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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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?

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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?

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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.

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Sabbaticals are not the solution

What is it about digital addictions that make us think the occasional break will suffice?

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/09/03/digital-sabbaticals-dont-make-sense/

Weekly sabbaticals make now sense, sure. But less frequent sabbaticals are powerful. Take a week off from—whatever, email, social networks, etc.—and your addictions are made obvious. Nothing surprising there. The question is: Do you then consciously bring the addicting drug back into your life?

That’s not hyperbolic soapboxing; That’s a real question for you to consider.

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Mindful communication

With few exceptions, e-mail use arose organically within organizations, with little thought applied to how digital communication might best serve the relevant objectives.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/06/18/the-e-mail-productivity-curve/

As usual, this is an interesting article from Newport. He proposes a productivity curve for email—how productive we are without, with-some, with-more, with-too-much—which explains perfectly why some people love email and some people hate it.

The key point about email is to use it intentionally. Not simply one’s own use; not simply, “I only check my email twice a day,” or, “I’m always at ‘inbox zero.'” The key is to deploy email wisely, in a way which increases productivity of a team, (family, community, whatever.) If adding email into the mix is going to increase productivity, then do so. Then zoom out and look at all your other communication tools, and perform the same calculus. Email is simply one example of a tool which initially [hopefully] increases productivity, but too-soon becomes a detriment.

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Baseball

If I stick with it, however, my mind eventually downshifts — quieting the noisy neuronal clamoring for easy entertainment, and leaving instead an unencumbered attention of a type that I often seek in my work.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/04/11/deep-habits-listen-to-baseball-on-the-radio/

Once or thrice I’ve heard a baseball game on the radio. This would have been back in the 80’s when with some neighborhood friends—brothers, whose father was a plumber—we’d occasionally ride to a baseball game. The kind of game where we were playing as kids; semi-organized little league games at random churches’ baseball fields scattered around the Pennsylvania rolling hills. A homerun into left-field was in the graveyard and into right-field was in the corn field. I can’t convey in writing what it sounded like riding in the truck with the radio on; some combination of a monotonous announcer with a touch of crowd noise, a big ‘ol truck engine—this was the plumbing truck full of plumbing supplies in the back—a 5-speed manual floor shift and 3 rowdy kids with the windows rolled down and the smell of fields and manure and baseball gloves.

I think I had something else to say about baseball and focus when I started typing. But I forget what it was.

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All of humanity’s accrued knowledge

As I elaborated in last week’s episode of my podcast, Neil Postman argues that it was the introduction of mass-produced longform writing that really unleashed human potential — ushering in the modes of critical, analytical understanding that birthed both the enlightenment and the scientific revolution, the foundations of modernity. It allowed us to efficiently capture complex thought in all its nuance, then build on it, layer after layer, nudging forward human intellectual endeavor.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2020/06/27/on-the-exceptionalism-of-books-in-an-age-of-tweets/

I’ve often ranted against lack of attention-span, and wasted time. But Newport, and in particular some things he’s quoting and talking about from another article, make the point that all of human history is encoded in written form. Why is that so? Because it works, and it works really well.

There is a place for visual and auditory information, of course. Those tools of communication are power tools compared to writing—well, almost all writing. As I’ve said many times here though: One can have the power tools after demonstrating mastery with the manual hand-tools.

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I am the elephant

Ever since I first read these words, they stuck with me as useful for understanding the working world in particular. The whole edifice that we now call “productivity advice” distills, I realized, to instructions for cajoling the elephant. If you’re not firm, it’ll do what it wants to do.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2014/12/07/deep-habits-never-plan-to-get-some-work-done/

Plan? Do? Chaos? I get so swept up in systems that sometimes I just bridle and rebel. I think the problem comes up when I have too many systems that don’t have an end goal. My systems are supposed to make the space for me to get real things done. But if all I have is ongoing systems of the busy-work that’s supposed to make space, then I rebel. Because I also need real projects. I want to spend as much of my time as possible getting real things done. Real things for which I have real reasons for wanting to do them. And those real things require real planning.

Generally, I don’t have a problem with over-planning; I can do a tremendous amount of planning, but experience shows that I always do better if I resist the urge to begin… start now! Take action! It’s always better if I resist action, instead doing a brain-dump session and then setting the whole thing aside. When I return later, more ideas flow and more planning ensues. Maybe a third session. Maybe even a fourth.

Meanwhile, the elephant dozes as I plan surreptitiously.

Ever notice that the “doze” in bulldozer is the exact opposite of the elephant’s? Eventually, the planning reveals a beautiful domino setup, and it’s time to awaken the elephant who easily bulldozes them one by one.

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