Study Hacks Blog

On Email and Horses

January 25th, 2023 · 6 comments

Earlier this week, the New York Times Magazine published a conversation between me and the journalist David Marchese.  We touched on a lot of the ideas about digital technology and the workplace that I elaborate in my 2021 book, A World Without Email.

At one point during the interview, however, I came up with a new metaphor on the fly, which now, looking back, I recognize as potentially adding a useful new wrinkle to my thinking on these topics. Here’s the exchange:

Marchese: But hasn’t the cultural-technological ship sailed when it comes to this stuff? Or, to mix metaphors, part of me is wondering if what you’re suggesting is a little like saying that getting from place to place by horse is a lot more cognitively rewarding and humane than driving everywhere — which may be true, but no one’s going back to horses. What company is going to tell its employees to cut back on email and Slack?

Me: The right metaphor here is not “Let’s stick with horses, even though automobiles are around,” because automobiles were clearly a more energy and monetarily efficient way of moving things from A to B, just like email is clearly a more efficient way for me to deliver a memo to you than a fax machine. The metaphor is that it took a while before we figured out traffic rules and understood that it can’t just be cars going wild through the street. Eventually we figured out we need stoplights and lanes and traffic enforcement.

Almost by definition, if a technology rapidly spreads it’s because it’s doing something notably better than what came before it — be it delivering business information or drool-bucket distraction. Given this reality, nostalgia is often counter-productive: returning to an older generation of tools, in most cases, would be returning to less effective tools.

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Guillermo del Toro’s Inspiration Machine

January 5th, 2023 · 11 comments

When the Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro was a boy growing up in Guadalajara, his mother bought him a Victorian-style writing desk. “I kept my comic books in the drawers, my books and horror action figures on the shelves, and my writing and drawing stuff on the desk,” Del Toro recalled in a 2016 profile. “I guess that was the first, smallest version of my collection.”

As the director began to find success as an adult with his beautifully imagined, macabre fantasies, like Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and Nightmare Alley, he was able to indulge his collecting instinct more seriously, amassing “a vast physical collection of strange and wonderful memorabilia.” Eventually, Del Toro’s objects became too much to manage.

As he explained in an NPR interview:

“We were living in a three-bedroom house and I magically had occupied four spaces. So it came to a point where the collection was much bigger than the family life. I was hanging up a picture, a really creepy painting by Richard Corben. My wife says, ‘That’s too close to the kitchen, the kids are gonna be freaked out.'”

So Del Toro took the natural next step: he bought a second house in the same neighborhood. His plan was to use the new residence to organize and store his growing collection and provide a quiet place for him to work. As an homage to Charles Dickens, he called it Bleak House.

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On Quiet Quitting

December 29th, 2022 · 15 comments

In my latest essay for The New Yorker, published earlier this week, I tackled the topic of “quiet quitting.” This idea careened into mainstream discourse last summer, powered by a viral TikTok video posted by a twentysomething engineer named Zaid Khan.

Here’s the transcript:

“I recently heard about this idea of quiet quitting where, you’re not quitting your job, but quitting the idea of going above and beyond at work.

You’re still performing your duties, but you’re not subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that your work is your life.

The reality is that it’s not. And your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.”

Khan’s earnest declarations earned him acclaim on TikTok, where numerous other videos took up the theme; some outraged in tone, others satiric.  As word of the trend spread beyond social media, mainstream commentators weren’t so nice. In a CNBC appearance, Shark Tank star Kevin O’Leary described quiet quitting as “worse than COVID.”

It was exactly this confused reaction to this trend that caught my interest. As I note in my article, when it comes to quiet quitting, “we’re simultaneously baffled and enthusiastic.” I set out to understand why.

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On Teenage Luddites

December 16th, 2022 · 20 comments

Back in 2019, when I was on tour for my book, Digital Minimalism, I chatted with more than a few parents. I was surprised by how many told me a similar story: their teenage children had become fed up with the shallowness of online life and decided, all on their own, to deactivate their social media accounts, and in some cases, abandon their smartphones altogether.

Ever since then, when an interviewer asks me about youth and technology addiction, I tend to adopt an optimistic tone.  “We’re approaching a moment in which not using these apps will be seen as the authentic, counter-cultural move,” I’ll explain. “We don’t need to convince teenagers to stop using their phones, we just need them to discover on their own just how uncool these online media conglomerates, with their creepy geek overlords, really are.”

According to a recent New York Times article that many of my readers sent me, we might finally be seeing evidence that this shift is beginning to pick up speed. The piece, written by Alex Vadukul, and titled “‘Luddite’ Teens Don’t Want Your Likes,” chronicles a group of Brooklyn high school students who formed what they call the Luddite Club, an informal organization dedicated to promoting “a lifestyle of self-literation from social media and technology.”

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Ann Patchett on Scheduling Creativity

December 5th, 2022 · 7 comments

In a recent interview for the BBC podcast Spark & Fire, the novelist Ann Patchett discusses some of the difficulties that come along with finding success as a writer.

“It used to be a novel lived very nicely in my head as a constant companion,” she explains. “As time goes on and I now have this other thing which is my career, and all the things that people want me to do, that is very distracting to day dreaming and working in your head.”

As a result, Patchett finds herself needing to specifically put aside time just to think. As she elaborates:

“Sometimes I sit down in my office on my mediation cushion. Not to meditate, but just to sit as if meditating. I start the timer, I light a candle, I sit down on my little green poof and I say to myself: ‘Now you have twenty minutes to think about your novel. Namaste.'”

She goes on to say that she finds it “pathetic” that she has to “block out time for thinking.” Patchett is not alone in this dismay:  many authors share a similar despair. (I remember my friend Ryan Holiday once putting it this way in an interview: “The better you become at writing, the more the world conspires to prevent you from writing.”)

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What Happened When Zapier Cancelled Meetings for a Week? (Hint: Not Much)

November 21st, 2022 · 11 comments

Several readers pointed me toward a recent NPR Marketplace segement about a fully-remote tech company called Zapier that tried an interesting experiment last summer: they cancelled all meetings for a week.

“When I heard from leadership that we were going to experiment with a week with no Zoom meetings, all I felt was excited anticipation,” explained Ellie Huizenga, a content strategiest at Zapier.

“Did that mean that you could just go into your Outlook or your Google Calendar or whatever you use and just zap all your meetings?,” asked Kai Ryssdal, the host of Marketplace, with thinly-veiled jealously.

“Kind of, Yeah,” replied Huizenga, before elaborating:

“Our leadership team sent a Slack message giving details about how the week was going to look for the entire company. Once that announcement came from leadership, Caitlin, my manager, reached out and let me know that she was canceling our one-on-one, canceling our team meeting for that week, and then she also encouraged me to look at the other meetings that were on my Google Calendar and confirm if we could do them [asynchronously] instead of on Zoom.”

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Did Early Humans Use To-Do Lists?

November 12th, 2022 · 6 comments

Early in my latest article for The New Yorker I take a closer look at the recent protests waged by Apple employees in response to CEO Tim Cook’s announcement that they had to return to their desks in Cupertino. On the surface, the employees were concerned about losing what they like about remote work. In an open letter addressed to Cook, they cited worries about time lost to commuting as well the difficulty of achieving “deep thought” in a crowded office.

As I write in my article, however, protests of this type might actually be a proxy for a deeper unease:

“Knowledge workers were already exhausted by their jobs before the pandemic arrived: too much e-mail, too many meetings, too much to do—all being relentlessly delivered through ubiquitous glowing screens. We used to believe that these depredations were somehow fundamental to office work in the twenty-first century, but the pandemic called this assumption into question. If an activity as entrenched as coming to an office every day could be overturned essentially overnight, what other aspects of our professional lives could be reimagined?”

If burnt-out employees lose their bid for permanent telecommuting, “the last highly visible, virus-prompted workplace experiment,” the window to push for more serious transformation — the types of changes that can save knowledge work from its current drowning into a sea of distracted busyness — might slam shut.

But as I conclude: “The tragedy of this moment…is how this reform movement lacks good ideas about what else to demand.” We learned through experience that working from home is not enough on its own to cure most of what makes office jobs unnecessarily exhausting, and few believe that four-day work weeks or, dare I say it, quiet quitting are somehow sufficient either. We need bolder notions.

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Larry June’s Slow Productivity

November 5th, 2022 · 12 comments

In August, a reporter from Rolling Stone sat down to interview the San Francisco-based rapper Larry June before he took the stage at Lollapalooza in Chicago.

June is known for his status as an independent artist. After an early deal with Warner Brothers fizzled, June went on to produce and release almost all of his subsequent work without support from a major label. He’s also known for his productivity. June has released 10 albums since 2018, with his most recent, last summer’s Spaceships on the Blade, reaching number 39 on the Billboard 200. In addition to these projects, June has released 5 collaborative albums, 4 EPs, 5 Mixtapes, and made appearances as a guest artist on singles from artists like Post Malone.

It’s this latter reputation, as an artist who ships original work at a fast pace, that makes what June admitted to the Rolling Stone reporter so surprising:

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