Pebble Form Ideologies

(Epistemic Status: Riffing on an interesting thought in a Facebook comments thread, mostly just speculation without any citations to actual research)

My friend Jeffrey Biles — who is an indefatigable fountainhead of interesting stuff to think about — recently posited that the modern world’s aversion to traditional religion has exerted a selection pressure on meme vectors which has led to the proliferation of religions masquerading as science, philosophy, and the like. For any given worldview — even ostensibly scientific ones like racial realism or climate change — we can all think of someone whose fervor for or against it can only be described in religious terms.

Doubtless there is something to this, but personally I’m inclined to think it’s attributable to the fact that there are religion-shaped grooves worn deep in mammalian brains, probably piggybacking on ingroup-biasing and kin-selection circuitry.

No matter how heroic an attempt is made to get people to accept an ideology on the basis of carefully-reasoned arguments and facts, over time a significant fraction of adherents end up treating it as a litmus test separating the fools from those who ‘get it’. As an ideology matures it becomes a psychological gravity well around which very powerful positive and negative emotions accrete, amplifying the religious valence it has in the hearts and minds of True Believers.

Eventually you end up with something that’s clearly substituted ‘God’ for social justice, the free market, the proletariat revolution, etc.

An important corollary of this idea is that the truth of a worldview is often orthogonal to the justifications supplied by its adherents. I’m an atheist, for example, but I don’t think I’ve ever met another atheist who has a firm grasp on the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA). Widely believed to be among the most compelling arguments for theism, it goes like this:

  1. Everything which *began* to exist has a cause;
  2. the universe began to exist;
  3. therefore, the universe has a cause;

(After this point further arguments are marshalled to try and prove that a personal creator God is the most parsimonious causal mechanism)

Despite being clearly articulated in innumerable places, atheists like Michael Shermer are still saying “but if everything has a cause then what caused God?”

If you understand the KCA then the theistic reply is straightforward: “The universe began to exist, so it has a cause, but God is outside time and thus had no beginning.” The standard atheist line, in other words, is a complete non-sequitur. Atheistic rebuttals to other religious arguments don’t fare much better, which means a majority of atheists don’t have particularly good reasons for being atheists.

This has little bearing on whether or not atheism is true, of course. But it does suggest that atheism is growing because many perceive it to be what the sensible, cool people believe, not because they’ve spent multiple evenings grappling with William Lane Craig’s Time and Eternity.

Perhaps then we should keep this in mind as we go about building and spreading ideas. Let us define the ‘pebble form’ of a worldview as being like the small, smooth stone which is left after a boulder spends eons submerged in a river — it’s whatever remains once time and compression have worn away its edges and nuances. Let us further define a “Maximally Durable Worldview” as one with certain desirable properties:

  1. the central epistemic mechanisms has the slowest decay into faith-based acceptance;
  2. the worldview is the least damaging once it becomes a pebble form (i.e. doesn’t have strong injunctions to slaughter non-believers);
  3.  …?

There’s probably an interesting connection between:

  1. how quickly a worldview spreads;
  2. how quickly it collapses into a pebble form;
  3. the kinds of pebble forms likely to result from a given memeplex rotating through a given population;

Perhaps there are people doing research on these topics? If so I’d be interested in hearing about it.

Profundis: “The Quantum Thief”

Hannu Rajaniemi wields his quill like a machine gun, firing concepts and novelty bombs at his readers as he cackles madly from a perch in the trees. Outside of Neal Stephenson’s best work and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy, Rajaniemi’s debut novel “The Quantum Thief” has about as high an insight density as I’ve ever encountered.

And the plot has the breathless, breakneck intensity of rolling down a hill on a unicycle. I’m not sure what’s got the man so busy; maybe he’s teaching people how to pronounce his name, or maybe he’s accepting an award for ‘SF author most likely to star as the heartthrob in a rom-com opposite Rachel Mcadams’. Either way, you’d better make sure the electrodes are attached firmly to your scalp and the TMS is dialed up to 11, because Hannu isn’t about to stop and explain a gotdamn thing to you.

Who the hell is the Pelligrini? What are Gogol pirates? How are EPR states embedded in the belly of a nanomechanical spider and used to steal time from a Millennaire on Mars? What are the Tzadikkim up to? Why are all the names distinctly French? Even the info dump that occurs in the closing pages is hard to follow, but thankfully there exist a number of resources compiled by fans on the internet.

For all this “The Quantum Thief” is suspenseful and rewarding, the tale of a criminal mastermind in an age of space-faring digital Gods and hyper-advanced posthumans, sprung out of the Dilemma Prison by a mysterious warrior from the Oort cloud and soon hot on the trail of a phantom who just might be too smart to outsmart — his former self…

Profundis: The Man Who Knew Infinity

For a long time now I’ve hoped that someone would do a movie on the life of the remarkable Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. His story is a compelling and tragic one: born in India in the late 19th century, he began to distinguish himself as truly exceptional by the time he’d hit puberty. He worked on mathematics in isolation throughout his life, producing startling results and eventually making contact with G.H. Hardy of Cambridge University.

Hardy recognized the calibre of Ramanujan’s genius, and invited him to England. The two men had conflicting styles; Ramanujan grasped everything intuitively, often simply stating results with little to no justification, whereas Hardy was rigorous and believed strongly in proving each step. But as the First World War began and played out in Europe their productive five-year collaboration resulted in Ramanujan getting published, being elected to the London Mathematical Society and the Royal Society, and being made a Fellow of Trinity College.

Unfortunately illness was almost as consistent a theme in Ramanujan’s life as was mathematics. The diet and weather of England did not agree with him, and as his various health problems worsened he eventually decided to return to India to be with his wife and family. After spending barely a year at home, he died in 1920. He was just 32 years old.

Getting a handle on Ramanujan’s intellect necessitates some re-calibration. The chances are good that if you’re reading these words you possess a brain that is comfortably above average intelligence. Some of my readers might even be bona fide geniuses, with IQs in excess of 140 and multiple degrees to their name. They are likely unaccustomed to encountering subjects that baffle them, and have probably only met a handful of minds better than theirs.

Ramanujan makes nearly everyone look like a knuckle-dragging monkey that keeps putting its diapers on wrong. The usual descriptive vocabulary falls short here; one must reach for words like “incandescent” to do him justice.

It is this task which 2015’s “The Man Who Knew Infinity” sets itself, and achieves. Based on a written biography of the same name, the film does an excellent job of illustrating not only how much beyond even Cambridge-level professional mathematicians Ramanujan was, but also the absolutely fascinating way in which his mind worked. He repeatedly claimed that his insights were divinely inspired, often appearing to him fully-formed in dreams and visions of Hindu deities. His results were occasionally wrong, but were never less than astonishing in their originality and depth. They are still inspiring research today, close to a century after his death.

The film takes poetic license with a few aspects of Ramanujan’s life. His wife is depicted as an adult when in fact she was nine at the time of their marriage, for example. But these pale in comparison to the adroit handling of a story that needed to be told.

Highly recommended for anyone who likes mathematics or intellectual history.


The Water Hole

Silent is one of the best adjectives for describing the experience of looking at the sky on those especially pellucid nights when the moon and clouds are absent. In the winter most of all, when the night is free of the endless buzzing and chirping of insects, it’s possible to feel how thin the boundary is which lies between you and the true night of interstellar space.

And yet, if you had the ears to hear it, you could directly perceive that the universe is really an incomprehensibly vast instrument. Everything from galaxies to molecules emit a song of electromagnetic radiation which has been bombarding the Earth since long before man learned to listen.

But this noise isn’t evenly distributed. There are relatively quiet regions, such as the ‘microwave window’, which facilitate probing the heavens for signs of artificially-made signals. Near the bottom of the microwave window lies a range of frequencies between hydrogen (H) and hydroxyl ions (OH), respectively vibrating at 1420 MHz and 1660 MHz:


Hydrogen and hydroxyl are two results of the dissociation of water molecules, and are likely audible throughout the universe.

Because of this ubiquity and their position in one of the quietest parts of the radio spectrum, they make an obvious target for any civilization wanting to communicate with other advanced forms of life. And what do we call this meeting place standing between two byproducts of water? The water hole, of course!

It would be fitting, I think, if we were to someday make contact with other sophonts in the same that species have always congregated with their neighbors.



[1] What is the water hole

SETI: the water hole

Black Lives *Do* Matter

In the wake of the recent Dallas shootings Facebook is ablaze with memes to this effect:


The rhetoric of the BLM movement and the overall tone of their outrage leads me to believe that they consider white people, and especially white law enforcement, to be one of the single biggest threats to black people.

I don’t buy this, and I want to explain why by bracketing the data on police shootings with more general data on inter- and intra-racial homicide. Unfortunately the most recent (mostly) complete data I could find is from 2013, but I don’t think that’s a serious challenge to my thesis.

How many black people were killed by police in 2013? From [1] I count 181 black males and 7 black females killed between the months of May and December. That’s 23.5 per month, so let’s round that up to 24 and add this many deaths for the months of January, February, March, and April. That yields a total of 284 (188 + (4 x 24)).

To be safe let’s round that up to 300. And, for the sole purpose of disadvantaging my argument, I’m going to arbitrarily double that number to 600.

Bear in mind, this assumes each and every black person killed by the police in 2013 was innocent and includes those cases when the officer responsible for killing a black person was also black.

From the Expanded Homicide Data Table 6 from the FBI [2] I count 2,245 intra-racial black homicides and 189 white-on-black homicides. Let’s round the latter figure up to 200 and round the former figure down to 2,200. Again, just to disadvantage my argument.

That makes (600 blacks killed by cops) + (200 blacks killed by whites) / (2,200 blacks killed by blacks) = (800)/(2,200) = 36%.

Even when I have stacked the statistical deck against my argument in every conceivable way the total number of cop-on-black and white-on-black homicides is only a little over a third of the number of black-on-black homicides. If you remove my rounding and doubling, it’s more like 21%.

The conclusion seems inescapable: by far the single biggest threat to black people is black people. Not cops, not whites, not privilege, but other black people.

So far I haven’t found anyone who takes issue with my statistical analysis, but one objection that keeps cropping up is that none of the above is relevant because what BLM supporters are angry with is a pervasive and systemic bias against black people in modern society. When making this claim there is usually the implication, sometimes stated explicitly, that this bias is what is driving higher rates of criminality and even intra-racial homicide.

Now, my degree is in psychology. I took classes on evolutionary psychology, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, and social cognition, and have read very widely in these fields in the years since I’ve graduated because I have a deep-seated interest in improving my ability to reason. I am aware of the fact that people have a natural tendency to trust those who look like them, that biases can be unconscious and nearly impossible to perceive, and that when summed across an entire majority population can exert major pressure on a minority population.

But I have two problems with this reply. The first is that so far every Leftist with whom I’ve discussed this issue seems comfortable treating ‘systemic bias’ as though it’s a universal and totally unambiguous explanation for every interracial disparity we might observe. Not long ago a Leftist made the claim that despite similar rates in drug usage blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for drug possession. I noted that patterns of drug use could be different even while rates of drug use could be the same. That is, if black people are more likely to sell and use drugs on a street corner with their friends while whites are more likely to do so in their basement, it isn’t surprising that they’d be arrested more often.

I want to be clear here: I have no idea if this hypothesis is true or not. While I have presented this hypothetical a number of different times I have always made it clear that it is conjecture and nothing more. What disturbs me is simply that I haven’t yet encountered a Leftist who has even momentarily considered this possibility. If they observe an inter-racial difference in arrests for drug possession, white-on-black racism must be the explanation, QED.

My second problem with ‘systemic bias’ as sole explanation for intra-racial violence is that it doesn’t account for why other historically oppressed groups seem to have assimilated into modern society without astonishing amounts of violence in their communities.

The Irish and the Chinese were both exploited and reviled in the early years of their immigration to the United States. The former group had it so bad that even many ex-slaves noted that their lives were much better than those of the Irish, who were used to do work considered too dangerous or difficult for valuable slaves [4]. And Wikipedia notes that [5]:

Chinese immigrants in the 19th century worked as laborers, particularly on the transcontinental railroad, such as the Central Pacific Railroad. They also worked as laborers in the mining industry, and suffered racial discrimination at every level of society. While industrial employers were eager to get this new and cheap labor, the ordinary white public was stirred to anger by the presence of this “yellow peril“. Despite the provisions for equal treatment of Chinese immigrants in the 1868 Burlingame Treaty, political and labor organizations rallied against the immigration of what they regarded as a degraded race and “cheap Chinese labor”. Newspapers condemned the policies of employers, and even church leaders denounced the entrance of these aliens into what was regarded as a land for whites only. So hostile was the opposition that in 1882 the United States Congress eventually passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited immigration from China for the next ten years. This law was then extended by the Geary Act in 1892. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the only U.S. law ever to prevent immigration and naturalization on the basis of race.[1] These laws not only prevented new immigration but also brought additional suffering as they prevented the reunion of the families of thousands of Chinese men already living in the United States (that is, men who had left China without their wives and children); anti-miscegenation laws in many states prohibited Chinese men from marrying white women.[2]

And yet both groups have more or less successfully become a part of modern America.

A further instructive example comes from the relationship between the Koreans and the Japanese. Throughout the history of the Pacific Rim the Japanese have repeatedly invaded the Korean peninsula and abused the Korean people. The most recent such episode occurred in the early years of the Twentieth Century, during which Japan occupied Korea, seized control of its government, and committed the usual slew of atrocities that tends to accompany such behavior [3].

This has lead to a significant and understandable distrust of the Japanese by the Koreans. But I can attest from personal experience that Korea is an exceptionally nice place to live, filled with courteous and good-natured people who seem not to have taken to killing each other as frequently as American blacks.

Doubtless racism does still exist and is a factor in rates of inter- and intra-racial homicide. But I think the above makes a compelling case that these simply can’t be the only major factors at work. I truly believe that black lives matter. That’s why I hope BLM will take an honest look at their own communities and search for ways that they make grassroots improvements there.






An Experiment in Focus

Myriad studies show that our focus is fragmented much more than is commonly realized and that this is much more damaging than is commonly realized (for a brief account of some of this research, see Worker, Interrupted).

At the beginning of May I devised an experiment to develop greater powers of attention. It began as follows: every day of the week except Sunday was either a ‘thick focus day’ or a ‘thin focus day’. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were thick focus days and Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays were thin focus days. Sundays were spent cleaning the house and catching up on chores.

There were several criteria for thick focus days. One, I would meditate during my five-minute Pomodoro breaks. Two, I didn’t access the internet until noon[1]. On really busy days I made an exception by having my phone close in case anyone really needed to get in touch with me, but by and large I abided by this stricture.

Third, I didn’t listen to music or podcasts while on short commutes, using the time instead to either reflect on my day or to run through mantras. At first I intended to spend all driving time in silence but after a couple of days I eased this rule so that it only applied to trips of less than fifteen minutes. Driving for an entire hour and not listening to an audiobook seemed a touch extravagant.

I also wanted to exercise without distractions on thick focus days but I workout at a public gym and can’t control the radio. Since I have to listen to some music I figured that it may as well be my own.

On thin focus days I would stretch or do calisthenics during my Pomodoro breaks[2]. For the most part I used some variant of a quick exercise circuit I’ve used in the past: fifty jumping jacks, forty situps, thirty pushups, and twenty bodyweight squats. I allowed myself to listen to music on any commute, but I still didn’t access the internet until noon.

This was only supposed to last two weeks but I liked my results and so extended it to fill out the rest of the month. I switched from alternating thick and thin focus days to having thick and thin focus time periods in the same day. Occasionally, when I hadn’t gotten enough sleep, meditating during a thick focus day was miserable and I needed to move around a little. Likewise there were times when I was scatter-brained and just wanted to reorient with meditation instead of doing situps.

So I decided to just use my discretion. If I felt tired breaks would be spent getting my blood moving, and if I couldn’t focus I’d meditate instead. I still didn’t use the internet until late in the morning, and even though I could’ve listened to anything I wanted to while driving, on most days I chose instead to simply think.

This experiment produced several interesting results. After a few days I felt increasingly reluctant to go back to thin focus days, wanting instead to spend my time working deeply on The STEMpunk Project. While I felt the odd pang of desire to hop on Facebook in the beginning these faded after a day or two, and I eventually started to feel a little disgusted with myself when I gave into this desire, even when it was well into evening.

It consequently became easier to maintain focus while I was washing the dishes or cleaning the bathroom, and I would find myself stopping to meditate for the span of a single breath at random times throughout the day. I smiled more often, was generally less stressed, and was less tempted to drive really fast or listen to really loud music.

In the future I’m going to try to maintain this habit of not using the internet until later in the day, instead utilizing my periodic breaks for meditation, calisthenics, or tidying up around my workspace. I have also begun to utilize forty-five minute work periods and fifteen-minute breaks, which means that I’ll likely be able to do small workouts or even longer meditation sessions when I’m not actively focusing on something important. One change I’d like to make is to see if I can’t get into the habit of thinking about my work while I’m doing small chores on my breaks.

We’ll see how it goes!


[1] It’s not totally true that I never accessed the internet. I have to have my wifi on to save to Evernote and sync my Anki spaced-repetition software with its internet database. Plus I’d occasionally Google words I didn’t know or images to add to flashcards. But I wasn’t on social media or checking my email.

[2] If you don’t know, the Pomodoro technique usually has you work for twenty-five minutes and then take a five minute break. After two or three hours you take a longer fifteen minute break. It’s possible to divide your time up differently by, say, working for fifty minutes and then taking a ten minute break.

Profundis: The Productivity Project

In 2013 Chris Bailey turned down two enticing job offers in order to spend an entire year trying to become the most productive human in the history of Earth. I don’t think he quite achieved that goal — he has Bezos, Musk, and the late Jobs to contend with, after all — but he did get a lot done, and did us all the courtesy of writing “The Productivity Project” (TPP) to share his successes and failures along the way.

Normally these Profundae consist of a high-level overview of the book along with any musings which I think might be of interest to readers. But Bailey’s treatise is slim, the subject matter is germane to The STEMpunk Project, and I’m clearly drawn to large-scale orgies of learning. So for these reasons I’ve chosen to just review the entire book, one section at a time.


Like myself the author is a long-time meditator. When he made the decision to begin his productivity project he was struck by how different it was from the cherished time he spent meditating, and he gradually began to forego his practice in favor of using that time to read or do research. His work subsequently became more frantic and less present, which had the effect of forcing him to realize how important a mindful, deliberate approach to work is.

Further, and more importantly, he realized that productivity isn’t about how much you get done so much as it is about how much you accomplish. Spending ten hours answering emails might make a person feel stupendously productive, and it may even be necessary once in a while, but it’s unlikely to produce as much value as spending half that much time developing an important new idea or product.

Working intentionally and creating value requires managing the three elements of productivity: time, attention, and energy. Having boundless amounts of any one of these things doesn’t do much good to a person who lacks the other two, and as such it’s important to focus on developing all three.

Only with this definition of productivity and this understanding of its constituent parts can we grok Bailey’s insights into the art of getting more done.

Part One: Laying The Groundwork

In chapter 1, “Where to Start”, the author reiterates how important it is to have actual reasons for wanting to become more productive, and he uses a series of questions such as “if you had two more hours every day, what would you do with them”, to try and get recalcitrant readers to probe their underlying motivations.

My answer to these questions is complicated, but I have given the matter a fair bit of thought. At some point in the past, I think when I was still living in Korea, I realized that advancing technology and the inadequacy of our political systems to handle it meant that the world could actually end.

No, I’m not a conspiracy theorist; it’s just that once a person begins to think seriously about recursively self-improving artificial intelligence or biologically-engineered weapons, it becomes difficult not to entertain the possibility of a global catastrophe in the coming decades. I need to learn everything I can, as fast as I can, to play my part in making the future a habitable place.

So that’s my motive for wanting to become more productive. Ch. 2, “Not All Tasks Are Created Equal”, relays the story of how meditating for thirty-five hours a week forced the author to think seriously about which tasks had the highest returns, where a ‘high-return task’ is any task that is either personally meaningful or has a large impact on work. If you use these criteria to choose what to focus on, you’re realistic in your expectations of what you can get done, and you actually accomplish everything you set out to do, then you’ve had a productive day.

How can you decide which tasks have the highest return? After making a list of everything you’re responsible for, figure out what you would do if you could choose only one thing to accomplish in a given day. Now pick just two more things. This list comprises your highest return tasks.

One of the things that struck me when I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs was how ruthlessly consistent Jobs was in applying this technique. In brainstorming sessions he and his team would generate a list of potential new products to work on, and Jobs would finish by ranking them and crossing out everything but the top three.

Ch. 3, “Three Daily Tasks”, continues this discussion and emphasizes the fact that being incredibly organized and efficient doesn’t do you much good if you’re focusing on doing the wrong things. The author recommends sitting down at the start of the day and at the start of the week and making a list of things you would be happy having accomplished at the end of each.

There isn’t a rule which says that this list must only contain tasks related to work. You can also include things like “making the time to call my long-neglected mother” or “have a nice dinner with my girlfriend in which I give her my full attention”.

“Three” is a somewhat arbitrary number — my task list often has five or six absolutely essential items on it — but it does have the advantage of being in a kind of goldilocks zone. Three items is about enough to make major progress on a couple of fronts while being easy to remember and easy to summarize. I found this technique to be very effective, and because of the way I make to-do lists, also very easy to implement.

Ch.4 , “Preparing for Prime Time”, begins by noting that before you can effectively optimize your time and energy you need to get a handle on how you’re using these resources at present.

To that end, the author recommends keeping logs of both time and energy. There are myriad ways of doing this, but perhaps the most expedient is to print off something like a spread sheet, set an alarm every hour, and then make a note of how you’re spending your time and energy when the alarm goes off. If done for a few weeks you’ll get a pretty accurate picture of your energy fluctuations in a typical day and how you’re actually spending your time. This knowledge is essential for aiming your efforts at the places where they are most needed.

Though this practice is tedious and requires discipline, it can’t be beaten in terms of equipping you to make positive changes. And it can also be done for any number of other important variables, like food consumption, time spent sleeping, etc.

Part Two: Wasting Time

As we discover in ch. 5, “Cozying Up to Ugly Tasks”, even someone as productive as Chris Bailey still manages to procrastinate, and for good reason: everyone procrastinates. Though people vary in the amounts of time they waste, surveys consistently find that everyone lets some amount of time slip through their fingers everyday, sometimes quite a lot of it.

Luckily, the people who get paid to think about procrastination have identified a number of ‘procrastination triggers’ which characterize tasks that people are more likely to put off. They are:

  1. Being boring.
  2. Being frustrating.
  3. Being difficult.
  4. Lacking structure.
  5. Having little personal meaning.
  6. Lacking intrinsic rewards.

A good example of a task which has many of these triggers is filing taxes. Watching Netflix, on the other hand, has very few of them. Which one are you more likely to drag your feet on?

With this list of triggers you can devise strategies for facing obnoxious tasks head on whenever you feel yourself procrastinating. A big ambiguous project can be better tamed if you spend an hour planning out subgoals and milestones. Setting aside a few dollars to spend frivolously after every hour spent deliberately working on such a task injects intrinsic rewards into the process.

Additionally, procrastination can be battled by listing the costs of putting a task off, setting a timer to create a hard deadline for beginning a task, and assigning yourself a ‘productive’ alternate task, like sending important emails, to do whenever you find yourself procrastinating on something else. I don’t use this third tactic because I find it fractures my attention too gravely, but others might be able to make it work.

Starting from a discussion of research which indicates that many people treat future versions of themselves in the same way that they treat total strangers, ch. 6, “Meet Yourself…From the Future”, proposes a few interesting exercises for getting to know the person whose body you’ll wake up in tomorrow. You could use a tool like AgingBooth to predict what you’ll look like decades hence, you could use to send a letter to yourself, or you could deliberately create a ‘memory’ of a future self that has managed to not procrastinate on some important task.

Concretizing the selves that will confront the challenges of next week, next month, or next year will allow you to make better plans and avoid unduly overburdening them.

Ch. 7, “Why The Internet Is Killing Your Productivity”, needs little introduction or elaboration. Simply put, the internet is vast, interesting, and immediately rewarding in ways that deliberate work almost never is, and is thus lethal to productivity. The best way of combatting its siren song are to disconnect completely. The author describes an experiment in which he began to severely truncate the amount of time he spent on his smartphone by shutting it off between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. One of the first things I do in the morning is disconnect from the internet after I’ve done my wake up ritual and made some tea. It has been tremendously helpful in getting more done with my early hours.

To exercise even more nuanced control over your relationship with the internet, consider building a distraction levee.

Part Three: The End of Time Management

Once upon a time, notes ch. 8, “The Time Economy”, keeping track of time was far less important. People rose in the morning, worked throughout the day, and then finished when the sun went down. Individual cities kept internally-consistent time, but there wasn’t any incentive for multiple cities to sync up.

Until railroads began to spread and connect disparate parts of the country, that is. In 1883 railroads teamed up to divide time across the United States into four zones, a system which was made federal law in 1918. Combined with the industrial revolution, during which millions of people poured into factory jobs where most of their time was spent doing fairly repetitive tasks, this made keeping track of the minute hand crucial.

But most people don’t work in factories any longer, and today it’s harder to make the case that the amount of value one produces is tied directly to the amount of time they work. Instead of focusing on optimizing time — which is still important — it’s better to focus on the bottlenecks of attention and energy.

Two huge insights emerged out of the experiment detailed in ch. 9, “Working Less”. For four weeks the author alternated working a ninety-hour week with working a twenty-hour week and discovered that he got only slightly more done working longer hours, but felt twice as productive. Though it seems wildly counterintuitive, he speculates that erecting the artificial barrier of a twenty hour week forced him to pour greater amounts of attention and energy into each individual task, rendering the amount of work accomplished about the same.

This is a fine empirical demonstration of Parkinson’s Law: “work expands so as to fill the amount of time available for its completion”. I suspect that part of the reason Elon Musk gets so much more done than everyone else is that he can work one hundred and ten hour weeks but, because of freakish quantities of energy and attention, is actually able to move at a quick pace for the duration.

The author eventually settled into working roughly forty-six hours a week, and cites research to the effect that the optimal work week is between thirty-five and forty-five hours. I find that sixty hours a week is about right for me, though I admit I count working out, blogging, language learning, and The STEMpunk Project as work even though I’m not paid for any of it.

Ch. 10, “Energy Enlightenment” is a meditation on the effective use of biological prime time (BPTs), the periods of the day in which you have the most energy and focus. Night owls are likely to have theirs later in the day while us morning folks like to get down to business before the sun comes up; regardless, it’s worth knowing which hours tend to be your best and guarding them ferociously.

Spending an entire week ordering takeout, wearing sweatpants, and not shaving taught the author how important so-called ‘maintenance tasks’ like showering and cleaning the kitchen are to feeling healthy and happy. But as necessary as they are, they absorb an awful lot of time. Ch. 11,”Cleaning House”, addresses this dilemma by recommending that you take maintenance tasks and knock them out on a single ‘maintenance day’. The benefit to this approach is that, instead of fragmenting your attention by doing little maintenance tasks throughout the week, you free yourself up by devoting an entire day to them whenever possible. You can even squeeze a little more productivity out of maintenance days by either focusing on your chores completely, thereby exercising your attention, or listening to a podcast while you work.

I endorse this advice and use it routinely, but I will say as a counterpoint that I often find it energizing to load the dishwasher or run a vacuum over the carpet during my five-minute Pomodoro breaks.

Part Four: The Zen of Productivity

Ch. 12, “The Zen of Productivity” quietly reaffirms how important it is to keep a lean to-do list, both because doing so supports greater mental clarity and because it leaves room in a schedule to deal with the inevitable contingencies that crop up. The next two chapters elaborate on methods for accomplishing this, beginning with ch. 13, “Shrinking The Unimportant”.

Through trial and error the author discovered that the two most effective strategies for spending less time on low-return maintenance tasks like answering emails or sitting through pointless meetings is to first become aware of how much time they’re taking up and then, whenever possible, to set hard boundaries on when you’ll tackle them.

Of course many people simply don’t have that much control over their schedules, but unless you’ve made a prior effort to shrink unimportant tasks there are probably some time hogs which could be slimmed down a little bit.

It’s also possible to use the strategies from ch. 14, “Removing the Unimportant” to completely outsource those low-return tasks which don’t require you to do them personally. Obvious examples are mowing the lawn and cleaning the house, but if you’re willing to pay, a good virtual assistant can also process certain kinds of emails, handle many of the administrative tasks that come with running a small business, do most scheduling, and a variety of other things.

Deciding when to take this step requires that you first do a dollars-and-cents calculation of what your time is worth to you. One simple way to do this is to consider what you’d be willing to pay to buy back an hour of your life. If you’re an impecunious college student an hour of your work is probably worth about $8, whereas if you’re a successful programmer it could be as much as $200. Once you’ve done the math you can decide what can be profitably outsourced.

The chapter finishes with a lengthy reminder that one of the single best ways of reclaiming more of your time is to use the word ‘no’. You should consider wielding this powerful monosyllable not just on obviously low-return tasks but also tasks which are fairly valuable but still don’t make it into the highest-return bracket.

Part Five: Quiet Your Mind

The human brain, begins ch. 15, “Emptying Your Mind”, is built for pattern matching and insight generation, not for keeping track of ever-expanding lists of to-do’s. With that in mind the author endorses a variant of David Allen’s famous ‘getting things done’ system. First, any idea or task which comes to mind is captured in a note taking app and added to a calendar or to-do list when the app is reviewed on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

In addition to a to-do list, the author uses a number of ancillary lists to keep track of important commitment sub-categories. The ‘waiting for’ list includes everything from packages ordered online to money that is owed. Each project gets its own list which contains not just notes about the project in general but, more importantly, the very next concrete action to be taken towards completing it. The ‘worry’ list is similar to the projects list but is reserved for things like deciding where to live next or whether or not to take a new job. By keeping notebooks everywhere — including places like in the bathroom and in the car — it’s possible to capture damn near every thought that comes into your head.

As with almost anything it’s possible to take productivity too far. This occurs when you’re spending more time planning your work than you are doing your work. Everyone’s work flow is going to be unique to them, but be vigilant against spending too much time on thinking about productivity at the expense of actually being productive.

Ch. 16, “Rising Up”, elaborates upon a very powerful technique for seeing the ‘portfolio of your life’ as if from a very high distance. It’s also surprisingly simple: take everything you care about and make a list of six or seven mega categories which captures all of it. The author recommends using ‘mind’, ‘body’, ’emotions’, ‘career’, ‘finances’, ‘relationships’, and ‘fun’ as groups (also called ‘hot spots’), which seems plenty comprehensive to me, but you can devise your own scheme.

If you’ve been keeping to-do lists, tracking commitments, and doing weekly reviews, then starting a list of hot spots should seem like a natural extension of techniques you’ve already implemented. If your daily grind is equivalent to making espressos and chai lattes, then hot spots are akin to sitting down at year’s end to see if your coffee shop is on track to meet its growth and revenue goals.

It may take some time to get all your commitments into the appropriate hot spots, but once you do you’ll have at your disposal a huge map of the terrain of your life, with goals pointing you towards new opportunities and unexplored territory. As with the other lists it’s important to do weekly or at least monthly reviews to make sure you’re capturing everything and making progress on multiple fronts. When you do, pay attention to which areas are ahead of schedule and which are lagging behind and use that to guide your priorities in the week(s) ahead.

Most of us have had the experience of a Eureka moment happening to us while in the shower or absent-mindedly brushing our teeth. Ch.17, “Making Room”, explains that this is because our minds, roughly, have two modes: the diagnostic, analytical ‘central executive’ mode and the playful, peripatetic ‘daydreaming’ mode. In our rush to get more done many of us underestimate the value of simply letting ourselves get lost in thought.

Part of the reason for this is that we fill the cracks in our life with news, twitter, t.v., or podcasts at the expense of having room to roam. While I’m all for using driving time productively by listening to an audiobook, it’s important to carve out space so that your unconscious mind can connect dots and generate insights.

There are a number of ways to do this, including taking walks in nature, going for a long drive, playing a musical instrument, and simply sitting in a room with a notebook and a pen. I regularly use all these techniques and have for most of my life, to great effect.

Part Six: The Attention Muscle

Ch. 18, “Becoming More Deliberate” opens with a quote from one of the most titanic badasses of the Twentieth century, Bruce Lee: “The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus”. Citing research to the effect that most of us only manage to be present and focused a little over fifty percent of the time, the chapter goes on to note that productivity is less about frenetically doing more than it is about doing the right things with laser-like focus.

Taking the scattered light of your mind and making a laser from it requires understanding the machinery of attention, which neuroscientists have broken down into three constituent parts: the ‘central executive’, which sits in the prefrontal cortex thinking and planning, ‘focus’, which is narrowing attention down to a single task, and ‘awareness’, which is a general sense of what is happening internally and externally.

According to a popular saying, ‘the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem’, and ch. 19, “attention hijackers” is a rather dismaying look at just how bad our collective distraction problem is. Statistics gathered by RescueTime point to knowledge workers checking their email and using instant messaging fifty times and seventy-seven times a day, respectively, causing over half a trillion dollars in lost productivity each year. While each micro-interruption may seem harmless, it takes nearly half an hour to fully return to focus afterwards.

So clearly there is an issue, but is there a solution? One is to start disconnecting from distractions. Turn off the email and Facebook notifications on your phone and schedule a set time in which to clear out your various inboxes. Another is to use the “twenty second” rule, where potential temptations are placed at least twenty seconds away from you. It’s harder to compulsively snack when you must get out of your chair, walk into the kitchen, and open a bag of chips, and it’s likewise hard to mindlessly waste time on a smart phone that’s located in another room.

An even more powerful technique is discussed in ch. 20, “The Art of Doing One Thing”. Multitasking feels good because it provides a steady stream of limbic stimulation which over time reinforce it as an automatic, habitual behavior. It eventually becomes difficult to even notice that you’re multitasking at all, which is a shame because most human brains literally cannot do multiple things at once[1], but instead must constantly switch between them. Moreover, multitasking can make you more prone to anxiety and depression, makes you less effective at each task you’re trying to do, and negatively impacts memory. From a productivity standpoint multitasking is an absolute wash.

Luckily focus is a learnable skill, and like many other learnable skills it’s best to start small. Try setting a timer during which you’ll give your total attention to a task, then gradually increase this amount of time. Like progressively adding weight to a bar in the gym, you’ll notice that you’re attentional muscles will get stronger the longer you do this.

Nearly anything can be used as an object of focus. The breath serves this purpose during meditation, but it’s also possible to be mindful while eating, listening to a person’s story, or reading a book.

Ch. 21, “The Meditation Chapter” discusses the relevance of mindfulness to productivity. Like losing weight, getting more done is the cumulative result of thousands of small, daily sacrifices. It’s all too easy to make a grand resolution and then, in the moment, succumb to one of the innumerable sources of distraction the modern world provides. Meditation — which consists of nothing more than sitting somewhere quiet and keeping your attention on your breath, drawing it back whenever your mind inevitably wanders — builds the deceptively simple ability to notice what you’re doing.

Habits are powerful precisely because they’re automatic and require little thought, but this power cuts both ways. Cultivating mindfulness while working allows you to reflect on the value of what you’re doing while more reliably saying no to things that don’t contribute directly to what you’re trying to accomplish.

As with practicing single-tasking, meditation can be undertaken for eighteen hours a day or for much smaller amounts of time. Simply being mindful for the duration of climbing a flight of stairs can have noticeable benefits in your life.

Part Seven: Taking Productivity To The Next Level

The four chapters of part seven stress four different areas of health and wellness which have a serious impact on productivity. Ch. 22, “refueling”, offers two simple rules for eating to have higher energy levels: 1) eat less processed foods, and 2) notice when you’ve become full and then stop eating. Though many of us reach for coffee when we’re tired, ch. 23, “drinking for energy”, encourages us not to forget how important water can be in boosting energy levels. Caffeine, on the other hand, should be used strategically, not habitually.

Exercise is one of the single most beneficial things anyone can do, and ch. 24, “the exercise pill” discusses the author’s experiments with exercise as well as suggestions for starting and sticking to a routine of your own. And while many of us shirk on sleep in an effort to get more done, this comes at a steep cost. Ch. 25, “Sleeping Your Way to Productivity” discusses the ramifications of getting less sleep and suggests creating a nighttime ritual, getting less exposure to blue-spectrum light, utilizing short naps, avoiding caffeine eight to fourteen hours before bed, and keeping your room cool and dark as ways of optimizing the amount of restful sleep you get.

Part Eight: The Final Step

There is nothing wrong with trying to accomplish more; after all, the world is filled with important problems that need to be solved. But if we allow ourselves to become so caught up in this pursuit that we start being too critical of ourselves, then we aren’t going to be much use to anybody. Ch. 26, “The Final Step”, reminds us to periodically disconnect from our to-do lists, journal about positive experiences, and to actively meditate on the things in life for which we should be grateful. The chapter finishes with a discussion of a freak incident in which the author badly broke his foot while on vacation in Ireland. But because he had spent so much time aggressively investing in his productivity, he was able to keep his motivation high and finish The Productivity Project six weeks early.

His is an excellent example for all of us to follow.


[1] I say ‘most human brains’ instead of ‘all human brains’ because there is actually some evidence that a very small fraction of ‘supertaskers’ actually perform better when multitasking.