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Jim Clark on Productivity: Don’t Spend Your Day on Social Media, Instead Spend Your Day Building the Next Big Thing

A Pioneer Pontificates

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).

Around 41 minutes into the event, Clark delivers the following heterodox judgment on social media:

“I just don’t appreciate social networking, which has blown up in recent years. In part, because [I recently attended a panel on social media where a panelist was] just raving about people spending twelve hours a day on Facebook…so I asked a question to the guy who was raving: the guy whose spending twelve hours a day on Facebook, do you every think he’ll be able to do what you’ve done? That’s the fundamental problem…people waste too much time on that.”

Clark then provided a glimpse into his own highly productive work habits:

“In my life, it’s been a lot about hard work and focus and study and very concentrated study, not about – you know – lots of interruptions, I’m guilty as anyone — but I turn my phone off or turn the buzzer off and make it unavailable for a good six hours a day. And I work — I still work. I like programming, I like doing things that are productive.”

In other words, no one every made a fortune being good at using Facebook. But there are many people like Clark who made a fortune putting in the deep work necessary to create the type of complicated systems that run services like Facebook.

Which group would you rather belong to?

(Hat tip: Gabriel)

26 thoughts on “Jim Clark on Productivity: Don’t Spend Your Day on Social Media, Instead Spend Your Day Building the Next Big Thing”

  1. Cal – since you keep covering immensely productive people and thought leaders on these issues, could you please run something on Louis Howies? He’s a master and brings a lot of depth to these topics. Thanks.

    • Do you mean Lewis Howes? I don’t want to answer for Cal, but if so that dude is just another “follow your passion” charlatan.

  2. Cal I apologise for posting this comment under this post, but I’m not sure where else to post it. I am reading your book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and appreciate your insight on the “passion vs craftsman mentality”. In trying to come up with a research topic for my thesis, the common advice is “do something you like, are interested in, passionate about etc.” My question is does the “passion vs craftsman” analogy apply to choosing a research topic; and if so, what does the craftsman mentality look like in this situation?

    • This is covered pretty well from several angles (and case studies) in the book.

      Do things that are valuable to the broader community (whether that is academic peers, or the economy at large, or even better – both). Truly valuable things are hard to do, so there will be less competition and you can make a name for yourself.

      Eg I know someone that did their honours thesis on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sure – they liked watching Buffy. They might have even (at least before slogging through a thesis) been “passionate” about it. But that would have been a cool idea for them personally (and no one else) for less time than it took to write. Let alone useful for anyone else in the world (including Joss Whedon). Compare this to a thesis about… well… anything else 🙂

      I don’t want to get into a debate about humanities vs hard science, so let’s stick with a media / sociology thread for comparison.

      If you want to explore feminism in media, you could do Buffy; or you could look at the way economic statistics of the pay gap are (mis)interpreted by non-technical journalists; and the impact that has on policy making in government and business. Which one is harder to do? Which one will be more useful to the community, and might be something other people want to read? Which one will force you to gain more transferable skills that will benefit you (and others) in the long run?

      I don’t know about you – but I think the latter would also be much more substantial and interesting to work on for the time you are researching and writing. If you get bored of one subtopic, there is plenty of variety and source material elsewhere.

      If anything, ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ leans a little too heavily on the academic career stuff (vs general knowledge work) because that’s where Cal and his peers work. ‘Deep Work’ brings it to a more general audience, but you should be able to find plenty of ideas for an academic approach in So Good… The summary chapter is a good place to start.

    • Also (and this is going to sound mean, but whatever): if you can’t work that out from reading the book… should you be doing research in the first place?

      There’s about a dozen case studies answering that exact question.

  3. I’m not a huge fan of social media. They can really mess up your attention span and start this cycle of self-doubt because you’re always comparing yourself to others. It’s better not to get caught up in that race.

  4. Cal,

    This has been bugging me for some time.

    In your right column you have the following:

    “Some Things I Like

    (The notebook I use to create my daily plans.)

    (The definitive academic treatment of deliberate practice.)

    (A crazy but brilliant book. An important influence.)”

    Which are all great teasers with no links.

    What gives?

    Do all you can to make today a better day,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  5. Yup yup yup. I do see some value in social media professionally, but I’m planning to schedule for short, more infrequent times this summer rather than its always being in the background or a fallback for when I’m not sure what to do next. Contrary to the advice that creatives thrive with social media, I’m beginning to think that creatives in particular should perhaps wean themselves from it more.

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  7. I had the same problem for a long time as well. I can’t remember what the fix was, but here’s what’s there: the notebook is a Red & Black Twin Wirebound Notebook, Poly Cover, 11.75 x 8.25 inches, Black, 70 sheets.

    The “definitive academic treatment of deliberative practice” is *The Road to Excellence: the Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts, Sciences, Sports and Games*, ed. by Anders Ericsson.

    The “crazy but brilliant” book is Jaron Lanier’s *You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto*.

  8. I also appreciated his insights into the critical aspect of judging the right timing for company start ups, the resources available in a location (e.g., Silicon Valley vs. Florida vs. New York), and interdisciplinary cross-fertilization (e.g., physics to computer science to business).

  9. Cal:

    Good quote. Gotta respect that guy. In truth, though, I find it more impressive that someone YOUR age knows that cell phones, email, social media, and internet can be a waste of time. To many people his age, that is not a huge discovery. Hat’s off to you for realizing it early in your life. (Now if you can just break your blogging habit…. 😉


  10. Forgive me if this has been mentioned in a previous discussion or comment but after having just finished reading Deep Work (thanks for writting that Cal!), I couldn’t help but share a couple of amazing tools I’ve been using lately.

    As someone who has been suffering from the smartphone-tablet-laptop epidemic during my PhD, I had to take extreme measures, so here we go

    (unfortunately, both these apps are for Macs, but I’m sure there must be similar tools for other platforms as well):

    1. SelfControl: This is a free app with a scary logo but a divine mission: It blocks the websites you put on a blacklist or blocks everything except the websites you put on a whitelist. You specify for how long you want it to run (max 1 day) and off you go. Hint: Once you click “Start” there’s no way back. Ok, sure there is, but at least not a normal-easy way back. You can try to quit, force quit, restart you computer. The app will still be running, and blocking those distracting websites. That’s the point, right?

    2. Focus: Although this is not a free app (nor an expensive one), it has a couple of advantages over SelfControl:
    – It comes with a predefined long list of usual suspects, from Facebook and eBay to BBC and Forbes so you don’t have to list them yourself.
    – It can also block applications, not only websites.
    – You can schedule it to start automatically specific days and times (e.g Weekdays 9-5)
    – It includes a Pomodoro Timer
    – It can work on a “softer” mode, where you can turn it off, but also on a hardcore mode.
    – And my favourite: When you try to access one of the blocked pages, you see some motivational quotes that remind you to go back to work.

    So these are two examples showing that people start caring more about avoiding distractions. I’m sure there must be more apps about this. Again sorry if this is a topic already covered before!


  11. Cal, love you blog. Consistently high quality content, thanks for posting.

    Isn’t this blog itself an example of social media? You’re not just writing articles and saving them to your desktop, you’re 1. posting them to public page, 2. allow comments, 3. regularly respond to reader comments. Seems like a bit of a contradiction?

  12. You know sometimes this “overproductive” trend seems so annoying . I mean it ok, to do important things, but every day? Every minute? What is wrong in not being productive actually?

  13. Yeah that’s true spending more time on social media is waste of time if you are not using your resources in proper way. You can use social media to groom yourself you career and your social growth.


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