Deep Work: Aborted Plan

February 2, 2016

This is a continuation of my thoughts on Cal Newport’s Deep Work idea.  Very briefly, I am going to describe a plan that I didn’t follow through on that would have worked really well.

I get up at 6:30 am each morning.  My plan was to get up at 4:30 am instead, work for two hours on deep work before my kids got up, and then continue with my day.  I got up early before when my older child was a baby, and it worked well.  This would have the added advantage that I would come home from work an hour earlier (since I worked two hours in the morning), giving me more time with my family.  On top of that, I like to run to and from work, and my biggest barrier to that is Daylight Saving; I live up North, so it gets dark early.  I run on a highway, and it is not safe to do so in the dark.  By coming home an hour earlier, I would be able to run home pretty much right now (if I can get over my wimpiness about running in the cold).  This also means that we spend less money on gas.

So why I am not doing this?  There are two main reasons:  in order to get enough sleep, I would go to bed two hours earlier.  Night-time is the only time for me to have alone time, which is important to me.  Also:  morning is the only time that my wife gets alone time.

So I my best plan is to try to carve out as much time during the work day as I can, and resign myself to the fact that I won’t be able to do deep work every day.

Deep Work: Lead and Lag Times

January 28, 2016

This is part of a series on Cal Newport’s Deep Work idea.  I usually like to link to something that he has already written on his blog, but today I am making an exception because it is an idea that he took from Clayton Christensen.

The idea is that there are lead indicators and there are lag indicators, and that people tend to focus on lag indicators when they should be focusing on lead indicators.  One example that Newport uses is particularly appropriate to me (and most of you):  many academics focus on the number of academic papers they write.  So they might set a goal of writing, say, three papers in a year.

The goal of “Write three papers this year” is a lag indicator, because you can only determine whether you were successful after it is too late to change anything about it. So it could be that the year is up and you only wrote one paper.  At that point, it is too late to change your behavior to make sure that three papers get written.

Another relevant example is from our students:  a lag indicator would be aiming to get an A in a course.

The alternatives are lead indicators, which are things that happen early in the process.  Newport writes that he stopped focusing on the number of papers he writes in a year, instead setting goals on, well, the amount of deep work he does in a week.  In this case, the idea is that if you focus on deep work, the papers will follow.  Also, if you are unsuccessful in doing any deep work in a particular week, you can change your behavior the following week, and the lag indicating papers will still follow.  Of course, the student would be better off setting goals on the lead indicator of, say, how much she studies in a week, since she has more opportunity to change her behavior if something goes wrong.



Deep Work: Shutdown Ritual

January 26, 2016

This is the latest in a series on Cal Newport’s idea of Deep Work.  This post is about my shutdown ritual.

The purpose of a shutdown ritual is create a sharp divide between work life and home life.  I have a wife and two small kids, and I want to be focused on them when I am at home, so I have been trying to minimize the amount of work I do at home.  I am pleased to say that I am close to doing zero work at home, with the lone exception being that I brought a student thesis home with me this weekend; I had had the thesis for a month and she is going to give a presentation this weekend, so I wanted to get it back to her quickly.

But that really has been the only exception—I have even stopped checking email at home. This has been wonderful for me so far, as I have spent more time focused on my family and more time reading books.

I have accomplished this through two means. The first is just a decision to generally avoid using the computer at home. This is probably the biggest reason. The second is the shutdown ritual, which I think helps some. Here is how it goes.

At the end of work, I do the following (I have this list taped right below my computer monitor):

  1. Check email.
  2. Update ToDo list.
  3. Start mprime.
  4. Make minute-by-minute schedule for tomorrow.
  5. Clean office.
  6. Say “Shutdown complete.”

This takes me about five minutes at the end of each day, but I leave feeling completely prepared for the next day. I know what work I will have to do, I know what appointments I have, and I know that this is a system I can trust. I don’t think that this ritual has changed my life—I think that most of the improvements in my home life have simply come from my deciding to avoid the computers—but I think it does help some.

Note that I completely stole saying “Shutdown complete” from Newport. I think that he may have some neurological reason why it is good to say something like this, although I don’t remember for sure. I mainly do it because I just kind of like it.

Deep Work: Schedules

January 21, 2016

Last semester I went all-in on self-regulated learning; this semester, I am going all-in on Cal Newport’s ideas surrounding Deep Work.  I will regularly post on ideas I am implementing.   I am only going to post on ideas from the book that Cal has already blogged about so that I don’t give away the whole book.

My reasons for doing this are pretty simple.  First, I think that it can help me be a better researcher, which is part of my job description.  Second, should I choose to eventually go up for promotion to full professor, I will have the option of doing so based on either the strength of my research or the strength of my service to the college.  I find the former to be a bit more enjoyable (although getting a recently accepted paper properly formatted for the journal has been testing this idea quite a bit), and also a bit rarer at my particular college, which I hope will give me a bit of a competitive advantage.  In either case, the idea of Deep Work could help me greatly.

The first idea I used was to schedule every minute of my work day.  Every night before I go home, I get out my hipster PDA and block of (in 30 minute chunks) what I will do for the next day.  This is a first draft, and I am allowed to change it during the day if events warrant (and they usually do).

This has been a huge gain for me already.  I spent about 3 minutes making the schedule the previous day, and it buys me probably an extra hour of productivity the next day.  I think that I probably wasted a lot of time either wondering what I should do, or otherwise taking breaks that I did not need.  I have had a lot of service requirements this week (about 20% of my week has been in meetings), yet I have been able get get about an equal amount of research in (leaving 60% of my time for teaching, planning classes, and meeting with students).  This is quite a bit of research time for me, and a large part of it is due to scheduling every minute of the day.

Self-Regulated Learning Results

January 19, 2016

I implemented a bunch of things to help students self-regulated their own learning last semester.  I also asked students at the end of the semester what they found helpful and what they found unhelpful.  I had only about a 50% completion rate, so take all of this with a grain of salt.

The most helpful assignments for students were the  Mindset article by Maria Popova,  the article on learning by Leamnson, and the How I got an A/How I got an F papers; none of these were overwhelming helpful, but most students who mentioned these thought they were helpful (and almost none said they were unhelpful).

I also found the How I got an A/F papers to be useful later in the semester.  When students came to me mid-semester for help, I could simply ask if they were doing what they outline in the How I got an A paper (the answer was almost always “no”).  The students generally seemed to find it helpful that they knew what to do, but they just weren’t doing it.

The Calendar seemed to be the least helpful to students (I had the students create a sample calendar for their first week of class, including things like classes, showers, work, and study time for each class).  The students explained this by saying such things as “I already use a planner,” “I never looked at it again,” “My schedule changes every week so this wasn’t useful.”

I think that the Calendar would be salvageable if I made it a weekly assignment AND stressed that they should be scheduling in their study time (and give them a hard target for the number of study hours per class per week).

The only recurring assignment of this type was the weekly blog submission.  Probably 1/3 of respondents thought it was helpful and 2/3 thought it was a waste of time (sometimes because they said that they always did it at the last minute).   If I had to do it over again, I might instead require summaries of each class before the next class occurs (either electronically or on paper) so that they did this once per class, not once per week.  This would definitely be smarter.  I might have a weekly assignment based on the Calendar (see my points above) and/or daily tasks, but that is probably all I would do.

I am not doing any of this this semester, but that is as much a function of my only having a week of planning for this semester than anything else.  I definitely need to tweak what I have done, and I didn’t have time to do it right.  Many of my students last semester complained that this was busy work (although they sometimes claimed it was busy work because they would put it off until it wasn’t helpful), and I don’t want to do this again until I think my students will find it more valuable.





Self-Regulated Learning

January 14, 2016

I decided to run shadow courses on self-regulated learning in my courses (Calculus II and Probability and Statistics) last semester.  I initially heard about self-regulated learning from Robert Talbert.

Basically, self-regulated learning is about nurturing things like metacognition, responsibility, and other soft skills.  Here are the assignments I gave them to accomplish this, most of which come from Linda Nilson’s book.

  1. Read and write a short reflection paper on a Mindset article by Maria Popova.
  2. Read and write a short reflection paper on Learning (Your First Job) by Leamnson.
  3. Write a paper “How I got an A” at the beginning of the semester to describe what should be done to do well in the course.
  4. Write a paper “How I got an F” at the beginning of the semester to describe what should be done to do poorly in the course.
  5. Write a paper at the end of the course to describe how well you did (or avoided) behaviors in the previous two papers.
  6. Write up a sample weekly calendar that allots time for classes, jobs, health (showering, eating, etc), and time to study for each class.
  7. Write a learning autobiography about a time they learned something really well.
  8. Write a description of why they decided to attend college, and why they decided to take this mathematics course in particular.
  9. Take the Metacognitive Awareness Inventory as a pre- and a post-test.
  10. Write a weekly blog post that summarizes what we learned each day in class (for the mathematics class only), three academic tasks they wanted to accomplish each day (e.g. “Go find a particular book at the library,” “Do half of my problem set for physics”), describe when they wanted to procrastinate (and whether they were successful in avoiding it), and describe when they delayed gratification (and whether they were successful).

Most everything was front-loaded to the beginning of the semester (the weekly blog post, Metacognition post-test, and “How I Got an A/F” reflection paper are the exceptions), and everything was graded Complete/Incomplete (using specifications grading, also by Nilson).

I will reflect on how useful this was on my next post.  A semi-spoiler is that I am not doing it again this semester, although this was mostly to simplify my life.


My Secret to Research Success

January 12, 2016

As I mentioned before, I was on sabbatical in the spring.  I was more productive than I expected to be, which was a pleasant surprise.  I found that almost all of my breakthroughs came when I was doing the exact same thing:  putting my children to sleep.  I would spend roughly 30 to 60 minutes each night in the dark with one of my kids, either lying down with them or walking with them.  Since I had to be quiet, all I could do was think.  It was during these times when I figured the most out.


I am about to read Cal Newport’s new book, in which he advocates the power of thinking while walking (among other things).  This seems related to my experience of putting my kids to sleep, particularly when I was walking in circles trying to get my daughter to sleep.

Sabbatical Report

January 8, 2016

Like Theron, I have not written much in the past year and I am planning on changing that.  My slump started when I was on sabbatical last spring; I have no excuse for the fall.

I spent some time a couple of years ago talking to my mathematical friends who publish a lot.  I asked them questions about how they work.  Do they work in the morning or at night?  How many problems do they think about at one time?  Do they work in the office or somewhere else?

Basically, I was hoping to replicate what they were doing so that I would be more productive.  But I was being like the young, hopeful comedians who would ask Steve Martin for advice.  They likely hoped that Martin would tell them something like to find the right agent.  Of course, his famous advice to them was, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.

I had a similar moment.  The last friend I talked to about productivity was Jay Pottharst.  He gave me some great, Martin-esque advice about being productive in research.  He basically told me that I had to find a problem so interesting that I couldn’t not think about it.  I didn’t appreciate the advice at the time, since I had never really experienced it.

I finally appreciated Jay’s advice about six months before my sabbatical when Dana Ernst and Nandor Sieben posted this article to the arXiv.  I fell in love with the problem and my productivity has been high ever since.  Additionally, I have gotten a chance to work with Dana and Nandor, which has been both a joy and an education.



Creating Self-Regulated Learners

February 2, 2015

My goal for next year is to go whole hog into creating self-regulated learners next year. My main inspiration for this is Linda Nilson’s book Creating Self-Regulated Learners; my secondary inspiration was Robert Talbert, who put self-regulated learning on my radar with posts like this, and also for introducing me to Linda Nilson’s books.

In short, self-regulated learners employ metacognition and time-management skills to become better learners. I think that I previously have been wary about taking time away from mathematics to talk about such things, but I have recently decided that this is exactly what I need to do next. Here are a list of things I plan to do in all of my courses next year (mostly stolen from Nilson’s book):

  1. Have students read an article based on Carol Dweck’s ideas about growth mindsets and fixed mindsets
  2. Have students schedule their class time, work time, and health time (eating, showering, sleeping, etc) for their first two weeks on a calendar. Then have students schedule in study time. Then have students schedule in leisure time. Then hope that some students follow the schedule.
  3. Have the students complete something like the Metacognative Awareness Inventory as a pre- and post-test; have the students compare their pre-test results to their post-test results.
  4. Give knowledge surveys at the beginning and end of the semester. I think that these might be particularly useful (for selfish reasons) in my courses for elementary education majors, where some of my students have questioned whether they have learned anything. Having them compare their answers to “What does it mean to add two numbers?” or “What do we mean by ‘area’?” might help convince them that they have learned something (they learn other things, too, but these are two things that I think most of them agree they should know before they teach).
  5. Do pre-quiz assessments on how students are on a particular topic, followed by post-quiz assessments on they actually performed. On the post-quiz assessment, students will need to identify their mistake and develop a plan to avoid such mistakes in the future.
  6. Have students compose a list of three academic things they want to accomplish each day.
  7. Write a letter to their future selfs entitled “How I received an A for this class” (this is how Nilson titled it; I might change it to “How I was successful in this class”), which will include a detailed list of things they will do over the semester to be successful. I will keep a copy and give it to the students at the end of the semester to re-read and self-evaluate. Then…
  8. … have students compose letters to future students on how to be successful (which I can give to future students at the beginning of the semester).
  9. Finally, I have been extremely flexible with deadlines. My thinking was that students are adults, and I wanted to be respectful of their time; I also implicitly assumed that they would be able to manage their time. But, of course, there is a sizeable percentage of students who seem to struggle with this. Instead, I think that I might start setting hard deadlines (possibly with the grace period). I think I might figure out a way for the class to set the deadlines, though.

Suggestions on how to improve this list are welcome.

Talbert was right; I was wrong.

January 21, 2015

I was thinking about specifications grading over break, and I came to realize that Robert Talbert was right and I was wrong.

My particular complaint about specifications grading for mathematics classes—that it is unrealistic to expect students to be able to judge that their work is mathematically correct—still holds. But Robert came up with a very slight modification that I was too quick to write off.

Robert’s solution was to move from two possible grades per assignment—PASS or NO PASS— to three: PASS, NO PASS, and PROGRESSING. The idea is that you can create all of the specifications you want—including whether the work is mathematically correct—and grade according to whether students have met the specifications. The one difference is that you split your specifications into two groups. The first group contains the specifications that students can easily check themselves, such as “There are no spelling mistakes” or “All variables are defined prior to use.” Failure to meet any of these specifications leads to a grade of NO PASS.

The second group of specifications are ones that students cannot necessarily judge for themselves, such as determining whether the work is mathematically correct. If a student satisfies all of the specifications in the first group but misses any in this group, the student is assigned a grade of PROGRESSING for the assignment (the student receives a grade of PASS if she meets all of the specifications).

The only difference between NO PASS and PROGRESSING is how easily students can re-do the assignment. If the student receives a NO PASS, the student needs to spend a token to re-do the assignment; a student who receives a PROGRESSING may re-do the assignment without any cost.

I initially did not like this system because I thought it simply added the complex token system on top of allowing unlimited re-dos—I preferred simply letting students do an unlimited number of re-dos. But I have changed my mind. I now think that raising expectations on specifications that students can easily evaluate themselves is a completely reasonable thing to do, and penalizing students for simply not doing it does not seem so unreasonable.

The benefits are that students get in the habit of evaluating as much of their work as they possibly can, I get to grade higher-quality work, and the students get used to creating higher quality work. The costs are implementing the mildly complex token system (although keeping track shouldn’t be too hard) and some potential loss of goodwill after penalizing students. But the higher quality work argument wins in the end for me.

I am rather pleased at Talbert’s plan, because this gives me the grading plan for proof-based classes that I am looking forward to (I think that I am planning on sticking with accumulation grading for the non-proof classes).

So—thanks, Robert. I am sorry I didn’t realize how good your plan was right away.