Hello, fellow spacefarers. (No? I’m sure “Spacedusteans” won’t appeal to you either, then. “Hello from the void”? I’ll figure it out.) Are you familiar with the famous trouble-shooting phrase, “Turn it off, then turn it on, again”? …No? Perhaps the sentiment, “Head empty, no thoughts” rings a bell. Whatever it is that fires a neuron in your brain, ponder it, then allow it to leave. Empty your head.
Ah, you’re back. Now, if you’re so inclined, do it again. Purge!
That “head empty, no thoughts” state of mind is something we could all use a bit more of, especially during our mid-pandemic, glued-to-our-screens-because-we-have-to-be new type of normal. As a champion of web and email alike, I don’t exactly have a choice but to be glued to my screen. Is my profession an excuse? Perhaps. But at the same time, my position requires me to always be on the lookout for emails and notifications. I live my life in Wrike. My director and I are wired together via Slack. Our VP’s primary method of getting in touch with us is email. My whole life is The Web™, and you bet I’m one of those people who’s got a minimum of 5 Firefox windows up at all times with at least 5 tabs open per each.
Am I becoming increasingly aware of how this is a problem and how it’s affecting my life?
The Four Horsemen of “I Demand Your Attention”.
Now, more than ever, we are battling the pros and cons of technology and all that it offers. For respective workers, the WFH environment is maintainable due to online software (that can be accessed from anywhere) and the presence of messaging/team management apps. We have infinite access to ceaseless information with a mere tap of a finger or a brief set of keystrokes. And yet, with the broadening of the internet, the doors to our minds have simultaneously closed. Misinformation is rampant. Instead of focusing on relevance and value, everything (articles, search engines, websites; you name it) is centered around the godforsaken concept of SEO and rankings. Websites, headlines, and apps alike compete tirelessly for your attention at every waking moment in the form of ads, or “clickbait”, or fast fads. Online culture is so vastly different in comparison to when the World Wide Web was a collection of cat pictures and GeoCities websites.
I know you and I aren’t the only ones drifting in this void who are aware of this reality — and I have proof.
Oh, my mind! What’s wrong with my mind?!
When I read the title of Michael Harris’ opinion piece for this week’s reading, I laughed. Joyously — not viciously, mind you. “I have forgotten how to read”. What a silly notion. One doesn’t just forget how to read, unless an unfortunate accident has occurred. Then I read through his exchange with a fellow author; his conversant explains, “Nobody can read like they used to.”
Now, that stung. I used to pride myself on reading. I used to go to my local library every summer and participate in the “Summer Reading Club”, which was just an incentivized event to encourage young kids to read. (Those who participated and read X number of books were rewarded with a pancake party at the beginning of the school year. Ah, nostalgia.) I’ve kept up with pleasure reading over the years, but not nearly to an extent younger me would be pleased with. (Hey, kiddo, I’ve done tons of other stuff you might find cool. Cut me some slack.)
In “I Have Forgotten How to Read”, Harris points out how the online space has warped his perspective. “Online life,” he writes, “makes me into a different kind of reader — a cynical one”. He explains that he engages in a shallow manner with content as he just barely skims along: “I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link. My attention – and thus my experience – fractures. Online reading is about clicks, and comments, and points.” Everything is about grabbing attention, and our minds — Harris mentions — have conformed to this mindset.
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (another required reading of mine), also touches on this concept of cognitive fragmentation: “In aggregate, the rise of these [network] tools, combined with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers” (p. 6).
If I didn’t make it obvious before, I [unfortunately] embody both concepts in my day-to-day existence. I may as well change my middle name to “Fractured” in testament to it. I may separate my windows in order to compartmentalize, but that’s still upwards of 7 windows divided between 2 screens that I have to monitor. My main desktop screen contains my work for the day (one bullet equals one application window for said content):
- My Main Desktop
- 2 Wrike tabs | So I can switch between my tasks and my inbox (monitoring notifications)
- 1 Email Campaign tab, 1 local file tab, and 1 CMS tab | So I can work on emails as indicated by my Wrike tasks (I use a “temp” file so I can make edits to the emails and refresh/see the edits in real-time at half the speed) and make
edits/adjustments/tweaks/work on projects in the CMS also as indicated by my Wrike tasks
- 1 Google Sheets tab | I keep a personal log of both ticketed and non-ticketed requests I perform during a single day in detail
- 1 Atom (text / source code editor) window | This is where I keep all my temp HTML files
- My Second Monitor
- 1 Outlook window | More monitoring of separate notifications/emails/alerts
- 1 Slack window | Even more monitoring of separate notifications, if/when I need to reach my director and vice-versa or if anyone in my larger department needs to be contacted/answered
- [Occasionally] 1 Firefox window with as many tabs as necessary when I’m looking things up/referencing items (currently looking at my screen, I have 8 tabs in said window — although two are admittedly for a dedicated playlist of video game OST videos that I listen to in the background of the tedium and one of those 10-hr extended/looped videos of light rain sounds that I overlay the music with)
One might say that I’m distracting myself by having all these windows and applications open. I implore — no, beg — those individuals to find a more efficient solution of keeping track of all these things.
Nevertheless, I find myself torn in various directions as a result — especially as of late with the beginning of the fall semester — between task updates, email alerts, and message notifications. As a result of my divided attention, I find it difficult to read through project specifications once and absorb every detail. I look for keywords and clues, just like Harris, and sometimes still look over items. I don’t have time to waste; my online software apps tend to load slowly enough as it is. Harris explains, “When we become cynical readers – when we read in the disjointed, goal-oriented way that online life encourages – we stop exercising our attention.”
That’s exactly it. I have ceased exercising attention.
I can’t afford to be buried in something intensive, to give something my full attention; I need to be nimble, be alert. So I end up giving nothing my full attention. Building emails has become robotic. Cal Newport would call this “shallow work“: “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. (. . .) easy to replicate” (p. 6). I copy/paste the relevant information into an HTML template, make necessary adjustments and tweaks, click “Send Test”, and ping the relevant coworker in Wrike. It’s tedium. (I enjoy working with HTML and HTML email templates, so don’t assume this is a cynical point of view. The nature of it is just by definition monotonous.)
I very much find myself akin to Harris’ instanced niece as she devours an “unboxing-like” Kinder egg playlist: comforted by the presence of “attending entertainments”, but never absorbing anything relevant or insightful.
Okay, we get it. You’ve forgotten how to “read”. What now?
Well, let’s establish the root issue, here. Michael Harris and the Farnam Street (FS) Blog (“How to Remember What You Read”) believe that the concept at stake for readers while interacting with the written word is how they read. Clearly I’m not reading less, since I essentially read all day. But, as mentioned, I’m skimming. I’m glancing. I’m not reading thoroughly or attentively. You can read whatever you want, and you can read as much as you want — but if you read passively (like I do), you won’t get anything out of the text in front of you. What’s happening is that I — we — read for information; we don’t read to understand.
Most of the things we read on the internet serve this informational purpose. Very rarely do we actively seek out material like educational articles or scientific studies, unless we’re working on some educational project. To this point of surfing the web for informative, non-educational material, every single author/contributor I’ve read for this week’s assigned reading has had the same stance on technology — especially smartphones and/or social media.
It eats away at our ability to perform cognitive functions as our brains conform to an instant gratification model. Our synapses adapt to life in front of a screen, and our capacity to remain focused deteriorates as a result.
If we can’t focus, we can’t perform what Newport has coined “deep work“: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit” (p. 3).
“The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: network tools. This is a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like Buzzfeed and Reddit.”
— Cal Newport, Deep Work
In reference to shallow work, Newport warns that there is increasing evidence (although without reference, so take this with a pinch of salt) that the effects of engaging in it for extended periods of time is not easily remedied. “Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness,” he writes, “and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work” (p. 7). To further this point, he then references a trio of titles which all share the same principal idea — “network tools are distracting us from work that requires unbroken concentration, while simultaneously degrading our capacity to remain focused” (Ibid).
Sound familiar? *taps at the part of this post where I discuss my brain being tethered and stretched amongst various desktop applications*
While the argument of “social media bad” needs some work (as it doesn’t take into account how these platforms can benefit creatives — take commission artists as an example — and how they can provide spaces for like-minded people to come together and have positive, insightful conversations), the principle of it being a distraction still stands.
So how do I relearn how to read?
The first step is to focus.
…But what if I’ve forgotten how to focus?
Then start smaller. Remove distractions, one by one. Do whatever works best for you — I’m by no means some self-proclaimed guru, but whatever you use to redirect your attention when you’re bored (unless it’s productive, like reading!), eliminate it. The FS Blog implores you in their guide to stay off of Twitter, out of your emails, and ultimately away from your cell (“No cell phone.”) to stay focused.
Need some motivation to help you focus? Newport cites examples (himself included) in Deep Work of successful individuals who yielded their best work away from technology and social media: Mark Twain, Woody Allen, Peter Higgs.
Think your phone is too precious? Kristen Duke, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten Bos conducted research on how the presence — and absence — of smartphones affects the cognitive abilities of participants. Those who performed the worst were those who had their smartphones present. Also mind you that their experiment showed that “the negative impact of smartphone presence is most pronounced for individuals who rank high on a measure capturing the strength of their connection to their phones” (“Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking”). Your phone has a purpose and is a wondrous little piece of machinery. Don’t let it become the only thing in your life. You survived without it when you were younger; you can survive without it for 5 minutes.
If we reacquaint ourselves with the art of focusing, we can begin engaging more deeply with work of all sorts. And once we can engage more deeply with things, we can start performing “deep work”.
You’ve mentioned and quoted this concept. What about it?
Well, “deep work” is a term coined by Cal Newport, specifically. (If you’ll allow my cynicism to creep in for a spell, Newport was the first to coin and capitalize on this concept. Both he and I, amongst hundreds or thousands or more of others, were respectively engaging in this methodology prior to this book’s publication in 2016.)
What it is, in reality, is the common sense concept that in order to produce the best work you can, you can’t be distracted, and you have to focus intently on it. This isn’t a new concept, especially given how Newport cites examples of individuals who have engaged in this mindset like Michel de Montaigne, Mark Twain, and Carl Jung. I also mentioned that I have also engaged in this kind of work. I have never turned in a project or paper that was ever anything less than the best I could do, given that I was a perfectionist Honors student (forgive the humble brag, and know that it’s cost me many, many hours of my life as I slaved away for my title).
Now, go and regain domain over your productivity. Go forth!
Let’s review some of the points presented and discussed in this awfully long void speculation:
- Digital technology, the internet, and social media have rotted our brains + and warped our mindset
- As a result, we have lost the ability to read/engage with content
- We need to stop reading for information, get rid of distractions, and start focusing
- Focused, uninterrupted work (also known as “deep work” help us yield our best work
Now, more on that last point.
“To produce at your peak level,” Newport explains in Deep Work, “you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work” (p. 44). A somewhat cyclical way of saying the same thing, but you get the gist.
Deep work. Intensive work. Focused work. Uninterrupted, non-distracted work.
It’s all the same thing.
Duke, Ward, Gneezy, and Bos also came to the same conclusion about focused work given their data set:
“With these findings in mind, students, employees, and CEOs alike may wish to maximize their productivity by defining windows of time during which they plan to be separated from their phones, allowing them to accomplish tasks requiring deeper thought.”
The FS Blog also makes mention of how being an active reader requires focus, especially when attempting to understand and absorb the contents of a book.
What everyone, myself included, is getting at is that focusing is an imperative life skill, and it allows us to yield our best results — whatever those results might be.
My Skepticism on Deep Work
Now that I’ve presented a journey through re-acquainting myself with reading and focusing (and brought you along with me), it would be remiss of me to not have a [one-sided] conversation with author Cal Newport on his beloved novel.
As I mentioned, I agree with Newport’s philosophy that it takes undisturbed, highly intense effort and focus to produce one’s best work. However, I disagree with his strategy on presenting said philosophy, as well as how he attempts to validate it. Producing efficient, high-quality results — for a majority of people — is only truly feasible if one works intently while undisturbed.
Press ‘X’ to Doubt.
In regard to this, deep work is not necessarily feasible without further, situational context. In the Introduction and Chapter 1 alone, Newport references the chunking of “four hour” blocks dedicated to deep work three times. “On good days, I can get in four hours of focus before the first meeting”, Jason Benn reported to Newport about his professional work schedule as a Silicon Valley cog on page 12. He then goes on to say, “maybe another three to four hours in the afternoon” (Ibid).
Newport, “living proof” (emphasis/quotations mine) of the deep work methodology, also reports that “Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output” (p. 16). Are you performing deep work during the scheduled hours of your professional job for your professional job? Perfect. You’re getting paid to work those scheduled hours, so this is common sense.
However, to cite Jason Benn’s case, if you’re doing anything else… Well, good luck. Jason Benn had the luxury of being able to move home and live with his parents after having quit his finance job of his own volition. Of course, Benn and Newport fail to report in this book on whether or not the former paid any expenses while living with his parents for that time. Not many people have the luxury of moving back into their parents’ home — after willingly quitting a job, no less — and I’m sure far fewer would have the ability to lock themselves in their rooms for 2 months without contributing and without having an income.
Again, I don’t have all the details, so I will gladly take back this speculation if evidence proves me otherwise. However, I’m going off what I’m presented with.
I calculated my daily routine, and with every single thing that I do accounted for (between waking up, doing my twice-a-day skincare routine, feeding my cats, falling asleep, exercising, etc.; not necessarily in that order), I ended up with a measly 2 hours and 10 minutes of free time. Mind you, that’s with my alarm going off at 7am and then finally falling asleep at 12am at the end of the day. Not healthy. Not sustainable. Not conducive to “deep work”. I’d have to have my fiancé take over just about every single duty (gremlin feeding, cooking/cleaning/putting away dinner) and I’d have to stop exercising in order to get back back about 2 hours to total a minimum of 4 hours of free time. Which!, mind you, I would only be able to instantiate between the hours of either 4:30pm–5pm to 8:30pm–9pm, OR 6:30pm–7pm to 10:30pm–11pm if I wanted to eat dinner like a normal human being would. Deep work is convenient when you’re doing it for you job, but that’s about it.
If that wasn’t enough, one of the principles that sticks out the most to me in Deep Work is that life dealing you a favorable hand at an early age is one of the requirements needed to get something out of this methodology. All of the examples Newport cites as a success from utilizing deep work in the first 48 pages of his book are white men (Save for J.K. Rowling, who I can’t even take as a serious example anymore given how off the rails she went in recent years. The other examples he cites who are not white males are used only to support his ideology, not validate it as something valuable or useful.) who are absurdly smart.
Carl Jung, father of analytical psychology. Michel de Montaigne, acclaimed skeptic and founder of an entire literary form (essays). Woody Allen, wildly revered film writer/director. Bill Gates, co-founder of one of the biggest companies to this day. Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter. Adam Grant, “youngest professor to be awarded tenure at the Wharton School of Business at Penn” (p. 37).
(Something Newport fails to mention—that Grant does on his website in his biography—was that Grant was in his twenties when awarded said tenure. I’m genuinely surprised he didn’t interview Alia Sabur for this book, given that she holds a record for being the world’s youngest professor. Well, I’m pretty sure I know why Newport didn’t, but I’ll keep that to myself.)
Now, if you’ll allow me the ad hominem fallacy for a moment, what does Newport have to offer amongst these individuals? Calvin Newport, first to capitalize on and coin a term for an old, common-sense-aligned methodology. Doesn’t have quite as fancy a ring to it, if you ask me.
What I’m alluding to here is that all of Newport’s examples of success via deep work all have something in common (aside from being white men). They’re all wicked smart. The usage of explicitly intelligent individuals to tout your methodology’s effectiveness feels awfully cherry-picked. To further nitpick, Newport also brings up several points that could potentially counter or weaken his argument, but he either dismisses them completely or excuses them,
in the case of Jack Dorsey as an outlier to the three groups of individuals Newport establishes as those who will benefit from today’s society (which are already elitist as it is).
It’s incredibly mature of Newport to even acknowledge these counterpoints, but to dismiss them entirely does his entire argument a disservice. Newport himself mentions that a key component of those who are rewarded by the “current” economy (this was published in 2016, but these kinds of people are still rewarded by the 2021 economy) embody a certain set of tactics and embody specific personality traits (“Why have [Nate] Silver, [David Heinemeier] Hansson, and [John] Doerr done so well? There are two types of answers to this question. The first are micro in scope and focus on the personality traits and tactics that helped drive this trio’s rise”, p. 22). To bring up that this is an important factor of their success, and to then dismiss it (“the macro answers will prove most relevant to our discussion, as they better illuminate what our current economy rewards”, Ibid) is wildly irresponsible. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and being a “hard worker” who “produces elite-level results” means absolutely nothing if you can’t cooperate or coexist with others.
To surmise my stance on Deep Work, allow me to reference a note I have written in the bottom margin of page 38.
“The more I read this [book], the more it presents itself as a ‘get rich quick’ scheme to wealthy white tech [men]” (originally “nerds” in my marginalia) “who want to/can devote their entire existence to a single subject.”
— Leanne S, in the marginalia of Cal Newport’s Deep Work
Perhaps I’ll look back on this post and feel differently as I continue through the content. But for now, please enjoy these sh*tposts from the author who, at the time of writing and publishing Deep Work, denounced Social Media™.
[And one more thing before you go. Good ol’ Cal hopped on Reddit to host an AMA, which is a tool employed by many a “famous folk” (amongst other people, of course, but not usually for the following reason) to push or advertise their upcoming works. Funny how, when incentivized, the use of social media seems to be excusable for someone like Newport. (The above social media account was created far after the AMA was hosted.)]