Category Archives: Productivity

How to Diss-cember without losing your mind…

This is it. This is the last month of my intensive writing bootcamp to finish my dissertation. That was the reason why you have not seen any posts from me recently… I was busy. Busy with writing, reading, writing, planning my writing, … and nearly lost my mind on it.

The last phase of your PhD is the most exhaustive one in you career, trust me on that.

Oh, and it is December already, so, I have to get all my Christmas presents for my loved ones as well, next to finishing that dissertation.

But December also means candles, cookies, lights and it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas – and yes, I admit it, I LOVE that time of the year. The play on words “Diss-cember” is not that new, I know, but it totally seemd accurate for the first sunday in Advent. I even picked a nice image with a candle to provide you with some seasonal flair. 🙂 I hope you like it.

Here comes my list of how not to lose my mind – I hope it will help you, too:

  1. Make a plan.
    Okay, yeah, this is the most obvious thing, I guess.
  2. Stick to it, but be gentle with yourself.
    Allow yourself to miss some of your own deadlines. Calculate enough time spots for breaks. After all, you have to take good care of yourself, because you cannot afford to drop out for days or weeks beacuse of getting sick or ill or whatever stress can do to your body and mind.
  3. Ask for help and tell your friends about your last phase of writing.
    You may need some eyes to get through your text, doing corrections. I am just saying… I, myself, am perfectly unable to see my mistakes, and I want to thank all my dear test readers on this occasion for helping me with my corrections and revisions.
  4. Reward yourself when you finished a task or a bullet on your huge to-do-list. And YES, you have time for that, because you have your plan, right? 😉
  5. It’s allowed to shout, cry and being frustrated. This is actually called soul hygiene. It is allowed to say that you want to f*ck all this sh*t. Really, without such little controlled breakdowns you will harm yourself. I have them at least three times a week. If you are not working with Microsoft Word, there might be less occasions. 🙂 Sorry, not sorry.
  6. Celebrate your good days – good days are days where you get a lot of stuff done and can relax in the evening.
    This is also an opportunity to reward yourself with some self-care-stuff like watching a movie with a huge mug of hot chocolate on your couch. It is as simple as that. And it is so important, because you have to enjoy this feeling of being satisfied with your work.
  7. Be actually satisfied with your work.
    Yes, I know, I am a perfectionist myself and I am never ready to submit a paper, even if I had the time to review it at least three times. Therefore, tell one person about your good work and tell them that you need help to enjoy the feeling, too. Really, try it.
  8. Get fresh air and do some physical training.
    You need your body to be trained – and yes, just take a walk around the block, it’s 10 important minutes to get your mind clear again.
I am buried with books, in the middle of revisions and quotations still to check and verify, half through my writing plan, and highly desperate for the Christmas cookie season to start. (image: Pixabay)

Until now, everything just worked out fine for me. I try to keep moving, I try to stick to my plan and I try to be at least proud of me by doing so. Yes, the last thing is the actual hard work to do. I could spent another year on doing research, on writing, on reading, but: A good dissertation is a done dissertation.

There is a silver lining: I plan to submit my thesis in february at last. I am still good in time, I planned even a nice Christmas break and I am pretty sure to get enough work done to actually enjoy it without any bad conscience. 😉 And soon, I will have finished my good dissertation!

So, I am sorry that you have not heard from me and that I had no time to do any posts, but I guess you can forgive me. 😀

Have a very nice and not too stressful December, enjoy picking your presents for your loved ones, eat a lot of cookies and do not forget to celebrate the important things in life.

Stay tuned, dear fighters of academia!

See y’all,

Astrid

What to make of the Online Cult of ‘Ultra-learners’

Yet another post which always became a book review but ended up becoming a reflection! I really wanted to do something else, like a tutorial along the lines of “Transkribus for Dummies”, but since that’s already done and Scott H. Young’s Ultralearning popped up on my screen, I just had to review it. It has received praise from Cal Newport (Deep Work, So good they can’t ignore you & Digital Minimalism) and James Clear (Atomic Habits), two authors who are definitely among my inner circle of personal development books. And it also treats a subject which has fascinated me for a long time – Ultra learning. That is the art of ‘aggressive self-directed learning’. To early-modern-ize the title a little bit. (Yes, the fellowship left its marks, but I’d do it again any time!)

 

Preface to the Readers

But first, let’s not get carried away. I have a word of caution to go with this (a real review will follow some time later). Ultralearning is a book promising techniques for self-learning. That is, especially self-learning to reach ‘amazing’ spectacular results, like – of course -the author has achieved. This, in my opinion, is problematic. By putting all of this down on paper in a very ‘meta’ way, Scott H. Young epitomizes a whole generation of online ‘superlearners’ who market their own learning results. While the empowerment is great, this can also easily frustrate people: Especially imposter syndrome prone PhD students might end up feeling belittled by these marketers’ apparent lack of humility. So let’s get to it. And, if you haven’t already noticed, the theme of this post is ‘early modern’ 😉

 

Liber I: On Sensationalism

Since I myself have gone through a period of phdlife-induced imposter syndrome just now, I also wanted to point out that listing amazing feats like “Pass a Maths/Analysis one semester class in 10 days” can also end up frustrating people. Especially if you have high standards. After all, to do our position as a Humanities blog justice and put the critical into thinking, essentially, these so-called ultralearners do nothing but capitalize on sensationalism in the end. If we break it down to the roots. Which, I am sure, they don’t really want us to.

Just like extreme athletes have to break one breathtakingly crazy and dangerous world record after the other, ‘learning gurus’ on the internet will tell you about one crazy intellectual feat after the other. About how they ‘hacked’ skill XY. And you, as a dutiful Humanities person with sky-high standards, might end up feeling inferior because your definition of mastery is quite different from the goals they have set for themselves. You will know this and still feel inferior. You catch yourself wondering how it is that these people are able to learn all sorts of great skills with apparent ease in no time while you’re still not done with your thesis. It can’t be that hard, right? Wrong. Don’t let internet personalities pretending to be real-life superheroes make you feel like an idiot. After all, they earn money from making you feel like they are better than most others, regardless of their frequent assurances that “really anybody can (learn to) do what they did.”

 

Liber II: The Art of Marketing

This is a dangerous trap, one might say. So I can’t give a 100% positive review, because I dislike this tendency behind it all. Tim Ferriss, Benny Lewis, Steve Pavlina and what all of their names are. They all fashion themselves as the greatest ‘meta-learners’ ever (self-fashioning also was a big thing in the early modern times, if you wanted to know. I happen to have read multiple papers about it over the last few days 😉 ). And, I get it. Meta-Learning is important. I totally acknowledge their achievement of making the public more aware of this. I was even deeply influenced by some of them. But at the same time, I can’t help but notice – in my capacity as your very Enlightened (with a big E) Humanist – that essentially, they don’t primarily learn to accomplish those amazing feats because they really want to learn them.

 

Liber III: Modern alchemy

The main outcome is that they make money from sensationalism, just like extreme athletes or any kinds of people who make money online nowadays. But that means that they don’t learn a skill to learn that skill, but rather: to blog about it. Because they make their living from that blog and the coaching business built around it. The skills they learn are sales proposals. Just like early modern alchemists would give sensationalist demonstrations of experiments and (some) tried to make people believe they knew how to make the philosopher’s stone and were perfectly able to reveal this secret to others.

Just like our ultra-learners do. This technique of promising greatness and riches taps into all those very human longings we can’t seem to shut off, even at a time when most of us don’t believe in the philosopher’s stone anymore. But in reality, we still do believe in it. Because we want to believe in it. We just call it differently and it comes in disguise. But essentially, it’s still the same thing all over again.

Conclusio: Redefining “success”

A big part of what they do is redefine “super-human success” and “mastery”, more or less achieve it and then sell to people the idea that they are not special: Everybody can achieve what they did and here’s how. (And input your credit card number below, of course). So, let’s have no doubt about that this is not only and not innocently about learning. Another component of their magnum opus pointing at this conclusion is the fact that they hardly choose boring projects. The projects they choose mostly also make for a great sales proposal, are apit to cause quite a stir, and yield the possibility of going viral &c. Alchemists sometimes did that, too.

 

These are my reflections for now 😉

Best,

S

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

 

Don’t check your phone first thing in the morning

Since many of you enjoyed my post on procrastination, I thought I’d follow up with a tip already mentioned here in more detail. It’s her tip to not check your phone first thing in the morning. I have tried this and these are my experiences.

How to do this

I didn’t actively plan on actually implementing this tip. But when I woke up in the morning and was about to grab my phone for the usual checkup (which usually ends up taking much longer than the intended 2 minutes), I remembered Oakley had said to not do this but to first do 10 minutes of work instead. So I thought, I need to get through these bills anyway. And I did that. And I had the first achievement of my day. Then I checked my phone and still lost a lot of time.

10 minutes of productive work instead

Now this doesn’t work every day for me and I’m not enforcing it either. But this morning, I realized I broke the habit of having to check my phone first thing in the morning. I still do sometimes. But I don’t have to. And when I don’t all the effects she described really set in: you are primed for a productive day. After those inital 10 minutes of work, you often continue working because it’s so rewarding. And after the initial urge is past, I sometimes don’t feel the urge to check my phone for hours. This has downsides too, of course. Yesterday I didn’t know our first meeting had been canceled because I hadn’t checked my phone (or at least my work email) since after 5 pm the day before. It was a small setback in the moment. But it’s really a victory. I feel like I’m gaining back my freedom.

The “priming effect”

I also really feel like the “priming yourself for a productive day” thing really works. It’s easier to exercise willpower during the day or at least to overcome the barrier to start getting work done. It’s easier to resist the urge to check the phone. (In some situations I still want to procrastinate, of course, but hey – it’s ok to leave some improvement for tomorrow, right?)

It triggered a chain reaction of positive change

Sometimes things are urgent. But when they are, people tend to try to call you or reach you more aggressively anyway. So you won’t miss anything crucially important. But you gain a few good early morning hours where you can get work done. And after I got work done during the day, I feel that I don’t need to punish myself in the evening by working long hours or checking email constantly. This little mini-change actually triggered a chain reaction of positive change.

Next step: Write down todos the night before so your brain can pre-process them

Another one of those tips I more or less subconsciously implemented is to write up todos for the following day the night or evening before. This lets your brain work on it overnight and you’re more ready to get going the next day.

Maybe the next thing I implement will be to prepare my things for the next day or to tidy up before going to bed. I am really motivated to step up better routines right now 😉

Hope to pass on the motivation,

Best,
S

Devices and productivity on the go

Today I want to share some reflections on productivity on the go since I just returned from an archaeology and ancient history sailing excursion (inofficial) summer school (it was great and will probably happen again next year as an international summer school on “The Maritime Ancient World” or something, so watch out if you’re interested). The point is that on and before the trip I was, of course, confronted with a difficult choice: Should I bring work devices at all and if yes, which ones are best?

You should not bring productivity devices to your time off at all

First of all, I probably shoulnd’t have brought any device. I had a tablet (my old Lenovo Yoga Tab 2) but I hardly used it – thankfully. I had only brought it in the first place because I hadn’t finished this article, which I ended up not finishing anyway. So that was actually a success, work-life-balance-wise. But on the return journey, I spent a few hours on the bus web browsing options for productivity devices which are suitable for situations where you don’t want to bring the laptop (like on a sailing boat).

But if you really have to, these are my requirements

A device like this should be small and portable, but also not too expensive since I really don’t use it except on holiday. It should comfortably allow you to work effectively in a moment of need (command line utilities and LaTeX inevitably needed for that; also decent RAM).

I am generally a very non-tablet kind of person. I think tablets cannot be used for productivity. I am probably not your average user, but I really want a commandline, LaTeX and some computing power, even on the go. I don’t need Microsoft Word (Learn how you can live happily ever after without it here). On the other hand, I don’t really want apps which I find to be generally very un-usable and non-productive things. A fully functional keyboard is absolutely necessary but since I have small hands, I am much less picky with keyboards than most people.

Also, since I have migrated to Linux completely (by now actually that long ago that I can officially say “years ago”), I ever since am less and less able to tolerate anything else. Insisting on Linux really massively reduces your choices on the mini netbook or ultra-mobile pc (umpc) market. However, on the umpc market, Linux alternatives seem to be taking off recently, so maybe this won’t be an issue anymore a year from now.

But at the moment, most tablets firstly don’t even have a “desktop mode” at all (thus only apps) and secondly, if they do, don’t have a Linux option. Such as my Lenovo Yoga Tab 2 where the keyboard only works with Windowds which is becoming less and less acceptable for me. Of course you can always just install Linux, but tablet-like devices have so many features (like touch screens and stylus support, etc.) that you really miss out on half of the features and I am not really willing to pay for tons of features which I can’t even use. So that makes things kind of complicated.

 

What I found

Despite my non-conventional needs, I have found some possibly interesting options which I wanted to make you aware of. Also, if you are interested in small netbooks or mini ultra-mobile pcs (umpcs), Liliputing generally is a great resource to find reviews of mini computers. They are available as blogs as well as on Youtube.

Many Kickstarter projects feature such mini computers. However, the problem with Kickstarter is that projects might not end up working out, there are huge delays in delivery and you don’t know if there will be any customer support later when the product prematurely exhales its last breath. But if you’re in for cool products which not everybody has and don’t need one delivered to you rightaway, like me, you might consider keeping an eye open on Kickstarter.

Since I am only really interested in products which feature a native Linux option, I will not go into detail with Windows ones. If you are ok with Windows, congratulations, there are many more interesting products out there for you.

The Gemini PDA

The Gemini PDA Android & Linux keyboard mobile device is meant as a smartphone with a keyboard and comes in Android or Debian. However, Debian is supposed to be patchy and it doesn’t really work well for the intended use. The keyboard is too wobbly to be really productive (according to my extensive review research). It looked really promising at first, so I was a bit disappointed by the mediocre reviews.

The Topjoy Falcon

The Topjoy Falcon seemed perfect to me but I missed the Kickstarter campaign and you currently can’t buy it regularly. Also, a general problem with cool gadgets coming out of Kickstarter projects: If they do take off and lead to a regular production, the post-Kickstarter prices are so high that the product really isn’t all that attractice anymore. (Remember, I wanted a relatively non-expensive product for holiday use only.) This sadly is the case with most Kickstarter tec gadgets. But it also features Ubuntu.

 

GPD products

The Chinese GPD company specializes in ultra-mobiles devices. They are much smaller than what you regularly would get because they specialize in this niche.

They have the GPD Pocket 2, the MicroPC (like a 6 inch toughbook), a new ultra-book project going on (GPD P2 Max) and a range of gaming devices. They have a history of successful Kickstarter projects and the prices are great when you get it from a running campaign. The only downside, in my view, is that they aren’t exactly cheap anymore in the regular price and then again, it’s a risk buying from a smaller, less established brand (possibly less customer support, etc.).

They usually release and ship with Windows 10 but they collaborate with Ubuntu Mate for UMPC, so a customized Linux version becomes available shortly later. Which, personally I think, is pretty damn awesome.

Lenovo Yoga Tablets

This is also more like an honourable mention. As I said, I still have a Lenovo Yoga 2 Tab from my pre-Linux era a few years ago. It’s nice and all but the keyboard – which is the essential part for me if it’s supposed to be a productivity device – only works with Windows. (Also, not that I have tried with anything else because I really just want a new device right now.) 

But it’s actually quite a cool product. The bigger one has a beamer function included which might come in handy at some point. I still use mine for watching films sometimes. And I am a big fan of Lenovo. It’s a bit sad that they don’t offer a great Linux umpc. I would totally get that. 

Honourable mention: Paper tablets

ReMarkable

It’s not a netbook, it’s not a tablet either and it’s also way too costly if you’re not going to use it regularly, but I just love the ReMarkable paper tablet. I have never owned it myself but I have tried it out and found it quite awesome. You can use it to read and annotate PDFs, take notes or even make drawings. However, people also have some criticisms on the software and it’s really quite an investment (around 400-600€ depending on whether you can get a special offer). Paper tablets are interesting for academia people because classic ebook readers aren’t great for PDFs but papers mostly come in PDF form. Many colleagues use ‘normal’ tablets for this exact purpose, but that’s another screen your tired eyes have to look into. When I work a lot and want to get reading done, I am usually quite glad to not have to stare into another screen. Also, there’s the thing that the blue light wakes you up at night, etc. etc. etc. So the ReMarkable doesn’t have as many features as a tablet, but in harmony with the Digital Minimalsim principle of non-multipurposing, it thereby also comes with many less temptations for drifting off.

E-Pad

Also, during my research for going more digitally minimalist, I came across the E-Pad 10.3″ E-Ink Android Tablet & eReader with Pen (also a Kickstarter thing) and it sounds really good. But I actually has apps which was a reason for me to reject it at the time since I didn’t want to many options for distraction. Now, looking back, it doesn’t seem so bad though. (I found this review really interesting. A plus is that it as access to full Android and not a proprietary system.)

 

Conclusion

So, that was it for now. It maybe wasn’t an overview over the more common products. But then again, you can get that from somewhere else. Maybe this was helpful to some of you.

Best,

S

 

Procrastination and the PhD life

For once, this is not a book review. At least not really because I will discuss some concepts I read in Barbara Oakley’s A Mind for Numbers, NY 2014. The book’s about how to learn more effectively in math and science and I thought it might help me learn new computer science concepts more quickly. But it’s really a book highly recommended for anyone. It’s a book about learning how to learn, about how to master procrastination and your work process. Highly relevant to the PhD life, obviously, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on it with you 😉

 

Defining the problem

Well, where to start? We all know what procrastination is, of course. The idea of having to start a task we find daunting, our brain lights up with pain. Procrastination offers a quick relief. It doesn’t seem too harmful in small doses but, like Arsenic, if consumed in excess the consequences are not fun.

Interestingly, for the most part of my life, I have never had a single issue with procrastination. It’s not that I had never felt the need to procrastinate. But during my schooling, I found most classes utterly boring and useless. So I ‘procrastinated’ on paying attention by completing other boring tasks which were dull but didn’t require a lot of focus. That way, I hardly ever had to do any stupid homework at home. By completing all my homework in class, I never even had to use my willpower at home and had enough left to focus it on the important stuff.

Even during my university studies, this method still worked, because sadly, I still found myself in a situation were most classes were shit and a waste of time, to be quite plain. So I did my homework, assignments, research for seminar papers and even some paper writing during boring lessons. At home, I had a consistent routine of spending 1-3 hours in the morning on some deep work and learning, for example like practice for Latin grammar, learning Ancient Greek and the like.

Having read some of Oakley’s tips now, this sounds like it was a freaking great idea because not only did it work really well, it also fits quite well with the learning theory (apart from the fact that you should avoid multitasking, but then again, I’ve never been a greater follower of rules, to quote Dumbledore from Crimes of Grindelwald on the matter).

 

The anxiety and procrastination inducing PhD life

But didn’t I just claim that we all know procrastination all too well and then followed up with how I never had a problem with it? Well, not thus far. For me, problems with procrastination only started once I started work and thesis writing. Now that I didn’t have frequent classes anymore I had to show up for, I lacked the hours to get those boring tasks done. Nobody controlled if I showed up for my work as long as it got done somehow. Also, had I not felt so well one day when I still used to ‘procrastinate’ during class, I could just sit there and do nothing while still “getting something done” in the way that I at least completed my attendance to the class.

Before, if I didn’t do anything, class still progressed. Now, when I didn’t do anything, nothing would get done. Also, tasks used to be much smaller than “Complete PhD thesis”. Even if you divide that one in smaller tasks, it’s still huge and daunting, there is no way around that. And all of a sudden, I had those bursts of anxiety related to procrastination. In the good old days where there was no procrastination issue in my life, I was so much less stressed. (It’s actually proven that procrastination causes stress and takes at least as much time and energy than just doing what needs to get done.)

We procrastinate on things that make us feel uncomfortable. […] The dread of doing a task uses up more time and energy than doing the task itself.

This has been going on at least since 2016 in my life but it seems to have been a mystery to me until I read Oakley’s book today. I haven’t really found the cure to my own newly discovered procrastination problem yet, but I wanted to share some tips Oakley provides in her book.

Don’t let your procrastination habit get the best of you

First of all, procrastination is extremely detrimental if you have big tasks ahead of you which require deep work and understanding, such as learning math (Oakley’s example) or writing that great peer-reviewed paper. If you ever only cram at the last minute, your brain has no time to form any firm connections, leaving you with superficial only. Not good.

First things first. Unlike procrastination, which is easy to fall into, willpower is hard to come by because it uses a lot of neural resources. This means that the last thing you want to do in tackling procrastination is to go around spraying willpower on it like it’s cheap air freshener.

  1. Use the Pomodoro technique (25min timed work sprint without distraction, reward and break after each session). Working on a little time constraint also has the added benefit of teaching you to function under pressure.
  2. Train ignoring distractions like you would work on meditation. In meditation, it’s all about recognizing a thought and actively deciding to discard it. Applied to procrastination, that means that you need to first become aware when the impulse to procrastinate comes in (not always easy!), then train yourself to ignore it.
  3. Use this little “digital minimalism” challenge to practice: When you notice the urge to open social media, don’t. Acknowledge the impulse, maybe reflect why you had it and what the reward from it would be (are you expecting a mesage or just want to avoid working?), come up with a way of substituting the reward or delay the gratification (“I’ll work another Pomodoro, then I can have a social media break as a reward”).
  4. Don’t “reward” yourself with a bad habit when you haven’t done anything to deserve it. This is easier said than done, especially if the habit is already automatic. Then the first step is to un-automate it and re-route your reaction to the cue which usually triggers your routine habit behaviour. This new reaction, however, still needs to be rewarding or you won’t go through with it in the long run.
  5. Oakley suggests to stop yourself from checking your phone first thing in the morning and to set a timer for 10 minutes of work instead. This little willpower training will “prime you” to make better choices during the day. Other people also say that unlearning the snooze habit is really important. However, I feel that I don’t have a problem with snooze when I’m truly motivated. I only it do when I really dread the day.
  6. Only apply willpower to your reaction to the cue. 
  7. You are bound to fail sometimes. We all fail sometimes. Learn to control your reaction to failures. Have a plan B for when they happen and, most importantly, failures are a necessary part of the learning process, not an indicator that you’re incompetent or unable to get things done.
  8. If you want to be kept from your digital devices, give them to somebody to watch over during your pomodoro timers.

 

Leverage all the external factors you can get

Social pressure can be an effective means against procrastination. For example, I sometimes procrastinate on climbs I am a bit afraid of and never finsih them, thinking I can’t do them. Once in the last month, for example, I brought a fellow fellow to climbing and she watched me do my current ‘final opponent’ boulder which had eluded me for weeks and countless attempts. With a colleague watching, I did it on the first attempt.

Turns out all I needed was that little social pressure and encouragement to pull through. I’d probably had that one in me for weeks and only couldn’t do it because I bailed out of it again and again. So these tips are even valid for climbing: When you think you can’t do it, hang on just a little bit longer. Always train until you actually fall (hint: most times, you probably won’t at all, even though you dread you might) or you’ll never use your full capacities and won’t progress. If you never try, you’ll never know. Overcome procrastination now 😀

To rewire your reaction to a trigger, try developing a new ritual. In the case of procrastination, this rewiring is sometimes called learned industriousness.

Meeting times or even lunch dates can be used as mini-deadlines to push your productivity. I always find I get the most productive shortly before I have to be somewhere because I’m trying to cram in just a little more, to get just that little other thing done. This is quite effective productivity-wise, but also the reason I am notoriously late. Not a good habit either. But it was helpful to read Oakley’s tips to understand this behaviour for what it really was for once: a mini-deadline-driven productivity burst.

Remember, habits are powerful because they create neurological cravings. It helps to add a new reward if you want to overcome your previous cravings.

Identify cues which trigger routine behaviours. Try avoiding the cue alltogether, if possible, or if you have to. Or try to change your reaction to the cue. How does your old habit serve you or how did it serve you when you first started doing it? Is that even something you still need? Does it still serve you? Can you substitue the rewards or tweak it in any way, if possible, without resorting to require willpower? If you resort to willpower too much, you will ultimately give in to distraction and temptation in a high-stress moment of weakness. So try to build a system which doesn’t rely on it, making it anti-fragile to high stress situations (which are bound to occur).

Process, not Product

I’ve never really had a snooze issue on excavation days. And for good reason: Excavating is about the process, not the product. You don’t know what’s going to come out of the ground (well, more or less, but you know what I mean), so you just show up for work. That’s another main concept from the book. And it might be the solution to my work-related procrastination problem. Focus on the process, show up for your timer, don’t focus on the product or on which outcomes are due. This is probably the main problem I have with procrastination at work. I look at the to do list, see all the products and outcomes it asks for and I end up paralyzed. Had I just sat down for two hours, like I would have during a boring class, the most daunting thing would probably already be done. So that’s my homework for now. I will practice to not let myself think about the product. It’s the product which triggers the pain causing us to procrastinate, so get the product out of your head. The process itself is not daunting.

When we think about a daunting task, pain centers in the brain fire up. Shifting your focus to something more pleasant (i.e. procrastination), makes you feel better temporarily. In that way, it is like a drug addiction. Like with any addiction, you start telling yourself stories to explain it away. But in the long term, this bad habit is going to slap you in the face: Procrastinators have worse health, lower grades and report higher stress levels. So apart from the fact that dreading a task instead of doing it takes more time and energy than to actually do the task, it causes even more stress leaving you feeling even more incapable of getting things done. The vicious circle continues and spirals out of control. Sometimes, procrastinating and then still finishing right before the deadline can make you feel high and invincible. Just like the thrill in gambling or other bad habits which feel good only in the short term.

When you’re on auto-pilot during a habit or routine activity, it’s like zombie mode. You don’t make decisions which can be good because it saves energy. However, you need to monitor your habits very closely and make sure they serve you rather than destroy you. Because what you do every day accumulates, you become the product of what you do every day and if that’s procrastination, you might end up with a result you don’t like. Well, there would be even more info in the book but I’m not done with all of it yet and the post is already too long again.

So, that’s it for now, (might follow up)

all the 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: Essentialism

This time, I wanted to share with you another book from my quest to regain some work-life-balance: Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, NY 2011. McKeown mainly challenges one quite fundamental assumption about our time: the illusion that we could just do it all.

 

Have you ever found yourself struggling with information overload? Have you ever felt both overworked and underutilised? Do you ever feel busy but not productive?

Priorities

The word priority used to be singular only. Which makes sense because actually, it is not possible for two things to be “the most important thing” at the same time. It is this introduction of a plural for priorities which shows how we use language to lie to ourselves.  It means not acknowledgeing the fundamental truth that you just can’t have it all. This is especially revelevant for myself because I am really bad at accepting this. When asked to choose something, I always decide to do both. But this is not ‘being super-human’. This is acutally being stupid and naive.

We perceive countless things around us. Yet our greatest power is the power to focus, which means of making the choice to ignore most of the noise in order to get to the message. This is what ‘essentialism’ is about. To not ‘do more’, but to do ‘less but better’. To ignore most things in order to value the important things.

 

Trade-Offs

We often think that we’re just not good at saying no. But saying yes to something always means saying no to something else. So ultimately, we are constantly saying no by saying yes. We might as well choose which thing to say no to directly. Because you just can’t have it all.  Yet, it is understandable why people have difficulty saying no in a society which encourages you to say yes. Saying no is not the nice thing to do. It is uncomfortable. Saying yes is what is praised in the moment. People who say yes seem productive, seem like they ‘have it all’ and ultimately, most bosses do actually expect you to say yes to everything. Even if this massively hurts your overall productivity. 

Another hallmark of the subconscious unability to say no is the act of constantly cramming in “just one more thing”. Like I do. McKeown even makes the example of this one annoying colleague who foolishly doesn’t accept they just can’t have it all and thus ends up answering “just one more” email before they leave for a meeting they would already have been late to before they even started writing that last email. Let me introduce you to this colleague. It is me.

Essentialism is the deliberate pursuit of ‘less but better’.

Delusional thinking

Like I said, McKeown brings the example of people who know they have 10 minutes left to get somewhere, it takes 10 minutes to get there and yet they still sit down to answer an email before they go – thinking they could just “fit it all in”. The result is that they are guaranteed to be late and thus, still miss one of the two things. Or, at worst, both. All because they are afraid to make conscious decisions to reject something. If you don’t know this from personal experience, you have just gotten to know me. This is who I am. I am not proud, but that’s the way it is. If you don’t make this choice (of what to do with the time you have), somebody else will make it for you. This is kind of like with digital addiction.

We are ever only aware of the decisions we actively make. That these imply that we also automatically (and perhaps unwillingly) say no to other things, we often don’t want to see. At least I don’t. Before saying yes, we should ask ‘What would I give up to do this?’ rather than ‘Can I fit it in?’ which is what societal pressure tells us we should do. McKeown introduces the concept of trade-offs, i.e. the fact that when you decide to do something, you simultanesouly also reject something else. Because you just can’t have it all. When you meet person A, you secretly have rejected spending your time with person B. Only that you are not aware of this fact. Essentialism means becoming aware and accepting of this reality of trade-offs.

 

The unimportance of practically everything

Essentialism is about the unimportance of practically everything. By that, McKeown means that not all actions are useful or effective. Many are a complete waste of time compared to others. He brings the example that bosses feel one really good employee doesn’t create results twice as good as another but 10.000x as good. McKeown learnt in his own childhood that delivering papers was a poor use of his time. He had to trade one hour of his time against one pound. Being able to afford something nice would be a gigantic pursuit with countless hours of toil. He then realized that washing cars on Saturdays would be able to get him a six pound per hour return and thus, was a incomparably more effective use of his time. This is the sort of thinking he suggests we should do when he tells us to do ‘less but better’.

 

Philosophy and practice

The book is splitted in a more ‘theoretical’ part explaining the ‘philosophy’ behind essentialism and some more practical parts. These contain tips not unlike those time management tips from all of the other books I looked at so far, be it in the Digital Detox experiment oder Rest.

  1. Part two (“Explore”) suggests you ‘escape’ and save time by being unavailable (ruthlessly avoid going to useless meetings, etc.); you see what really matters, make time for (serious) play, get enough sleep and select what you spend your time with using ‘extreme criteria’. 
  2. Part III (“Eliminate”) suggests you clarify decision making, dare to say no and learn how to do it gracefully without offending people, uncommit from non-essentials and gain freedom by setting boundaries for carefully ‘edited’ amount of meaningful activities.
  3. Part IV (“Execute”) praises using a “time buffer” between commitments, removing things which hurt your effectiveness most rather than starting some new quick fix technique on top of everything, progressing with small wins, using routine to get in the flow, focusing and being in the moment by asking (“What’s important now?”).

 

So that’s it from me today and from Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. And remember: You can’t just “have it all”. Do less, but better.

Best and until next time,

yours,
Sarah

 

 

 

 

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

The Digital Minimalism Experiment: Conclusion

We’re all distracted by our digital devices. I wanted to see if I could adopt some ideas from Digital Minimalism and Make Time and I kept you up to date, too. Now, I wanted to sum it all up because the experiment is over. In a good way: I stuck with my new reduced digital life and am better off for it. It’s time for me to move on to another project. This post sums up the biggest takeaways.

Auto-unplug the internet in the evenings using a timer plug

If you want to get unstuck fast: Get a timer plug for your router. Make it switch off the internet early in the morning, so you don’t check it as the first thing you do after waking up and all evening.

Reduce TV / streaming to a minimum to free up time lost

The internet plug trick made it easy for me to stick with my new rule of max. 2 episodes of a series / 1 film per week. Since there is no internet after 19:00, I spent my evenings doing something else. This transition was super easy, I don’t miss anything and I wouldn’t go back. I have had a lot more time for reading, exercise, (cooking and) eating well, and getting a good night’s sleep. As a nice side effect, not being able to access digital devices in the evenings made me lose the habit of constantly checking something and I subsequently found it easier to reduce my phone checking in the daytime.

Get a dumb phone 

If you’re ready to give it your all: get a dumb phone. But switching off mobile data by default and only switching it back on when you really need it already helped me reduce compulsive phone checking.

Reduce social media and don’t scroll

Check social media as little as possible (as little as once per day or per week). Don’t use social media on the mobile device you carry around but rather on a computer which is less instantly-accessible. Don’t scroll so you don’t fall victim to the “infinity pools” of constantly refreshing distraction.

You don’t have to completely give up on anything if you don’t want to

To sum it all up: I had to give up on none of my digital habits. I just changed the default to “not using XY” compared to “constantly using XY” from before.

Have replacement activities

But in order for this to work, you need to have things to do instead at the ready. Like for me, I mostly go climbing now, read a book or go to bed early. This works surprisingly well.

Plan for analogue quality social interaction

Make sure to set up an analogue social life so you don’t suffer from some sort of social media withdrawal symptoms. Focus on planning quality time with people who are really worth your time.

Conclusion

As a conclusion, I thought of something last week: This experiment was great and I prefer my ‘new life’. But at the same time, better digital habits are not a cure-all. On their own, they will not make you happy nor will they take care of your overcommitment-induced stress. This is another issue you need to tackle and it might well be the next focus for me.

I’ll keep you posted.

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/

The fight against the screens: Getting my Life back

As you might know, I recently read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and decided I had to make some changes for the better. And I had already done back then. Now I wanted to keep you posted on first experiences of my experiment and also stress some aspects I left out last time because they didn’t fit nicely in the line of argument: The last blog was, after all, a book review and I didn’t want to inject too much of my own practical applications. This post now is full of them.

Some more theoretical inputs

The attention economy uses psychological tricks to maximize screen time. Rebel against this enslavement by only taking what you need and finding ways to ignore the other bids for attention (notifications, always being available via your phone, etc.). Maybe get a second phone if you want to keep the apps, but leave the one with all the apps at home. Bring only the indispensable with you every day and read a book instead of mindless scrolling. How much more there is to life when our time isn’t drained from us by social media and binge watching series.

How much more time would you have for activities you actually care about without being glued to a screen? Passive recreation robs you of time and leaves you more drained than before. In any case, Newport lists a lot of real life examples from people who adopted this lifestyle, so you might want to adopt what has worked for them.

 

Turning FOMO (fear of missing out) into JOMO (joy of missing out)

Newports TED talk offers 3 arguments for quitting social media are actually retorts to common objections to his message that we should quit social media:

  1. You won’t end up a hermit without these “fundamental technologies”. Social media is like a slotmachine, a tool which will make you addicted and a good source of money for the attention economy. They sell your screen time and data.
  2. Your work networking won’t be harmed, you will not be invisible in the economy. Since, per his last book Deep Work (review to come), we know that the economy wants high value produced from deep work, not superficial outcomes like networking.
  3. It’s not harmless. It causes anxiety and robs you of time. It ruins your capacity for concentration. Nobody can focus with a slotmachine in their pocket. Don’t let your fear of missing out cause you to inadvertently suffer from these negative impacts.

 

Actions Taken

Realization 1: The smartphone is not your friend, so get rid of it

Like Astrid wrote in her Selfcare Part I post, you have to plan your free time. If you don’t, somebody else will plan your day for you but it will contain none of the items which are important to you. Is that what you want?

She also suggested using the Pomodoro technique or setting your phone to flight mode. Flight mode is actually a good thing. Or just put the phone in another room. You will probably be too lazy to get up and get it just because of a little habitual urge to check your phone. I sometimes find it hard to ignore the phone but when I’m on holiday and don’t have wifi, I don’t need it any more after a few days. The point here is that you need to find a balance between being available at work and unavailable in your free time. But these spaces intersect so much. I use my phone for social stuff too. This, of course, I want to do at home. But then I go on to check my (work) email as well. Then I get distracted by social stuff at work.

But I really don’t want any of those things. The idea of being ‘available’ while at work might work out for an office worker. But not for someone required to do ‘deep work’, like writing a dissertation. (Deep Work is another book of Newport’s which I will review and discuss as well, because it’s so central to the PhD life.) Being available and instantly responsive will lead you to do superficial work which, by defintion, produces sub-standard results which are in no way unique and thus, basically, will not advance your career.

 

So one of the main things I did, like I indicated in the last post already, was getting a light phone 2. The point is, it won’t come until July (at the earliest) and I really can’t wait. I want things to change for the better now, so I made some changes and have tried to formulate them in a actionable way so you can follow them too, if you like.

 

Realization 2: Screens (streaming and social media) rob me of my time and rest

 

Like Newport stresses, they are in no way as harmless as we often tell ourselves. While Newport’s reasons are helpful and convincing already, I wanted to add one of my own. These apps don’t only steal my time and attention. They steal the time I have to do some things which are incredibly important to me: getting some substantial reading done, planning, language learning, exercise, good eating and keeping my appartment tidy. These things are actually super-important to me and massively contribute to my overall happiness. When I don’t get around to doing them, I feel horrible about myself and stressed. When I do, I am living the life I really want.

Actively paying attention to my digital habits now made me realize that it is exactly these digital habits which stop me from doing those things. The sacrifice I make (mindlessly) using these tools (to no discernible end) is pretty big. Those 2h a day are the two hours I’m missing to be my best self and live the life I want. That’s crazy! How could I let this happen until now? Probably because clutching to those screens and avoiding boredom is the lazy, easy default and it’s facilitated by some psychological factors.

But then again, these companies earn money by holding me back from being my best self and living the way I want. It’s actually disgusting! Yet, it is still hard to resist. I notice when the moments are when I usually would have switched on the tablet to stream a series. It is quite apparent to me now why it works. It’s easy. A nice default to mindlessly “relax”. You don’t have the initial hurdle of turining towards active rest. It all happens on the couch. It’s so easy. And so detrimental.

 

 

Reaction 1: Streaming is limited to 2 episodes OR 1 film per week and only in company. I can’t watch alone anymore. This will hopefully stop binges.

 

TV and series work because it’s an easy default thing to do to relax. In our leisure time we are at our most vulnerable to attention predators, so we end up stealing our own time. Then we’re annoyed we don’t have time left after work. We do have time. We just don’t use it well. Ergo my new rule: No more than 2 episodes of a series per week. Take time to disconnect completely instead.

Eating well, for example, happens when I get around to cooking and taking the time to prepare a nice meal. When I have the default of wanting to watch another episode of a series, I just quickly grab something so I can get back on the couch. But actually, now that I don’t have this opportunity, I remember that I really enjoy taking time to cook and eat well. Like it is said in Make Time, the next book I will review, it’s all about changing your defaults.

Also, not watching series is just that little bit of extra time I need to keep up with language learning (which I am very passionate about but have difficulty finding the time lately) and reading more which is also a goal I only achieve on-off so far. Hopefully this will change with my new habits in place.

 

Reaction 2: I vow not to scroll.

 

Like I hinted in the last post, I thought it might turn out to be problematic for me to delete all social media. Some of them (like Twitter) I had just recently joined to advertise my blogging activities. After some evaluation however, I am pretty sure that I end up spending at least 2h on them daily in mindless scrolling sessions. It’s not so much the constant checking which is the problem (it only sometimes is). It is the infinite scrolling which leads me to stay on the apps longer than I had intended. And it’s so hard to resist once you’ve allowed yourself more than 5min on the app. Mostly, I am quite successful so far trying to only check notifications (not all that often) and then leave the app straightaway. I don’t let myself get on the dashboard anymore at all. As you can imagine, it doesn’t always work. But I think that even now, in this imperfect implementation, I am already saving tons of time.

 

More tips to counter constant distraction which have worked for me

 

Filter email

 

Another smaller measure I took (and had already taken beforehand) is to have email filters in place for my work email. This helps distinguish spam from urgent or important mail already at reception. It helps me with the urge to check my email. So now, when I open the folder, a quick glance is enough to determine whether anything requires an immediate answer. However, I have become pretty selective with that, especially on weekends. Mostly, only my boss gets answers rightaway because he usually only writes when he’s really pressed for the answer. So much for getting distracted by work email.

 

That, I feel I already have under control at this point and I also don’t feel any inclination to relapse. Email is part of the “busy bandwagon” (Make Time review about to come soon…) which I have come to reject. This was a difficult thing to do in terms of mindset but not difficult to maintain once it was done.

 

Batch administrative tasks

 

I do my administrative stuff only on Wednesdays, the day which is already full with meetings anyway. This works out super-well for me and batching administrative tasks and answering email is a widely recommended tactic. Also, I have paired this “admin day” with my “office hours” for social interaction, like detailed in the post on digital minimalism. It’s the same day our PhD lunch takes place which  I hugely look forward to, so it provides me with a highlight to look forward to in the jungle of otherwise annonying office work. I’ve done this for a few months now. I still sometimes answer urgent stuff during the week, but overall it works really well and I wouldn’t want to go back.

 

Delete and Unsubscribe

 

Also, another one-time thing to do: Unsubscribe from “dangerous” newsletters and feeds. Delete problematic apps for good. You can still access most info from your browser. But then, better don’t carry a phone which has a browser. Change the default to an environment with less temptation if you’re really serious about getting your life back.

 

 

The difficult parts: Things to do instead of relapsing

Sleep

 

I often find myself engaging in meaningless (re-)activity, i.e. mindless scrolling or streaming, when I feel “too tired to do anything”. But hey, when we’re “too tired to do anything”, why don’t we just go to bed or take a nap? I mean, that’s what our body wants, right? Our culture’s new default option of on-screen reactive unrest, however, will not make us any more awake. The only thing it really does is pass the time. So unless you want your time gone with no noticable effect having been achieved in the meantime, you’d best skip those kinds of behaviours altogether, right? But then, why don’t we and why is it so hard? Why is it generally seen as laziness to take a nap instead, even though everybody knows that studies have shown that we only do real work approximately 10% of our “work” time and that naps actually make us more productive? In any case, I will try to nap more often or go to bed early instead of engaging in screen-related time-wasting behaviours. Let’s see how this works after the holidays when it’s more difficult to nap due to work responsibilities…

 

Identifying the culprits: Underlying tendencies

 

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?”

 

On-screen passive leisure activities are engineered to make you spend more time than you intended. Pre-bedtime blue light ruins your sleep. For me, it doesn’t seem to directly ruin my sleep but screens still screw with my natural daily rhythm somehow. The possibility of infinite scrolling or the ever self-starting new episodes of a series will make me go to bed a lot later than I would be tired. Often, they wake me up again at a late hour, so I can’t sleep and continue using those tools. It’s a vicious circle. Then I get up too late the next morning (which is guaranteed to be the start of an unproductive day) and, of course, am awake until late at night where digital attention seekers are already waiting to reap my life time from me.

So I succumb to both destructive tendencies: The “infinity pools” cause me to lose time in the first place. Then, the next morning, I am confronted with the “busy bandwagon” mindset in Academia and get stressed because I’m not productive enough. Living up to my own expections is hard, however, when I didn’t sleep well. Frustration. I allow myself some evening screen-indulgence because the day was so hard. Circle repeats itself.

 

Amping up your high-quality social life to fight Digital Addiction

In this TED talk about how addition really works, it is pointed out that even substance abuse (compared to which habitual addiction to a smartphone is way less severe) doesn’t work the way we think. Addiction has got less to do with the thing we’re addicted to than the environment we live in. In a perfect environment, neither our bodies nor our minds even care about alluring, potentially addictive things. This perfect world has  a lot to do with social life.

“Disconnection is the driver of addiction.”  “We’ve traded floor space for friends, stuff for connections.” – “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”

In an experiment with rats, it turned out that rats with empty cages were very prone to drug addiction and overdoses, whereas rats in fun cages that had everything they might want (connection to others, toys, etc.), they did not care for the drugs at all. Even though behavioural addictions like our screen addiction are not the same as substance abuse, the same methods might help to overcome them. We engange in addiction-style behaviours when we feel disconnected. Once we connect, there is no more reason for us to cling onto a screen. And I really felt that this is true. I said that I sometimes find it more easy to disconnect on a holiday and we all have probably already found ourselves getting distracted by our phones despite being in a social situation where it’s actually impolite. This TED talk made me realize that I don’t need my phone when with people I find socially stimulating who give me a deep sense of connection whereas, as an introvert at heart, hanging out with loose contacts stresses me rathering than being relaxing. This is why I sometimes cling to the phone in these situations. Like people cling to cigarettes in times of stress. This is also why Newports advice on reforming our social lives together with our digital habits is so crucial. First of all, if we don’t manage to create an engaging social life for us, chances aren’t so good we succeed in our digital endeavours. And also, it helps us stay on track.

Games didn’t work: They’re passive recreation and engineered for addiction all the same

Another approach I have tried is replacing social media scrolling wit playing a (digital) game. Scrolling, I had identified, meant that I just really wanted a break. So wouldn’t playing a game be a better choice than mindless scrolling? At least allowing myself to play a gave was an acknowledgement of the fact that I wanted a break and to celebrate giving myself one. But the problem is, games of today are engineered to be just as addictive as every other on-screen activitiy. Their goal, too, is to maximize your screen time. So games often aren’t playable without constantly waiting by the phone. Like my Harry Potter Mystery game that I really wanted to play because I like Harry Potter. It was quite disappointing to me that I had to stop because it just robbed me of so much of my time and didn’t really leave me more relaxed, if I’m being honest. It got me through a very stressful time and I really needed some diversion. But I am determined that there must be a better way.

Avoid the multi-purpose trap

Newport warns reforming our digital lives using quick “life hacks” from technology journalism. He thinks we should rather think about the bigger issues and underlying psychology. Why did it come this far in the first place? What do a need 122 apps for?

Newport stresses the fact that the biggest culprits in our digital tools are multi-purpose devices. While this seems to be their biggest pro, it is actually the main reason we over-indulge and have a hard time regulating our use. Sure, I can put my phone away to get work done on my laptop. But then, all the bad sites are also accessible from my laptop. Still, try to re-mono-purpose your devices as much as possible.

Switch off the internet if all else fails

I could buy a time-switch plug (10€ on Amazon) to have my internet switched of automatically. But then again, you sometimes really need it. I will get that plug anyway. No internet before 08:00 or after 18:00. I decided not to work evenings anymore anyway. This could leave me with tons of time to do something which is actually meaningful to me.

 

Conclusion

Social media is a source of entertainment which, like a slotmachine, treats you to a few shiny gadgets but really it’s traded against minutes of your time and glances into your personal life – data which can be sold. Social media giants hire “attention engineers” who use techniques from the gambling world to make their products as addictive as possible.

Series make you binge because it’s easier to keep watching than to stop. Scrolling gives you infinite diversion. So refuse to scroll. Avoid your “dashboards” like a deadly enemy. I’m trying hard, but it’s hard to be successful here, especially if you have gotten used to scrolling social media as a diversion when you don’t want to work.

I hope my experiments have inspired you to start a journey of your own. Maybe you can take away some of the tips I learned about for your own (PhD) life. Also, feel free to comment and share your own experiences.

Best,

Sarah

 

 

 

 

 

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.