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Sebastian Junger Never Owned a Smartphone (and Why This Matters)

February 17th, 2018 · 43 comments

Junger’s Radical Simplicity

Last November, journalist Sebastian Junger appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast. The conversation lasted over two hours, but it was the first two minutes that caught my attention:

Joe: You have a real flip phone?

Sebastian: I do have real flip phone.

Joe: And you said you didn’t go back to it, you never left…

Sebastian: I never left her.

Joe: You never went, like, iPhone…Android…never?

Sebastian: No, I never even thought about it

Joe: There’s no draw at all? Using the internet, answering email?

Sebastian: Well, I have a laptop at home and I do access the internet, yes.

Joe: But when you’re out, you don’t want to mess with it?

Sebastian: No, when I’m out, I want to be out in the world. If you’re looking at your phone, you’re not in the world, so you don’t get either…I just look around at this — and I’m an anthropologist, and I’m interested in human behavior — and I look at the behavior, like literally, the physical behavior with people with smartphones and…it looks anti-social and unhappy and anxious, and I don’t want to look like that, and I don’t want to feel like how I think those people feel.

Joe: Wow, that’s deep. I’m a junkie.

In addition to being provocative, this exchange is important because it presents a cogent example of a new type of thinking I’m pleased to see gaining prominence in our cultural discussion surrounding technology.

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Facebook’s Desperate Smoke Screen

February 9th, 2018 · 31 comments

Soros vs. Facebook

One of the big headlines from last month’s World Economic Forum at Davos was a scathing speech delivered by George Soros. The billionaire philanthropist and liberal activist decried what he saw as multiple threats to open society in our current moment, including the rise of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, and the behavior of the Executive here at home.

Not surprisingly, what caught my attention was when Soros directed his ire toward social media.

As John Cassidy reports in the New Yorker, Soros suggested that these “tech giants”, in addition to “making excessive profits and stifling innovation,” were “causing larger social and political problems.”

Soros began with the social problems, noting that social media companies “deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide,” acting like casinos that “have developed techniques to hook gamblers to the point where they gamble away all their money, even money they don’t have.”

He then turned to the political problems, arguing that these companies have an undue ability to influence people’s behavior by leveraging their massive data stores to precisely target messages that nudge users in specific directions.

This is nothing less, Soros claims, than a theft of citizens’ autonomy. “People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated.” (See Jaron Lanier’s new book for an eloquent investigation of this idea.)

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On Simple Productivity Systems and Complex Plans

February 2nd, 2018 · 38 comments

BuJoPro No More

Last month, I wrote a post about the popular bullet journal (BuJo) personal productivity system. In this article, I pontificated on a potential variation I called BuJoPro that I thought might better accomodate the demands of high intensity jobs.

BuJoPro appealed to me because it promised to unite my disparate and admittedly ad hoc systems into one elegant notebook. I liked the idea of having a single analog artifact I could carry with me and whip out, at any point, to efficiently tweak the levers that control the many moving parts of my life.

Enamored by my own hype, I then spent a couple weeks trying out this new breakthrough concept.

It was not a success.

I’ve since abandoned BuJoPro and returned to my old creaky productivity system that consists of Black n’ Red notebooks for daily plans, printouts of plain text files for weekly plans, and a collection of emails sent to myself describing temporary plans and experimental heuristics.

I learned an important lesson from this experience: there’s a difference between simplifying the complexity of your productivity systems and simplifying the complexity of your plans.

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Alexander Hamilton’s Deep Advice

January 29th, 2018 · 80 comments

Deep Advice from a Founding Father

In the year 1800, Alexander Hamilton sent his son Philip the following letter, which laid out a set of rules that Philip should follow to make the most out of his legal training after his graduation from Columbia College:

Rules for Mr Philip Hamilton[:] from the first of April to the first of October he is to rise not later than six o’clock—The rest of the year not later than Seven. If Earlier he will deserve commendation. Ten will be his hour of going to bed throughout the year.

From the time he is dressed in the morning till nine o clock (the time for breakfast Excepted) he is to read Law.

At nine he goes to the office & continues there till dinner time—he will be occupied partly in the writing and partly in reading law.

After Dinner he reads law at home till five o’clock. From this hour till seven he disposes of his time as he pleases. From seven to ten he reads and studies what ever he pleases.

From twelve on Saturday he is at Liberty to amuse himself.

On Sunday he will attend the morning Church. The rest of the day may be applied to innocent recreations.

He must not Depart from any of these rules without my permission.

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On Seriously Rethinking the Digital Economy

January 17th, 2018 · 21 comments

A Diamond in the Economic Rough

Two weeks ago, the American Economic Association held its annual meeting in Philadelphia. Spread over three days and two different hotels, this conference included over 500 sessions.

Buried in the program, during the morning on the last day, was a grab bag paper session titled Radically Rethinking Economic Policy. The final paper discussed in this session should command our attention, because its coauthors include, in addition to four well-respected economics researchers, someone who I’ve long promoted as one of the most brilliant and outrageous thinkers pondering the digital world: Jaron Lanier.

The paper, which is titled “Should We Treat Data as Labor? Moving Beyond ‘Free’,” translates the basic premises of Lanier’s 2013 book, Who Owns the Future?into more precise economic terminology.

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On the Rise of Digital Addiction Activism

January 13th, 2018 · 30 comments

The First Stirrings of a New Activism

The investment funds run by Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System hold a combined $2 billion in Apple stock. This ensured the business community took notice when earlier this week, these investors sent a letter to Apple expressing concern about the impact of the tech giant’s products on young people.

To quote the letter:

“More than 10 years after the iPhone’s release, it is a cliché to point out the ubiquity of Apple’s devices among children and teenagers, as well as the attendant growth in social media use by this group. What is less well known is that there is a growing body of evidence that, for at least some of the most frequent young users, this may be having unintentional negative consequences.”

The investors go on to make several recommendations, including the convening of a committee of experts to study the issue, the introduction of better parental controls, and the funding of more research.

This letter received significant coverage this week so I don’t want to belabor its points or overhype its significance ($2 billion doesn’t provide that much leverage against a $900 billion Apple market cap).

But I’ve been asked about it quite a bit, so I thought I would share a few initial reactions…

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The End of Facebook’s Ubiquity?

December 21st, 2017 · 31 comments

A Self-Defeating Statement

Last week, Facebook posted an essay on their company blog titled: “Hard Questions: Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?” The statement confronts this blunt prompt, admitting that social media can be harmful, and then exploring uses that research indicates are more positive.

Here’s the relevant summary of their survey:

“In general, when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information — reading but not interacting with people — they report feeling worse afterward…On the other hand, actively interacting with people — especially sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions — is linked to improvements in well-being.”

From a social perspective, Facebook should be applauded for finally admitting that their product can cause harm (even if they were essentially forced into this defensive crouch by multiple recent high level defectors).

From a business perspective, however, I think this strategy may mark the beginning of the end of this social network’s ubiquity.

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BuJoPro: Thoughts on Adapting Bullet Journal to a Hyper-Connected World

December 15th, 2017 · 36 comments

Analog Productivity

Bullet Journal (BuJo for short) is a personal productivity system invented by a product designer named Ryder Carroll. You can find a detailed introduction to BuJo on its official web site, but I can provide you the short summary here.

The system lives entirely within an old-fashioned paper notebook. Each day you dedicate a page of the notebook to a daily log in which you create a bulleted list of tasks and events. As the day unfolds, you use shorthand marks to indicate a task is complete or needs to be migrated to a different day.

You can also take brief notes about the day, and, if needed, hijack multiple pages for more extensive musing. The next daily log can live on the next available page. (This idea that you format notebook pages on demand instead of in advance is fundamental to BuJo.)

There are some standard pages most BuJo notebooks include in addition to the daily log entries. An index at the front of the notebook is used to keep track of how the pages are being used. You grow the index as you fill the notebook. Each month also gets its own monthly overview and task list that are used to inform how you schedule individual days. And so on.

A good way to think about BuJo is basically a less-rigid version of the Franklin Planner system.

BuJo for the Overloaded

A lot of readers have asked me about BuJo so I thought I would share some thoughts.

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