The science of hitting

The book contained a very interesting picture, of himself at-bat with the strike zone broke into 77 individual squares.

~ Farnam Street from,

I’m not a huge baseball fan, but I know enough to be impressed by what Ted Williams managed to do. I’ve had enough balls pitched at me, that the idea of even being able to know in a split second exactly where the baseball is going to be— …just click through and look at the graphic already. :)

What intrigued me about his idea of knowing—in real time, to the inch—what to literally swing at is the power of saying no writ explicitly and at high speed. I’m often thinking or talking about focus; talking about saying no to the right things to make space for the important yeses. But I’d never thought about intentionally practicing making the decision more quickly.


A long voyage

Would you think a man had traveled a long voyage if he had been caught in a savage gale immediately on leaving port and had been buffeted to and fro by alternate blasts from opposite directions so that he was running circles in the same spot? That man has had not a long voyage but a long floundering.

~ Seneca


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,

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.



These distractions aren’t just unproductive, they’re anti-productive. They create more work than they replace.

~ Mark Manson from,

I wish I had learned much sooner the idea that distractions aren’t just wasting the time spent on the distraction, but are in fact decreasing the value of the time I do try to spend on anything focused and productive. Alas, it took me decades of experimenting to deeply understand it for myself before I could truly learn the lesson. Manson’s article is, as usual, irreverent and explicit—but it has some terrific points in it about how to go about crafting an attention “diet” to take back your mind.

My mind does need a lot of down-time and relaxation. But none of that looks like distraction. I deeply love sitting down to some great science-fiction movie with popcorn. I also deeply love me some burly physical work where my mind can press the “body: do things” button and then wander out of the control room for a snooze on the terrace. (I imagine Homer Simpson’s sipping-bird left in the control room; but mine’s pressing the, “continue hard labor,” button rather than his nuclear reactor alarm reset.)


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,

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.



I maintained this illusion until, inspired by a stupidly expensive device that only does one thing, I taped my old phone to a bluetooth keyboard and began to write in offline mode. It was immediately a magical experience. It was so *quiet*. I could go on my porch and write and it was quiet. My thoughts got much larger because I wasn’t subconsciously afraid I’d interrupt them. I began to feel angry at my laptop. Why did it insist on hurting me so much? Why couldn’t it be pure like the offline phone/keyboard experience? Why couldn’t I just create things?

~ “Elizabeth” from,

Don’t worry, I’m not getting on my soapbox about distraction and being used by your phone and the Internet and social networks. Nope, definitely not getting on my soapbox.

Today, I’ve gotten my ladder and I’m climbing on my roof to preach right over your head—you nice people in my front lawn, who are smart enough to be reading, reading stuff that has paragraphs, from a site on the open web, even if you only subscribe to the email because you haven’t mastered RSS—nope not preaching at you, dearest choir of mine, not today.

But you people in the back… Can you not see the Oxo® easy-grip handles that extendeth from thine brains?! Can you not see the unwashed masses of people who labor for Facelessco et al to write software that grabs you by those handles?

What say you? WHAT? …sorry you have to yell, I can’t hear you so well from up here on my roof… Oh, you cannot in fact see the handles? …well, have you tried looking in the mirror? …uh, hello?! Where are you going? Oh yes, definitely check that message, and scroll through Instagram and I’ll just wait here on my roof.


Interrupt driven

Think about this question for a moment. The Apollo program was massive in size and complexity. It was executed at an incredible pace (only eight years spanned Kennedy’s pledge to Armstrong’s steps) and it yielded innovations at a staggering rate.

And it was all done without e-mail.

~ Cal Newport from,

Not just without email, but without computers or networks or cell phones or even hand calculators. They did it with paper, drafting tools and slide rules. Meetings, planning, and most importantly:


All these tools that I have are only useful if I understand how they work. When you first start working in some field, you get the most basic tools—two manual, screwdrivers; one straight-blade and one Philips head. When you can tell me why the Philips head was invented, you can have a hand driver with interchangeable driver heads (“bits.”) When you can use them all… When you see a screw-head and pick the right bit… When you’ve exhausted your forearm from driving screws, then you can have a power driver. When you use the friction clutch correctly, you can have a larger power driver. And so on. (You can tell the quality of the craftsman by the way they maintain their tools. Yes, skilled persons can do great work with shitty tools. But at mastery level, the art is expressed in the tools themselves. Yes, all arts.)

So yes, you really do need to understand the different between wifi, cellular and Ethernet; between Apple’s IM, carrier SMS, and WhatsApp; between email, Google Docs, and Word.

As Carl Sagan wrote, “We live in a society…


Serious work

Well, then, are we teachers the only idle dreamers? No; it is you young men who are much more so. For, indeed, we old men, when we see young ones at play, are keen to join in that play ourselves. Far more so, then, if I saw them wide awake and keen to join us in our studies, should I be eager myself to join with them in serious work.

~ Epictetus

Est provocationem

Today, I’m drawn to considering refinement of an idea I’ve mentioned a few times.

It’s clear to me that it’s impossible to be happy if my mind is unable to focus. Years ago, I regained my ability to intentionally focus, by disempowering the world—disabling as many as possible of the pathways for everything and everyone to actively grab my attention. Then I set about railing against everyone who has not yet regained their own ability to focus, (or perhaps, has never learned to focus.)

Internally, I often use an idea which I believe I stole from mathematical analysis. When facing some question, the idea is to find the largest contributor, and get a handle on that first; that’s the first-order item. Then find the next largest contributor, and get that second-order item sorted. And so on.

A few decades ago, the largest impediment to my being able to intentionally focus was external distraction. Having now sorted that first-order item, I can turn to the second-order item: Everyone’s inability to focus is polluting my attention. I remain easily distracted by others’ inability to focus.

Est provocationem!



Into the hands of every individual is given a marvelous power for good or evil—the silent, unconscious, unseen influence of his life. This is simply the constant radiation of what man really is, not what he pretends to be.

~ William George Jordan