May 4th, 2017 · 24 comments
The Steampunk Phenomenon
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.
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April 27th, 2017 · 22 comments
Back to Basics
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.
The idea is simple…
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April 21st, 2017 · 40 comments
A Deep Season Begins
Now that we’re entrenched in spring I can indulge one of my favored deep work training routines: listening to baseball on the radio.
America’s pastime unfolds slowly. The experience of listening to a game lacks the rapid, shiny stimuli that defines so much modern entertainment.
This is important. The more comfortable you become in the absence of such distractions, the easier you’ll find it to persist in the non-stimulating (but satisfying) pursuit of depth.
Baseball on the radio also requires sustained concentration. To really understand what’s happening in the game, you need to have followed every pitch in the inning that led to the current moment.
This requires that you to hold your attention on a single target for an extended period of time: another effective exercise to sharpen your ability to focus.
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April 13th, 2017 · 21 comments
Tim Ferriss’s first book, The 4-Hour Workweek (4HWW), has been selling well in hardcover for almost a decade. In this time, it has resonated with so many audiences, and inspired so many trends, that it’s easy to forget the topic that first put the book on the cultural map: email.
In the spring of 2007, right around the time 4HWW was published, Tim gave a talk to a packed room at the SXSW conference. Though he covered many topics in the speech, there was one suggestion in particular that caught his audience’s attention: you should only check email twice a day (and explain this to your correspondents in an autoresponder).
This twice-a-day strategy created a buzz at SXSW: major business bloggers began to write about Ferriss, and his book soon became a phenomenon in Silicon Valley (the epicenter of communication overload). It was largely on this platform that 4HWW began to lay the foundations for its massive audience.
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April 5th, 2017 · 35 comments
A Tale of Two Schedules
In 2009, tech investor Paul Graham published an influential essay titled “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.” In this piece, he argued that the best types of schedules for people who makes things are different than the best schedules for those who manage things.
As Graham elaborates:
“The manager’s schedule is…embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour…”
“…But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”
He then delivers the key conclusion: “When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster.”
Though Graham doesn’t mention it specifically in the essay, we might add that the need to keep up with an inbox or chat channel can be equally disastrous to a maker. The constant context switching, as we now know from research, also prevents the maker’s brain from fully engaging the creative task at hand.
In the years since this essay was published, it has spread widely. The (slightly modified) terms maker schedule and manager schedule are well-known, and most people who deal with both types of workers agree that Graham is speaking the truth: if you want someone to make something valuable, they’ll be most effective if you let them work in long, uninterrupted chunks.
But here’s the thing: almost no organizations support maker schedules.
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March 30th, 2017 · 25 comments
A Non-Obvious Question
In a recent podcast interview, the host asked me: “what’s something that seems obvious to you, but not to most other people?”
It was a good question because it spurred me to articulate an idea that has long lurked in the background of my thinking on work and productivity in a digital age. Here is (more or less) how I answered:
“When it comes to the world of work, more connectivity and more communication is not necessarily better. In fact, it often makes things worse.”
People are quick to admit that some of their habits surrounding workplace communication tools could use some improvement, but it’s widely agreed that the tools themselves — email, slack, smartphones — are a positive development. These technologies make communication faster and easier, providing a pleasing patina of industriousness and agility to your daily efforts.
To not use these tools would make communication slower and more difficult: how could that possibly be a good thing?
There seems to be wide agreement about this point, but as my above quote indicates, this consensus does not include me. There’s a good reason for this dissension: the idea that more communication is better goes against everything I’ve learned as a computer scientist.
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March 25th, 2017 · 19 comments
The Focused Tribe
The Himba people of northwestern Namibia are semi-nomadic sheep and cattle herders that have largely avoided contact with modern cultures. Their villages consist of wooden huts organized around a sacred fire that connects them to their ancestors. Their living spaces are devoid of western artifacts.
It was against this backdrop that not too long ago a researcher named Jules Davidoff, from Goldsmith’s University in London, gained permission from a Himba tribal chief to bring in a team ladened with electronic equipment to conduct psychological experiments.
As detailed in a 2011 paper appearing in the journal PLOS ONE (also reported on by a recent BBC article), the results were surprising.
The Himba people, it turns out, literally see the world differently than westerners. But perhaps more important to our discussion here is their “striking” ability to resist distraction and to focus. As summarized in the BBC article: “they appeared to be the most focused of any groups previously studied [by Davidoff’s team].”
At the risk of drawing too broad a conclusion from narrow findings, these results might help explain an observation that I emphasized in Chapter 3 of Deep Work: human beings seem wired to find great satisfaction in concentrating intensely.
We can label ourselves “digital natives,” and extol the virtues of hyper-connectivity, but as the Himba people demonstrate, our affinity for deep concentration is ancient, and its attraction is something we cannot easily discard. Evolution shaped a mind optimized to concentrate, and our recent embrace of distraction is an exception to our past.
I think this observation is something we should keep in mind when reflecting on how best to build a meaningful life in an increasingly distracted world.
(Photo of Himba village by Tee La Rosa; citation hat tip to Michael V.)
March 13th, 2017 · 53 comments
The Charmed Career of Yuval Harari
The 41-year old Israeli historian Yuval Harari has enjoyed a career rise that any academic would envy. He earned his doctorate at Oxford, specializing in medieval military history. He went on to publish a prodigious number of well-respected books and articles on the topic, winning, along the way, several important awards in his field, a place in the Young Israeli Academy of Sciences, and a tenured professorship at Hebrew University.
In 2011, he published (in Hebrew) his first work of “macro-history.” It was called, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (which I read and recommend), and it offers a sweeping history of our species organized, in large part, around our unique ability to make things up.
The book was a bestseller in Israel and was soon translated into 30 different languages, becoming an international phenomenon. In America, both Barack Obama and Bill Gates publicly recommended the title. Mark Zuckerberg choose it for his online book club. Last month Harari published his follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which became an instant New York Times bestseller.
Given the magnitude of these accomplishments and the diminutive status of Harari’s age, you might assume that the young historian must be phenomenally busy.
But as he revealed in a recent interview on Ezra Klein’s podcast, he’s working less than you might expect…
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