The Mihir Chronicles

On Practice

October 03, 2019

Deep work is a cognitively demanding task as opposed to shallow work which is non-cognitively demanding task. Deep work is valuable, rare and meaningful. The ability to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both speed and quality, are two core abilities for thriving in today’s economy. So how do you do deliberately practice and have a bias for action?

Law of productivity

Time Spent = Deliberate Practice

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

Solving big problems

State the objective and work backwards. Break down the problem into smaller set of problems. Supply X number of inputs for one set of smaller problem. Aptitude is different than knowledge. Knowledge can be taught but learning how to think (aptitude) can be time consuming.

Deliberate practice

  • Step 1: always opt in for active (read physical books) form of learning as opposed to passive (listen to audible) form of learning
  • Step 2: combine focused mode such as pomodoro and chunking with diffused mode such as exercise, mental exercise and break in between
    • focused mode requires intense 45-50 minutes of learning with no distractions such as phone, internet or email. Break down your work into 45-50 minutes of chunks
    • diffused mode is taking a break after each chunking session. This helps with long-term memory (LTM)
  • Step 3: apply Feynman Technique which has four simple steps:
    • choose a concept and think very hard and review notes repetitively
    • teach it to a toddler. Teach to deepen your learning concepts which will help you catch blind spots and errors. Brainstorm and work with others who are smartly focused on the topic
    • identify gaps and go back to the source material
    • review and simplify
  • Step 4: spaced repetition to move from working memory to long term. Recall what you have just learned using index cards for retrieval purpose
  • Step 5: visual metaphors or analogy to map images to learning concepts. For example, you can map Syria with cereal
  • Step 6: memory palace technique to map physical locations like home to learning concepts
  • Step 7: mnemonics to remember list
  • Step 8: multi-disciplinary approach to transfer of knowledge from one discipline and applying it to another
  • Step 9: use analytical lens by not trusting assertions and arguments which constitutes your teacher's message. Know what author's incentives are. Be a demanding student and an inspectional reader to make up your mind on where you stand
  • Step 10: test yourself. Use scoring system to evaluate yourself. Understanding does not mean expertise. Test, review and revise


Einstellung is an enemy of creativity. Don’t get hung up on your intuition and old ideas. Steps 3.2 and 3.3 above will help deepen your creativity.

Chemicals imbalances

We all experience chemical imbalances if we work too much or not exercise or not spend time with your loved ones. How to fix chemical imbalances or get back in the flow?

  • Cortisol: presence of stress; follow the tips below
  • Endorphins: exercise
    • It’ll help you power through a dreadful task after working out. This works for two reasons. First, the endorphin rush just feels great. You’re more tolerant of pain. Second, since you have recently completed a “challenging activity,” your mind is more readily willing to predict that you’ll complete another.
  • Dopamine: complete a task by using music and/or coffee
    • Use a particular playlist you use when you need energy. These are songs that you love but don’t listen to frequently
    • Using the right amount of coffee will put you in a great mood. Using too much will make you jittery. Experiment and find what works for you
  • Serotonin: help others without expecting anything in return
  • Oxytocin: spend time with your loved ones

Learning how to learn (Coursera course)

  • Tools: chunking, pomodoro, space repetition with Ankii, visual memory system – index cards, memory palace techniques, visual metaphors or analogy (ex: Syria like Cereal), exercise is far effective than any drug, test checklist, sleeping, breathing, optimism—turning a negative situation into positive helps you relieve stress, will power and focused instrumental music.
  • Focused mode & Diffused mode (breaks/exercise, sleeping washes away metabolic toxins). Use pomodora technique and chunking for focused, non-distracted learning.
  • Chunking helps you with practice and repetition. Learning little by little, small chunks can become larger and gradually will help you become a master of the material. When wanting to learn something new break it down to atomic steps to learn by chunking each step. Chunks are best built with focused, undivided attention, understanding of the basic idea.
  • Space-repetition technique to move from working memory to long-term memory storage warehouse.
  • Teach others in layman's words. Learning with others is a form of active learning.
  • Law of Serendipity, Deliberate Practice: lady luck favors the one who deliberately practices. Focusing on more difficult tasks as opposed to easy tasks. Work deliberately hard!
  • Eistellung is an enemy of creativity. Einstellung is when your initial thought, an idea you've already had in mind, or a neural pattern you've already developed well and strengthened, prevents a better idea or solution from being found. Or keeps you from being flexible enough to accept new, better, or more appropriate solutions. You have to unlearn your erroneous older ideas or approaches even while you're learning new ones. Number 7 helps you build intuition but be wary of making you from being creative. Einstellung, the idea you are already holding in mind can block you from fresh thoughts.
  • Use multi-disciplinary approach. Interleaving is a process where one mix, or interleave, multiple subjects or topics while they study. Transfer of knowledge or learning refers to learning in one context and applying it to another. Procedural learning by doing different types of problems you’ll find that you understand both why and how, it will help build your intuition. Fresh ideas will help you with independent thinking.
  • Recalling: simple recall, trying to remember the key points without looking at the page, is one of the best ways to help the chunking process along. Visual system memory system, image helps you enhance your memory and recall the concept. Memory Palace Technique is a powerful way of grouping things you want to remember like the layout of your house and using it as a notepad where you want to deposit the concepts images you want to remember; the more you memorize using these innovative techniques, the more creative you become because you are building these wild, unexpected possibilities.
  • Illusions of Competence: learn to recognize when you're fooling yourself about whether you're actually learning the material. Mini testing, Minimize highlighting, Mistakes are good, Use deliberate practice. Working memory has only 4 slots. Glancing, reading passively or highlighting too much is an illusional learning. One of the best ways to catch a blind spots and errors is to brainstorm and work with others who are smartly focused on the topic.
  • Habit building includes four steps: cue (notification), routine (chain habits daily log), reward (incentives and celebrate), belief (hope).
  • Product vs process: when learning something new it is okay to start with a few negative feelings about beginning a learning session. Use pomodoro to push yourself. Learn to focus on process not product. Process means, the flow of time and the habits and actions. Start with hard start and then jump into easy.
  • Quitting your day is as important as planning your day. Think of diffuse mode.
  • Will power is more important than time. It is limited and most abundant in the morning. To get started use focused instrumental music.

Action mindset

Action generates new information which then allows to make better decisions. Any second planning is not a second not doing. This is why action mindset is more valuable. Below are the quotes from celebrated people on why action mindset matters.

Ira Glass summed it up perfectly on what it takes to go from good to great:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out, or you are still in this phase, you got to know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s going take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Al Pacino in a football movie Any Given Sunday:

We are in hell right now, gentlemen, believe me and we can stay here and get the s--- kicked out of us or we can fight our way back into the light...We can climb out of hell. One inch at a time.

Paul Graham, the founder of YC Combinator:

In life, as in books, action is underrated.

The way to figure out what to work on is by working.

Larry Culp, CEO of General Electric in 2018 Annual Letter:

As the saying goes, this is a game of inches every day, not feet or miles, and I want us all to keep score together. My goals are aligned with yours.

Brian Armstrong, the founder and CEO of Coinbase shares his thoughts action creates information:

It doesn't even matter what you do as long as you do something, because that's my other favorite quote, is “action produces information.” So at a certain point, you got to stop pontificating about this stuff and just try something, anything. You're going to be embarrassed by the V1 until you go out there, and you create. That's part of the product development process, is just dramatically scaling back kind of the ambition and the feature set and everything to rapidly iterate and prototype these things, but go do anything. The first thing you try is almost guaranteed not to work. So don't give up, just go try the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing. That's the only way that new products and companies ever get created in the world. You got to put a lot of shots on goal to get one to eventually work.

Scott Berkun, a veteran product manager on bias towards action:

Part of the reason that perfect decision formulas can't exist is that you never know if you're buying too much or too little insurance. Did you see the right doctor for your elbow? Did you ask the right questions? You can make the correct decision in the wrong way. One risk with our plan B was that two weeks wasn't enough. We might need to spend months to improve even one weak spot. Fear of this uncertainty motivates people to spin their wheels for days considering all the possible outcomes, calculating them in a spreadsheet using utility cost analysis or some other fancy method that even the guy who invented it doesn't use. But all that analysis just keeps you on the sidelines. Often you're better off flipping a coin and moving in any clear direction. Once you start moving, you get new data regardless of where you're trying to go. And the new data makes the next decision and the next better than staying on the sidelines desperately trying to predict the future without that time machine.

Gary Klein, a psychologist who works primarily with the military on bias towards action:

If you had to compare two options, one of which is outstanding and the other of which is terrible, you wouldn’t need to do any analysis. It would be an easy choice. As the two options get closer and closer together in their attractiveness, the decision gets harder. (...) In the example of purchasing a used car, we can see that the three options are all very close—they each have comparable strengths and weaknesses. There just isn’t much that differentiates them. The options were so close together that simply flipping a coin would have been sufficient. (...) I call this the zone of indifference problem. We usually think that the goal of decision-making is always to pick the best choice. There are few decisions more important than on the battlefield or on the fireground, where lives are at stake. Yet military leaders and fireground commanders recognize that it is better to make a good decision fast and prepare to execute it well rather than agonizing over a “perfect” choice that comes too late. We can rarely know what is the best choice, and the quest for a best choice can drive us to obsess over inconsequential details. How often do we get ourselves trapped into splitting hairs, to find the very best option out of a set of perfectly good choices? Better to make your goal one of selecting a good option that you can live with. If one option emerges as the clear winner, fine. If two or more options wind up in the zone of indifference, that’s fine too—just pick one of them and move on. If you can accept the impossibility of making the “right” choice, you can free yourself from unnecessary turmoil and wasted time.

Jeff Bezos on decisions in 2015 shareholder letter:

Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible — one-way doors — and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. We can call these Type 1 decisions.But most decisions aren’t like that — they are changeable, reversible — they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal Type 2 decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through. Type 2 decisions can and should be made quickly by high judgment individuals or small groups.As organizations get larger, there seems to be a tendency to use the heavy-weight Type 1 decision-making process on most decisions, including many Type 2 decisions. The end result of this is slowness, unthoughtful risk aversion, failure to experiment sufficiently, and consequently diminished invention*. We’ll have to figure out how to fight that tendency.*The opposite situation is less interesting and there is undoubtedly some survivorship bias. Any companies that habitually use the light-weight Type 2 decision-making process to make Type 1 decisions go extinct before they get large.

Ken Kocienda in his book Creativity Selection shares a story of how Apple would pick a color versus Google conducting A/B testing on color optimization:

Ken explains the idea of convergence and shares the story of how Google factored out taste from its design process. When it comes to picking color, just pick one. Don't waste your time doing A/B test for colors. Use your good taste, knowledge, make the product accessible and move on. Apple always made quick choices about small details. Apple took more time on bigger questions. Always make a steady progress by showcasing demos, getting feedback, and following-up with more demos till it shapes product overtime. It is all about incremental progress. Algorithms and heuristics must coordinate to make a great high-tech product. Fast page loads on Safari or correct insertion point on a small iPhone keyboard are equally important. Finding balance was a key unlike Google trying to find an optimal blue color by running A/B tests on 41 shades of blue. Picking a shade of blue and moving on to value creation feature would've served them well. Algorithms produce quantifiable results, where progress is defined by measurements moving in predetermined direction. The best shade of blue is the one that people clicked most often in a A/B test is an algorithm. Algorithms are objective. Heuristics have a measurement of value associated with each feature. Unlike evaluating algorithms, heuristics are harder to nail down. Heuristics is question based approach. Lots of questions asked to get to a final decision. It takes effort, judgement and time to find what these things are. Apple employees put their faith in their sense of taste when picking motion and colors. Heuristics are subjective. Working at an intersection of algorithms and heuristics was such an example why there were so many demos made. It was often difficult to decide where an algorithm should end and a heuristic should take over. Hence, deciders helped bring clarity by making incremental decisions.

Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt on who really counts during a fight:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

This story from the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland shows quantity leads to quality:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Robert Hass on taking action on writing:

It's hell writing and it's hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.

David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH) on action:

You can't convince someone invested in their convictions to the contrary by arguments alone. Only actions can pry open a locked mind, and most minds remain locked most of the time. So if you wish to be persuasive, you ought to spend less time arguing and more time doing. This is as it should be. Talk is cheap, and others are right to keep their considered positions from being for sale at a discount. Everyone should be open to change their mind, of course, but they should also keep the bar high or they'll drift about constantly and randomly. There are a thousand plausible arguments available for every possible side of any issue, but rarely more than a few that can be substantiated by reality, once put to the test. This is why we listen more to those who do than those who merely opine. Both might be wrong, but odds favor the lessons derived from contact with the real world over those kept safe from falsification. Credibility is thus the consequence of successful actions. The social payoff for taking a risk and seeing it through. This again is as it should be. There's an endless supply of people willing to stake nothing on their convictions in the realm of arguments, but only a few ready to risk the effort of being wrong by actually following through. This is what skin in the game is all about. Wrestling reality over the veracity of an idea, so that you may earn the keys required to unlock the minds of others, and advance us all.

Kevin Kelly on action:

Most articles and stories are improved significantly if you delete the first page of the manuscript draft. Immediately start with the action. Separate the processes of creating from improving. You can’t write and edit, or sculpt and polish, or make and analyze at the same time. If you do, the editor stops the creator. While you write the first draft, don’t let the judgy editor get near. At the start, the creator mind must be unleashed from judgment. To write about something hard to explain, write a detailed letter to a friend about why it is so hard to explain, and then remove the initial “Dear Friend” part and you’ll have a great first draft.

Further reading