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On Productivity, Part 2

April 1st, 2020 · One comment

Yesterday’s discussion about productivity and the deep life sparked a really interesting conversation, both in the comments section and my inbox. I thought it might be useful to continue with this topic and see where we end up.

A crucial distinction that seemed to arise from this back-and-forth was between productivity in the business context versus the personal context.

In the business context, productivity refers to the efficiency with which an input is converted into a more valuable output. When applied to workers it refers to the amount of value they are able to produce per unit time spent working. The goal of increasing productivity, roughly speaking, becomes to increase the output reaped for a given salary investment.

It’s this formulation that seems to be creating unease, as it’s one in which productivity is about reducing the quality of the worker’s life, by pushing for ever more frantic output, to increase the return on capital.

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On Productivity and the Deep Life

April 1st, 2020 · 13 comments

Earlier today, a reader and fellow professor sent me an interesting question:

“Everything you write is underpinned by productivity discourse. As I note above, I do embrace your approach to writing and thinking—the need for sustained thinking in quiet (sometimes outdoor) places, its deep pleasures (as well as difficulties), and its contribution to a deep life—but the productivity language is an impediment for me…The pleasure in thinking and doing things well is such a deep-wired human pleasure, if we attend to it, and it feels (to me) diluted when it’s linked to productivity…Short question, then, is: could you promote deep work without linking it to productivity?”

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the connection between productivity and the deep life, so the timing of this question is good (though let me caveat the following answers by underscoring their preliminary status).

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The Inconvenient Popularity of Podcasts and Group Texts

March 30th, 2020 · 7 comments

Last April, Jia Tolentino wrote an article for The New Yorker that reviewed my book, Digital Minimalism, along with Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing, which came out around the same time. Tolentino’s piece thoughtfully weaved many different strands of observation, each of which is worthy of its own dissection.

There was one point, however, made in one of her final paragraphs, that I wanted to highlight. Tolentino, reflecting on what her life was like during the month she experimented with the digital declutter recommended in my book, wrote the following:

“It occurred to me that two of the most straightforwardly beloved digital technologies—podcasts and group texts—push against the attention economy’s worst characteristics. Podcasts often demand sustained listening, across hours and weeks, to a few human voices. Group texts are effectively the last noncommercialized social spaces on many millennials’ phones.”

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The Deep Benefits of Learning Hard Things

March 29th, 2020 · 16 comments

A reader pointed me toward a useful piece of advice from a recent episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast. Talking with comedian Bryan Callen, Rogan noted the following:

“When you put yourself in a situation where you really suck at something, it’s really good for you, it’s good to suck at things and try to get better at them…when you learn how to do something you suck at it first, you have to concentrate at getting better, that thing of getting better translates to other aspects of your life…if you can get good at learning how to play the piano you can get good at archery…there’s a thing in there of learning how to learn.”

This is an idea I’ve come across repeatedly during the research I’ve conducted for my various books. There’s something incredibly valuable in the deeply frustrating yet rewarding pursuit of mastering something hard. As Rogan correctly notes, when you practice the art of practicing, the skill can be applied widely . It’s why spending time to learn the piano, or archery, or chess, or hobby electronics can be more than a high quality alternative to the numbing blandness of passive information consumption, it can also make it easier later when you decide at work you need to master a complex new mathematical model or supply chain system.

There is, of course, also a psychological benefit to learning and then practicing a skilled craft, especially during otherwise chaotic times. As Rogan notes earlier in the interview: “you focus, then you execute, and if you do it properly, there’s a meditative aspect to it.”

(Photo by Kansas Tourism)

The Underappreciated Impact of the Attention Redistribution Revolution

March 28th, 2020 · 13 comments

I launched this site during the period sometimes referred to as the “golden age of blogging”: the years from 2003 to 2009 when independent, inexpensive to run, sometimes highly-influential blogs threatened to upend the world of traditional media. By 2010, however, that cultural energy had been redirected toward a new form of online expression that had become recently ascendent: social media.

What explains this shift? A common explanation is simplicity and cost: it’s easier to setup a Twitter account than a WordPress server, and the former is free. I’ve never felt, however, that this provided a full explanation. There were, at the time, many services that allowed you to simply setup a blog and host it for free, and if the demand had been there, these services could have significantly increased their scale and features.

It’s also worth remembering, as Jaron Lanier pointed out in his 2010 manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget, that social media offered an impoverished means of expression as compared to an open-ended blog. Services like Facebook, he noted, force you to discretize yourself into checkbox selections and binary nods toward content you “like.”

So what then explains why social media became the new default method for internet expression? In Deep WorkI point to an often overlooked contributing factor: attention.

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Benjamin Franklin on the Balance Between Solitude and Company

March 27th, 2020 · 6 comments

In response to yesterday’s post about quiet creativity, a reader asked the following question in the comments:

“Here’s my question: How can digital minimalism and deep work be adapted for extroverted people who want to do deep work and lead a digital minimalist life — but also satiate a voracious appetite for human interaction?”

A few other commenters subsequently emphasized this question, which I think is a good one and worth discussion. We can find some insights into this issue in the journals of a young Benjamin Franklin. In August 25, 1726, a twenty-year-old Franklin was more than a month into sea voyage from London back to Philadelphia when he recorded the following entry:

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From the Archives: On Quiet Creativity

March 26th, 2020 · 17 comments

I’ve been writing posts for since July, 2007. This was soon after I finished all of my coursework and qualifiers for my doctorate at MIT, which I had tackled concurrently with writing and publishing my first two books. Which is all to say that by the summer of 2007 it suddenly seemed like I had a lot of free time on my hands. My solution to this state of affairs? This blog.

In recent days, in a fit of nostalgia, I’ve begun browsing my voluminous archive. I thought it might fun to every once and while briefly revisit a post from the past that I particularly enjoyed.

I’ll  start with an entry from January, 2014. It’s titled: “On Quiet Creativity,” and it opens with me talking about hiking the trails near Georgetown’s campus (see above), working on a thorny proof.

Here’s the thesis I extracted from the experience:

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Thoughts On Notebooks

March 25th, 2020 · 34 comments

I’ve been using Moleskine notebooks since 2004, when I bought my first at the MIT bookstore. As I discuss in Digital Minimalism, high quality paper notebooks like Moleskines have historically played an important role in self-development because they provide a method to structure your interior life.

Thoughts, concerns, ideas, aspirations: these flow constantly through our consciousness. Ink on paper puts a stake in the ground that you can cling to amidst this turmoil, enabling you to build some scaffolding on which to organize these musings, while the persistent nature of the medium allows you to witness an evolution of this structure as you fill more pages over time.

This hard work of self-reflection is slow. It generates no “likes” and it doesn’t instantaneously banish boredom. No one else will read your notes and applaud your virtue or wit, and your future self will likely cringe at what you record now.

But without these efforts you’re adrift: pushed by whims, manipulated by attention economy contraptions, taking one step backwards for each step forward in your attempts to build a deep life.

I was prompted to write this post after someone pointed me toward the distressing fact that Moleskine started a social network called myMoleskine. It allows people to publicly share their notes and follow other Moleskine users. A development for which I have only one official reaction: Sigh.