Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book review: Essentialism. Part II

A while ago, I wrote a book review on Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Today I wanted to follow up with a part II. “Why?” you might ask. I gave the book to my dad for his birthday (as an actual book this time). He loved it but when we talked about it, I noticed that he had remembered completely different things than I had. So I decided to listen to it again and this time, other things stuck with me. I always find that the really good books can be read millions of times and every time, you will find something you hadn’t previously noticed. Essentialism definitely is one of those books.

 

Essentialism is the disciplined pursuit of less but better

But what does ‘disciplined’ mean anyway? The author gives the following example: the normal state of the closet is to get more and more cluttered if a conscious effort is not made to get rid of non-essentials. Consciously making this effort over and over again is what he calls ‘disciplined’. You need to re-do it all the time even though you might feel like you just did it. But the clutter piles up again and everytime it does, you need to act even though you don’t want to. You need to know where the next thrift store is and when it’s open. You need to have a plan in case somebody drops off their clutter in your closet.

 

Do less than you want to do

This might be known to some of you as “Leave one in the bar” from working out. McKeown realized that it would be difficult keeping up a journaling habit every day because people tend to write more and more every day. This ends up making the habit harder every day and one day will come when you won’t stick to it anymore. So he asked himself how he could overcome this limitation. And he decided that the solution was to always do less than what you want to do. This helps to ‘keep the fire going’ and stops you from losing motivation.

I have this problem with my own routines, be it exercise or translating some of this Latin text every morning aside from my actual PhD writing. I tend to think “Well this went well today. I might just to two pages of translation tomorrow, then I’ll get done earlier.” But the text is 250 pages long. And after three days of translating two pages every morning, I lose motivation. Apart from the fact that two pages takes away enough energy that I am not very effective with my PhD writing anymore. I decided that I need to do less than I feel I could. That’s what makes it sustainable. I have been much more successful doing one page per day now. It’s for this reason that some ‘habit formation philosophies’ like Mini Habits (Steven Guise) or the Japanese Kai-Zen have become popular. In order to make it sustainable, do less than you could. This also goes for working hours, in my opinion, though I’m still trying to figure out what works best for me and is most sustainable.

 

Protect the asset and have more fun

This is kind of self-explanatory. But probably worth mentioning again here: One of the main reasons high-functioning people sabotage themselves is by not getting enough sleep and not taking time for fun, play and rest. For me personally, I have decided I need more active rest (=play/fun), not passive relaxation like binge-watching 😉 Otherwise, my work-life-balance project is going ok: I never work evenings anymore (at least until this week where I succumbed twice already) and I take one day off completely every weekend. However, without some more prioritization on what I work (not only taking into account how long), I feel that I am still not doing as well as I could.

Also, by the way, did you know that being tired and dehyrdated both reduces your brain capacities as much as being a little drunk constantly? It’s sound cheesy and simple: But I think we could all do with some more sleep and water. Also, getting enough rest helps you prioritize which is one of the most important skills ever in this busy world full of distractions. Which leads me to the next point:

 

What’s important right now?

If you don’t know what’s important right now, what’s important right now is to find out what’s important right now. This is my new credo at the moment. Over the last stressful weeks, I have noticed that the biggest factor in me sabotaging myself, except for procrastination probably, is not knowing what’s the most important thing and thus, wasting time on non-essentials. Your time and energy will be gone no matter what you do. Your dissertation will only get written by you writing your dissertation.

 

This is it for now. But actually, there were many more takeways, so I’l probably do a part III at some point 😉

Best,
S

 

Book Review: So good they can’t ignore you

When I first read the title of this book, I rejected it immediately. Only after I had become a fan of Cal Newport’s having read his Digital Minimalism and Deep Work, I went back for it. I loved it immediately. It really isn’t what the title makes you expect at all. Rather than a quick fix “you can do it” narrative, Newport stresses how some pretty unspectacular things, like hard work and skill, will make you successful.

This review sums up some of the main arguements and tips while trying to adapt them for the academic field. Because this book, unlike the later works of Cal Newport doesn’t contain frequent references to Academia and it’s not always obvious how an Academic can implement those very ‘market-oriented’ tips.

The craftsman mindset

The most important concept of the book is the ‘craftsman mindset’, a mindset opposed to the ‘passion hypothesis’. That is the idea that you should go for a job you are passionate about. If only you bring the passion and motivation, you will succeed. The most imporant point of Newport’s is probably, that this is the most stupid idea ever. Because, contrary to this optimistic new-age rhetoric, motivation alone will get you nowhere without skill.

Newport systematically investigated what approaches successful people had to their success and work, and also interviewed some believers in the ‘passion hypothesis’ who failed. In all his examples, those who had fallen for the passion hypothesis went on to make some truly horrible business decisions. Like start a freelance yoga business after a four week crash course to become a yoga teacher. And ended up out of work not much later.

Newport’s argument is that this happened because the ‘passion hypothesis’ just doesn’t work and you won’t get anywhere on happy thoughts alone. I think this is an essential thing to realize in Academia as well. People will hire you because you contribute rare skill and a hard-working mindset. Not because you have fascinating dreams. Academia rewards results, not effort or motivation. Nobody cares if you’re more motivated than your competitors unless this motivation is a driver for more actual results.

Newport shows examples of hugely successful people who approach their job like a craft. They show up for hours and hours of practice. They do ‘deliberate practice’, that is to say strategically look for imperfections and eliminate them. Like, say, a professional musician would approach daily practice. This is what he means by “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

 

Control traps

Newport then mentions something he calls ‘control traps’, that means things which can go wrong when you want to take more control over your life. Like mentioned before, you need skills before you can make big steps. So before making a bid for control, acquire career capital. No bold, premature bids for freedom. People from the ‘Lifestyle designer’ community often go for freedom without skill and thus, fail. When interviewing all the ‘overnight successes’, it mostly turns out that many years of skill honing actually led up to this ‘sudden success’, so it really wasn’t all that sudden after all.

But once you have the skills, your boss will naturally try to hold you back from independence because you will have become too valuable. What makes your life better no longer benefits your boss, so they will hold you back. In Academia this might mean that a boss will give you lots of nice projects because they know you will do the job well. But none of those projects are probably high value enough to really advance or kick-start your career. To do this, you would have to move away, apply for a high-profile job or something. Once you don’t need your boss anymore, you’re ready and valuable, so there will be resistance when you try to leave for a new opportunity. Once you have enough skills, finding clients, or in our case, job opportunities, should be no problem.

Law of financial viability

Newport also brings up the ‘law of financial viability’. That is to mean that you should do what people are willing to pay for. Don’t switch to a new occupation full time unless you are sure you can live from it. So in this case, money would be used as an indicator of value and he suggests yout test the ‘finanical viability’ of an idea using “little bets”. That means that you try your idea on a small scale and see if it works.

Translated to Academia, this could mean that you try out a new project in a poster presentation or something else with a low entrance boundary. You don’t spend huge amounts of time on it and seek feedback early on in the process. If people like it, you can decide to investigate further. But also, in Academia you need to be careful not to blurt out great project ideas or somebody might ‘steal them’. So maybe, if you new idea is a new method, try it out on your own old data and remain silent about which corpus it could be applied to according to you. Before you go all-in on an idea, make sure to test if there’s a ‘market’ for it with small-scale, small investment but quick feedback ‘small bets’.

 

You find your mission in the ‘adjacent possible’

Newport thinks that we can find great new ideas in the ‘adjacent possible’; so right beside the current cutting edge. In order to find those new ideas, you need a good overview of the current cutting edge. Then, by recombining what’s there, you might find the new hot combination. Getting to te cutting edge requires, yet again, that you become ‘so good they can’t ignore you’ in your subject area. He recounts a few scientists’ life stories who found opened new fields by combining multiple exisiting ones in a creative way.

 

The law of remarkability

In addition to the ‘craftsman mindset’, Newport suggests you also adopt the ‘mindset of the marketer’. So when you have an idea, it needs to be something people will remark about because it stands out (like Milka’s purple cows). Your venture needs to favour word-of-mouth marketing like this. Participating in a poster or science slam with a fun contribution might do the trick here.

 

Summary

Newport’s book may be summed up in a five step process:

  1. Build career capital, i.e. rare and valuable skills, using the craftsman mindset.
  2. Cash it in for independence and mission.
  3. Mission ideas can be found in the adjacent possible beside the current cutting edge. Finding them, however, requires expertise.
  4. Once you think you might have found something, follow up with systematic exploration using ‘little bets’ before you go all-in on your idea.
  5. Then, once you’re settled on an idea, you need a marketer mindset to generate ‘remarkability’.

Most experiences can be career capital later. So go for tons of experiences and explore. However, acquisition of career capital happens mostly via deliberate practice and deep work (book review to come!).

Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. (Victor Hugo)

Systematically practise for improvement. Explicitly note down results from deliberate practice. Measure your progress. Income or success generation require for you to have something to trade in return. Thus: Be so good they can’t ignore you.

And the book is a definite recommendation – I loved it and thought it was something real, for once, in a jungle of self help bullshit. It all comes down to the fact that people become happy with their jobs who have the skills required. Those who just blindly pursue their supposed ‘passion’ will end up miserable. So maybe, when deciding what job you want to do,  first look where your skills are.  


XX

Book Review: Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

Today, I wanted to give you another book review. This time, it’s quite a short review and the book is: Joshua Waitzkin, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, NY 2007.

Not a lot of practical takeaways

I thought this would be a relevant book from all of us in the ‘learning industry’. The title ‘The Art of Learning’ kind of suggests a book with practical tips. Also, from the never-ending praise Tim Ferriss has for the book, I would have expected a more practical approach. That’s how I came to read this book now (or rather listen to the audiobook on my way to my research stay up north). But, as it turns out, TFs 4h Chef actually is way more practical with tips on how to approach learning than Waitzkin.

Mostly an autobiography

Waitzkin’s book really is mostly an autobiography. It recounts his journey and successes as chess genius and then as a martial arts champion. Some of it was kind of interesting, but for me who is neither a chess nor martial arts fan, it was kind of boring because of the lengthy recounting of matches. I was almost thinking about not finishing the book.

One takeaway after all

I ended up finishing it after all and one concept stuck with me that I wanted to share today. It is a simple concept and Waitzkin doesn’t really offer a solution but it was an important pattern for me to notice in my own life.

It is the destabilizing impact small failures can have. Waitzkin recounted endless matches where he went into downward spirals after a little insecurity and opponents who actively played to destabilize him. He realized that he lacked in the area of bouncing back from failure. He then trained to basically ignore failure and continue as though nothing had happened and ended up even more successful, now able to handle much stronger opponents.

The destabilizing impact of small failures

I realized that I am very fragile when it comes to little failures. I am a control freak sometimes and this is, essentially, due to the fact not that I were afraid of failure itself, but rather afraid that I might not be able to get back on track after a failure. So I try to maintain a rigorous productive routine and am taken aback when a week of conferencing throws me off track. Often, this ends up a self-fulfilling prophecy because I really find myself unable to get back on track. I think this is because of all of the pressure I put on myself in these situations (which could be completely normal situations, after all).

The tiny failures end up making you fail in earnest

Had you just gone back to normal after being thrown off track, it would hardly have had any impact. A little failure, a moment’s inattention. They are not that big of a deal. But when you end up getting scared instead of staying calm;  when you react to the failure, you begin to fail in earnest.

So in this respect, Waitzkin’s book has made me aware of an insecurity I have and that I need to find ways of strengthening myself faced with failure. Maybe, as he suggests, meditation would help. And failing a lot, fast. Of course.

So namaste until later,

S.

 

 

Book Review: Rest

As you might remember from the last book reviews, I am on the quest for a better life in a digital age. I have tried reducing exposure to screens, but in Make Time, I came across more than just the allure of ‘infinity pools’ like the Internet. I was introduced to the concept of the ‘busy bandwagon’. The fact that your success is measured in how ‘busy’ you are or appear to be. The more I think about it, the more disgusted I am by it. I am sick of all the people around me being proud of their business – because obviously, how busy you are shows how successful you are, right? – and I could throw up at myself for answering ‘busy’ to every innocent ‘How are you?’. Since when has the standard answer to ‘How are you?’ changed from ‘good’ to ‘busy’?

 

Jumping off the busy bandwagon

Anyways, in my quest for a better life, I now try to find a way of jumping off the ‘busy bandwagon’. In Make Time, a few simple steps are already mentioned. Things like not answering email straightaway but rather in batches, not being constantly available, making time for family and so on. But there is more to it than just ‘changing how we work’. Because, after all, working constantly is what I am trying to avoid. So thinking about how to work more efficiently is not the right way to do it.

This is why today, I wanted to give a review of another book I recently came across. Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, NY 2016. Also check out the website: http://www.deliberate.rest/

Overwork is the new normal. Rest is something to do when the important things are done – but they are never done. 

 

Introducing ‘deliberate rest’

Rest isn’t primarily a book about productivity, that would be contradictory. It is a book which argues that (deliberate) rest is not just a by-product of being human, a necessary obligation to be reduced to a minimum. No, it is an enabler of creativity which is, after all, what we really want to achieve. Being ‘productive’ doing ‘superficial’ work does not create value. (Yes, I remember I still owe you the Deep Work review). What we really mean when we say we strive for productivity is: unique creative and valubable output.

I began to wonder if our productivity had as much to do with the pace of our lives as the place we lived. I started to think that maybe our familiar ways of working and living, and our unquestioned assumptions about our need to stay always connected […] to treat weekends as a time to catch up on work […] don’t work as well as we think. […] Today’s leaders treat stress and overwork as a badge of honour, brag about how little they sleep and how few vacation days they take and have their reputations as workaholics carefully tended by [PR. …] They remind us that the working lives of even the most powerful people unfold in an environment saturated with unquestioned assumptions about the virtue and inescapable necessity of constant work. Whether we embrace the idea that overwork is essential for productivity and creativity or reject it, we all are defined by it.

In the last few years, there has been a growing interest in the habits of successful people. They have mostly been analyzed to see how those people work, how they are productive. Rest does the same. This particular book, however, notes how it is striking that all those creative geniuses mostly didn’t do more than 4 hours per day of what we would consider their most important work. Often, this had previously been judged as ‘Oh, they are so capable that they succeeded despite all their off-time’. Rest asks whether this might not have been the other way around: They weren’t successful despite the copious amounts of rest, but because of it.

I have come to see our respect for overwork as […] intellectually lazy. Measuring time is litterally the easiest way to assess someone’s dedication and productivity. It’s also very unreliable.

Rest is more than just the mere absence of work. It is not an inconvenience. Leisure nowadays is seen as a luxury to be consumed and shared publicly on Instagram, at best, and at worst, the negation of all our values surrounding success (willingness ‘to go the extra mile’, etc.) With workaholics, it can easily happen that we don’t even really exist outside of work. I think many people who are considererd ‘successful’ in Academia do not have a life or even a self outside of work.

 

8 ways to work better using ‘deliberate rest’

As we become ‘more productive’, we work longer hours. […] You cannot work well without resting well.

  1. You are capable of no more than (max.) 4 hours of ‘real’ creative work per day. This is also the generally accepted amount from the 10.000h rule study and the ‘deliberate practice’ and ‘deep work’ movements. Of course, you’ll need to do some low value work which takes up a lot of the time every once in a while. But think about this the next time you’re about to work overtime. Do you really think this is going to yield quality output or could you do that night’s work in half an hour when well rested in the morning?
  2. Add walks or naps to recharge. A short walk will heighten your ability for creative work for multiple hours afterwards. So it’s not necessary to walk while thinking. But walking and creative thought are related.
  3. Have a morning routine where you get the most important task done for 1-2h. Regularity generates creative output. Routine is also a necessary step to protect rest from the invading work demands.
  4. Sleep enough.
  5. Take regular breaks.
  6. Stop work in a good moment when you still have energy left. Many know this rule as ‘leave one in the bar’. Stop before you’re tired. And, if possible, in a good place to continue for the next day.
  7. Exercise, deep play, sabbaticals. Hobbies, like playing music, allow you to detach emotionally from work. The way we spend our off-time determines how effective we are when at work. Rest even cites a long-term study on which academic careers succeed and which ones don’t. Most of the exceptionally successful scientists intensively engaged in sports and active rest, some even did climbing 😉 While according to a study, low achievers tried to get better at work by doing more work, the ones who really ended up successful were busy with “deep play”.
  8. Not taking time off creates exhaustion (emotional and physical) and has long term health risks. Take vacations. I actually don’t get how anyone can get along with 5 weeks of holiday per year. If I’m honest and wanted optimal productivty for myself, I would need at least two weeks off at least every three months. Not that it’s possible. But when I secluded myself in the south of France last Christmas for two weeks, that was one of the most productive and mind-clearing experiences I’ve had in a long time. People in Academia should be allowed to go on “writing escapes” to get their writing done. Maybe (hopefully) my upcoming fellowship this summer will have the same effect.

Vacations are like sleep. They need to be taken regularly to be effective.

The book isn’t super long. The audiobook lasts only 7 hours. Many of the tips don’t go deeper than what’s included in the summary here, except for lots of examples. But it mentions climbing as an activity for active rest. So yay for that. And examples might be helpful to you. If you feel that overwork and not resting enough is an issue for you, the book will definitely be interesting to you.

Best,

Sarah

Book Review: Make Time

As promised, I wanted to follow up my digital minimalsim series with a review of Make Time. It is definitely influenced by Cal Newports ideas of Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, but a bit more on the productivity / personal development side of the spectrum. But actually, I found the most valuable part to be the underlying philosophy. But see for yourselves.

An average American spends 4h watching TV and 4h scrolling their phones every day. Thus, the authors of Make Time conclude that “distraction is a full-time job”.

The Theory

They identify two big destructive tendencies of today’s world: The “busy bandwagon” and “infinity pools”. Like I already mentioned in the post on my fight with the screens:

“In Make Time. How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky argue that there are two destructive tendencies of our time, traps we ought to avoid at all costs. And that is on the one hand, “the busy bandwagon”, i.e. our culture of constant business and “infinity pools”, i.e. scolling dashboards which refresh themselves for all eternity, providing an endless amount of distraction. In the introduction to Make Time, the authors write:

“Nobody ever looked at an empty calendar and said, “The best way to spend this time is by cramming it full of meetings!” or got to work in the morning and thought, “Today I’ll spend hours on Facebook!” Yet that’s exactly what we do. Why?”

Change your defaults to make time for what matters

By saying “We can’t do the 57 things bloggers tell us we should do before 5a.m.”, the authors stress that this book is not meant for perfect people. It doesn’t require a will of steel. It stresses that you can make changes without crazy amounts of willpower if you just change the defaults which lead you to make bad choices. It’s not about doing more. It’s about making time for what matters. To you. The authors stress multiple times that the techniques were not written for super-humans.

Most of the techniques suggested in the book are probably already known to those who are into productivity tools and techniques. But, in my opinion, the most important thought they proliferate is that a lot of things which are non-optimal about our lives are based on the fact that we use the default option rather than actively making a choice for what we want.

The most important thing about Make Time is the philosophy behind it, according to me anyway. Since “most of our time is spent by default”, changing the default to a new default isn’t such a big deal.  But it makes a huge beneficial difference. And yet, it mostly requires that you make the mental shift: You need to come to the conclusion that you don’t want to live the default life.

 

The techniques

The main tips are based on the four steps from the authors’ previous Sprint, which shaped the popular technique of ‘design sprints’.

Highlight

The highlight is your main activity for the day. The goal, the thing you look forward to, the thing you will remember about your day. It can be something urgent. It can mean batching administrative tasks so you don’t get distracted by them at other times. Or just something very important to you or something that you will enjoy. It can be playing with your kids or writing a few pages ofyour PhD thesis. It takes around 60-90 minutes and you block time for it as if it were an important appointment. Be focused and don’t allow distractions. You will feel accomplished and up your life quality. Write down what it will be in advance, best in the morning (in one word reminder, on a post-it). All of the other to-dos go on a “might-do list”. That way, you don’t let the spirit of the ‘busy bandwagon’ and the feeling that you have to work as much as possible and be as “productive” as possible ruin what’s important to you. Try doing this highlight early in the morning or late at night. Any other time theoretically works too, but the authors have found one of these two options to most likely work for you in a reliable way.

Laser: Get rid of distraction

This can include switching off the internet, leaving your phone at home, getting a dumb phone or just un-installing the browser, the email app and social media apps on your smartphone. Without them, you disable this “swiss-army knife of distraction”. Get rid of the TV too. (Or just get the no-internet-plug, like I did, to switch it off between 19:00-08:00). 

Create as much of intentional inconvenience (logging out of all apps after each use), friction and barriers as possible (stashing the phone / TV away, unsubscribing from Netflix, unsubscribe from newsletters, delete apps, have empty tabs and an empty home screen without quicklinks to your favourite distractions; disable notifications). In short, make it as hard as possible for you to succumb to your old defaults.

One Thing to rule them all, One Thing to find them,
And in the darkness bind them.

(Tolkien on your smartphone)

JK and JZ exemplify this on “the distraction-free phone”. Maybe go back to wearing a wrist-watch. Don’t check your digital life first thing in the morning nor last thing at night. In order to get many of those benefits in one simple action which requires no willpower whatsoever, I have installed a timer plug on my wifi: it’s only available between 08:00-18:00. That way, I have gotten rid of most screen-induced losses of time and energy, am encouraged to read a book instead and still don’t miss out on any of the benefits.

And it was easy. Really no self-control involved. This is, I think, the strongest point of the book. Most books rely on super-high willpower you probably don’t have, especially in very stressful times when we’re at our most vulnerable.

Also, I found that disabeling “mobile data” on my phone really did the trick for me. I still check it when I have wifi. I can switch it back on if ever I get lost. That way, I can save my time until my light (dumb) phone comes in July. And also, you don’t get tracked as much if you’re not constanly online.

Check digital stuff only once per day, if possible. Check news once per week: How many ‘breaking news’ actually influence decisions you make daily? Hardly any, depending on your job. Also, to make sure you digital life (which you are not required to give up on completely) doesn’t eat up your real life, save it for the end of the work day. If you need email and social media for work, just do it in the late afternoon when you wouldn’t be productive anymore anyway. Also, wanting to get home will probably cause you to be less overly motivated to write 5 pages long emails and thus, help you streamline.

Also, if you are slow to respond, you reset expectations. As a detox, try to not respond to email straightaway. I have successfully made Wednesday my administration day where I batch administrative time-wasting and time-consuming tasks. It feels good to get it all done that day, but it also makes sure the urgent but not all that important stuff doesn’t ruin your focus capacities for everything else.

You will realize that once something else is “easier” and wasting time becomes an inconvenience, you won’t do it so much anymore. But of course, like we also saw in my last two posts on the topic (Fighting the screens and Digital Minimalism), tech companies spend a lot of time and energy to make their tools as alluring, conveniant and easy as possible, tapping into all of our psychological weaknesses.

But, like they write, perfection is another distraction. It’s okay to fall off the wagon some days.

 

Energize

Like the popular saying from strength training “leave one in the bar” suggests, even leaving work half an hour early, just before you get tired, can have tremendous effects on your productivity for the days after.

Exercise every day. Take 45 minutes for that. It is agreed that this will really boost your energy and reduce stress. However, don’t let this become yet another source of stress. If you’re too busy, squeeze in a super short workout. Just do something. And then again, you might have heard about this meditation quote:

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.

Most of the Energize part is made up of sound, but well-known advice like “reduce sugar”, “take naps”, “drink green tea”, “don’t have caffeine first thing in the morning” (get light, movement and water first), swipe sweets for dark chocolate and nuts as a default, etc.

It ends with the important point often announced in airplanes: Put on your own oxygen mask first. By that, they mean that you can’t help others and be a good person before you have taken care of yourself (see Astrid’s post on that). So be egoistic, so you have the energy needed for altruism.

Reflect

Which means that you should test out a new tactic every day and write down what has worked and what hasn’t. Then use this data to learn from it and fine-tune. Journaling or a simple notebook can serve for that. Keep notes of what you find out. You might not remember it next year but it can be beneficial to have some data on what works for you in the future. Even if you decide to discontinue something now, maybe you’d like to go back to it next year and would be happy to have a record of what has worked for you in the past. Also, journaling has been proven to have tons of benefits aside from that.

Conclusion

Overall, the book is not all that long (despite being almost 300 pages). The words are not dense on the pages, there are a lot of visualizations, etc. I listened to the Audiobook anyway. I found the book to be very valuable and packed with interesting thoughts, despite it being rather short and even though the tips by themselves are not all very innovative. Combined with the more ‘philosophical’ ideas it brings up (our culture as “busy bandwagon”, digital tools as “infinity pools”, living on defaults which means its easier to change the default than bring up willpower, etc.), all these tips can be seen in a different light as in other books. That’s why I liked it. Definitely worth it, but – even while you’ll miss out on the cool illustrations, maybe rather listen to the audio book, if you’re into that.

 

Best,

Sarah

 

Resources

Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky, Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, NY 2018. https://maketime.blog/

A lot of articles are available for free on: https://maketime.blog/articles/

Digital Minimalism – More than just a book review

I really love Cal Newport’s books. But when Digital Minimalism first came out, I was reluctant to read it. I think I just didn’t want to admit that I really needed to read that one. So, in the pre-Easter stress burst, I did. I got it on Audible and took it all in on my morning bike rides to work. This is what stuck with me, plus some personal thoughts and implementation ideas.

My initial reluctance towards digital minimalism showed how much I felt digital technologies had grown to be part of my identity. Could I be a Digital Minimalist and a Digital Humanist at the same time? Would it mean I had to give up Twitter again after I had just adopted it to promote my blog? Can I be a blogger and still reduce screen time? I wil now treat you to the takeways from the book and also keep you posted on my ongoing experiment in moving towards digital minimalism.

Digital Minimalism is not a manifesto against the digital, but rather one for enhancing your analogue life in a digital world. Thinking back about it now, I would say the most important takeaways for me were questions like “How to have a rich social life despite social media?”

 

Foundations

At the beginning, Newport brings up Henry David Thoreau who is known most widely for being the author of Walden; or, Life in the Woods. His life in the wood, however, was about reflecting upon the good life in the times of industrialization. He saw that people in capitalism never questioned why they should consume. Consumption is seen as a value in and of its own because people only count the value novel things provide. They never thought about their cost, Thoreau realized. He saw that the value in buying new things hardly ever made up for the lifetime lost because people had to work in order to be able to afford their luxuries. They had hardly any time left to really enjoy them.

This is an important thought on its own (especially in terms of work life balance, deliberating whether you are ready to continue doing half of your work for free, etc.). But Newport points out that “clutter is costly”. In the use of digital tools, people mostly look at the benefits they seemingly provide (i.e. exposure to new ideas from Twitter, networking), but they hardly weigh this is in with the time they lose using those tools.

What are good reasons you use social media for? Mostly, the answers are in no way proportional to the amount of time we waste on the internet. Not because we’re lazy and tend to procrastinate, like we so often emphasize. Because the offerings of the internet are engineered to take up as much of our time as possible, distract us and make us addicted. There are several psychological factors at play here which you can read for yourself in the book.

In any case, the point is that Facebook would provide the same value (the reason with which we justify our massive use) without the like buttons which turn it into an addictive gambling machine. Getting likes combines our deeply ingrained desire for acceptance from our tribe with the thrill of the unforeseeable outcome of a gamble. Today, we live in an attention economy. Our attention is worth a lot of money to those who offer digital services. You can still get all the benefit from those servies when using them very selectively. But of course, that’s not what they want.

Newport’s digital minimalism mostly consists of rethinking “which tools we allow into our lives (“a philosophy of technology use”) which will result in using them more deliberately and selectively. He suggests we take back control over the screens coming from our deep-held values rather than making superficial changes which might miss the point.

 

Digital Declutter

Take a break from optional* technologies for 30 days. Explore what you could do instead. Re-introduce worthwhile technologies selectively. You might go through some withdrawal symptoms but afterwards realize you don’t need certain technologies anymore.

* Optional technologies are those you don’t absolutely need in your job. If unsure about which ones to look out for, start with streaming, social media and check your phone and computer. Don’t confuse convenient with critical. Critical is only something which would result in major consequences. Not keeping up with people for a month will probably not hurt. It might even make you see that you don’t want to invest in certain relationships anymore.

 

Practices

Spend Time Alone

We need solitude to order our thoughts. That’s why we often find so much clarity on lonely train rides and the like. But solitude is not total isolation. According to Newport, it means being free from outside input in your mind. The recent anxiety epidemic is caused by permanent connection via digital media. Solitude is also needed for deep work, which Newport discussed in his last book. A concept of utmost importance especially during your PhD! (Do read the book or get the audiobook!) Finding time to be alone with your thoughts, which should be the main activity during this time of your life, ironically has become an exceptional event, incredibly rare and hard to come by these  days. So many distractions and extra responsibilities compete for the PhD student’s attention. It has become hard to keep the main thing the main thing. During the dissertation, your main job is to write that dissertation. Dare to claim back this time free from distractions.

Room of One’s Own

Today, we don’t ever need to be alone or bored anymore. Especially as PhD students who – quite litterally – don’t have a room of their own, room of one’s own is hard to come by. In general. Because people spam you with their own false emergencies and as an early career scholar, you obviously aren’t in a position to call people out for wasting your time. (Even if those same people will probably accuse you of wasting their time when you have a question which is absolutely crucial for you or you need this decision from your boss before you can continue). 

While isolation might be an unattainable goal, Newport suggests solitude really means being alone with your own thoughts. This is what we should strive for: to plan for regular moments where no other’s thought intrudes into our minds (no music, no audiobook, no screens, no talking, etc.). In short, an environment without diversion, so you can focus on yourself and on your own thoughts. Walking has historically been a classic activity to obtain this state of mind. 

When we are permanently diverted, solitude deprivation will actually make us sick. The rise in anxiety disorders of the past years coincides with the generation who grew up with smart phones. The problem is not a distraction every once in a while. Previous technologies offered these occasional diversions. Only since the 2000s, we can banish boredom and solitude completely and be permanently connected and diverted. Being sociable is important for humans as social animals, of course. But not continiously. 

Solitude Depravation

Not so long ago, it would have been a bit weird to constantly wear headphones in public. In the age of walkmans, only very few would actually spend their whole commute wired. People would be forced to have some moments of solitude while walking, waiting, and such activities. It all started with the white iPod headphones of the early 2000s. Nowadays, we can’t stand even a few minutes of boredom queueing at the supermarket. When label this “productivity” because our constant phone usage allows us to get something done on the go. Occasionally. If we were honest to ourselves, these productivity bursts are actually pretty rare events. The gain in productivity is minimal compared to the loss of lifetime we suffer from being sucked into the infinity of our dashboards.

Our digital habits have us at the brink of a mental health crisis. Constant screen exposure robs us of these moments alone where we can process our thoughts and feelings, make plans, or simply give our brains some much needed rest. This is especially relevant for creative workers, like we are as PhD students.

Giving up your phone completely will be an unnecessary struggle and make life more complicated. But there is no problem spending a few hours without it. Newport suggests to leave your phone in the car or give it to someone else to hold. That way, you still have emergency access but aren’t constantly distracted by it. Go on walks, alone, without your phone. Or meditate, as Astrid would probably recommend. Going running kind of fits this requirement as well. Journal to get in touch with yourself and your thoughts. Write a letter to yourself. Writing is productive solitude and helps you make sense of what’s happening.

 

Don’t click “Like”

Use Social Media consciously and intentionally: to network and to arrange meetings with friends more efficiently, not to replace real social interaction. Connection is not the same thing as conversation. You need meaningful quality time with friends, not superficial likes. So don’t click like because it will fool you into thinking you are maintaining a relationship when you really aren’t. Take time to consciously meet up with people. Really listen, don’t ignore them and stare into your screen once they’re there.

 

Set up “office hours”

Astrid, I and our friends have used this technique for ourselves recently (not knowing it was a techique). We decided we would consciously take time for a long Classics PhD student lunch break once a week. Everybody can join. We use an instant messaging group chat to discuss where we are going to eat each week. People will say who can join and who can’t. It has turned out that this lunch break (which can last up to three hours) has become very popular with our whole circle of friends since it allows us to share our common PhD issues. We’re all from the (wide) field of Classics but work at different institutes, so not all of us have like-minded colleagues at our institutions who share our problems. I really can’t express how much I now look forward to this lunch break every week and how disappointed I am when it occasionally doesn’t take place.

 

Taking back control: Don’t hit like, don’t interact, don’t scroll.

Historically, newspapers first were seen as a product in and of their own. Then in 1830, a witty publisher noticed that in reality, the readers were his product which he could resell profitably to those who wanted their attention (read up on this in Tim Wu’s Attention Merchants). So he made it his goal to capture attention instead of trying to deliver a good product.

Imagine you had to pay for services like Facebook. How many minutes would you spend per week? These minutes are essentially what this social network really is worth to you. Everything else is profit for the company specialized in reselling your precious time and attention. Newport suggests we “join the attention resistance” by being more conscious about our screen usage. Extracting your attention is more lucrative for these serives than extracting oil! Are we really ok with being sold out? Like the famous saying hints: If you’re not paying, your not the customer – you’re the product. The attention engineering which ensues strategically exploits our psychological vulnerabilities to maximize screen time and spend far more time than you intended. Your smartphone is a billboard you always carry around with you. 

Set up fixed hours for screen usage (i.e. phone, social media, streaming) maximum 1h per day at [time].  Go back to single-purpose computing. Check social media only on your desktop PC and remove the apps from you phone. This alone will drastically reduce screen  time already (as well as usage of that specific network). Make it as inconvenient as possible to use these apps (i.e. delete them, always log out, etc.). You might realize that you don’t need them as much as you had thought. Lots of people Newport interviewed quit social media altogether after having removed the apps from their phone. They had come to realize that these seemingly indispensable tools were just quick convenient hits of distraction. If you only use it sometimes, you can only use it for some well-chosen, conscious, high-value activities.

 

Fear of missing out

The ubiquity of Facebook, Google and the like put them in the lucky position that they never need to actually convince people of their product. People are weird if you they don’t use them. It is somehow self-evident you will use them. People are pressured into using them. Sometimes with the non-argument that “maybe there is some benefit you might be missing”. Being vague on your purposes makes you an easier victim for the attention economy. But of course, knowing what you want is more work than waiting to be entertained. If we assume average usage time per day is about one hour and compare that to the minutes people would spend per week if they had to pay, they would spend 10-20x less time on these services if they carefully monitored their use. But of course, then these services would not be top-of-the-economy profitable anymore. So they will use everything in their power to trick you to spend more time than you intend. Keeping up with friends and close social circles is important but actually doesn’t require a lot of time. But, of course, that too is a truth these services try hard to make you forget.

Cut out the noise. The dashboards can be surfed endlessly and are designed to take up more and more of your time. Use services intentionally and consciously, so you’re not used by them. Clickbait fragments your focus. Remember that your time is their money. A phone is an interactive billboard. And you give them the ad space for free. Maybe use a dumb phone to re-single-purpose your phone. I actually ordered a light phone 2

We were so eager to get connected that we never asked why we would want to be connected in the first place. New technologies are tools to support your values, not values of themselves. Get comfortable missing out on everything that is not specifically valuable to you.

We should think of all digital services as “blocked by default”, only allowed on specific occasions. Newport suggests we control usage of these tools aggressively. If we managed to resist, we would take the value for free but not let ourselves be exploited. Like the pirate’s motto: Take all you can get and give nothing back. 

 

Conclusion

Now that you got lots of helpful takeaways, I sincerely recommend you to get the book. I have the audiobook which is available from Audible. I found it so engaging and important to myself that I listened to it more than 3 times already. Each time, some other aspect resonates with me. This is an effect I find very typical of Newport’s books. I need to go through them at least 3 times to really get all the value. They are really that full of valuable insights. At least to me. I really like to listen to his books while commuting. That way, I can easily go through them multiple times and really engange with them. Though I probably should enjoy the solitude instead, according to him anyway.

Best,
Sarah

PS: You can also watch Newport in action in his TEDx talk.

Resources

  1. freedom.to “Control distractions. Focus on what matters. Social media, shopping, videos, games…​these apps and websites are scienti­fically engineered to keep you hooked and coming back. The cost to your productivity, ability to focus, and general well-being can be staggering. Freedom gives you control.” However, the tool is not free.
  2. Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our heads. NY 2016.