Tag Archives: Cal Newport

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

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.