Put simply, this principle claims that the details of the physical space in which you perform cognitive work can substantially increase the value of what you produce.
Many writers swear by location-boosted cognition. I include myself in this category (the above picture is from the mini-library I built in my new house to support my deep work.)
This shouldn’t be surprising. Writers make their living almost entirely based on the quality of their thoughts, so they tend to care a lot about maximizing what they get out of their brain.
A point I made at the end of my Winchester article, however, is that many other knowledge work endeavors might also benefit from leveraging location-boosted cognition.
Organizations that depend on elite-level thinking — tech companies, law firms, high-end advertising boutiques, and so on — already spend fortunes to hire and retain top talent, and to provide them access to the best information and tools, so it’s only natural that they might deploy extreme work environments to further increase productivity.
Unfortunately, this idea is plagued by logistical obstacles. As a reader noted in the comment thread of my Winchester post: “not everyone…has the resources or possibilites to buy a farm with a place like that [to work].”
He’s right. As our economy increasingly shifts toward advanced knowledge work, location-boosted cognition in the style practiced by writers like Simon Winchester simply doesn’t scale. There are only so many fantastical huts, forest sheds and personal libraries available for the aspiring deep workers of the world.
It’s here, however, that I want to return (tentatively) to an idea I first floated two years ago: using virtual reality (VR) to create similar immersive single-tasking experiences.
As I’ve noted many times on this blog, and argued in Deep Work, thinkers who produce unusually original and productive bodies of work often operate in environments that they specifically contrived to help support these cognitive efforts.
Winchester, I was pleased to recently discover, provides a nice case study of this rule in action.
“For the full month before I soloed El Cap, I erased all social media off of my phone…I [also] stopped responding to email so much that I stopped getting emails…”
Free soloing turns out to be an endeavor that’s as cognitively demanding as it is physically demanding. Honnold’s distraction-free month was about getting his mind into shape for the big climb.
Alex Honnold’s feats are clearly awe inspiring, but I’m mentioning him here for another reason: his cognitive training provides a hint about a major transformation that might soon upend the world of knowledge work.
A couple weeks ago, BuzzFeed leaked a memo written by Facebook VP Andrew “Boz” Bosworth in the summer of 2016. It contained the following controversial passage:
“[Connecting people] can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.
And still we connect people.
The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.”
The reaction to this memo has been muted by the larger data privacy issues afflicting Facebook at the moment, but those who did object, did so mainly on the grounds that Boz was being callous about the potential for this platform to cause harm.
In my opinion, however, this memo contains hints of an even more insidious mindset…
In late 2017, as part of my research for a book I’m writing on digital minimalism, I invited my mailing list subscribers to participate in an experiment I called the digital declutter.
The idea was simple. During the month of January, 2018, participants would take a break from “optional technologies” in their lives, including, notably, social media. At the end of the 31-day period, the participants would then rebuild their digital lives starting from a blank slate — only allowing back in technologies for which they could provide a compelling motivation.
I expected around 40 – 50 people would agree to participate in this admittedly disruptive exercise.
Since January, I’ve been reading through the hundreds of reports that participants sent me about their experience with the digital declutter. I’ve been learning a lot from these case studies, but I want to focus here on one observation in particular that caught my attention: when freed from standard digital distractions, participants often overhauled their free time in massively positive ways.
Here are some real examples of this behavior from my digital declutter experiment…
Last week, I wrote a blog post emphasizing the distinction between the social internet and social media. The former describes the internet’s ability to enable connection, learning, and expression. The latter describes the attempt of a small number of large companies to monetize these capabilities inside walled-garden, monopoly platforms.
My argument is that you can embrace the social internet without having to become a “gadget” inside the algorithmic attention economy machinations of the social media conglomerates. As noted previously, I think this is the right answer for those who are fed up with the dehumanizing aspects of social media, but are reluctant to give up altogether on the potential of the internet to bring people together.
The key follow up question, of course, is how to fruitfully engage with the social internet outside the convenient confines of social media. In my last post I pointed toward one possibility: the development of open social protocols that support the network effect usefulness of large social networks without a centralized company in charge.
This solution, however, requires that you wait for others to make progress on a somewhat complicated technological agenda.
In this post, I want to discuss two additional approaches that individuals can put in place right now to begin their transition from social media to the social internet.
The first approach provides an intermediate step — a way to minimize the worst effects of social media without fully leaving its ecosystem. The second approach describes a more severe separation.
I'm a computer science professor who writes about the intersection of technology and society. I’m particularly interested in the impact of new technologies on our ability to perform productive work and lead satisfying lives. If you’re new to my writing, a good place to start is the about page. You can access over a decade's worth of posts in the blog archive.
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