September 3rd, 2015 · 25 comments
The Digital Sabbatical
The idea of a “digital sabbatical” is relatively recent: the earliest traces I can find date to 2008 (e.g., this dated gem from CNN). Its popularity, however, has skyrocketed since then.
The mechanics of a digital sabbatical are simple: you set aside a period of time — typically on the scale of days — where you refrain from using some subset of your standard digital network tools.
Many reasons are given for these sabbaticals. Some seem contrived, like boosting creativity or losing weight, but most people understand the real appeal of this behavior: their digital lives consume and ultimately exhaust them, and they crave a break.
As Pico Iyer put it: “It’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole.”
To me, however, this idea never quite made sense.
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August 14th, 2015 · 47 comments
The Planning Pitfall
Daily plans are tricky.
As I’ve long maintained, if you don’t give your time a job, it will dissipate in a fog of distracted tinkering. Simply having a to-do list isn’t enough: you need to provide the executive center of your brain a more detailed target to lock onto.
There is, however, a pitfall with this productivity strategy that I stumble into time and again: it’s easy to start associating “success” for your day with accomplishing your plan exactly as first envisioned, and to label any other outcome as a “failure” — a belief that triggers near constant frustration for most jobs.
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August 5th, 2015 · 47 comments
The Einstein Myth
The story has become lore.
Albert Einstein was a rebellious student who chafed against traditional schooling and earned bad grades. After his university education, his brilliance was overlooked by a conformist academy who refused to give him a professorship. Broke and unemployed, Einstein settled for a lowly job as a patent clerk.
But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Free from the bonds of conventional wisdom, he could think bold, original thoughts that changed the world of physics.
The reality, of course, is more complicated.
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July 28th, 2015 · 24 comments
The Wondrous Water Wheel
Writing in the first century B.C., Anitpater of Thessalonica made one of the first known references to the water wheel:
“Cease from grinding, ye women who toil at the mill; sleep late even if the crowing cocks announce the dawn. For Demeter has ordered the Nymphs to perform the work of your hands, and they, leaping down on the top of the wheel, turn its axle….we taste again the joys of the primitive life, learning to feast on the products of Demeter without labor.”
I recently encountered this quote in Lewis Mumford’s seminal 1934 book, Technics & Civilization. As Mumford points out (drawing some on Marx), the striking thing about Anitpater’s reference to the water wheel is how its beneficiaries responded: This tool reduced their labor, so they reinvested that time in non-labor activities (“sleep late even if the crowing cocks announce dawn”).
This is a point that Mumford makes elsewhere in the book: in many times and cultures (and especially in ancient Greece), there was a notion of the right amount of work to support your profession. Once you reached that level, you were expected to turn your remaining attention to other matters like food, play, politics, and the intellectual life.
If new tools helped you reach that level sooner, then you had that much more time to yourself.
Labor and Culture
This idea caught my attention for two reasons.
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July 8th, 2015 · 27 comments
The Curse of Process Inefficiency
A couple weeks ago, I posted some ideas about why we have such a love/hate relationship with e-mail. In this post, I want to return to the conversation with a thought on how we might improve matters.
I argue that a major problem with our current e-mail habits is interaction inefficiency.
In more detail, most e-mail threads are initiated with a specific goal in mind. For example, here are the goals associated with the last three e-mails I sent today before my work shutdown:
- Getting advice from my agent on a publishing question.
- Moving a meeting to deal with a scheduling conflict.
- Agreeing on the next steps of a project I’m working on with Scott Young.
If you study the transcripts of most e-mail threads, the back and forth messaging will reveal a highly inefficient process for accomplishing the thread’s goal.
There’s a simple explanation for this reality. When most people (myself included) check e-mail, we’re often optimizing the wrong metric: the speed with which you clear messages.
Boosting this metric feels good in the moment — as if you’re really accomplishing something — but the side effect is ambiguous and minimally useful message that cause the threads to persist much longer than necessary, devouring your time and attention along the way.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. For example, look at this terrible reply to a meeting request that I actually sent not long ago:
I’m definitely game to catch up this week.
Ugh. As I sent the above I knew that in the interest of replying as quickly as possible, I probably tripled the number of messages required before this meeting came to fruition.
What’s the solution?
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June 26th, 2015 · 25 comments
Last winter, I posted a quote from Barack Obama where he discusses his commitment to honing his craft. Earlier this week, we received more evidence of this presidential craftsmanship.
With three minutes and twenty seconds left in his interview with Marc Maron, (released Monday), Obama said the following:
The more you do something, and the more you practice it, at a certain point it becomes second nature. What I’ve always been impressed with about when I listen to comics talk about comedy is how much of it is a craft. Right? They’re thinking it through, and they had a sense of when it works and when it doesn’t. The longer you do it the better your instincts are.
A strong endorsement for the simple pleasure of putting in the hours to do something well.
(Image from Humans of New York.)
June 18th, 2015 · 15 comments
A Mixed Response
Late last year, Pew Research found that online workers identified e-mail as their most important tool, beating out both phones and the Internet by sizable margins. Almost half of the workers surveyed claimed that the technology made them “feel more productive.”
As Pew summarized: “[e-mail] continues to be the main digital artery that workers believe is important to their job.”
Around the same time this research was released, however, Sir Cary Cooper, a professor of organizational psychology, made waves at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference by identifying British workers’ “macho,” always-connected e-mail culture as a factor in the UK’s falling productivity (it now has the second-lowest productivity in the G7).
Cooper went so far as to advocate companies shutting down their e-mail servers after work hours and perhaps even banning all internal e-mail communication.
This bipolar reaction to e-mail — either it’s fundamental to success or terrible — extends beyond research circles and often characterizes popular conversations about the technology.
So what explains this oddly mixed reaction?
I propose that the productivity curve at the top of this post provides some answers…
The E-mail Productivity Curve
The above curve shows the rise and fall of productivity (y-axis) as e-mail use (x-axis) increases from a minimum of no e-mail to a theoretical maximum of non-stop e-mail use.
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June 16th, 2015 · 21 comments
Three Measures of Success
I’ve been thinking recently about the metrics we use to measure success when pursuing self-motivated ambitions. These metrics tend to fall into three major categories, which I’ll list from easiest to hardest to achieve:
- Participation Metrics: The goal here is to simply invest regular time toward the ambition. For example, if you want to become a writer, this might involve creating a daily writing ritual.
- Unconventional Custom Metrics: The goal here is now clarified to specify concrete outcomes, but these outcomes tend to be custom-built and not widely recognized as marks of success in the field. Returning to our writer example, a custom path to success might steer toward self-publishing, with much of your focus now directed on mastering the technical mechanics of Scribner, KDP, freelance cover designs, and well-paced e-mail marketing campaigns.
- Conventional Competitive Metrics: The goal here is to achieve outcomes that are widely recognized as impressive. In our writer example, this might be a big book deal with a major publisher.
The Power of Competition
When it comes to the three categories from above, I think the first category is reasonable for dabbling with a topic, but it won’t take you much farther than that, so you shouldn’t be satisfied with this measure of success for too long.
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