Shallow versus Deep. Prolific versus Profound.

From Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less:

We see work and rest as binaries. Even more problematic, we think of rest as simply the absence of work, not as something that stands on its own or has its own qualities. Rest is merely a negative space in a life defined by toil and ambition and accomplishment. When we define ourselves by our work, by our dedication and effectiveness and willingness to go the extra mile, then it’s easy to see rest as the negation of all those things. If your work is your self, when you cease to work, you cease to exist.

What fraction of doctors (and miscellaneous business workaholics) do you think still believe rest is for the weak and that the ability to slog and hustle is not just good but truly enviable?

Second, most scientists assumed that long hours were necessary to produce great work and that “an avalanche of lectures, articles, and books” would loosen some profound insight. This was one reason they willingly accepted a world of faster science: they believed it would make their own science better. But this was a style of work, Ramón y Cajal argued, that led to asking only shallow, easily answered questions rather than hard, fundamental ones. It created the appearance of profundity and feelings of productivity but did not lead to substantial discoveries. Choosing to be prolific, he contended, meant closing off the possibility of doing great work.

Just like many jobs are bullshit jobs, much of our research is bullshit research. If we reward volume, we disincentive depth.

As Vinay Prasad was quoted in the Atlantic, “Many papers serve no purpose, advance no agenda, may not be correct, make no sense, and are poorly read. But they are required for promotion.”

When we treat workaholics as heroes, we express a belief that labor rather than contemplation is the wellspring of great ideas and that the success of individuals and companies is a measure of their long hours.

And this is one of the tough parts about almost everything written about deep work, rest, the power of no, when to say yes, and everything else in the modern business/productivity/self-improvement genre. The approaches just don’t apply very well out-of-the-box to service workers.

Doctors are primarily service workers. If we work more hours, we see more patients. While there is almost certainly a diminishing return in terms of quality care, there is no diminishing return for billing. A doctor generates more RVUs when they have more clinical hours, and that means more profits for their handlers (until someone burns out and quits).

William Osler advised students that “four or five hours daily it is not much to ask” to devote to their studies, “but one day must tell another, one week certify another, one month bear witness to another of the same story.” A few hours haphazardly spent and giant bursts of effort were both equally fruitless; it was necessary to combine focus and routine. (He lived what he preached: one fellow student recalled that in his habits Osler was “more regular and systematic than words can say.”)

Cramming is bad. Overwork is bad. A reasonable concerted effort over a long period of time is good.

Studying 4-5 hours a day was apparently a reasonable amount to Osler’s sensibility. Olser, if you recall, founded the first residency training program at Johns Hopkins.

Do you remember when the heads of the NBME and FSMB suggested in 2019 that a pass/fail USMLE Step 1 would be bad because students might take the decreased pressure as an opportunity to watch Netflix? Because I do.

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