Something new caught my attention this time through the book.
Kushner revealed that id’s ace coder, John Carmack, adopted an aggressive tactic to increase his effectiveness while working on his breakthrough Quake engine: Carmack, seeking a break from distraction, began to shift the start of his workday one hour at a time, until eventually he was starting his programming in the evening and finishing before dawn.
The uninterrupted depth provided by this odd habit allowed Carmack (with help from graphics guru Michael Abrash) to reinvent electronic entertainment with the first lightening fast, fully 3D PC game engine.
As I detail in an essay I wrote for Fast Company, a big factor in Pullman’s early 20th century problems would sound familiar to early 21st century ears: communication overload.
As Pullman president, John Runnells, explained, many departments were run with “confusing unrelated systems [that] had been spontaneously developed.”
The result is that everyone was a little involved in everything — disrupting their ability to do their primary work.
If you wanted something from the brass works, to cite an example given in the 1916 articles, you would go over to the brass works and bother someone you knew until you got what you wanted– distracting both of you from your main value-producing crafts.
As Runnells sagely observed, if you don’t build optimized systems to handle logistics, the effort simply gets offloaded, in an ad hoc and disruptive manner, to everyone: “and every man contributing by that much [to these organizational efforts] demoralized his own particular work by the interruption.”
Earlier this week, I listened to Brett McKay’s interview with Mike Rowe. As you’ll learn if you listen to the conversation, following his stint as the host of Dirty Jobs, Rowe has become an advocate for the trades.
In this interview, as in many others, Rowe argues that skilled labor (think: plumbing, welding) can be both satisfying and lucrative, and yet there are still somewhere around three million such jobs left unfilled in this country. He credits this gap largely to a contemporary culture that demonizes blue collar work and preaches the best path is always a college degree, followed, God willing, by a pair of Warby Parker glasses and a job as a social media brand manager.
(I might have added that last part.)
I always find Rowe’s thoughts on shifting American work cultures interesting, but there’s a phrase he often uses in these discussions that has recently begun to draw my attention: efficiency versus effectiveness.
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.
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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