One of the most helpful blogs I’ve read about productivity is Cal Newport’s Study Hacks, which we’ve referenced a few times before. Newport is a computer scientist and professor at Georgetown University. Besides the blog on studying, he has also written several books for undergrads on how to succeed at college.
At the heart of Newport’s writing is the simple idea that success doesn’t require courage, it requires working hard in the right way. There are a number of ideas that follow from that: for example, you have to “become so good that they can’t ignore you” and becoming that good requires “hard focus.” The idea I’ve found most helpful is that to become good you have to practice deliberately.
My work in history doesn’t have an obvious divide between practice and performance, unlike, say, musicians’ work. But there are kinds of work that I do that are like practice, in that they are deliberately undertaken in order to improve my skills.
- Practice is re-writing. I don’t mean revising, which is of course essential to writing. I mean taking something that is written even to the final draft stage, and completely tearing it down to write it better.
- Practice is writing in a way that’s completely new. I was able to try this in a class on writing where we had to try genres and styles of writing different from traditional academic writing. For example, for one assignment we had to imagine details that we did not know, like fiction more than like history. While I don’t allow myself those liberties in other work, trying out a new style of writing has improved my work in the discipline.
- Practice is writing even when you don’t have something to write. The importance of daily writing is key.
- Practice is dissecting the writing and argument of classic books. This is something akin to reading in graduate seminars, only with the goal of finding out what why a book is successful, not finding out which holes can be punched in it. For example, the blog What Makes It Great shows the strength of specific passages of academic prose.
Thinking of ways that I can practice have helped me more deliberately extend my skills.
What does practice look like for you?
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