Deep Work and heart rate training analogy re: Operation Headache

This study by Adam Grant may prove particularly enlightening:

Soon after meeting Grant, my own academic career on my mind, I couldn’t help but ask him about his productivity. Fortunately for me, he was happy to share his thoughts on the subject. It turns out that Grant thinks a lot about the mechanics of producing at an elite level. He sent me, for example, a collection of PowerPoint slides from a workshop he attended with several other professors in his field. The event was focused on data-driven observations about how to produce academic work at an optimum rate. These slides included detailed pie charts of time allocation per season, a flowchart capturing relationship development with co-authors, and a suggested reading list with more than twenty titles. These business professors do not live the cliché of the absentminded academic lost in books and occasionally stumbling on a big idea. They see productivity as a scientific problem to systematically solve—a goal Adam Grant seems to have achieved.

Though Grant’s productivity depends on many factors, there’s one idea in particular that seems central to his method: the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches. Grant performs this batching at multiple levels. Within the year, he stacks his teaching into the fall semester, during which he can turn all of his attention to teaching well and being available to his students. (This method seems to work, as Grant is currently the highest-rated teacher at Wharton and the winner of multiple teaching awards.) By batching his teaching in the fall, Grant can then turn his attention fully to research in the spring and summer, and tackle this work with less distraction.

Grant also batches his attention on a smaller time scale. Within a semester dedicated to research, he alternates between periods where his door is open to students and colleagues, and periods where he isolates himself to focus completely and without distraction on a single research task. (He typically divides the writing of a scholarly paper into three discrete tasks: analyzing the data, writing a full draft, and editing the draft into something publishable.) During these periods, which can last up to three or four days, he’ll often put an out-of-office auto-responder on his e-mail so correspondents will know not to expect a response. “It sometimes confuses my colleagues,” he told me. “They say, ‘You’re not out of office, I see you in your office right now!’” But to Grant, it’s important to enforce strict isolation until he completes the task at hand.

My guess is that Adam Grant doesn’t work substantially more hours than the average professor at an elite research institution (generally speaking, this is a group prone to workaholism), but he still manages to produce more than just about anyone else in his field. I argue that his approach to batching helps explain this paradox. In particular, by consolidating his work into intense and uninterrupted pulses, he’s leveraging the following law of productivity:

 High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

 If you believe this formula, then Grant’s habits make sense: By maximizing his intensity when he works, he maximizes the results he produces per unit of time spent working.

 This is not the first time I’ve encountered this formulaic conception of productivity. It first came to my attention when I was researching my second book, How to Become a Straight-A Student, many years earlier. During that research process, I interviewed around fifty ultra-high-scoring college undergraduates from some of the country’s most competitive schools. Something I noticed in these interviews is that the very best students often studied less than the group of students right below them on the GPA rankings. One of the explanations for this phenomenon turned out to be the formula detailed earlier: The best students understood the role intensity plays in productivity and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration—radically reducing the time required to prepare for tests or write papers, without diminishing the quality of their results.

-Cal Newport, Deep Work, ch. 1, section “Deep Work Helps You Produce at a Deep Level”

A couple of additional associations jump out at me. The most important is periodization, which I recognize from triathlon training (where the formula is training volume = intensity x duration):

Some people think- “well that is just for the elites. I don’t have time!”

I beg to differ…

It is exactly because we don’t have time with work, family and trying to maintain a normal life that we need to pay more attention to anything that can make us more efficient, avoid injury and get better performances with less time training.

There are three main cycles that we need to pay attention to:

Macro cycles
Meso cycles and
Micro cycles

You cannot be at peak fitness all year. You must allow for scheduled rest and recovery. Constant increases in training load, in terms of volume and/or intensity, will not result in optimum performance. Rather, the body adapts to training stimuli during recovery periods. Aim to build the training program with the goal of peaking your fitness for key races. Each cycle has a specific and measurable set of training goals and targets, and works to find the optimum balance between training load and recovery to ensure that you reach those targets.

This is called Periodization.

The stages include endurance, intensity, competition and recovery. There are important cycles to pay attention to:

1) Macro cycle: This is the whole year ahead: the annual training Plan (ATP). It is a 52-week overview. It highlights your key races, training times, scheduled recovery times and any other commitments you know you already have. The annual cycle also includes off-season training and maintenance.

Golding, Dan. Triathlon: Winning at 70.3: How To Dominate The Middle Distance . Kindle Edition.

(The rest of that section gets into the weeds and won’t apply to performance in fields where training and practice regimens aren’t so tightly defined.)

Extrapolating, I bet deliberate practice in an activity associated with mental performance (e.g. chess, math competitions, memorization competitions, trivia, dual N-back training) could benefit by analogy to heart rate training:

Zone 1 is so light it barely qualifies as exercise, and is appropriate on days when you are especially fatigued from prior days’ running and for “active recoveries” between high-intensity intervals.

Zone 2 is very comfortable and quite useful for building aerobic fitness, fat-burning capacity, and endurance. You should run in Zone 2 more than in any other zone.

Zone 3 is just a bit faster than your natural jogging pace — that is, the pace you automatically adopt when you go out for a run without even thinking about the intensity. It is useful for extending the benefits of training in Zone 2.

Zone 4 is a running intensity that requires a conscious effort to go fast but is still comfortable. It’s close to the intensity that is associated with longer running races, and should be incorporated into your training in moderate amounts to get your body used to that intensity.

Zone 5a is your lactate threshold intensity. It’s more stressful than the lower zones, so you can’t do a lot of training in this zone, but it’s a powerful fitness booster, so you’ll want to do some Zone 5a training each week. The typical Zone 5a workout contains one or more sustained blocks of Zone 5a training sandwiched between a warm-up and a cool down. For example: 10 minutes Zone 2 (warm-up), 20 minutes Zone 5a, 10 minutes Zone 2 (cool-down).

[Skipping the others for brevity…]

Most athletes naturally train at zone 3.

If you have not done this before- you will find it difficult NOT to train in zone 3. Some athletes will not be able to maintain zone 4 at all and will keep drifting back to zone 3. Equally you will find it difficult to go slow enough to maintain zone 2 and will keep drifting into zone 3.

Zone 3, really is the zone of stagnation. If all your training is here you will not progress.

I spend almost every day of training in roughly the same splits: one easier workout that’s all zone 2 for about 90 minutes, and a harder workout that’s zone 2 for about 50 minutes with a dozen or so zone 4/5 sprints mixed in to strengthen my muscles so that my zone 2 pace will be faster next week. So in reality, I’m really only working at high intensity for about 10 minutes out of 2 1/2 hours. If this works by analogy, this would be a strong departure from Deep Work and deliberate practice, which advocate hours of Zone 3/4 effort.

(The preceding paragraph oversimplifies my triathlon training plan quite a bit to get the idea across.)

The other association that jumps out at me is the similarity of this formula to Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s formula for success (from his book The Formula): Performance x Networking. He gets more into the networking side, since that’s his field, but we could basically break out the other component into Performance = Deep Work = Intensity x Duration.

About Aeoli Pera

Maybe do this later?
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2 Responses to Deep Work and heart rate training analogy re: Operation Headache

  1. Thomas says:

    Hey man, it’s fine if you don’t want to approve my comment two posts down. I still like you. Cheers.

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