Study Hacks Blog

On Wendell Berry’s Move from NYU to a Riverside Cabin

June 22nd, 2022 · 5 comments

In my previous essay, I wrote about how novelist Jack Carr rented a rustic cabin to help focus his attention on completing his latest James Reece thriller. This talk of writing retreats got me thinking again about what’s arguably my favorite example from this particular genre of aspirational day dreaming: Wendell Berry’s “camp” on the Kentucky River.

In February, Dorothy Wickenden, whose father Dan Wickenden was Berry’s original editor at Harcourt Brace, featured Berry’s camp in a lengthy New Yorker profile of the now 87-year old writer, farmer, and activist. Berry brought Wickenden to a twelve-by-sixteen foot one-room structure, raised on concrete pilings high on the sloped bank of the river, only on the condition that she not reveal its exact location.

In the summer of 1963, Berry, all of twenty-nine, and just a few years into a professorship at New York University, built the current cabin on the same site where his great-great-great grandfather, Ben Perry, one of the first settlers in the valley, had long ago erected a log house. Berry remembered the location from his childhood. As Wickenden explains, Berry returned that summer to build an escape where he could “write, read, and contemplate the legacies of his forebears, and what inheritance he might leave behind.”

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Jack Carr’s Writing Cabin

June 6th, 2022 · 13 comments

Last spring, I wrote an essay for The New Yorker about a notable habit common to professional authors: their tendency to write in strange places. Even when they have beautifully-appointed home offices, a lot of authors will retreat to eccentric locations near their homes to ply their trade.

In my piece, for example, I talked about Maya Angelou writing on legal pads while propped up on her elbow on the bed in anonymous hotel rooms. Peter Benchley left his bucolic carriage house on a half-acre of land to work in the backroom of a furnace supply and repair shop, while John Steinbeck, perhaps pushing this concept to an extreme, would lug a portable desk onto an old fishing boat which he would drive out into the middle of Sag Harbor.

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Inbox Pause? How About an Inbox Reset?

May 25th, 2022 · 7 comments

Several readers have recently pointed me toward a productivity tool called Inbox Pause, which allows you to prevent messages from arriving in your email inbox for a set amount of time. You could, of course, simply decide not to check your inbox for this period, but as every knowledge worker who has ever used email has learned, it can be very, very difficult to resist a quick check when you know there are messages piling up, desperate for your response.

I like this tool. Among other benefits, it can provide a nice support system for time block planning. When you start a block that doesn’t require email, you can setup a pause to make sure you’re not tempted to abandon whatever demanding activity you’ve planned to instead fall back into the comfort of stupefying inbox sifting.

Pausing on its own, however, cannot fully solve the problem of communication overload. As I argue in my book, A World Without Email, the foundation of our overload is a widely-adopted collaboration style that I call the hyperactive hive mind. This is an approach in which work is coordinated with a series of ad hoc, on demand, unscheduled, back-and-forth messages — be them emails, instant messages, or texts (the actual technology doesn’t really matter).

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

May 16th, 2022 · 20 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 · 29 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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