Cultivating Depth and Stillness in Research


Key takeaways


  • “Why is this so hard? Because you’re utterly habituated to steady progress—to completing things, to producing, to solving. When progress is subtle or slow, when there’s no clear way to proceed, you flinch away. You redirect your attention to something safer, to something you can do. You jump to implementation prematurely; you feel a compulsion to do more background reading; you obsess over tractable but peripheral details. These are all displacement behaviors, ways of not sitting with the problem. Though each instance seems insignificant, the cumulative effect is that your stare rarely rests on the fog long enough to penetrate it. Weeks pass, with apparent motion, yet you’re just spinning in place. You return to the surface with each glance away. You must learn to remain in the depths.” (View Highlight)
    • Note: To sit with the problem without making apparent progress is not just ok, it’s necessary!
  • The slow pace of research problems feels viscerally much less stimulating than I’m used to. Unbidden, my attention seeks out other more immediately rewarding targets. Sometimes this is obvious (“answer email”, “browse Twitter”); but behaviors like “read some papers” or “hack together a prototype” are often subtle grasps for more immediate stimulation. (View Highlight)
  • I’m much more likely to flinch away from difficulty when I view my research problem as a task, as something to be accomplished. I’m much less likely to flinch away when I’m feeling intensely curious, when I truly want to understand something, when it’s a landscape to explore rather than a destination to reach. (View Highlight)
    • Note: Bean-counting vs focusing on the process of research
  • My favorite activity is to do simple household chores. I’ll pick things up, wash dishes, and prep vegetables for dinner. The temptation is to look at my phone during breaks, to read something, to answer messages—but that’s a terrible idea. It brings me all the way back to the surface, makes me claw my way back to depth again when the break timer ends. (View Highlight)
    • Note: The pomodoro break should just be about getting up and walking a little bit. DO NOT use the phone.
  • So for the past two months, my schedule has been: 55 minute intervals before 10 AM; 45 minute intervals between 10 AM and noon; 25 minute intervals afterwards. I hit higher depth-of-focus ratings more often now than I did before this change, and I’ve added ~45 minutes of clocked working time onto my morning blocks—without actually making them any longer. (View Highlight)
    • Note: Something to try out: Longer blocks in the morning and shorter blocks later during the day.
  • It goes without saying, but no internet on my phone before I sit down at my desk. I don’t want anyone else’s thoughts in my head before I start thinking my own. (View Highlight)
    • Note: Not the first one to advocate phone-free mornings. Maybe I could try this as well.
  • If I want to make more progress on a difficult creative project, a good way to ratchet up the intensity of my work is to add weekend mornings. Trying to work more hours on weekdays rarely gets me anywhere with difficult intellectual work. (View Highlight)
    • Note: Yep, probably true for me as well. A saturday 9-12 block is much better than an evening crunch in the week.