Study Hacks Blog

Taking a Break from Social Media Makes you Happier and Less Anxious

May 16th, 2022 · 14 comments

In my writing on technology and culture I try to be judicious about citing scientific studies. The issues involved in our ongoing wrangling with digital innovations are subtle and often deeply human. Attempts to exactly quantify what we’re gaining and losing through our screens can at times feel disconcertedly sterile.

All that being said, however, when I come across a particularly well-executed study that presents clear and convincing results, I do like to pass it along, as every extra substantial girder helps in our current scramble to build a structure of understanding.

Which brings me to a smart new paper, written by a team of researchers from the University of Bath, and published last week in the journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. It’s titled “Taking a One-Week Break from Social Media Improves Well-Being, Depression, and Anxiety,” and it caught my attention, in part, because of its parsimonious design.

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My “Oldest” Productivity Strategy

May 12th, 2022 · 11 comments

I recently posted a video about one of my oldest and most successful work strategies: fixed-schedule productivity. The idea is simple to describe:

  1. Choose a schedule of work hours that you think provides the ideal balance of effort and relaxation.
  2. Do whatever it takes to avoid violating this schedule.

These simple limits, however, can lead to complex productivity innovations. In my own life, the demands of fixed-schedule productivity helped me develop what became my time blocking and shutdown ritual strategies.

In my video, which is actually a clip taken from episode 193 of my podcast, I call this my “oldest” productivity strategy. I don’t think that’s literally true, but it is old. I went back and did some digging and discovered that I first wrote about this idea here on my blog back in 2008, meaning I had probably been deploying it for at least a couple years before then. In 2009, I wrote a more epic post on the topic for my friend Ramit Sethi’s blog which was subsequently featured on Boing Boing. Which is all to say, fixed-schedule productivity has been bouncing around for a while.

Anyway, watch the video if you want a more detailed discussion of the strategy, why it works, and how I’ve used it in my own life.

Aziz Ansari’s Digital Minimalism

May 9th, 2022 · 7 comments

Not long ago, I watched Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix special, Nightclub Comedian. I was pleasantly surprised when, early in the show, Ansari demonstrates his commitment to escaping tech-driven distraction by showing off his Nokia 2720 flip phone (see above). Soon after the special was released, Ansari elaborated on his personal brand of digital minimalism in a radio interview:

“Many years ago, I kind of started turning off the internet, and I deleted all social media and all this stuff, and I’ve slowly just kept going further and further. I stopped using email, maybe, four years ago. I know all this stuff is like, oh yeah, I’m in a position where I can do that and have certain privileges to be able to pull it off, an assistant or whatever, but all that stuff I do helps me get more done.”

This commitment to craft over servicing digital communities is not uncommon among top comedians. Dave Attell, who is widely considered by his peers to be one of the best living joke writers, has a lifeless Twitter account dedicated primarily to announcing show dates. Dave Chappelle doesn’t even bother using Twitter at all. “Why would I write all my thoughts on a bathroom wall,” he quipped last year when asked about his lack of presence on the popular platform.

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The Real Problem with Twitter

May 3rd, 2022 · 9 comments

Last week, Twitter accepted Elon Musk’s acquisition bid. The media response was intense. For a few days, it was seemingly the biggest story in the world: every news outlet rushed out multiple takes; commentators fretted and gloated; CNN, for a while, even posted live updates on the deal on their homepage.

As I argue in my latest essay for The New Yorker, titled “Our Misguided Obsession with Twitter,” these varied responses were unified by a shared belief that this platform serves as a “digital town square,” and therefore we should really care about who controls it and the nuances of the rules they set.

But is this view correct?

Drawing on Jon Haidt’s epic Atlantic article on the devolution of social media (which I  recently discussed in more detail on my podcast), I note that Twitter is far from a gathering place for representative democratic debate. Its most active users are much more likely to be on the political extremes. They’re also whiter and richer than the average American, not to mention that they have the time to spend all day tweeting, which is quite a rarified luxury.

Here’s Ethan Porter, a media studies professor at George Washington University, elaborating this latter point in a recent Washington Post article:

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Smartphones vs. Science: On Distraction and the Suppression of Genius

March 31st, 2022 · 28 comments

Last month, Adam Weiss, a fourth-year chemistry PhD student at the University of Chicago, published a column in the journal Nature. In the piece, Weiss talked about how he had recently hit “a rut” in his polymer chemistry research. “Although I had been productive early in my graduate career,” he wrote, “my long hours and hard work were no longer translating into success in the laboratory.”

It didn’t take much self-reflection for Weiss to identify the problem: his phone. He recognized that he increasingly colonized his “quiet time” with digital distractions. As a result, his work felt “chaotic and disorganized.” Throwing more hours at the problem didn’t help: “I was working more than ever, but getting less done.”

So Weiss tried something drastic. He ditched his smartphone during work hours, relying instead on an old fashioned feature phone without an internet connection. He decided email and Slack messages would have to wait until he returned from the lab. For music, he used an iPod.

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John McPhee’s Slow Productivity

March 9th, 2022 · 13 comments

Earlier this week, the writer John McPhee turned 91. One of the nice things about McPhee’s birthday, in addition to it providing an occasion to celebrate his incomparable output, is that it usually leads to one of my favorite writerly quotes spreading around the internet.

By any reasonable standard, McPhee is productive. He’s published 29 books, one of which won a Pulitzer Prize, and two of which were nominated for National Book Awards. He’s also been penning distinctive articles for The New Yorker since 1965. And yet, he rarely writes more than 500 words a day.

When asked about this paradox, McPhee famously quipped:

“People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so prolific’…God, it doesn’t feel like it—nothing like it.  But, you know, you put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart.”

This is a perfect summary of slow productivity. Being frantically busy in the present moment has very little to do with whether or not in the future you’ll look back at your career with pride about what you’ve accomplished.

(If you’re looking for another way to honor McPhee this week, I recommend reading his very first article for The New Yorker, a profile of Princeton basketball star, and future senator, Bill Bradley.)

Brandon Sanderson’s Advice for Doing Hard Things

February 25th, 2022 · 8 comments

A reader recently sent me a video of a keynote speech, delivered in 2020 by the popular fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson. The title of the presentation was “The Common Lies Writers Tell You,” but its real message was more general.

Sanderson starts (perhaps channeling a young Cal Newport) by pushing back on our common instinct to tell kids “you can do anything you want to” or “follow your dreams.” He argues that these aphorisms inflict a disservice on impressionable minds as they obfuscate the complexity, and frustration, and nuance involved in actually pursuing remarkable goals.

He retorts that the following claim is much more realistic:

“I can do hard things. Doing hard things has intrinsic value, and they will make me a better person, even if I end up failing.”

Sanderson then proceeds to details three tips, drawn from his experience as a successful novelist, to help structure any attempt to tackle hard things. I found his advice both interesting and refreshingly blunt, so I thought it might be useful to summarize his three tips here, annotated with some of my own thoughts…

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