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2018-01-18T07:58:29.200Z
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A Self-Defeating Statement

Last week, Facebook posted an essay on their company blog titled: “Hard Questions: Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?” The statement confronts this blunt prompt, admitting that social media can be harmful, and then exploring uses that research indicates are more positive.

Here’s the relevant summary of their survey:

“In general, when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information — reading but not interacting with people — they report feeling worse afterward…On the other hand, actively interacting with people — especially sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions — is linked to improvements in well-being.”

From a social perspective, Facebook should be applauded for finally admitting that their product can cause harm (even if they were essentially forced into this defensive crouch by multiple recent high level defectors).

From a business perspective, however, I think this strategy may mark the beginning of the end of this social network’s ubiquity.

Concrete Competition

Until last week’s statement, Facebook’s messaging embraced an ambiguous mix of futurism and general-purpose positive feelings (their mission statement describes themselves as a tool “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” whatever that means).

The company promoted the idea that they’re a fundamental technology, as much a part of the fabric of society as electricity or the internet itself. From this foundation, it was easy for the company’s supporters to dismiss critics...

Analog Productivity

Bullet Journal (BuJo for short) is a personal productivity system invented by a product designer named Ryder Carroll. You can find a detailed introduction to BuJo on its official web site, but I can provide you the short summary here.

The system lives entirely within an old-fashioned paper notebook. Each day you dedicate a page of the notebook to a daily log in which you create a bulleted list of tasks and events. As the day unfolds, you use shorthand marks to indicate a task is complete or needs to be migrated to a different day.

You can also take brief notes about the day, and, if needed, hijack multiple pages for more extensive musing. The next daily log can live on the next available page. (This idea that you format notebook pages on demand instead of in advance is fundamental to BuJo.)

There are some standard pages most BuJo notebooks include in addition to the daily log entries. An index at the front of the notebook is used to keep track of how the pages are being used. You grow the index as you fill the notebook. Each month also gets its own monthly overview and task list that are used to inform how you schedule individual days. And so on.

A good way to think about BuJo is basically a less-rigid version of the Franklin Planner system.

BuJo for the Overloaded

A lot of readers have...

On Doing Less to Get More

Jocko Willink is an intimidating looking man (see above). He’s also intimidatingly impressive. He’s a former Navy Seal who was awarded a Bronze and Silver Star in Iraq while leading Task Force Bruiser: the most decorated special forces unit in that war. He recently wrote a business bestseller called Extreme Ownership and now does leadership consulting.

He has a new book out and its title caught my attention: Discipline Equals Freedom.

I haven’t read the book yet, but I did listen to Jocko’s interview with the always-sharp Ryan Michler. Here’s how Jocko explained his book’s theme early in the discussion:

“If you want freedom, then you need to have discipline…the more discipline you have in your life the more you’ll be able to do what you want. That’s not true initially; initially the discipline might be things you don’t want to do at the time, but the more you do things that you don’t want to do, the more you do the right things, the better off you’ll be and the more freedom you’ll have…”

Jocko’s examples of this idea in action mainly concerned personal development. More discipline with your finances, for example, will eventually yield more financial freedom, while more discipline with time management will allow you to do more interesting things with your time.

As I listened to the interview, however, I was struck by the thought that...

A Serious Consideration

In recent years, I’ve occasionally tackled an intriguing question: are distracting technologies partially to blame for our economy’s sluggish productivity numbers?

I’m often tentative about addressing this topic because I’m not an economist, and serious economists seem to have other explanations in mind (c.f., this column or this book).

This is why I was pleased when many of you forwarded me an article titled: “Is the economy suffering from the crisis of attention?” It’s written by Dan Nixon, a (serious) economist at the Bank of England.

In this article, Nixon explores the question I asked above. In doing so, he outlines two main “channels” through which the new technologies of the Network Age might impact economic productivity indicators:

  • Channel #1: These technologies can distract employees from their actual work. If you spend less time working, and more time skimming your Facebook newsfeed, you get less done.
  • Channel #2: These technologies can directly and permanently reduce the rate at which employees produce value using their brains. If your workflow requires you to constantly check emails, then your ability to create new value is dampened.

My suspicion is that the second channel is the main culprit. As I’ve argued before (c.f., this article I wrote for HBR.org), the front office IT revolution, in which we hooked knowledge workers together with high-speed communication networks, has been a mixed blessing.

We assumed that slow communication and inadequate information was a...

The Disconnected Craftsman

Christopher Schwarz is a master furniture maker. In addition to working on commissioned pieces in his Kentucky storefront, he’s the editor of a press that publishes books on hand tool woodworking. In his spare time, he researchers traditional woodworking techniques.

In short, Schwarz is a classic craftsman. If you want to ask him about his trade, however, you’ll have a hard time getting in touch. In 2015, he stopped using (public) email. And he has no intention of going back.

As Schwarz elaborated in a recent essay, this decision upset some customers, some of whom tried to find ways around his no email policy by tracking down his personal address, or using the customer service address for his publishing company.

Here’s Schwarz’s blunt response to these efforts:

Please don’t waste your breath, your fingers or your 1s and 0s. These messages are all simply deleted. I know deleting them might seem rude. And some of you have told us how rude you think it is in long rants… which get deleted.

As he then explained:

Trust me. It’s not you. It’s me. I had multiple public email addresses for 17 years and answered every damn question sent to me…It was all too much. I was spending hours each day answering emails. It cut into my time researching, building, editing and writing (not to mention time with my family).

So he quit: he deleted his inbox, then...

Leonardo’s Life Hack

Last month, Walter Isaacson released his big new biography of Leonardo da Vinci. I haven’t read it yet (though it’s inevitable I will). In the meantime, I listened to Brett McKay’s sharp podcast interview with Isaacson.

As the conversation winds down, McKay poses an intriguing question:

“[Leonardo] da Vinci lived 500 years ago, Twitter didn’t exit, Instagram didn’t exist, all these digital things that are distracting us, that make it hard to really observe, didn’t exist. So based on your research and writing on da Vinci: what can we learn from him about staying focused and observing intensely on things even in this crazy digital world that we live in?”

Isaacson, who spent years immersed in over 7000 pages of da Vinci’s brilliant, but also scattered and frenetic notebooks, dismissed the premise: “Yeah, he had distractions too.”

So how did da Vinci end up a creative genius still revered 500 years later? Here’s Isaacson’s explanation:

“What he was able to do is pause, and put things aside, and look at very ordinary things and marvel at them.”

In this observation about a past figure is a powerful suggestion for grappling with the endless information deluging our current moment. Technologies like the internet provide everyone the raw material to become a renaissance person, but to take advantage of this reality it helps to cultivate da Vinci’s ability to pause when something catches your attention, and to then...

A Conscientious Objection 

Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, was interviewed onstage yesterday at an event held by Axios at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The topic was cancer innovation, but the conversation turned at some point to Parker’s time at Facebook during its early years.

Perhaps emboldened by social media’s recent PR problems, Parker, who told Axios co-founder Mike Allen backstage that he had become a “conscientious objector on social media,” was unusually candid.

Here are some of his remarks (as reported this morning by Allen):

  • “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?'”
  • “And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.”
  • “It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
  • “The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”

As Parker left the stage, he joked that...

How to Live

In 1910, Arnold Bennett published a short volume titled How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. He was alarmed with the way the newly emergent British middle class seemed to waste their time outside of work. The average salaryman of this era doesn’t live, he noted, but instead “muddles through,” wasting time — that “inexplicable raw material of everything,” the supply of which “though gloriously regular is cruelly restricted.”

Bennett being Bennett decided he could tell these muddlers how to live better. So he wrote this guide.

I come back to this book from time to time. If you look past the standard Bennett snobbery and occasional dash of Victorian ornateness — “inexplicable raw material of everything”…really?  —  it’s both surprisingly pragmatic and relevant to all sorts of contemporary issues.

In my latest skim, for example, the following passage caught my attention. It’s Bennett’s summary of the standard post-work evening for a British white collar worker:

“You don’t eat immediately on your arrival home. But in about an hour or so you feel as if you could sit up and take a little nourishment. And you do. Then you smoke, seriously; you see friends; you potter; you play cards; you flirt with a book; you note that old age is creeping on; you take a stroll; you caress the piano…. By Jove! a quarter past eleven. You then devote quite forty minutes to thinking about going to...

Segment’s Focus Problem

Segment is a typical Silicon Valley success story. It’s a data analytics software company started by three MIT dropouts in 2011. Last year it raised $64 million in its Series C funding round.

Things at Segment, in other words, were going well — with one exception: their employees were having a hard time focusing. Concerned, the company ran an internal team survey and discovered that the “chatter and noise” in their industry-standard open office was the biggest cause of distraction (not surprisingly, “group slack channels” was the second biggest cause) .

So Segment decided to do something about it.

In a move that you could only expect from an advanced data analytics company, they programmed an iOS app to measure office noise levels and ran it on the iPads mounted outside the office’s conference rooms. They then crunched the resulting data and found that some parts of the office were more noisy than others, with the loudest areas around a factor of two louder than the quietest (see above image, in which red corresponds to loud and green to quiet).

Armed with this data, they rearranged the seating in their open office. As they described on their company blog:

“The teams needing the most verbal collaboration — Segment’s sales, support, and marketing teams — moved to the naturally louder parts of the office. The teams needing the most quiet — engineering, product, and design...

A Persistent Answer

Ben Orlin is a math teacher who publishes the clever essay blog, Math with Bad Drawings. Last year, Orlin had the opportunity, during a press conference at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, to ask a question of Andrew Wiles, the Princeton Professor (now at Oxford) who in 1994 finally solved Fermat’s Last Theorem.

As Orlin reports on his blog, he asked the following:

“You’ve been able to speak to an unusually wide audience for a research mathematician. What are some of the themes you’ve tried to emphasize when talking to a broader public?”

Wiles’s answer, according to Orlin, can be summarized in six words: “Accepting the state of being stuck.”

As Wiles elaborated, research mathematics unfolds as follows:

“You absorb everything about the problem. You think about it a great deal—all the techniques that are used for these things. [But] usually, it needs something else. So, you get stuck.”

At this point, he explains, “you have to stop…let your mind relax a bit…[while] your subconscious is making connections.”

Then you “start again.” Day after day. Week after week. Until, one day:

“You find this thing…Suddenly you see the beauty of this landscape…[before,] when it’s still some kind of conjecture, it seems really far away…[but now] it’s like your eyes are open.”

Wiles admitted that the enemy he fights against most is “the kind of message put out by, for example, the film Good Will Hunting.”

And, in particular, the idea...

Ive’s iConcern

At last week’s New Yorker TechFest conference, superstar Apple designer Jony Ive took the stage.

At some point during the presentation, Ive was offered a softball question about the ways the iPhone has changed the world. Ive’s response was surprising: “Like any tool, you can see there’s wonderful use and then there’s misuse.”

Asked what he meant by “misuse,” Ive responded: “perhaps, constant use.”

The fact that Jony Ive, the guy who designed the iPhone, is worried about the way people engage his creation, emphasizes an important point: there’s something broken about our current relationship with our technology.

Our culture was quick to accept the idea that we’d end up checking these things constantly. We shrug our shoulders and laugh about life in these modern times.

But Ive’s small statement sends a big message: you don’t have to accept this.

(Image by Kempton)

#####

When US Marine Akshay Nanavati returned from Iraq he struggled with fear. But instead of giving in to the negative forces dragging him down, he turned his life around. In his new book, FEARVANA, Nanavati tells his story and explains how anyone can follow his path in overcoming hard things in life. I was honored to blurb this book. If this topic resonates, find out more here.

A Social Experiment

If you, like many people, use social media and generally agree that it’s an important technology, try the following experiment.

Take out a piece of paper and list your most important uses for these services — the activities that social media is well-suited to provide and that unambiguously enrich your life. This list, for example, might include items like:

  • The ability to see new photos of your nephews, nieces, or grandchildren.
  • The Facebook Group used to run a local organization you belong to.
  • The  hashtag that keeps you up to date with the latest news from an activist movement that you support.

The social media industrial complex* likes to point to lists like these to justify its importance. “It would be crazy to dismiss our technology,” they cry, “look at all these useful things people do with it!”

But here’s the second part of the experiment: estimate honestly how much time it would take per week to satisfy these important uses. In my experience, for most people, the answer is around 15 – 30 minutes.

And yet, the average American adult social media user spends two hours per day on these services, with almost half this time dedicated to Facebook products alone.

This is the disconnect that the social media industrial complex doesn’t want you to notice. They want the conversation to stop at the assertion that social media isn’t useless, and then hope people move on without questioning the specific...

A Lonely Binge

I recently read three books on the topic of solitude. Two were actually titled Solitude, while the third, and most recently published, was titled Lead Yourself Firstwhich is pitched as a leadership guide, but is actually a meditation on the value of being alone with your thoughts.

This last book resonated with me in part because it was co-authored by a former Army officer and a well-respected federal appellate judge, meaning it’s written with the type of exacting logic and ontological clarity that warms my overly-technical nerd heart.

Style aside, Lead Yourself First makes many interesting points, but there were two lessons in particular that struck me as relevant to the types of things we talk about here. So I thought I would share them:

  • Lesson #1: The right way to define “solitude” is as a subjective state in which you’re isolated from input from other minds.
    When we think of solitude, we typically imagine physical isolation (a remote cabin or mountain top), making it a concept that we can easily push aside as romantic and impractical. But as this book makes clear, the real key to solitude is to step away from reacting to the output of other minds: be it listening to a podcast, scanning social media, reading a book, watching TV or holding an actual conversation. It’s time for your mind to be alone with your mind — regardless of...

Kevin Kelly and the Amish

Eight years after dropping out of college to wander Asia, Kevin Kelly returned home to America, bought an inexpensive bike, and made a meandering 5,000 mile journey across the country. As he recalls in his original and insightful 2010 book, What Technology Wants, the “highlight” of the bike tour was “gliding through the tidy farmland of the Amish in eastern Pennsylvania.”

Kelly ended up returning to the Amish on multiple occasions during the years that followed his first encounter, allowing him to develop a nuanced understanding of how these communities approach technology. As he reveals in Chapter 11 of his book, the common idea that the Amish reject all modern technology is a myth. The reality is not only more interesting, but it also has important implications for our current culture.

As Kelly puts it: “In any discussion about the merits of avoiding the addictive grasp of technology, the Amish stand out as offering an honorable alternative.”

Given such a strong endorsement, it seems worthwhile to briefly summarize what Kelly uncovered during these visits to rural Pennsylvania…

The Amish and Technology

“Amish lives are anything but anti-technological,” Kelly writes. “I have found them to be ingenious hackers and tinkers, the ultimate makers and do-it-yourselvers. They are often, surprisingly, pro-technology.”

He explains that the simple notion of the Amish as Luddites vanishes as soon as you approach a standard Amish farm. “Cruising down the road you...

Contemplating the Importance of Contemplation

Franklin Foer has a new book coming out this week. It’s titled, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.

I haven’t read it yet, but this morning, on returning from a family camping trip, I read Foer’s essay in today’s Washington Post and a recent interview with The Verge (as, of course, there’s no better time to contemplate the existential threat of technology than right after a weekend in the woods).

According to the interview in The Verge, Foer writes in the book: “the tech companies are destroying the possibility of contemplation.”

This premise is one I obviously support, having written an entire book on why we should fight to retain our diminishing ability for sustained attention.

But whereas my main issue with digital distraction was limited to issues of personal satisfaction and productivity, Foer, in elaborating his contemplation quote, goes much broader in his concern:

“We’re being dinged, notified, and clickbaited, which interrupts any sort of possibility for contemplation. To me, the destruction of contemplation is the existential threat to our humanity.” [emphasis mine]

In using this strong language, Foer is hitting on an increasingly urgent point that I’ve also seen fruitfully explored in Matt Crawford and Jaron Lanier’s humanist critiques of the attention economy.

Whereas I’m often focused on the immediate practical concerns of new technologies, an increasing number of thinkers like Foer, Crawford and Lanier are...

Not Open to Openness

Apple’s new Cupertino headquarters cost $5 billion (see above). One of its prominent features is a massive open office space in which many Apple engineers sit on benches at long shared work tables.

As Apple aficionado John Gruber revealed in a recent episode of his podcast, not everyone is happy with this decision.

“I heard that when floor plans were announced, that there was some meeting with Johny Srouji’s team,” said Gruber, before explaining that Srouji is an important senior vice president in charge of Apple’s custom silicon chips.

Srouji, to put it politely, was not pleased with the idea of moving his team to a cacophonous, distracting, cavernous open office.

As Gruber tells it:

“When he [Srouji] was shown the floor plans, he was more or less just ‘Fuck that, fuck you, fuck this, this is bullshit.’ And they built his team their own building, off to the side on the campus … My understanding is that that building was built because Srouji was like, ‘Fuck this, my team isn’t working like this.’”

To be clear, this story is just a rumor. But it smells right.

Designing silicon is a complicated, painstaking process that requires copious amounts of deep work. Nothing about it is helped by surrounding yourself with unrelenting disruption.

True or not, I like the broader point underscored by this rumor. In knowledge work, your primary capital investment is in human brains. If you’re...

When Writing is More than Writing

As a professor who also happens to opine publicly about productivity, I’m often invited to stop by dissertation bootcamps — a semi-annual ritual at many universities where doctoral students gather to hear advice and work long hours on their theses in an atmosphere of communal diligence.

Something that strikes me about these events is the extensive use of the term “writing” to capture the variety of different mental efforts that go into producing a doctoral dissertation; e.g., “make sure you write every day” or “don’t get too distracted from your writing by other obligations.”

The actual act of writing words on paper, of course, is necessary to finish a thesis, but it’s far from the only part of this process. The term “writing,” in this context, is being used as a stand in for the many different cognitive efforts required to create something worthy of inclusion in the intellectual firmament of your discipline.

In my own academic work, for example, these efforts include the general synthesis of trends in search of new openings, the struggle to read and understand existing papers, probing for a fresh attack on a problem, trying to work through the technical details needed to pull an argument together, and, of course, the careful grind required to write up the results clearly — each of which presents a unique mental experience and its own set of challenges.

The tendency for...

The iGen Problem

Many people recently sent me the same article from the current issue of The Atlantic. It’s titled, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, and it’s written by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University.

The article describes Twenge’s research on iGen, her name for kids born between 1995 and 2012 — the first generation to grow up with smartphones. Here’s a short summary of her alarming conclusions:

“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

I won’t bother describing all of Twenge’s findings here. If you’re interested, read the original article, or her new book on the topic, which comes out this week.

The point I want to make instead is that in my position as someone who researches and writes on related topics,  I’ve started to hear this same note of serious alarm from multiple different reputable sources — including the head of a well-known university’s mental health program, and a reporter currently bird-dogging the topic for a major national publication.

In other words, I don’t think this growing concern about the mental health impact of smartphones on young people is simply nostalgia-tinged, inter-generational ribbing.

Something really scary is probably going on.

My prediction is that we’re going to see a change in the next 2 – 5 years surrounding how parents...

The Reading Writer

As a writer I’m required to read lots of books, especially when ramping up a new project, as I am now. The picture above, for example, shows the books I’ve purchased only in the past two days.

I’ve already finished one of them.

My approach to the books I process in my professional life is quite different than my approach to the books I savor in my personal life. The former requires the ruthlessly efficient extraction of key ideas and citations, while the latter unfolds as a slower, more romantic endeavor.

I thought it might be interesting to briefly reveal the method I’ve honed over the years for my professional reading. It’s simple, and the basics should sound familiar to any serious nonfiction reader, but it has served me well.

Here’s the strategy:

  • I read with pencil in hand. Recently I’ve been using Ticonderoga #2 soft lead pencils as their footprint on the page is pleasingly gentle. But the writing implement doesn’t really matter, and I’ll fall back on a brutish ballpoint Bic if that’s all that happens to be available.
  • When I find a passage I want to remember, or an allusion or citation I might need, or a stylistic approach that catches my attention: I mark it in the margin.
  • Sometimes I scribble a few notations if I want to ossify a non-obvious observation or insight about what I’m marking.
  • Then — and this is the key optimization...