August 20th, 2020 · 20 comments
Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Murderer, first published in his 1953 collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun, begins with a psychiatrist arriving at a mental hospital. He’s there to see a prisoner named Albert Brock, who calls himself: “The Murderer.”
When the psychiatrist enters the interview chamber, he frowns. “Something was wrong with the room.” He soon realizes the problem: the wall-mounted radio has been torn down and smashed.
As the psychiatrist sits down, Brock reaches out and quickly steals the visitor’s wrist radio, crunching it in his teeth like a walnut, before handing back the ruined device with a smile, explaining: “That’s better.”
It’s soon revealed that Brock is not imprisoned because of any harm he caused to other people. His crime was instead the wanton destruction of all the information, entertainment, and communication devices in his life: he fed his phone into his kitchen garbage disposal, shot his television with a gun, poured water into his office intercommunication system, stomped his wrist radio on the sidewalk, and spooned ice cream into his car’s FM transceiver.
As Brock elaborates, he’d become fed up with the constant communication, distraction, manipulation and digital anxiety that defined the near future world in which Bradbury’s story is set:
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August 17th, 2020 · 26 comments
As discussed in a blog post published earlier this week, Game of Thrones scribe George R. R. Martin is trying to take advantage of the pandemic to help finish The Winds of Winter, the long awaited (and long overdue) next title in his epic fantasy series.
Years earlier, Martin bought the building across the street from his Santa Fe home to provide some separation between his personal and professional lives (“no longer would I write all day in my red flannel bathrobe”), but more recently he found even that space had become too distracting to properly concentrate.
So he’s now relocated to a remote mountain cabin with a bad internet connection where he can really get serious about writing.
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August 13th, 2020 · 16 comments
On the most recent episode of my podcast, Deep Questions, a listener asked for my advice about delegation. This is an important topic that I haven’t talked a lot about before, so I thought it might be useful to sharpen and elaborate the answer I gave on my show.
In the office setting, most delegation occurs over email. You need something done that you either don’t have the time to do, or don’t want to do, or don’t know how to do: so you shoot off a quick message to put in on someone else’s plate. Our current moment of remote work has made these electronic hand-offs even more frequent.
As I explained on my podcast, however, I think this is a problem. You’d probably be better off if you instead worked backward from a simple rule that will make your life more annoying in the short term, but significantly more productive in the long term: don’t delegate using email.
Before we discuss how this is even possible, let’s touch on why it’s important.
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August 5th, 2020 · 23 comments
Consider the following workplace scenario. The manager of an R&D lab needs her engineers to solve a complex problem. There are many possible approaches and it’s unclear which will end up best. What is the best way to structure their communication?
For at least the last twenty years, the accepted answer to this question within knowledge work has been to introduce the maximum amount of communication with the minimum possible friction. Email makes it simple for engineers to swap ideas and results. Instant messenger tools like Slack reduce friction even further and increase transparency. Progress!
The logic driving this consensus is straightforward: more information is strictly better than less; a veritable axiom of the burgeoning Information Age that has been widely accepted ever since Bill Gates touted his early-adoption of email as a strategy to broaden the incoming stream of ideas and insights on which his algorithmic brain could churn.
But is this answer always right?
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July 29th, 2020 · 17 comments
In 1937, at the precocious age of 21, an MIT graduate student named Claude Shannon had one of the most important scientific epiphanies of the century. To explain it requires some brief background.
Before coming to MIT, Shannon earned two bachelors degrees at the University of Michigan: one in mathematics and one in electrical engineering. The former degree exposed him to Boolean Algebra, a somewhat obscure branch of philosophy, developed in the mid-nineteenth century by a self-taught English mathematician named George Boole. This new algebra took propositional logic, a fuzzy-edged field of rhetorical inquiry that dated back to the Stoic logicians of the 3rd century BC, and cast it into clean equations that could be mechanically-optimized using the tools of modern mathematics.
Shannon’s degree in electrical engineering, by contrast, exposed him to the design of electrical circuits — an endeavor that in the 1930s still required a healthy dollop of intuition and art. Given a specification for a circuit, the engineer would tinker until he got something that worked. (Thomas Edison, for example, was particularly gifted at this type of intuitive electrical construction.)
In 1937, in the brain of this 21-year-old, these two ideas came together.
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July 23rd, 2020 · 24 comments
On a recent episode of my podcast, Deep Questions, a listener asked me what to do when one feels overwhelmed with incoming tasks, requests, and ambiguous obligations — a problem that has become unfortunately common in our current period of largely remote and persistently frenzied work.
The temptation in such moments is to curl up as the onslaught engulfs you; perhaps answering the most recent emails to arrive, or tackling a sampling of tasks that seem particularly urgent, but otherwise just hoping the rest will dissipate.
In the mythology of your professional life, in other words, you decline to confront the dragon, and instead put up a half-hearted warning sign, or rage to anyone in earshot about the unfairness of the dragon’s existence in the first place.
My advice was to resist this temptation.
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July 15th, 2020 · 32 comments
Jessica Murnane is a wellness advocate, writer, and podcaster who interviewed me on her show not long ago. Earlier this year she signed a deal with Penguin Random House to write a new book. This was great news, except for one wrinkle: the coronavirus.
“Writing a book during a pandemic was one of the most challenging things I have ever done,” she told me. Like many working parents during the past few months, she was trying to balance homeschool with the need to accomplish serious, mind-stretching deep work; all without any easy means of finding some peace and quiet.
So Jessica went to an extreme: she setup a beach tent in her backyard, so she could work outside without the sun glaring on her laptop screen (see above). She’s not alone in this innovation: I can think of at least two other people I personally know well who deployed similar tent setups in their yards for similar purposes.
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July 7th, 2020 · 20 comments
A reader recently pointed me toward an interesting new feature Microsoft added to its widely-used Outlook email and calendar software: support for deep work.
Outlook users can now create a personal “focus plan” that measures how many hours they’re spending dedicated to undistracted work, and can automatically schedule these blocks. Though the tool uses the term “focus time” to label these efforts on your calendar, it also directly uses the term “deep work” in its interface when describing what it’s helping you accomplish (see above).
This is an important shift.
In the first decades of digital knowledge work, human productivity was often viewed through a computer processor metaphor. People were understood as unbounded processors and the goal was to leverage technology to get them as much useful information as possible, with the least amount of friction. In this metaphor, getting more done meant getting more information through the pipeline.
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