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.

ɕ

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?”

ɕ

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.

ɕ

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.

ɕ

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?

ɕ

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?

ɕ

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.

ɕ

Pseudo-Depth

The bottom line is that if you’re intrigued by depth, give real depth a try, by which I mean giving yourself at least two or three hours with zero distractions. Let the hard task sink in and marinate. Push through the initial barrier of boredom and get to a point where your brain can do what it’s probably increasingly craving in our distracted world: to think deeply.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/12/12/deep-habits-the-danger-of-pseudo-depth/

My mind loves to wander off. It often wanders off to familiar ideas. Ever have a small burr on a finger nail? You fiddle with it slightly, scuffing it with another nail. Some thoughts feel like that in my mind. Not a problem exactly—not bad enough that I’m going to get up for the nail file. But, none the less, there is this idea yet again. My fascination with rock climbing is one such idea. Why, exactly, does climbing fascinate me? I’ve spend many a CPU cycle recursively interrogating this question.

Upon reading Newport’s post, I find it has pointed me in a direction I’d not previously seen: Is it the deep focus found within the pursuit of rock climbing which draws me to it?

ɕ

Open loops

Jot down every loop that opens; whether it comes via email, or a phone call, or a Zoom meeting, or Slack. Because these loops might emerge rapidly, use a minimalist tool with incredibly low friction. I recommended a simple plain text file on your computer in which you can record incoming obligations at the speed of typing (a strategy I elaborate in this vintage post).

Then, at the beginning of each day, before the next onslaught begins, process these tasks into your permanent system. In doing so, as David Allen recommends, clarify them: what exactly is the “next action” this task requires? Stare at this collection before getting started with your work.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2020/07/23/on-confronting-the-productivity-dragon-take-2/

This two part process is the backbone of how I get things done. When I find I have too many ideas rattling in my head it’s time to do a bunch of “capture.” One’s mind is for having ideas not for holding them. I prefer to write things down rather than using a digital device. Yes, my phone [at least] is very often at hand—but I’m a digital import, not a native, so thumb-typing is torture.

Everyone agrees that capturing everything—whether digital or analog, notes, meeting minutes, thoughts, doodles, lists, everything… Capturing everything is important and useful.

But almost everyone has not fully apprehended that second part: Process that collection from yesterday. Every day review all the “captured” stuff and brutally assess it. Can I just ignore it/cross it off as done? Can I put that onto some other list (groceries, errands, etc.)? Why did I capture this? …is it a dream, a flaming urgency, something I want to think more about?

ɕ

Now the work begins

This is the lesser told story about the quest for elite accomplishment. It’s common to hear about the exciting initial phase where you’re terrible but motivated and therefore see quick returns. But so many people, like C. K., soon hit a plateau. They’re no longer bad. But they’re also not improving; stuck in a circle that doesn’t take them anywhere.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/09/07/how-louis-c-k-became-funny-and-why-it-matters/

But I’m still left with the question: How do I distinguish, putting in the effort, from, bashing myself on the rocks? Because I’ve got the work-ethic, put-in-the-effort, do-the-hard-work, thing down pat. What I don’t seem to have—in my opinion—is success. I’m certainly not enjoying life generally. It’s just long stretches of hating myself in the form of insanely hard work, with brief windows of relaxation.

ɕ