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The work habits of highly successful mathematicians, mostly to make you feel bad about your day today

Summary:
On any given day, Huh does about three hours of focused work. He might think about a math problem, or prepare to lecture a classroom of students, or schedule doctor’s appointments for his two sons. “Then I’m exhausted,” he said. “Doing something that’s valuable, meaningful, creative” — or a task that he doesn’t particularly want to do, like scheduling those appointments — “takes away a lot of your energy.” To hear him tell it, he doesn’t usually have much control over what he decides to focus on in those three hours. For a few months in the spring of 2019, all he did was read. He felt an urge to revisit books he’d first encountered when he was younger — including Meditations by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and several novels by the German author Hermann Hesse — so that’s what he did.

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On any given day, Huh does about three hours of focused work. He might think about a math problem, or prepare to lecture a classroom of students, or schedule doctor’s appointments for his two sons. “Then I’m exhausted,” he said. “Doing something that’s valuable, meaningful, creative” — or a task that he doesn’t particularly want to do, like scheduling those appointments — “takes away a lot of your energy.”

To hear him tell it, he doesn’t usually have much control over what he decides to focus on in those three hours. For a few months in the spring of 2019, all he did was read. He felt an urge to revisit books he’d first encountered when he was younger — including Meditations by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and several novels by the German author Hermann Hesse — so that’s what he did. “Which means I didn’t do any work,” Huh said. “So that’s kind of a problem.” (He’s since made peace with this constraint, though. “I used to try to resist … but I finally learned to give up to those temptations.” As a consequence, “I became better and better at ignoring deadlines.”)

He finds that forcing himself to do something or defining a specific goal — even for something he enjoys — never works. It’s particularly difficult for him to move his attention from one thing to another. “I think intention and willpower … are highly overrated,” he said. “You rarely achieve anything with those things.”

This is basically my work process as well, except add 4 hours of Zoom calls, 2 hours of responding to emails, and 1 hour of feeling guilty for not responding to past emails.

Chris Blattman
Political economist studying conflict, crime, and poverty, and @UChicago Professor @HarrisPolicy and @PearsonInst. I blog at http://chrisblattman.com

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