Monday, September 2, 2019

How to study like Teddy Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt is known as one of America’s greatest and most popular presidents. Along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, his face is depicted on mount Rushmore. He was adored by the American public, and was widely praised for his diplomatic skills - he received a nobel peace prize in 1906 for ending the Russo-Japanese war. He became president when he was only 42 - one of the youngest American presidents ever.

Those achievements alone are already something most of us can only read about in awe, and they make Theodore - or Teddy, as he is often lovingly referred to - stand out as remarkable. But what makes Roosevelt even more unique is that he was a true Renaissance man. Apart from his political career he also had a distinguished career as a writer and scholar: during his lifetime he managed to publish forty books and hundreds of articles. He was also an avid sportsman, and achieved high levels of proficiency in horseriding, boxing, rowing, and tennis. In The rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the fantastic biography of Theodore by Edmund Morris, a long string of often amusing anecdotes is given about the level of proficiency he was able to achieve in all these fields. To give but one example (the whole book is full of similar passages):

A few weeks ago, when the British Embassy’s new councillor, Sir Esmé Howard, mentioned a spell of diplomatic duty in Crete, Roosevelt immediately and learnedly began to discuss the archeological digs at Knossos. He then asked if Howard was by any chance descended from “Belted Will” of Border fame—quoting Scott on the subject, to the councillor’s mystification. The President is also capable of declaiming German poetry to Lutheran preachers, and comparing recently resuscitated Gaelic letters with Hopi Indian lyrics. He is recognized as the world authority on big American game mammals, and is an ornithologist of some note. Stooping to pick a speck of brown fluff off the White House lawn, he will murmur, “Very early for a fox sparrow!” Roosevelt is equally at home with experts in naval strategy, forestry, Greek drama, cowpunching, metaphysics, protective coloration, and football techniques.

How on earth was Roosevelt able to become an expert in all those things? Talent of course had something to do with it, but it’s not the entire story. Roosevelt appears to have had not only talent and discipline, but also a way of organizing his time that really, really worked for him, and it’s in the latter category that I think we have to look if we want to understand Roosevelt’s extraordinary productivity.  His secret? To block out distraction, divide work into subtasks, and then work on a subtask for a relatively short chunk of time with intensity. Morris, in his biography of Roosevelt, writes that Roosevelt already worked like this as a student at Harvard. He would look at his schedule - for both sports (which he did a lot of) and lectures, and then take note of where the free hours were. He’d then make a plan for what to work on during those free hours.

That doesn’t sound very remarkable, does it? Almost all students do that. Most fail to stick to their schedule. Roosevelt didn’t.

What Roosevelt also intuitively understood was that, during the two hours he had for doing a reading assignment, he should do nothing else. He was extremely good at blocking out distraction. When he was with other people, he was social; when he played sports, he played sports. And when he was studying? Well, then he studied -  intensely. Because he was on such a tight schedule, he knew he only had limited time to finish whatever task he was working on - the clock was ticking. Somehow, having that time limit helped him to stay focussed.

Cal Newport, author of the famous blog about student productivity Study Hacks, calls this kind of work - intense, focussed, without distraction - deep work. He claims that it’s becoming harder to achieve in this age of eternal distraction, and he’s probably right about that. It must have been easier for Roosevelt to block out distraction than it is for students nowadays. He didn’t have a phone. He wasn’t on social media. There were no cat videos on youtube to lure him away from his ornithology books. But there must have been some distraction. It would have been difficult even at Harvard in 1867 to stay focussed. If it wasn’t, every Harvard student of Roosevelt’s year would have graduated with a string of published papers to their name. Needless to say, they didn’t. That means, in other words, that it must be possible to transfer Roosevelt’s method to our own day and age. But how do you do that? How do you study like Teddy Roosevelt? Cal Newport, who discusses Roosevelt’s study habits in his book Deep Work, gives the following advice on how to apply Roosevelt’s method to your own academic life:

Identify a deep task (that is, something that requires deep work to complete) that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time. If possible, commit publicly to the deadline—for example, by telling the person expecting the finished project when they should expect it. If this isn’t possible (or if it puts your job in jeopardy), then motivate yourself by setting a countdown timer on your phone and propping it up where you can’t avoid seeing it as you work.

At this point, there should be only one possible way to get the deep task done in time: working with great intensity—no e- mail breaks, no daydreaming, no Facebook browsing, no repeated trips to the coffee machine. Like Roosevelt at Harvard, attack the task with every free neuron until it gives way under your unwavering barrage of concentration.

Try this experiment no more than once a week at first - giving your brain practice with intensity, but also giving it (and your stress levels) time to rest in between. Once you feel confident in your ability to trade concentration for completion time, increase the frequency of these Roosevelt dashes. Remember, however, to always keep your self-imposed deadlines right at the edge of feasibility. You should be able to consistently beat the buzzer (or at least be close), but to do so should require teeth-gritting concentration.

To those wise words I would add: perhaps experiment a bit with ways to restrict temptation, which is always right under our noses these days now that all of us are constantly hooked up to that great dopamine-producing slotmachine we call the internet. Give your phone to your flatmate, and ask them to only give it back after two hours. Turn off your internet router. Experiment with apps that block the internet on your phone or laptop, like Cold Turkey -  whatever works for you (for more ideas on dealing with distraction, read Newport’s book Deep Work- it’s great). Doing something like that is also a clear signal to your subconscious that you mean business, and that it should put its incessant requests for cat videos or netflix binges on hold. Then work with great intensity for a relatively short amount of time on your task, and try and get it done within the assigned timespan. Do this for only a few tasks in the first week you try it, then gradually do this more and more until it becomes second nature. Who knows - you might become as good at it as Theodore. You probably won’t win the Nobel peace prize or end up on mount Rushmore (last time I checked it was already quite full with presidential-looking faces up there). But it probably will do wonders for your academic achievements. Ornithology or naval strategy, anyone?


[If you enjoyed this blog post: I've written a follow-up called 'Further Reflections on Theodore Roosevelt - Why you should never become good at just one thing']

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