers and n is greater than 2, then x^n + y^n cannot equal z^n) and thereby solved the world’s most famous unsolved mathematics problem, is undoubtedly very clever, but he is not a genius in my sense.

How, you might ask, could he possibly have done what he did without some sort of mysterious extra brainpower? The answer is that, remarkable though his achievement was, it is not so remarkable as to defy explanation. I do not know precisely what enabled him to succeed, but he would have needed great courage, determination, and patience, a wide knowledge of some very difficult work done by others, the good fortune to be in the right mathematical area at the right time, and an exceptional strategic ability.

This last quality is, ultimately, more important than freakish mental speed: the most profound contributions to mathematics are often made by tortoises rather than hares. As mathematicians develop, they learn various tricks of the trade, partly from the work of other mathematicians and partly as a result of many hours spent thinking about mathematics. What determines whether they can use their expertise to solve notorious problems is, in large measure, a matter of careful planning: attempting problems that are likely to be fruitful, knowing when to give up a line of thought (a difficult judgement to make), being able to sketch broad outlines of arguments before, just occasionally, managing to fill in the details. This demands a level of maturity which is by no means incompatible with genius but which does not always accompany it.

Robert Oppenheimer, letter to his brother Frank:

You put a hard question on the virtue of discipline. What you say is true: I do value it—and I think that you do too—more than for its earthly fruit, proficiency. I think that one can give only a metaphysical ground for this evaluation; but the variety of metaphysics which gave an answer to your question has been very great, the metaphysics themselves very disparate: the bhagavad gita, Ecclesiastes, the Stoa, the beginning of the Laws, Hugo of St Victor, St Thomas, John of the Cross, Spinoza. This very great disparity suggests that the fact that discipline is good for the soul is more fundamental than any of the grounds given for its goodness. I believe that through discipline, though not through discipline alone, we can achieve serenity, and a certain small but precious measure of freedom from the accidents of incarnation, and charity, and that detachment which preserves the world which it renounces. I believe that through discipline we can learn to preserve what is essential to our happiness in more and more adverse circumstances, and to abandon with simplicity what would else have seemed to us indispensable; that we come a little to see the world without the gross distortion of personal desire, and in seeing it so, accept more easily our earthly privation and its earthly horror—But because I believe that the reward of discipline is greater than its immediate objective, I would not have you think that discipline without objective is possible: in its nature discipline involves the subjection of the soul to some perhaps minor end; and that end must be real, if the discipline is not to be factitious. Therefore I think that all things which evoke discipline: study, and our duties to men and to the commonwealth, war, and personal hardship, and even the need for subsistence, ought to be greeted by us with profound gratitude, for only through them can we attain to the least detachment; and only so can we know peace.

Patrick Collison, Advice if you’re 10-20:

To the extent that you enjoy working hard, do. Subject to that constraint, it’s not clear that the returns to effort ever diminish substantially. If you’re lucky enough to enjoy it a lot, be grateful and take full advantage!


Find vivid examples of success in the domains you care about. If you want to become a great scientist, try to find ways to spend time with good (or, ideally, great) scientists in person. Watch YouTube videos of interviews. Follow some on Twitter.

For example, Timothy Gowers solving a math problem in real time.

Fast fast fast cut cut cut

Ben Kuhn, Be impatient:

There’s an obvious way in which moving faster is important: if you’re 10% more productive, you will finish your work in 10% less time, so you can do 10% more work total. But I don’t think that’s the main reason that speed is important…

It’s worth pointing out at this point that all of the quotes above aren’t just about churning out work—they’re about processing information more quickly. The faster you process information, the faster you can incorporate the result into what you do next…

That means that moving quickly is an advantage that compounds. Being twice as fast doesn’t just double your output; it doubles the growth rate of your output. Over time, that makes an enormous difference.

Ava, it never feels like the right time:

I once read this great blogpost that used the analogy of keeping your inventory low. The author used inventory as an metaphor for things that you’re currently waiting on, the preconditions that need to be fulfilled before you act. For example, I want to hear about back this job before I apply for others. Or I need to lose weight before I wear this dress. Or, I need to have closure from my crush before I can move on and start dating other people. To be clear, sometimes the preconditions are real, but often they aren’t and you don’t actually need to wait for X to happen before you do Y. One way of keeping inventory low is to set self-imposed deadlines: if I don’t hear back in a week, I move on. Or you could just decide that the precondition doesn’t really matter.

Ava, practical magic:

Keeping mental inventory low

Generally, there should not be many things you’re “waiting on.” If you’re waiting on multiple replies before you can make a big decision with your life (did I get this job? Does this person want to date me?) I would suggest assuming the answer is no and moving onto the natural next step. If you’re waiting for something with a quick deadline it’s different (I find it out in three months which grad schools I get in) but waiting for amorphous (and especially amorphous low-probability things) can be ruinous.

It’s very common to subconsciously want to prolong the wait time. If you find yourself doing that, push for a quick response. You’ll feel better afterwards.

Tyler Cowen, Simple advice for academic publishing:

Get something done every day. Few academics fail from not getting enough done each day. Many fail from living many days with zero output.

Sam Altman, on answering email:

Years ago I wrote a little program to look at this, like how quickly our best founders—the founders that run billion-plus companies—answer my emails versus our bad founders. I don’t remember the exact data, but it was mind-blowingly different. It was a difference of minutes versus days on average response times.

Sam Altman, How To Be Successful:

I have yet to meet a slow-moving person who is very successful.

Patrick McKenzie, What Working at Stripe Has Been Like:

The returns to pushing your cadence to faster are everywhere and they compound continuously, for years. Don’t send the email tomorrow. Don’t default to scheduling the meeting for next week. Don’t delay a worthy sprint until after the next quarterly planning exercise. Design control and decisionmaking structures to bias heavily in favor of preserving operating cadence…

A stupendous portion of that advantage is just consistently choosing to get more done. That sounds vacuous but hasn’t been in my experience. I have seen truly silly improvements occasioned by someone just consistently asking in meetings “Could we do that faster? What is the minimum increment required to ship? Could that be done faster?” It’s the Charge More of management strategy; the upside is so dramatic, the cost so low, and the hit rate so high that you should just invoke it ritualistically.

Fabian Giesen, via Dan Luu, Some reasons to work on productivity and velocity:

There are “phase changes” as you cross certain thresholds (details depend on the problem to some extent) where your entire way of working changes… There’s a lot of things I could in theory do at any speed but in practice cannot, because as iteration time increases it first becomes so frustrating that I can’t do it for long and eventually it takes so long that it literally drops out of my short-term memory, so I need to keep notes or otherwise organize it or I can’t do it at all.

Certainly if I can do an experiment in an interactive UI by dragging on a slider and see the result in a fraction of a second, at that point it’s very “no filter”, if you want to try something you just do it.

Once you’re at iteration times in the low seconds (say a compile-link cycle with a statically compiled lang) you don’t just try stuff anymore, you also spend time thinking about whether it’s gonna tell you anything because it takes long enough that you’d rather not waste a run.

Once you get into several-minute or multi-hour iteration times there’s a lot of planning to not waste runs, and context switching because you do other stuff while you wait, and note-taking/bookkeeping; also at this level mistakes are both more expensive (because a wasted run wastes more time) and more common (because your attention is so divided).

As you scale that up even more you might now take significant resources for a noticeable amount of time and need to get that approved and budgeted, which takes its own meetings etc.

Paul Graham, Life is Short:

If life is short, we should expect its shortness to take us by surprise. And that is just what tends to happen. You take things for granted, and then they’re gone. You think you can always write that book, or climb that mountain, or whatever, and then you realize the window has closed. The saddest windows close when other people die. Their lives are short too. After my mother died, I wished I’d spent more time with her. I lived as if she’d always be there. And in her typical quiet way she encouraged that illusion. But an illusion it was. I think a lot of people make the same mistake I did.

The usual way to avoid being taken by surprise by something is to be consciously aware of it. Back when life was more precarious, people used to be aware of death to a degree that would now seem a bit morbid. I’m not sure why, but it doesn’t seem the right answer to be constantly reminding oneself of the grim reaper hovering at everyone’s shoulder. Perhaps a better solution is to look at the problem from the other end. Cultivate a habit of impatience about the things you most want to do. Don’t wait before climbing that mountain or writing that book or visiting your mother. You don’t need to be constantly reminding yourself why you shouldn’t wait. Just don’t wait.







Also, an aphorism I learned from college debate—“if you’re writing, you’re losing.”

But also work less hard and slow down

Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.

Laura Deming, Advice for ambitious teenagers:

Have fun with your friends. Go to the beach together at midnight, light a bonfire and talk about ideas. Camp and hike together. Share life stories. Bake cookies and watch movies in your living room under a fort like the ones you constructed as a kid. Build robots together, do chemistry experiments at home. Living with a great group can be truly exceptional.

Nils van der Poel, How to skate a 10k:

Creating meaning and value in life outside of the speed skating oval helped me get through tough training periods. When the training wasn’t going great, perhaps something else in life did and that cheered me up. Later on, when I became more successful and there was a media hype around me, the normal part of my life helped me keep myself grounded. I knew who I was and I was not just a speed skater. Today I’m very happy for all the friends I’ve made on all of those two rest days. Most of these friends are not speed skaters and to me they shed light upon my life from a new perspective. For that I am very thankful. I believe that it was the value I created outside of the sport, and not the success within it, that made it worthwhile to live in this manner; to face the horrific fact that only one of us will win the competition and all the others will lose; that injury or sickness can sabotage four years of work. It was not my success that justified my sacrifices, it was my friends, and I owed it to them to try to live up to my full potential.

Michael Nielsen, Principles of Effective Research:

You also need to have the rest of your life in order to be an effective researcher. Make sure you’re fit. Look after your health. Spend high quality time with your family. Have fun. These things require a lot of thought and effort to get right. If you don’t get them right, not only will your life as a whole be less good, your research will suffer.

Sam Altman, Productivity:

Don’t neglect your family and friends for the sake of productivity—that’s a very stupid tradeoff (and very likely a net productivity loss, because you’ll be less happy). Don’t neglect doing things you love or that clear your head either.

Oliver Burkeman, The three-or-four-hours rule for getting creative work done:

You almost certainly can’t consistently do the kind of work that demands serious mental focus for more than about three or four hours a day…

The real lesson—or one of them—is that it pays to use whatever freedom you do have over your schedule not to “maximise your time” or “optimise your day”, in some vague way, but specifically to ringfence three or four hours of undisturbed focus (ideally when your energy levels are highest). Stop assuming that the way to make progress on your most important projects is to work for longer… Just focus on protecting four hours – and don’t worry if the rest of the day is characterised by the usual scattered chaos.

Derek Sivers, Relax for the same result:

I’d finish exhausted and look at the time: forty-three minutes. Every time. Maybe a minute more on a really windy day, but basically always forty-three minutes.

After a few months, I noticed I was getting less enthusiastic about this bike ride. I think I had mentally linked it with being completely exhausted.

So one day I decided I would do the same ride, but just chill. Take it easy, nice and slow. OK, not super slow, but dialing it back to about 50 percent of my usual effort…

When I finished, I looked at the time: forty-five minutes.

Which then makes me realize that half of my effort wasn’t effort at all, but just unnecessary stress that made me feel like I was doing my best.

John Edensor Littlewood, A Mathematician’s Miscellany:

A governing principle is that 3 weeks, exactly 21 days—the period is curiously precise—is enough for recovery from the severest mental fatigue provided there is nothing pathological. This is expert opinion and my expertise agrees entirely, even to the point that, for example, 19 is not enough. Further, 3 weeks is more or less essential for much milder fatigue. So the prescription is 3 weeks holiday at the beginning of each vacation. It is vital, however, that it should be absolutly unbroken, whatever the temptation or provocation.

Yoga with Adriene, often:

You are only as young and as happy as your spine.


A final reminder