Matthew Crawford is one my favorite social critics.
(Damon Linker got it right when he quipped in The Week: “Reading [Crawford] is like putting on a pair of perfectly suited prescription glasses after a long period of squinting one’s way through life.”)
This book is complicated and ambitious. But there’s one thread in particular that I think is worth underscoring. Crawford notes that the real problem with the current distracted state of our culture is not the prevalence of new distracting technologies. These are simply a reaction to a more fundamental reality:
When Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow began her multi-year study of consultants at the high-pressure Boston Consulting Group (BCG), she was quick to identify a defining behavior of her subjects: they were always connected. The pressure for them to check their email at all waking hours was intense — a point captured in the title of Perlow’s 2012 book on her research, Sleeping with Your Smartphone.
As Perlow summarized in an HBR article on the topic, the BCG consultants, like many knowledge workers, see this constant connectivity simply as “the nature of our business.”
To me, however, the important question lurking behind this topic is how did this behavior become so natural?
And it’s here that Perlow’s research on BCG uncovers an interesting answer…
Last summer, comedian and actor Aziz Ansari was a guest on Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics Radio show.
The stated purpose was to discuss Ansari’s book, Modern Romance, but the conversation wandered toward a wide-ranging exploration of Ansari’s complicated relationship with the Internet. I thought I would excerpt some choice quotes below.
Here’s Ansari on email versus depth:
“I would just get so many emails. And then when I started filming my TV show I just set up a thing that said, this email is dead. I’m not checking email…And I had an assistant on my show and I was like, you can call her…And you know what you realize is, all that shit people email you about all the time, all day, none of it is important. None of it is pressing…I found that I’m much more focused when I don’t have those little questions. And then at the end of the day I just have someone fill me in on everything or I call someone on the phone.”
I’m always looking for particularly inspiring or exotic examples of deep work habits. With this in mind, I was pleased when an alert reader named Stepan recently sent me an interesting case study concerning the Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman.
“[W]e typically spent three solid months in the country at our second home in New Hampshire to begin with and later on in Vermont. Then later on I split my life 50–50: we spent six months a year in Chicago and six months a year in Vermont. Almost all of my writing was done in Vermont or in New Hampshire, relatively little during the actual school year.”
Friedman goes on to elaborate how he maximized depth during his periods away from Chicago:
In the first line of Neal Stephenson’s epic sci fi tome, Seveneves, the moon shatters into seven pieces. Two years later, all life on earth is destroyed by the resulting rain of moon rocks from above.
Fortunately, before this cataclysm begins, humanity manages to send a small representative group of the species into space to live in a floating swarm of space station modules. These modules, naturally enough, are connected by social media applications running over a mesh network.
Given the projected importance of this network for maintaining a community, a social media celebrity named Tavistock Prowse is selected as one of the lucky survivors to join the new space colony. I’m not giving away anything not already stated on the book’s back cover when I note that things do not go well. (Especially for Tavistock Prowse.)
Enough people survive, however, for humanity to continue. As the book jumps 5000 years ahead, we learn that future humans have studied the life of Tavistock, and more specifically his interaction with social media.
I called this application of virtual reality immersive single tasking. In this post, I want to provide some more details about the key principles that I think will allow virtual reality to unlock this vision of hyper productivity.
Jim Clark knows how to create valuable things. He’s one of the few people in the recent history of American business to start three different billion dollar companies.
Clark also knows about technology: all three of his billion dollar companies were Silicon Valley startups.
We should, in other words, take his thoughts seriously when he discusses productivity in the digital age, which he did, a few years ago, in an interview with Stanford president John Hennessy (see above).
Kaufman was responding to Peak: Anders Ericsson’s recent book on expert performance.
At the core of Kaufman’s critique is the idea that deliberate practice does not work well for “almost any creative domain” [emphasis his].
As he summarizes:
Deliberate practice is really important for fields such as chess and instrumental performance because they rely on consistently replicable behaviors that must be repeated over and over again. But not all domains of human achievement rely on consistently replicable behaviors. For most creative domains, the goals and ways of achieving success are constantly changing, and consistently replicable behaviors are in fact detrimental to success.
This discussion caught my attention because my day job is the quintessential creative endeavor. As a theoretical computer scientist, I solve math proofs for a living. To conjure something that makes it past the brutally competitive peer review process in my field usually requires an original approach that makes progress where other really smart people have been stuck.
This reality is why I’m able to draw with some confidence from a well of personal experience when I note that I strongly disagree with Kaufman.
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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