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March 14, 2016

"Deep Work:" How Twitter, Social Media, And Nonstop Distraction is Ruining Your Life and Keeping You From Succeeding

I read this Blake Seitz review of Cal Newport's Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, or part of it, on Friday. Then I bought it and read it.

It's good, but not great. Like most self-help books (I reckon -- I haven't read many), it's basically a mixture of stuff which is obvious, and advice which is very general.

The book promises a kind of how-to on building up your ability to concentrate and focus and do "deep work," the sort of cognitively-challenging work that makes people stand-outs at their jobs or in an academic field. But the most concrete advice it offers along these lines is a trick about how to memorize the order of a randomly-shuffled deck of cards (and that trick is the same sort of "make up a story" mnemonic that anyone who's tried to learn vocabulary has heard a dozen times).

The book is largely, then, sort of an artifact of aspiration: It aspires to teach, without quite doing so, people who aspire to have a skill, but don't have it.

Nevertheless -- and I assume this is the point of most self-help books -- it does succeed in nudging you to adopt better work habits and to start thinking more conscientiously -- more mindfully, as the mediation adherents might say -- about how you spend your very precious and very limited stores of time and attention.

Social media, particularly Twitter and FaceBook, are argued to be great impediments to focus, attention, and time. The human mind doesn't really naturally focus; it would rather be distracted with easy, lightweight nonsense.

Therefore any company whose main product is easy, lightweight nonsense is probably making themselves money by costing you money. Given the opportunity, your brain will want to stop thinking, stop really working in order to check out one's FaceBook likes and one's retweets on Twitter.

Therefore, a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition to working hard and thinking deeply is to rid oneself of such easy distraction bait.

Newport also makes some interesting points about people mistaking pure busyness for actual productivity, and notes that many businesses make the error of rewarding workers for appearing busy in a public manner (too many meetings, too many emails), because that's an easier thing to track, day by day, than actual productivity.

He urges people not to mistake mere "busyness" for productivity in their own lives. Finishing a bunch of low-priority, low-mental-load grunt-stuff sort of feels like an accomplishment -- boxes have been checked -- but he stresses that the mindful worker will keep asking himself:

How have I advanced my top-priority personal and career goals today?

Have I actually spent useful, mindful hours in service of those goals, or have I whiled away the hours by tricking myself into feeling that I've done "work" when in fact mostly what I did was vague, "shallow" work like "networking" and "keeping in (pointless) touch with clients"?

The book succeeds in confirming what many people sort of already feel, by providing more rigor and insight about these matters than most, probably, have managed in their own thinking.

Ultimately, while the book does not really tell you how to work more deeply, it does do what I guess is the main object -- convince you that you should start doing so, and make some useful (if often obvious) suggestions about some practical steps towards doing so.

One very useful (if obvious, once you think about it) suggestion is that one should determine, say, how many hours one wants to work for the day, and what one wants to achieve in those hours; and then, working backwards from that goal, figure out exactly what should be done and what cannot be done during that period. If one has a goal to be a success and yet work no more than 9 hours a day, for example, one has to be pretty ruthlessly efficient during those nine hours, and one can't spend much time at all pursuing distractions.

Eh, I guess I'd recommend this book. For a long time I thought I was wasting time with Twitter. I already decided I was, and that it wasn't contributing positively to my life or my work. Quite the opposite. Beyond that, the book has given me a short-term burst of encouragement towards trying to become more organized and disciplined. We'll see how that goes.

The next book I'm probably going to read is The Shallows, a book frequently referred to in Newport's book, arguing that the constant, pointless distraction of the internet is re-shaping our brains to have attention deficit. I believe this is probably true: I know in my own life, for the past couple of years, I have found it actually difficult to read books. My mind kept wandering in the middle of paragraphs or sentences.

It was like my brain was looking for a New Shiny Link to click on.

Since I've quit Twitter, I've found some improvement on this score. I read this Newport book this weekend, and half of Walter Lord's classic Alamo history, A Time to Stand.

Eh, not bad.

Hopefully I'll continue improving in sharpening my ability to do that which once came semi-naturally. (Semi -- I was never actually good at focusing. Just better at it than I am now.)


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posted by Ace at 02:26 PM

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