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Lab Notes: My Closed-Loop Loop Research System

June 23rd. 2011, 5:34pm Cal Newport Lab notes is a regular feature in which I report on my e efforts fforts to make my life more remarkable.

The Zurich Initiative Around this time last summer, I found myself at an espresso bar in Zurich Airports newly redesigned Terminal 2. I took out my idea notebook and titled a blank page: Core Principles: Computer Science. I then sketched out a new, three-part part system for tackling my academic research. As I explained in my last blog post, , Im fascinated by people who build remarkable careers. In my field, building a remarkable career requires remarkable research. This is why as I sat sipping es espresso presso in Switzerland, my last pre-professor professor year looming, I decided it was time to get serious about exactly how I tackled my work. My original three-part part system, sketched at the airport, quickly faltered in practice. It called, for example, for me to separate arate exploration days from logistics days, a level of isolation I found unrealistic. In other places, it was so vague as to be useless. It said, for example, that when an exciting problem presents itself, [I should] start working on it early and pers persistently a request way too abstract to translate into day to day action. But I kept at it: I studied the CVs of professors I admired; I read books on innovation and craftsmanship; I dissected many years worth of award award-winning papers from relevant conferences; rences; and above all else, I tried things lots of things to see what actually worked. Now that Im a month away from starting my new position at Georgetown, , Ive arrived at a relatively stable research strategy. I assume it will evolve as I gain more experience as a professor, and Im somewhat nervous that the more experienced among you will scoff at my naivety, but its a starting point a way to start my new position with a proactive (not reactive) mindset. In this post, as part of my effort to be more transparent about my own quest to build work I love, I explain this system. Research System: Bottom Level The best way to understand my research system is as a three three-level level pyramid (illustrated at the top of this post).

At the bottom level is background research. Every week, I try to learn something new about my field. I either read a paper, attend a talk, or schedule a meeting. To ensure that I really understand the new idea, I require myself to add a summary, in my own words, to a growing document that I call my Research Bible. Heres a screenshot of the first page of the table of contents for my bible (as of June 23):

Because I particularly admire professors who make innovative connections between different fields (often a recipe for an interesting career), every other week I focus on adding an exotic topic to my bible. This week, for example, I added a chapter on the MIT Media Labs Junkyard Jumbotron. In addition, I set aside one walk each day (usually my walk back to my office after lunch) for brainstorming. Theres no structure here: I allow the ideas in my bible to combine and recombine in novel ways. Notice, this strategy is lifted directly from the liquid networks concept promoted in Steven Johnsons book, Where Good Ideas Come From. Research System: Middle Level My background reading and brainstorming generates concrete projects. Borrowing a nice concept from Peter Sims, I call these projects little bets. Each little bet has the following characteristics:

Its small enough to be completed in less than a month. It forces me to create new value (e.g., master a new skill and produce new results that didnt exist before). It produces an output that I can use to gather concrete feedback (e.g., a talk or a short write-up).

I try to keep only two or three of these bets active at a time, and I attack them aggressively, tracking my hours using the tally I discussed in a previous post. This provides a simple metric I can aim to maximize. I also force myself to be specific about my timing for these little bets, as I find I get better work done faster when Im fighting to meet a specific deadline. Heres a screenshot of the Google Docs page where I list my active little bets. I blurred out the description of the bets, but notice the timing column to the right:

These bets produce the following two advantages: 1. They force me to master new skills and produce results that generate feedback. This is classic deliberate practice. The system, therefore, helps accelerate my ongoing efforts to be so good they cant ignore you. Of equal importance, these bets and the feedback they generate help guide my research in more productive directions. A lot of young researchers jump at any idea that is potentially publishable, but this has a way of building a scattered CV thats hard to later justify. Im trying instead to evolve a research vision that other people care about. This is really hard. The bets allow me to be more systematic in my efforts.


Research System: Top Level My little bets lead to publications and grants. In my recent experience, maybe one out of every three bets directly leads to something larger. But the system is too new for me to be confident about this metric.

Research System: My Mission Off to the side of my three-level research system is my research mission. Heres how I currently word my mission: To apply distributed algorithm theory to new settings with the goal of creating new functionality and improving performance. This mission helps direct the background research that occupies the bottom level of my system. The response I get to my publications and grants, produced at the top level, help evolve the mission. In other words, the system as a whole is a closed feedback loop constantly evolving itself toward better and better results. Moving Forward This current system took around a year to develop. Ive been using it for only a few months now, but its already proven more stable than any iterations that came before it. I fully expect it to evolve perhaps significantly once I deploy it at the professor level. But at least Im hitting the ground with a plan in hand. Ill keep you posted about how this plan unfolds.