As longtime readers know, I enjoy tracking down the deep work habits of well known and highly accomplished individuals. This is why I was happy to recently stumble across a pair of interviews (here and here) in which the novelist John Grisham describes his professional routines.
In March, writer Patrick Rhone posted a notice that he was taking a break from online publishing to work on his next book.
“This includes my websites and social media accounts,” he explained. “No blog posts, no tweets, no status updates.”
He concluded: “I’m nonline.”
This adjective caught my attention as I hadn’t heard it before. Here’s the definition Rhone linked to in his notice:
nonline (adj.): No longer found on, made available to, or primarily accessed or contacted through the Internet.
I like this phrase and hope it catches on as something that more and more people feel empowered to use to untether from digital distraction as needed.
Perhaps more important than the phrase itself is the trend it represents. Cultural revolutions, like the one we’re currently experiencing courtesy of the internet, are disorienting at first. New vocabulary — like nonline, or deep work, or attention merchants — can play a key role in helping people sort through this confusion and figure out how best to react and thrive in a changing world.
When James Michener was writing his epic 1978 novel, Chesapeake, he didn’t have to travel far for inspiration. At the time he lived in an old house, nestled on 25 acres, near the Choptank river on a creek that emptied into the eastern waters of Chesapeake Bay.
“He loved the sounds of the place,” explained Michener friend and collaborator Errol Lincoln Uys. “He would take long walks out to the end of the dock and stand there while he tried to figure something [about the book] out. He loved the sounds of the migrating ducks. He loved the nature of the place.”
By the time a couple from Baltimore bought the house from Michener in 1995, the novelist was long gone. In the early 1980s, he moved to Austin, to immerse himself in the rhythms of the Lone Star State while writing Texas.
These were not the only times Michener used location to inspire his work. After Texas, he moved temporarily to Sitka, Alaska, to work on his novel Alaska, and his original epic, Hawaii, was written during a period when Michener lived on the island.
There’s something aspirational about this idea of deploying grand gestures (to use a term from Deep Work) to push forward creative endeavors. I’m bringing it up here, however, because I think there’s a subtle point lurking in Michener’s nomadism that’s relevant to knowledge work in general…
Steampunk began as a fiction genre that imagines alternative histories in which technology never moves past the steam-driven industrialism of the Victorian Age. It portrays worlds ruled by retro-futuristic inventions, like heavy-geared automata and whirring Babbage-style mechanical computers.
It has since expanded into its own aesthetic, impacting both fashion and design, as well as a thriving community of makers who retrofit 21st century artifacts with the stained woods and brass knobs of the 19th century (c.f., the above picture of a steampunk modem).
One reason steampunk resonates is its intuitive physicality. Our modern world of plastic cases and digital chips is mysterious and sterile. A steampunk contraption, by contrast, is driven by pistons and valves that match our mental schema for how things function in the physical world.
This physicality is appealing (an idea fleshed out thoughtfully in Matthew Crawford’s wonderful manifesto: Shop Class as Soulcraft). Put simply, we’re attracted to things whose function we can concretely grasp.
It’s been a while since I’ve geeked out here on Study Hacks about the latest productivity hack to earn my enthusiasm. So it’s with some excitement that I bring up my latest favorite tip: the inbox sort folder.
It’s not uncommon for me to go two or three days without seeing my email inbox. When I subsequently return, the volume of its contents can be overwhelming. The inbox sort folder method is something I stumbled into that helps me tame this mess.
Tim Ferriss’s first book, The 4-Hour Workweek (4HWW), has been selling well in hardcover for almost a decade. In this time, it has resonated with so many audiences, and inspired so many trends, that it’s easy to forget the topic that first put the book on the cultural map: email.
In the spring of 2007, right around the time 4HWW was published, Tim gave a talk to a packed room at the SXSW conference. Though he covered many topics in the speech, there was one suggestion in particular that caught his audience’s attention: you should only check email twice a day (and explain this to your correspondents in an autoresponder).
This twice-a-day strategy created a buzz at SXSW: major business bloggers began to write about Ferriss, and his book soon became a phenomenon in Silicon Valley (the epicenter of communication overload). It was largely on this platform that 4HWW began to lay the foundations for its massive audience.
In 2009, tech investor Paul Graham published an influential essay titled “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.” In this piece, he argued that the best types of schedules for people who makes things are different than the best schedules for those who manage things.
As Graham elaborates:
“The manager’s schedule is…embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour…”
“…But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”
He then delivers the key conclusion: “When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster.”
Though Graham doesn’t mention it specifically in the essay, we might add that the need to keep up with an inbox or chat channel can be equally disastrous to a maker. The constant context switching, as we now know from research, also prevents the maker’s brain from fully engaging the creative task at hand.
In the years since this essay was published, it has spread widely. The (slightly modified) terms maker schedule and manager schedule are well-known, and most people who deal with both types of workers agree that Graham is speaking the truth: if you want someone to make something valuable, they’ll be most effective if you let them work in long, uninterrupted chunks.
But here’s the thing: almost no organizations support maker schedules.
I'm a computer science professor who writes about how to perform productive, valuable, and meaningful work in an increasingly distracted digital age. If you're new to Study Hacks, a good place to start is the blog archive or my new book on the power of deep work.
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