What habits and attitudes need to change when one hits the upper bounds of natural ability? This is the situation where you can no longer increase your rate of advancement. In effect your effort is "bounded from above". I am thinking primarily about research and learning from a student's perspective but I am sure this problem is common to everyone eventually. There must be some limit at which even the greatest stop accelerating. Given that this barrier has existed for a long time and affects every human that ever lived, there must be structual approaches to overcoming exhaustion of the lowhanging fruit. What are proven methods to continue improvement, or, failing that, hug the limit of natural ability as tightly as possible? Similarly to compound interest, if you underperform by 3% every year, then in 24 years you will be half the man you could have been.

The answer from Ben succiently explains this idea in the work equation:

work = (work rate)*(hours worked)

Assume that for whatever reason the goal is to maximize the work. If one can no longer increase the hours worked, what are strategies to increase the work rate? What are new ways of thinking that can keep one at maximum possible performance? Are there ways of structuring your time that you have found that just work. What really helped you in staring down your own limitations?

My Motivation:

I have been fighting this ceiling for several months now, and I am getting >! to a hard physcial limit. I am at a barely ranked school and still have the dream of significant contributions to my field. Realistically this dream requires me to perform on the level of students at top universities. My first strategy was to just put in more time than the students who do better than me. It worked to beat the undergraduates here who spend 40% of their time on extra curriculars and social lives. However the graduate students are much more disciplined and working harder than their 80-100 hrs/wk is of much greater difficulty. To further compound the problem, we are nowhere near the quality of the top schools, so I fear beating the best grad student in my department would be equivalent to a freshman at T1 school.
I only started to work systematically when I started university, and have now developed a strong work ethic. I am at the point where I have eliminated everything else in my life except classwork and research projects. There is no longer any significant reservoir of time I can tap to make progress. I likely can obtain about 10 more hours a week if I mange to crack down on the instances where I am actually unproductive. This is my budget for improvement. Others may have more time available which is why I am not asking about quick hacks (although quick hacks would help me more).

Note:I am just beginging my academic career, but I am really concerned about not being able accomplish my goals. If you understand what I am getting at please feel free to edit to make the key idea more clear. There has to be a way using logical frameworks to minimize the inherent limitations of whatever body you are stuck with. I am not looking for a "self-help", "positve thinking" style answer. I am looking for methods that you, SE.Academia, as men of science and reason, find that work.

I have put the motivation in spoilers because it is not important for answering the question I want to ask (should I just remove it?). Some answers are addressing my specific situation which I think is not the purpose of this site. We are supposed to ask general questions that can apply to others, not just advice threads.

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    A reasonable question is what field you are currently in. Also, trying to outwork other people in order to succeed sounds like an eventual recipe for physical collapse,. nervous breakdown or other unpleasant things. That's not the way to go. Do you enjoy what you are doing? And do you enjoy it enough to commit to spending as much time as you are doing now in the foreseeable future? Apr 8, 2015 at 5:15
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    80-100 hours a week?? There is no way that 100 hours a week is sustainable long-term for most humans. I find that, during crunch time, I can ramp up to maybe 60-75 a week during crunch times, but I burn out after three weeks of that.
    – chipbuster
    Apr 8, 2015 at 18:24
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    Also, there are very knowledgeable women of science on this site as well...
    – chipbuster
    Apr 8, 2015 at 18:28
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    I'm not answering the question, but I don't think one should put so much emphasis on the rankings of a school. Once you visit these places and interact with the people, you'll find that they are normal hard-working people that also make mistakes and have their strengths and weaknesses. Just do good work, and nobody will care where you come from or what your affiliation is.
    – mrm
    Apr 8, 2015 at 21:31
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    @undergrad1123571317 "They are better, that's why they got in ..." -- but doing well in tests or course work does not automatically mean you are a good researcher. (But I think this whole discussion is off-topic to begin with).
    – mrm
    Apr 8, 2015 at 21:59

5 Answers 5


You can improve, almost certainly. It's hard to know how much a priori, and that's true of most everything. You shouldn't be pessimistic.

First, do not mistake working long hours with making progress. As others have indicated, this often is counterproductive. Matt Might gives the following equation for work output:

output = (work rate) * (hours worked)

Hours worked is only part of the equation. And your work rate, the amount of output you produce per hour, is also a function of hours worked. Work too much and you'll burn out (mathematically, this means your work rate will approach zero). As you've suggested, you need to work smarter, not necessarily more.

Second, you definitely have a fixed mindset. If you believe things are hopeless, well, even if they aren't, you probably won't improve. You need a growth mindset to improve. This is where you believe you can improve. Work on this.

Most likely, success is determined by both talent and focusing effort towards the right things. In my experience, effort is more important if you show any reasonable amount of ability. I can think of many people who I consider smarter than myself, who accomplish less. Some of these people even put a lot of effort in, but unfortunately they put the effort in the wrong way. Some of them are just "unlucky" (though luck can be influenced too, it seems).

So what can you do to improve? No one is magically good at first. You need the right strategy to figure out how to get better. A strategy research has found to be common is deliberate practice. There are a lot of books on this subject. One I've read is Talent is Overrated. The basics of the strategy should not surprise anyone, but you'd be surprised by how few people actually implement it. Deliberate practice is about focusing on what's actually valuable, not what just feels productive. In studies of musicians, for example, researchers looked at how accomplished people became and what their practice strategies were. The most accomplished musicians focused on the parts they had difficulty with, while the less accomplished ones spent most of their time playing music they were already comfortable with. The lesson here should be clear: you need to challenge yourself to improve. See what you need to learn to accomplish what you want. This might be learning certain theory, or learning how to do experiments, or learning to do research better, or whatnot.

Target the gaps in your knowledge, and fill them in as you go along (Anonymous Mathematician suggests this). This is an essential habit in my view. It can be hard to implement, and I am not perfect at it, but over the past year I have started writing down things which I need to learn or understand poorly and started filling in the gaps roughly in order of importance or usefulness. Some of these things are trivial (for example, learning Roman numerals) but others are research-level questions.

I find solving problems to be particularly helpful in highlighting gaps that I did not know I had. Textbooks have a lot of these, but I tend to find problems posted on internet websites (say, StackExchange sites) to be more diverse and ultimately more helpful for me.

I'm a graduate student right now, and I dedicate about 1.5 hours a day towards learning. In the past, I was inconsistent about this, and I had ineffective learning strategies (e.g., just reading a book is not likely to make a strong impression). Being consistent, using good learning strategies, and focusing on what's important has made me much more effective.

Some other books I would recommend to students interested in overcoming plateaus are The Complete Problem Solver and Your Memory. The latter book in particular caused me to change a large number of my habits, and I think I am a much more effective student and teacher now. The book details a lot about how to learn and remember more effectively. I'd also recommend the software Anki to reduce the amount you forget.

  • This answer actually adresses the question I was asking! The work rate equation is exactly what I am talking about. When you can not increase the hours anymore the only other way to make gains is to improve work rate. Increasing the work rate is what I am interested in. Apr 8, 2015 at 21:03

"I am at the point where I have eliminated everything else in my life except classwork and research projects."

That is likely to be counter-productive. You need to leave room in your life for inspiration to strike, not just perspiration. Go for a walk. Take up a hobby that does not require total concentration. You may be limiting yourself by not allowing enough time for rest and relaxation.

I know I am much more likely to get a creative idea for solving a problem doing something else, rather than staring at it, once I have the background firmly in my mind.

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    Actually, I think a hobby that does require total concentration while you're doing it can be good, as it forces you to forget about academics during that period. (This doesn't mean an intellectually demanding hobby, which is maybe what you meant?)
    – Kimball
    Apr 8, 2015 at 8:42
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    This reminds me much of a Dragonball Z episode (one finds inspiration in the darndest places), instead of training an extra earth day in the hyperbolic time chamber to get stronger, Goku took his son on a day off to enjoy the beauty of earth and let him know where he was fighting for. Take some time off to remember what you are 'fighting for' Apr 8, 2015 at 17:28
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    @Kimball For me,what worked best were things I could drop if my mind wandered to my technical problems, and then pick up again. Different things work for different people - the real point is that the OP should try something other than work, work, work. Apr 8, 2015 at 21:35

I am sorry to say but your way of thinking in the long run will be counter-productive for you. You must always set small, visible, measurable goals instead of vague infeasible plans that may be out of your reach. E.g., It is one thing to say "I enjoy playing the guitar so I will practice to be the best guitar player I can be" and another to say "I am going to be the greatest guitar player that ever stepped on this earth" or "I am going to be the greatest rock star ever".

In this sense, your thought "I still have the dream of significant contributions to my field" is toxic and it will probably lead you to frustration (unless you are Terence Tao) or burn out, because the success of this dream is determined by outside factors that you cannot control or influence. Also this goal is egoistical. I am positive, that most people who made significant impact on their field did not started for such a self - centered goal but instead it was their desire to do research and their skills to do so that lead them to success. World recognition or fame is mostly a motive for those who will do everything from hacking results, stealing papers and falsifying research to get ahead from the pack.

So you must strive for smaller feasible milestones that bring you closer to your remote goal but are within your reach. Such milestones might be: "Get good grades so I can go to a better university for a PHD than my current school", "Write my first paper", "Get accepted for a PHD", "Get a PHD" and so-on. Setting goals should not be a static process but must be flexible enough to adapt to external feedback. And take the hints from external feedback to adjust accordingly. E.g., It will be unreasonable to expect to make significant impact to a scientific field if you cannot write even your first paper. Therefore dreams and ambition are nice but as you already figured out we all have some external and internal limits that we cannot overcome.

Also success is not linear and it is a combination of many factors. Some of them are: Drive, hard work, ability and luck. You obviously have the drive and you want to invest the hard work but you also need luck and the necessary skills. You also need other people's help. You must seek for people who will believe in you, will see your hard work and are willing to help. Supervisors who will do their best to mentor you. A spouse who will support you on the inevitable rejections of research. You just cannot do everything alone. You need other people for that. And abandoning the social component of life entirely to compensate for what? So that you will once be a famous researcher? It really makes no sense. In other words, if research is what you want to do, then research should be fun for you (you do not do it for the money anyway). And right now, even before starting doing actual research you do not seem happy.

  • I am not asking about how to be a famous researcher. I am asking about what one can do to perform as close to their personal limit as is humanly possible. Perhaps I gave too much background and you are adressing that. I will edit the question. The fact stands that I have reached a limit in the gains I can make by working longer, and require for whatever reason some other way to make either improvements, or failing that, I desire to keep as close as possible to the maximum level. Apr 8, 2015 at 20:53
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    @undergrad1123571317 I gave you a solution. Focus on smaller feasible goals for you. E.g. Write your first paper. Do not care what others do. There will be someone be more capable, smarter than you. Focus on improving yourself (even if it makes you do the same experiment 3 times) instead on wondering if someone else would do it faster. So, what? Why do you view other people as your competitors? Life is about improving yourself not catching up with others.
    – Alexandros
    Apr 9, 2015 at 9:46

Have you talked with your advisor or another mentor about your concerns? Getting another person's advice and insights can be crucial, particularly from someone who knows you well but has a broader perspective. Think of it in athletic terms: even the most talented athletes can't reach their full potential without skilled coaching. Generic advice and strategies can help, but they can't replace continuous guidance that is tailored to your specific needs.

It sounds like you've done a great job of working hard, but that's only part of the picture, and you may even have gone beyond diminishing returns to reach the point of burning yourself out.

So if it's not just a matter of hard work, what else can you do? This is a difficult question, since of course nobody on this site knows enough about your talents and accomplishments to say anything specific, but here are a few possibilities:

  1. How well calibrated is your ambition? Some people devote a lot of time to research topics that are beneath their talents and will never lead anywhere exciting; they need to take on greater challenges. Others are so determined to accomplish something amazing that they waste time struggling fruitlessly with the deepest challenges while ignoring other exciting and more approachable topics.

  2. Are you juggling an appropriate number of projects? Focusing exclusively on one project can be less productive, since you can't switch modes when you feel stuck or frustrated. On the other hand, switching too frequently is a good way to get nothing done.

  3. How much time are you spending on activities in your field outside of your current, direct research interests? For example, attending talks, chatting with other researchers, reading famous papers, filling in gaps in your background knowledge, etc. If you neglect these things, you won't grow as much as a researcher, but if you spend too much time on them, they will distract you from actually doing research.

Notice that each of these topics is a balancing act, in which going too far in either direction is problematic. That's what makes them difficult, and it's why feedback from a mentor can be so valuable.


When you go to school, as a young child, most of what you are learning are fundamentally well characterised skills that require practice. In this context, the more time and effort applied, the better you get (directly).

The further through the education system you go, the more success is measured in terms of insight and understanding. The relationship between the amount of work done, and the insight and understanding gained is extremely loose - as a simple example, which is more useful, to do double the amount of work that is 10% easier, or half the amount of work that is 10% harder? I suspect often the latter.

At undergraduate level and beyond, the sheer volume of work completed becomes a relatively minor component of success, and those who try and optimise their life in this way tend to hit a fairly solid limit of achievement that they cannot breach. Ultimately, no matter how much you optimise your life, you will only gain a handful of percentage points of productivity gain - and somehow other people will achieve multiples more than you. They are not doing so by working harder, or longer, or even doing "more work".

There are a number of things to consider.

Ideas are interconnected

Learning a large and complicated area is well described as building a mosaic of understanding, piece by piece. What matters is that you strategically place the pieces and put your effort into comprehending how they relate to each other to form the larger picture. The amount of effort put into making each piece perfect is of much more minor concern.

There is a certain amount of expertise that is required to (for instance) pass exam questions in specific areas. You will find that as you gain more of an overview of a field, the specific expertise will become easier to pick up (rather than the other way around).

You will gain a lot from always examining:

i) I have leant an idea. What is the edge of applicability of this idea. Do I know where my knowledge runs out? Can I make an informed judgement about areas of learning that might be opened up by this, before we get to them?

ii) Can I apply what I have learnt in other areas than the one it was taught in? Is there anything else that I have learnt that makes more sense now?

iii) Is there anything that we haven't been taught that would be useful for me to understand here, either to extend my understanding or support it?

Communication is key

In an intellectual, or learning context, the ability to communicate ideas well is the measure of comprehension. Don't leave it until examinations to rely on this.

At the very least, talk to your peers about what you have learnt. Discuss, as above, the limits of what you know, and equally what you don't know. Fill in each others gaps.

If you have the opportunity, do some teaching. Even if this is of people who are much more junior than you, you will find that your understanding of your field will grow substantially. Especially if you ask your students to ask questions - magically these questions will illuminate areas that you didn't appreciate what you knew (or find gaps in your perspective).

People are important

Your best ideas will come from talking to other people. Especially people not doing exactly what you are doing. At the simplest level, it will encourage you to think about the same things in a different way. It may also pique your interest to look at something you hadn't thought of.

In our department, tea time is considered the most important time of day. Once in the morning, and once in the afternoon, everyone sits around over a cup of tea or coffee and talks. Sometimes about the weather, sometimes about what their kids are doing at school, sometimes about how students they are teaching are doing, and sometimes about research.

It sounds silly, but this is often where ideas come from. If someone is struggling to turn up regularly they will end up being dragged along. This social element is critical. In the first 6-months of my first postdoc, a conversation over tea had more of an impact on the direction and success of my research than my efforts during my PhD. Because we came up with a good idea. I wasn't expecting that when I poured my coffee.

Think about what you are looking at

If you are focussing on volume of work, you are almost by definition not focussing your attention on choosing what you look at.

Find things that are hard. That pique your curiosity. That are a bit outside of what you have to do. Your intellectual future will depend on finding what you are really interested in - and it helps if this is not exactly the same as everyone else. And you certainly can't be told what to be interested in.

Don't stress about failures

There will be times you don't understand things. That you get things wrong. That you get stuck. Don't worry.

Put something you are struggling with aside. Do something else for a while. Preferably something really different. Go back to it later. Ponder things. Ask someone else.

Everyone gets stuck sometimes.

Overcoming being really stuck involves (and causes) gains of insight. This is what you are aiming for - but it is not readily achieved by just working more.

Exercise, eat and sleep

For your mind to work well, your body needs to as well. Get some exercise. Make sure you socialise. Finally, for your memory to work well, you need to eat well and get enough sleep.

Don't skimp on these.

On any individual day you can get more done by working longer, and harder. But it comes at terrible long term cost of decrease of average productivity, loss of insight, and worst of all, exhaustion and loss of curiosity.

Most of all be curious

When you find something interesting, you will learn. Do the things you find interesting (and hard). Feed your curiosity.

  • 3
    Nice answer. And welcome to Academia SE. Apr 9, 2015 at 17:44

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