A reader recently pointed me toward a 2014 interview with Jerry Seinfeld on Alec Baldwin’s Here’s The Thing. Around 34 minutes into the conversation, Seinfeld provides a fascinating insight into the success of his eponymous television show:
“Let me tell you why my tv series in the 90s was so good, besides just an inordinate amount of just pure good fortune. In most tv series, 50 percent of the time is spent working on the show, 50 percent of the time is spent dealing with personality, political, and hierarchical issues of making something. We spent 99 percent of our time writing. Me and Larry [David]. The two of us. The door was closed. It’s closed. Somebody calls. We’re not taking the call. We were gonna make this thing funny. That’s why the show was good.”
Lurking in this quote is a lesson that applies well beyond the world of entertainment.
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…
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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