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.
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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