Reason and Emotion

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about the rationalist community is that we consider reason and emotion to be incontrovertibly opposed to one another, as if an action is irrational in direct proportion to how much feelings are taken into account. This is so common that it’s been dubbed ‘the straw vulcan of rationality’.

While it’s true that people reliably allow anger, jealousy, sadness, etc. to cloud their judgment, it does not follow that aspiring rationalists should always and forever disregard their emotions in favor of clear, cold logic. I’m not even sure it’s possible to deliberately cultivate such an extreme paucity of affect, and if it is, I’m even less sure that it’s desirable.

The heart is not the enemy of the head, and as I see it, the two resonate in a number of different ways which any mature rationality must learn to understand and respect.

1) Experts often have gut-level reactions which are informative and much quicker than conscious reasoning. The art critic who finds something vaguely unsettling about a statue long before anyone notices it’s a knockoff and the graybeard hacker who declares code to be ‘ugly’ two weeks before he manages to spot any vulnerabilities or shoddy workmanship are both drawing upon vast reservoirs of experience to make snap judgments which may be hard to justify explicitly.

Here, the job of the rationalist is to know when their expertise qualifies them to rely on emotional heuristics and when it does not [1].

2) Human introspection is shallow. There isn’t a list of likes and dislikes hidden in your brain somewhere, nor any inspectable algorithm which takes a stimulus as an input and returns a verdict of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Emotions therefore convey personal information which otherwise would be impossible to gather. There are only so many ways to discover what you prefer without encountering various stimuli and observing the emotional valence you attach to them.

3) It’s relatively straightforward to extend point 3) to other people; in most cases, your own emotional response is your best clue as to how others would respond in similar circumstances [2].

4) Emotional responses like disgust often point to evolutionarily advantageous strategies. No one has to be taught to feel revolted at the sight of rotting meat, and few people feel any real attraction to near-relatives. Of course these responses are often spectacularly miscalibrated. People are unreasonably afraid of snakes and unreasonably unafraid of vehicles because snakes were a danger to our ancestors whereas vehicles were not. But this means that we should be amending our rational calculations and our emotional responses to be better in line with the facts, not trying to lobotomize ourselves.

5) Emotions form an essential component of meaningful aesthetic appreciation [3]. It’s possible to appreciate a piece of art, an artist, an artistic movement, or even an entire artistic medium in a purely cerebral fashion on the basis of technical accomplishments or historical importance. But I would argue that this process is not complete until you feel an appropriate emotion in answer to the merits of whatever it is you’re contemplating.

Take the masonry work on old-world buildings like the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. You’d have to be a troglodyte to not feel some respect for how much skill must have gone into its construction. But you may have to spend a few hours watching the light filter through the stained-glass windows and feeling the way the architecture ineluctably pulls your gaze towards the sky before you can viscerally appreciate its grandeur.

This does not mean that the relationship between artistic perception and emotional response is automatic or unidirectional. Good art won’t always reduce you to tears, and art you initially enjoyed may seem to be vapid and shallow after a time. Moreover, the object of your aesthetic focus may not even be art in a traditional sense; I have written poetically about combustion engines, metal washers, and the constructed world in general. But being in the presence of genuine or superlative achievement should engender reverence, admiration, and their kin [4].

6) Some situations demand certain emotional responses. One might reasonably be afraid or angry when confronting a burglar in their home, but giddy joy would be the mark of a lunatic. This truth becomes even more stark if you are the head of household and responsible for the wellbeing of its occupants. What, besides contempt, could we feel for a man or woman who left their children in danger out of fear for their own safety?

***

If you’ve been paying attention you’ll notice that the foregoing actually splits into two broad categories: one in which emotions provide the rationalist with actionable data of one sort or another (1-4) and one in which the only rational response involves emotions (5 and 6). This latter category probably warrants further elaboration.

As hard as it may be to believe there are people in the world who are too accommodating and deferential, and need to learn to get angry when circumstances call for it. Conversely, most of us know at least one person to whom anger comes too easily and out of all reasonable proportion. Aristotle noted:

“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

This is true of sadness, melancholy, exhuberance, awe, and the full palette of human emotions, which can be rational or irrational depending on the situation. To quote C.S. Lewis:

“And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgment; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.”

-The Abolition of Man

I don’t endorse his view that no emotion is a judgment; arguments 1-4 were examples in which they are. But the overall spirit is correct. Amidst all the thorny issues a rationalist faces, perhaps the thorniest is examining their portfolio of typical emotional responses, deciding how they should be responding, gauging the distance between these two views, and devising ways of closing that distance.

Extirpating our emotions is neither feasible nor laudable. We must instead learn to interpret them when they are correct and sculpt them when they are not.

***

[1] Of course no matter how experienced you are and how good your first impressions have gotten there’s always a chance you’re wrong. By all means lean on emotions when you need to and can, but be prepared to admit your errors and switch into a more deliberative frame of mind when warranted.

[2] Your emotions needn’t be the only clue as to how others might act in a given situation. You can have declarative knowledge about the people you’re trying to model which overrides whatever data is provided by your own feelings. If you know your friend loves cheese then the fact that you hate it doesn’t mean your friend won’t want a cheese platter at their birthday party.

[3] I suppose it would be more honest to say that can’t imagine a ‘meaningful aesthetic appreciation’ which doesn’t reference emotions like curiosity, reverence, or awe.

[4] In “Shopclass as soulcraft” Matthew Crawford takes this further, and claims that part of being a good mechanic is having a normative investment in the machines on which you work:

“…finding [the] truth requires a certain disposition in the individual: attentiveness, enlivened by a sense of responsibility to the motorcycle. He has to internalize the well working of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. The truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators”.

Literary Criticism as Applied Apophenia

Growing up I had far more books than friends, and have been writing regularly since I was about seventeen. In high school I was a voracious reader of “the classics”; with the lamp on late into the night I’d turn the pages of Hemingway and Dickens, not caring to wait for the English class in which they’d be taught. Owing to some high test scores I started college studying masterpieces of world literature with more advanced students, which necessitated much in the way of paper writing and classroom debate.

So it may be a surprise to learn that I’ve never had much patience for literary criticism. Upon hearing someone say “the author is using the bridge as a metaphor to…” or “the lion’s jaw is clearly an expressive vehicle for…”, I would think to myself, how could anyone possibly know that? Yes, a bridge could be a metaphor, but it could also just, y’know, be a bridge.

Now, literary criticism is a vast field and I admit to having explored little of it. But I have had many friends who enjoy literature and film, a nontrivial fraction of which were themselves steeped in the relevant theory. In an honest effort to understand I’ve often asked them about the basis of their interpretations, but they’ve rarely provided answers which I found satisfactory.

But with time and experience I’ve learned much. This essay is an attempt to answer my younger self’s skepticism by providing two different mechanisms which can justify the literary critic’s perception of metaphorical significance.

Semi-permeable cognitive membranes

I’ve written before about the fact that human introspection is shallow and much of what’s going on between our ears must be inferred. If we envision the mind as a kind of machine then many of its components are submerged under water and can only be understood indirectly. Further, the cognitive processes utilized for things like crafting a story are not cleanly partitioned from each other.

A corollary of the foregoing is that layers of meaning and metaphor can creep into a work even if the author fails to realize this. I see two ways this could happen, the first being through what may be called “leaky empathy”.

As an author tries to model characters and situations they may themselves begin to drift into corresponding emotional states. The process of writing about a group of horribly oppressed villagers preparing to travel through the forest surrounding their town could well give rise to feelings of despair or anger, albeit probably mild versions. If so, when the author conjures up an image of the forest their brains will be more likely to produce one that is dark, caliginous, and perhaps vaguely sinister.

The setting has become a metaphor for the internal states of the characters even though the author may not be remotely aware of this dynamic.

Second, and for basically the same reason, a work might reflect an author’s convictions and knowledge despite being ostensibly unrelated to the work through what may be called “leaky concepts”.

Imagine an author has just spent a year thinking about how Communism is/isn’t the greatest/worst idea anyone has ever had. When the same author sits down to design a world and plan out a story arc, is there any serious chance they’ll be able to keep these political beliefs from influencing their depictions of kingdoms, economies, and states?

Of course many authors write with the explicit purpose of promulgating a worldview or exploring some complex theme. But even if an author fails to see the lessons implicit in their work, that does not mean that the lessons aren’t there.

Reflective patternicity 

There was supposed to be some rational explanation to justify the mumbo-jumbo. Left-hemisphere pattern-matching sub-routines amped beyond recognition; the buggy wetware that made you see faces in clouds or God’s wrath in thunderstorms, tweaked to walk some fine line between insight and pareidolia. Apparently there were fundamental insights to be harvested along that razor’s edge, patterns that only Bicamerals could distinguish from hallucination.

-Peter Watts, “Echopraxia”

Another corollary to the shallowness of human introspection is that you may be surprised by the contents of your own consciousness. Sometimes the only way to explore your mind is to twist dials until lights start coming on.

Everyone has had the experience of being unusually moved by a song they’ve heard many times before. If a loved one has just passed away, then heightened emotional sensitivity is to be expected. But this isn’t always the case; sometimes, life is progressing as normal and a snatch of conversation, the light of the sun reflected in the glass windows of a skyscraper, or a memory from childhood grabs hold of you and stops you dead in your tracks. Besides being profound and worth experiencing for their own sake these moments also hint at a range of emotional states which most people don’t realize they’re capable of.

If you’re tempted to resist my claim that you don’t know yourself as well as you believe, read through this characteristically thoughtful post from Scott Alexander. It relates the story of a boy who lived his entire life without a sense of smell and didn’t realize it until his late teens. This despite the fact that he used all sorts of olfactive expressions like saying fresh bread “smells good” or teasing his sister by telling her she stinks.

But how was he to know that his sensory experience was different from anyone else’s? He can’t borrow someone else’s nose. He can’t just open a neural command line, run ‘$ grep feelz.txt’, and get back a schematic of his perceptual apparatus, complete with a little blinking cursor in the spots where there are gaps.

Put more plainly: there are numerous facets of your own mind that you aren’t aware of, so it’s worth reading poetry, listening to new music, and going to art museums, just to see how you react. Likewise, it can be useful to try and interpret a piece of literature just to see what your brain comes up with.

This first began to dawn on me in a major way while I was living in South Korea. I had just re-read Dancing With the Gods and it came to my attention that an unusually careful and prolific neopagan scholar had taken up residence in a town not far from mine. We spent a day hiking and discussing all manner of recondite issues in philosophy and religion.

It was a blast.

Near the end I half-jokingly made a disparaging remark about tarot cards. He calmly pulled a deck from his backpack and told me he always carries it with him. During the return walk he made a compelling argument for the utility of reading cards which was rooted entirely in a secular, non-mystical understanding of human psychology.

His reasoning was that superimposing an interpretive framework over cards as they come out can yield genuinely useful information. The mental dots being connected were there all along; the cards emphatically do not provide access to knowledge of the future. But, in the same way that you can agonize for weeks over an important decision and then realize that the answer is obvious after a five minute conversation, sometimes you just need that initial spark.

This is the key point behind Scott Alexander’s essay “Random Noise is Our Most Valuable Resource“. He specifically mentions tarot cards as a source of noise which can help break us out of our mental ruts. Vivian Caethe has tried to leverage this for profit by inventing a tarot deck calibrated for aspiring authors stricken with writer’s block. Both of these are examples of outwardly-focused processes which can also usefully be turned inward.

And when viewed a certain way I think literary criticism can be a similar sort of introspective scaffolding. Whether or not you believe that the author intended the lion’s jaw as a metaphor, seeing how your brain interprets it metaphorically can be akin to performing a literary version of the Rorschach test. I imagine that, as with tarot cards, doing this long enough will yield an increasingly subtle familiarity with the folds and wrinkles of your psychology.

It’s important not to get too excited about this. Just as people can form incorrect hypotheses about physical data, they can form incorrect ones about introspective data; all the usual rationalist warnings apply. But I have come to believe that this sort of “applied apophenia” can be a tool in the arsenal of those wanting a better understanding of their phenomenological field.

 

It’s Not Always About the Message.

There are plenty of books out there whose value derives from the fact that they challenge previously unshakeable assumptions and thus raise profound new questions. A good example is Julian Jaynes’s The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In it he draws on linguistic analysis, exegesis, art, and myriad other disciplines to argue that peoples such as the ancient Greeks simply weren’t conscious in the same way modern humans are. The result is difficult to dismiss, despite how crazy it might sound upfront.

There are also plenty of books out there whose value derives from the fact that they expand areas of knowledge which you hadn’t even realized you were glossing over. I didn’t realize how little I knew about Pre-Columbian American Indians before I read Charles C. Mann’s 1491. Though I had cursory knowledge of the Incas, the Toltecs, the Mayans, the Iroquois, and so on, reading an extended treatment of their respective societies opened my eyes to a richness and diversity I hadn’t been aware of.

But there are many valuable books which don’t do anything more than tell you something you already mostly knew, but in a way that makes the knowledge more resonant and actionable. Two of my favorite books are Josh Waitzkin’s remarkable The Art of Learning and Cal Newport’s outstanding Deep WorkThe thesis of the former is “you should spend a lot of time mastering the fundamentals of a field” and that of the latter is “you need to focus intensely with very few distractions to make progress on high-value problems”.

I doubt anyone reading this with find these two insights revelatory. And yet I have re-read The Art of Learning maybe a dozen times. It isn’t the message per se that I love, but the author’s pellucid and accessible style together with illustrations from his life as a star in competitive chess and martial arts. Seeing the astonishing results obtained by a person who so totally embodies his own simple philosophy inspires me to try to do the same. Similarly, when I read Cal Newport’s books and essays I don’t get the sense that I’m in the presence of a mind substantially better than my own. Instead, his success seems to come from the ruthless application of a handful of basic techniques, all of which I understand (but don’t practice) just as well as he does.

So if I were to write a book that boils down to “exercise is good and you should be doing it”, it might not seem like it would be worth reading. But if I were to couch this bromide in stories about how a grandmother used exercise to reclaim the ability to play with her grandchildren, or built a philosophical justification for exercise by relating it to various historical warrior traditions, many people who already endorse the basic message might be compelled to act on it more consistently.

This is worth bearing in mind from the perspective of both a potential writer of and reader of books. It’s not always about the message.

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.

Introduction

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 futureme.org 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.

Build a Distraction Levee

There is a vignette near the beginning of Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” which relates the story of a data entry specialist who, fed up with the unrewarding nature of his work, decides instead to learn how to program.

His efforts begin earnestly enough, but he soon finds that he is spending nearly all of his time checking his email, browsing social media, and otherwise throwing vast chunks of his life into the gaping maw of the most spectacularly effective time-wasting device to have ever been built: the internet.

Our intrepid programmer eventually discovers a straightforward solution to this problem: simply shut the computer off and learn from textbooks, taking notes on paper and flashcards with a good ‘ol fashioned pen. As time goes on and his attentional muscle begin to get stronger, he is able to spend five or six hours throughout the day programming, leading eventually to his being hired at a startup.

Turning your computer off or severing its connection to the internet are blunt, effective means of stemming the tide of stimuli competing for the limited resources of time and attention. I call this family of techniques “Distraction Levees” because they work in the same manner as standard levees which hold back reservoir water and lakes.

Disconnecting is a sound strategy, and I recommend you follow it any time you can. But it doesn’t work well when the required resources are inherently internet-based. For example, how should you proceed if:

  1. you’re taking an online programming course which doesn’t offer the option of downloading the videos or text?
  2. you’d like to post the occasional question on StackOverflow, which doesn’t carry as much danger of pulling you in as Twitter or Reddit?
  3. you’re trying to blog about, say, The MIT Project and you want to watch the relevant Youtube videos?

Luckily tools exist which allow the construction of more nuanced, selective distraction levees. These offer the benefits of preserving your attention while also allowing you to accomplish whatever it is that you need to accomplish.

Two pieces of software that are often discussed in the productivity space are Leechblock for Firefox and StayFocusd for Google Chrome. As far as I can tell the two are nearly identical, but since I’m on Chrome I’m going to use StayFocusd as my example.

StayFocusd can be configured to bar access to all websites, bar access to all websites except for a select few ‘allowed websites’, or to allow access to all websites except a select few ‘blocked websites’. It’s possible to set certain days and certain hours during which StayFocusd is active, in case you’d like to leave time open for restriction-free browsing. It can block just certain kinds of content, like videos, while otherwise allowing access. It can even has a setting which requires the completion of a difficult challenge before any settings can be changed, thus leveraging a trivial inconvenience to boost productivity.

This flexibility is powerful. If you struggle to get down to business early in the morning, and your mantras don’t seem to be helping much, let me recommend that you try the following exercise:

  1. Sit down first thing in the morning and decide what it is that you’d like to accomplish.
  2. Make a list of the websites to which you’ll need access.
  3. Using StayFocusd, add all those websites to the Allowed Sites list.
  4. Use the “Nuclear Option” to block access to all websites except those on your Allowed Sites list.
  5. Under “For how long?” select a number of hours. Choose a reasonably large block of time and increase as you get better at focusing.
  6. Under “Starting when?” select “at a specific time” and choose a starting point.

Figuring out appropriate starting points and time spans requires a little basic math. Say you wake up at 7:00 a.m. and start writing an hour later. Since you’re just starting your efforts at being more focused and productive you don’t want to restrict access to the internet for more than two hours. That means you’ll need to tell StayFocusd to activate at 7 a.m. and remain active for three hours, not two, to prevent yourself from pointless browsing before work and falling victim to the Zeigarnik Effect.

Planning and setting up the blocks the night before would probably be better, but I haven’t found a way to get StayFocusd to do this correctly. If I do, I’ll update this post.

Repeated use of this kind of distraction levee will eventually make productive work your default setting in the morning, and you’ll be amazed at how much more you get done.

 

 

 

Dignity != Net Worth

About a week ago my girlfriend and I celebrated the birthday of her deceased father, Ramiro. The sincerity of her love for him and the multitude of vivid stories she tells about his mannerisms, beliefs, and approach to life add up to being almost like having met the man in person.

What I find most memorable about these accounts is that he was possessed of a quiet, stoic dignity that I’ve observed in people across the full spectrum of socio-economic status.

The tale begins when his Visa was sponsored by the wealthy Flanagan family. He came to America knowing no English, owning almost nothing, and became their gardener, handyman, chauffeur, and housekeeper. In other words, the stereotypical live-in servant from the third world.

Yet he took a great deal of pride in this work. No task, however menial, was unworthy of care, attention, and skill. Nearly every day, even in the sweltering heat, he would dress in his best workman’s clothes to pull weeds and clean gutters. People would stop in the street and take pictures of his superlative garden as it slowly wove its tendrils through the iron gates of the family’s estate.

The world turned, and brought the usual cycle of growth, aging, maturation, and death. In time the Flanagan matriarch found herself a widow. But his family and her’s had been raised together and had grown close. Throughout the years Miss Flanagan had evidently developed a certain fondness for Ramiro. There came talk of marriage.

In the end he decided against the union, for fear that the influx of extreme wealth would change him and his progeny for the worse. He chose instead a life of productive work, adherence to a breed of Old World manners in desperately short supply these days, and the dignity that I’m fascinated by, as immovable as a granite rock.

In films and movies the wealthy are often portrayed with an almost cartoonish sophistication, often crossing over into outright sneering pretention, but I personally believe that the connection between money and good taste is pretty tenuous. As evidence, consider the ceaseless images of hyper-sexed, trashy millionaires like the Kardashians and their ilk in which our culture is awash.

Now it’s true that I have limited exposure to the upper strata of high society. But I have heard enough stories and glimpsed enough pettiness to know that the quality of a person’s character and their net worth are very different things. Dignity is an attitude and a state of mind, not an income bracket. Some of the most dignified people in the world have to change out of greasy clothes at the end of the day so as to avoid dirtying their children when they hug them. They do the best work their able to, conduct their business with honesty, keep a clean house, and expand themselves in whatever ways their limited time and resources permit.

I suppose one reason I find Ramiro interesting is because my own father echoes many of the same traits. He spent almost his entire life digging ditches, building decks, and welding pieces of steel together, but he also read A Brief History of Time and huge amounts of history on the civil war and the Roman Empire; my siblings and I grew up poor, but we ate reasonably well; our house was small, but tidy and filled with nice antiques my father had refurbished; we grew up in the wilderness of rural Arkansas, but were encouraged to take up music and chess.

We weren’t rednecks then, and we aren’t rednecks now, because we were taught dignity. And whether I wind up a billionaire or just a comfortable middle-tier writer, I intend on giving my children the same gift.

***

Ramiro passed away in May of 2015. Like my great-grandmother, he was claimed by the ravages of Alzheimers disease. When a person dies this way they do so a shade at a time, little pieces of their soul dissipating like winter’s last snowflakes falling on the ground in March.

In a way, losing a person to this illness is like suffering a double loss. First, the subtle edges and nuances of the mind are smoothed away, until only a simpler version of their former self remains. Then the flesh follows suit, and their light goes out forever.

My girlfriend tells me that her father retained his vigor, and was able to recognize her, up until his last day on Earth. She is of course profoundly grateful for this, but found that she missed their banter, the nicknames he gave her, and the quirks that made him who he was. I know this feeling all too well.

My hope is that someday Earth will get its act together enough to recognize that this state of affairs is unacceptable. Perhaps stories like this one will help play some small part in bringing that about.