Not grinding away

Critically, as Gribbin’s explains, during this period Galileo was also occupied in part by his success in “leading a full and happy life,” in which “he studied literature and poetry, attended the theatre regularly, and continued to play the lute to a high standard.” He was not, in other words, locked up, grinding away in relentless pursuit of results. Yet results are what he did ultimately produce.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2021/07/21/on-pace-and-productivity/

Everything wears down, wears out, and wears away. The light that burns twice as bright, lasts half as long. There are cautionary tales about the hedonic treadmill. The tortoise and the hare. The ant versus the oxen; I’ve always liked that aphorism from Lao Tzu.

Let’s grant that the ant walks a great distance, removes debris from the colony, and collects food for 10 ants. Meanwhile, the ox accomplishes nothing. But when he awakes refreshed from his nap, he can plow a field in a few hours. For comparison, how long will it take the ant to plow the field?

I’ve always liked that aphorism from Lao Tzu: It reminds me to always be the dozing Ox.

I am frequently asking myself two questions:

What would world-class look like?

Is this thing I just did world-class?

I may fall short— honestly I think I always fall short of executing world-class. That does not mean I stop asking those questions. That does not mean I stop trying. The mantra is not, “do more!” It’s not, “hurry up!” I am not alone in this thinking:

The constructive evaluation of activities, asset allocations, communications, policies, and procedures against purposes and intended outcomes has become increasingly critical for every organization I know of. The challenges to our companies continue to mount, with pressures coming these days from globalization, competition, technology, shifting markets, erratic economic swings, and raised standards of performance and production, making outcome/action thinking a required twenty-first-century behavior.

“What do you want to have happen in this meeting?” “What is the purpose of this form?” “What would the ideal person for this job be able to do?” “What do we want to accomplish with this software?” These and a multitude of other, similar questions are still sorely lacking in many quarters. There’s plenty of talk in the big meetings that sounds good, but learning to ask, “Why are we doing this?” and “What will it look like when it’s done successfully?” and to apply the answers at the day-to-day, operational level—that will create profound results.

~ David Allen, p272, Getting Things Done circa 1989

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Eureka

But this moment cannot come without the days of frustration at the blackboard. “You can’t really blame the storytellers,” Rockmore writes, “It’s not so exciting to read ‘and then she studied some more.’ But this arduous, mundane work is a key part of the process.”

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2021/07/16/on-the-myth-of-big-ideas/

And Niels Bohr said something similar about Painful experience. And I bet your experience agrees. I know mine does.

Nobody sees how much time I spend working on podcasting. Every facet is complicated. I’m regularly noticing new things, picking up interesting skills and ideas from nearby areas of expertise. Structural wisdom from the field of authors. Empathic skills from the field of therapists. New kinds of questions from the field of hosts. New vocal skills from the field of speakers. And teachers and mechanics and on and on.

The eureka moments get the attention but they’re very few and very far between.

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Fan-boy mode, on

Neither our economy nor the demands of a life well-lived dictate that everyone should aspire to be sitting alone at a desk in rural Narashino, crafting literature to the light of the rising sun. My growing concern, however, is that such real commitment to thought has become too rare.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2021/06/16/haruki-murakami-and-the-scarcity-of-serious-thought/

I’ve read every post on Newport’s blog. I have both Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and Digital Minimalism is in my “priority” subset of my wishlist of books. (Yes, I am aware that I have problems.) But I’ll out myself: I’ve not read either of the two Newport books that I already have, and see no point brining the third into the mix until I do. But whining about my privileged-problem of having too many books, isn’t my theme here. Rather, I want to think about why is it “that such real commitment to thought has become too rare.” Because I totally agree that such is so.

(That’s all. I’m thinking about it, and now so are you.)

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Selection

In the most general sense, productivity is about navigating from a large constellation of possible things you could be doing to the actual execution of a much smaller number of things each day.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2021/04/20/the-productivity-funnel/

A decade ago, I was swamped by the sheer number things I could possibly do each day. In one sense, that’s a good problem to have. But good or bad problem, “swamped” and “drowning” are adjacent. I’d committed myself to far too many things. Large swaths of those “possible things” every day came with emotional baggage, and often with the self-imposed weight of “should.” And so I worked on that and eliminated all the negative things.

Unfortunately, selecting what to tackle each day remains just as challenging. I’ve a habit of creating a “page for today” that I scribble on early in the morning. As the day progresses, I cross things off, jot down notes, scribble things which I need to add to my other systems, etc.. Over the years, I’ve used various bits of random paper; for a time, I was using the back-side of all the printer paper from the recycle bin. I’ve used spiral notebooks, tablets, and even a custom spreadsheet, (which I printed on 8.5×11 paper and cut in half to make my own table of half-sheet daily schedule/grid.)

Recently, I realized that the size of the paper I was using was getting progressively smaller. I’m currently using a 3×5-size of Rhodia notebook. (These, if you’re interested. Durable, great paper, and, critically, every page is micro-perforated so I can tear out each day to start fresh the next day.) The sublime recipe of page size, line space, handwriting style and hours in the day goes a long way to keep my selection of what to do tending towards the possible. Whether the sheet for today feels cramped or airy is a good indication of what I’m setting myself up for.

And to be clear, I don’t plan every day into this little book early each morning. On the days when I’ve something big planned—a day trip to the beach, a long weekend away—I throw all structure to the wind. But most days I do.

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Don’t ask for advice

An important, but counter-intuitive, strategy we found essential in this style of research is to avoid simply asking people for advice. When you ask for advice, you’ll often get vague, unhelpful answers. Instead, you need to observe what the top performers in your field are actually doing differently. Act like a journalist not a protege. This can often yield surprising insights about what actually matters to move forward.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2017/01/16/are-you-working-in-your-career-or-on-your-career/

I’ve found this to be the case as well.

There are some people who give advice well. There are far more people who can give useful answers to good questions. Asking, “what do you think I should do,” isn’t going to get you useful guidance nearly as often as asking, “how did you do that.” You simply must do the hard work of figuring out whom to ask, and what to ask them.

In a recent conversation on the podcast, Thomas Droge brought up the idea of seeking younger persons to be your mentors; maybe not a formal mentorship relationship, but to be open to being a sort of stealth protege (my interpretation, not his words.) These two ideas dovetail: If you try to ask a younger person, literally, for advice, that’s not going to work well nearly as often as asking, “how did you do that?”

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Digital minimalism

To be a digital minimalist, in other words, means you accept the idea that new communication technologies have the potential to massively improve your life, but also recognize that realizing this potential is hard work.

~ Cal Newport, from https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2016/12/18/on-digital-minimalism/

That’s the most succinct description I can recall ever seeing.

“Realizing this potential is hard work,” is a sublime understatement. Tracy asked me for a password to something and we ended up in a deep rabbit hole of having to also share the security questions, and it’s tied to my cell phone and actually I don’t know what the password is because I forgot to store it (in my little password management tool) even though my browser had it remembered so I’d been logging in for . . . Complicated.

Obviously in the case of the password, it was worth the effort. But then, next minute, we’re faced with the newest social service, and this software and that software and on and on. Choosing the default of engaging with each thing is an already-lost war.

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Deeply held beliefs

This book is complicated and ambitious. But there’s one thread in particular that I think is worth underscoring. Crawford notes that the real problem with the current distracted state of our culture is not the prevalence of new distracting technologies. These are simply a reaction to a more fundamental reality: “[W]e are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to — that is, what to value.” In the absence of strongly-held answers to this question our attention remains adrift and unclaimed — we cannot, therefore, be surprised that app-peddlers and sticky websites swooped in to aggressively feast on this abundant resource.

~ Cal Newport, from https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2016/07/15/from-descartes-to-pokemon-matthew-crawfords-quest-to-reclaim-our-attention/

Turns out Crawford was interviewed by Brett McKay, another person I’ve often quoted here. I’ve not yet listened but the episode is Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.

Originally I thought “social media” itself was the problem. Eventually it became clear to me that social media is the symptom. People want to be fed saccharine lives through their phones because they’ve never been taught that they need to consciously make decisions about what’s important to them.

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Barely noticeable

The authors note that a core resource of the digital economy is the data produced by users of services like Facebook and Google, which can then be used to train machine learning algorithms to do valuable things like precisely targeting advertisements or more accurately processing natural language. The current market treats data as capital: the “natural exhaust from consumption to be collected by firms” for use in training their AI-driven golden gooses. Lanier and company suggest an alternative: data as labor. Put simply, if a major platform monopoly wants your data to help build a multi-billion dollar empire, they must pay you for it. Offering a free service in return is not enough.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2018/01/17/on-seriously-rethinking-the-digital-economy/

Well, that would change everything.

Imagine I changed the sidewalk in front of my house to have plates that moved slightly as one walks across it. I’ve rigged the plates to absorb some of the motion created during walking to generate electricity to offset my electric bill. Let’s assume further that the movement of the plates is barely noticeable. Perhaps something seems a bit “off” when you walk past my house, but nothing bad happens to you; you don’t fall and you don’t get tired, but you do work just a little harder when walking past my house.

What happens when we scale up that “harmless” little modification to include everyone, walking everywhere?

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Breathing Room

To abstain from all information about the world at this current moment would be a betrayal of your civic duty. On the other hand, to monitor every developing story in real time, like a breaking news producer, is a betrayal of your sanity.

~ Cal Newport from,
https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2020/08/25/focus-week-give-your-brain-some-breathing-room/

This tension is not only real, it’s necessary. You need to have this tension; it’s a critical component of how you assess the world by choosing what to filter in and what to filter out. The difficult part, of course, is if you don’t intentionally manage this balance.

How many things just pop in front of you each day? Are you happy with that amount?

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Seneca on Social Media

Over a billion people currently use Facebook — many at the cost of anxiety, lost honor, personal freedom, and certainly time. If asked why, however, many would reply, “why not?” The service is free, conventional wisdom tells us, so no matter how minor the benefits (which tend to orbit around a generalized fear of missing out), they’re still more substantial than the cost. But as Seneca points out, this assessment is misguided because it ignores the human toll of social media.

~ Cal Newport, from https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2016/03/11/seneca-on-social-media/

I generally try to suppress my urge to pounce on opportunities to talk about the well-known downsides of social networks. But a Seneca-CalNewport two-for-one is simply irrestible catnip for me. Here, Newport is referring to the value of one’s own time. That’s the human “toll” that so many people—as far as I can see at least—don’t factor in.

I think I am ready to give up fighting the fight; I’m done [or at least, I really should get a grip, and learn to be done] beating the drum about the evils of social networks. Know what I’m going to do instead? Double-down on creating things on the open web and let people decide what they want to do.

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