As promised, here is the second post written by Scott Young about lessons learned from the many years we’ve run our Top Performer online course, which we’re re-opening next week. This post is about a mistake we made with our curriculum in the early pilots of the course.
If you’re missing Cal content this week, fear not, I’ll be back to my regularly-scheduled programming next week. In the meantime, you can take a look at my recent New York Times op-ed on 5-hour work days. My basic thesis: it’s hugely surprising that we don’t have many more knowledge work organizations aggressively experimenting with novel approaches to work.
In our early Top Performer pilots (before we even called the course “Top Performer”), Cal and I made a subtle mistake about the process we taught for acquiring career skills. It’s one I’ve seen many people make when thinking about improving their career, so I think it’s worth exploring here in case you might be making it too.
A big part of our course is executing a skill-building project. The goal is to cultivate rare and valuable skills which form the foundation for a successful career.
What we hadn’t recognized in early iterations of our course is that there are actually two different ways to go about these project, one of which tends to be much more effective.
The Difficulty with Drilling Down
The first way you can design a project to upgrade your career skills is to drill down on some aspect of your work that’s important to your job. One of our students, for example, was an academic philosopher who decided to get better at logic. Another student was an architect who decided to deepen his understanding of design.
On the surface, these kinds of projects sound like they should be helpful. Indeed, the entire idea of deliberate practice, on which our course is based, seems reflected in these projects—pick an aspect of your work, and then design an effort to focus on improving it deliberately. So what’s the problem?
Below is a guest post from my good friend Scott Young. (Which reminds me: thank you to everyone who came to see Scott and me speak live at Solid State Books in DC last Saturday: we had a great time!) In preparation for us opening back up our Top Performer course next week, Scott’s been trying to open the curtain, so to speak, and capture in article form some of the biggest ideas we’ve learned over the years running this course.
Take it away, Scott…
Sometimes the obvious advice you need to hear isn’t obvious to you. Here’s an example of this that happened just last week.
A guy on Twitter asked me if I did coaching. He felt stuck in his career and wanted to pay me to give him advice. I don’t do individual coaching (at least for money) but, I was curious so I asked him to send me some details of his situation to see if I could help.
Here were his tweets:
What do you think his mistake was?
In my mind, the biggest mistake he made was simply that he was asking me what to do next. I’m not a singer, and I don’t even work in the music industry.
So, lacking specifics, I gave the advice that was obvious to me: you need to locate people who are 2-3 steps ahead of you in the kind of career you want to have. You need to talk to these people, not just random people on the internet you admire, to map out how your career actually works.
This seems obvious in retrospect, but it actually happens a lot.
Earlier today, I came across a thoughtful essay written by someone just embarking on the digital declutter suggested in my most recent book. Summarizing the first day of his experience, the essay author was surprised by the sense of isolationhe felt during his initial foray into public without his phone.
As he writes:
“Waiting in line for lunch is also usually an excuse for ‘productivity.’…but today I opted to leave it and simply look around the food hall. The first thing I noticed was that everyone was watching me — or I was scared they were, at least. While I generally enjoy being on stage, what I feared was that they were watching me be alone. And who wants to see that?”
He concludes: “And now I understand one potential uptake of embarking on a digital declutter — loneliness.”
One of the questions I’m often asked during interviews for Digital Minimalism is what advice I’ve learned more recently that I wish I had included in the book. There are several candidates for this missing advice, but one I’ve found myself talking about a lot recently is what I call the phone foyer method.
This strategy was innovated by parents who were worried about the negative effects of using their phone too much around their kids, but it applies more broadly.
The idea is simple…
The Phone Foyer Method
When you get home after work, you put your phone on a table in your foyer near your front door. Then — and this is the important part — you leave it there until you next leave the house.
Last October, my friend James Clear published the breakout hit book, Atomic Habits. As we both discovered in the months that followed, we have many readers in common. James’s habit-building framework, it turns out, is quite useful for those looking to increase the quality of their deep work or succeed in a transition toward digital minimalism.
In recognition of this overlap, and in celebration of Atomic Habit’s one-year anniversary, James and I recently recorded a podcast in which we geek out on the details of our work and how they overlap.
If you’re a fan of James, or are interested in learning more about how his ideas and mine work together, I recommend you give this conversation a listen (you can use the embedded player above, or access it directly here).
Interviews are a common part of the book publicity process, especially as you become better known as a writer. Between television, radio, print and podcasts, I ended up doing well north of 100 interviews about Digital Minimalism since its release last February.
Given this volume of appointments (which is actually modest compared to many authors), I arranged things with my publicity team at Penguin so that they could book interviews on my behalf. Using a service called Acuity, I specified what times I was available, and they then put interviews directly on my calendar during these periods, all without requiring me to participate in the scheduling conversations.
Viewed objectively, this setup shouldn’t have made a big difference in my life. Scheduling an interview takes around 3 or 4 back-and-forth messages on average. This adds up to somewhere around 300 or 400 extra emails messages diverted from my inbox.
When you consider that these scheduling threads were spread over six months, and that the average professional user sends and receives over 125 emails per day, the communication I saved with this setup should have been be lost in the noise of my frenetic inbox.
But it did matter. Not having to wrangle those scheduling emails provided a huge psychological benefit.
In 2013, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer gave the commencement address at Middlebury College. He subsequently adapted parts of it into a short but impactful essay published in the New York Times. It was titled: “How Not to Be Alone.”
In this piece, Foer explores the evolution of communication technology, writing:
“Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone.”
From the answering machine we got to email, which was even easier, and then texting, which, being less formal and more mobile, was even easier still.
“But then a funny thing happened,” Foer writes, “we began to prefer the diminished substitute.”
This made life convenient, but introduced its own costs:
In computer programming, it’s common to split your program into multiple different threads that run simultaneously, as this often simplifies application design.
Imagine, for example, you’re creating a basic game. You might have one thread dedicated to updating the graphics on the screen, another thread dedicated to calculating the next move, and another monitoring the mouse to see if the user is trying to click.
You could, of course, write a single-threaded program that explicitly switches back and forth between working on these different tasks, but it’s often much easier for the programmer to write independent threads, each dedicated to its own part of the larger system.
In a world before multi-core processors, these threads weren’t actually running simultaneously, as the underlying processor could only execute one instruction at a time. What it did instead was switch rapidly between the threads, executing a few instructions from one, before moving on to the next, then the next, and then back to the first, and so on — providing a staccato-paced pseudo-simultaneity that was close enough to true parallel processing to serve the desired purpose.
Something I’ve noticed is that many modern knowledge workers approach their work like a multi-threaded computer program. They’ve agreed to many, many different projects, investigations, queries and small tasks, and attempt, each day, to keep advancing them all in parallel by turning their attention rapidly from one to another — replying to an email here, dashing off a quick message there, and so on — like a CPU dividing its cycles between different pieces of code.
The problem with this analogy is that the human brain is not a computer processor. A silicon chip etched with microscopic circuits switches cleanly from instruction to instruction, agnostic to the greater context from which the current instruction arrived: op codes are executed; electrons flow; the circuit clears; the next op code is loaded.
The human brain is messier.
When you switch your brain to a new “thread,” a whole complicated mess of neural activity begins to activate the proper sub-networks and suppress others. This takes time. When you then rapidly switch to another “thread,” that work doesn’t clear instantaneously like electrons emptying from a circuit, but instead lingers, causing conflict with the new task.
To make matters worse, the idle “threads” don’t sit passively in memory, waiting quietly to be summoned by your neural processor, they’re instead an active presence, generating middle-of-the-night anxiety, and pulling at your attention. To paraphrase David Allen, the more commitments lurking in your mind, the more psychic toll they exert.
This is all to say that the closer I look at the evidence regarding how our brains function, the more I’m convinced that we’re designed to be single-threaded, working on things one at a time, waiting to reach a natural stopping point before moving on to what’s next.
So why do we tolerate all the negative side-effects generated from trying to force our neurons to poorly simulate parallel programs? Because it’s easier, in the moment, than trying to develop professional workflows that better respect our brains’ fundamental nature.
This explanation is understandable. But to a computer scientist trained in optimality, it also seems far from acceptable.
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