The secret to intellectual productivity

There is a simple secret that anyone can apply right now. It can help you get better grades if you are students, it can help you finish that book.

I should really charge you for this secret, but I am not good at capitalism. The secret is this: break down your task into small and easy chunks of work. And just do them!

Of course, there is more to it:

  • Sometimes you do not know how to break down the task. Do not worry so much about it. Break it down in some way and get working.
  • Tasks can range from drawing pictures to going to sending an email to someone who has worked on the problem. As long as you work seriously and systematically, you cannot go wrong.
  • Periodically reevaluate your strategy. Always assume that your plans are quite possibly wrong. Just constantly refresh them.

Why does it work?

  • Feeling overwhelmed makes you stupid. You are better off working using a silly approach than to stand there and wait for divine inspiration. The gods help those who help themselves! The gods even help the idiots.
  • Enumerating all possible solutions to a problem, might actually be the best possible strategy! Sometimes, the best approach sounds silly a priori. All intellectuals work by trials and errors.
  • Getting your hands dirty on a problem trains your brain. After a week working hard (but stupidly) on a problem, you will have a different view of the problem because your brain will be different.
  • If you picked a very difficult problem, you may never succeed in solving it, but by working hard and regularly, you are very likely to find some results you can be proud of.

Daniel Lemire, "The secret to intellectual productivity," in Daniel Lemire's blog, August 19, 2008.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

One thought on “The secret to intellectual productivity”

  1. While reading your whole post, I could not help but exclaim “exactly!” out loud. I just deposited a 215 page thesis last Monday—on blogs actually—which I’ll defend next Tuesday—nothing like having it fresh in my mind. So I know what you are writing about first hand.

    What really resonated was the line “Feeling overwhelmed makes you stupid”. There were moments during this process where I literally thought I wasn’t competent enough to pull this off. Part of that is the self-doubt that most individuals who aren’t megalomaniacs deal with when faced with a huge challenge. But mostly, it’s because I was overwhelmed. I was looking for that major inspiration that would be the spine of my thesis. What I realized was that I needed to just deal with little bits and the spine would build itself, then I would readjust it.

    What is interesting is that as someone who works in instructional design, I use this technique often as to not overwhelm learners – I’m not sure if you are familiar with it but it’s called chunking. The idea is to break down the content in bite sized pieces to reduce cognitive load and facilitate the learning process.

    Thanks for sharing this. It helped to reflect on what I just went through.

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