Maintaining Focus Despite Digital Distractions

In this final chapter of the book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport offers tips on how to keep digital distractions at bay even after your digital declutter.

Delete Social Media from your Phone

Most people now have their phones with them at all times. You may even be reading this on your phone, else it is likely very near by. Social Media companies know this, so they pour all the most powerful, attention-stealing resources into the mobile versions of their apps.

If you delete the app and browse on the mobile site you even get notifications telling you there is a better experience on the app version, the app allows them more control over your experience and data. Once you’re in their world, they have control, that’s the real reason they care so much about you using the app.

If instead, you dedicate a specific time to use social media, like an old fashioned TV show (before we could pause, record or stream on demand) you can limit the effects that social media has on you. To do this you must delete the app, log out of the app on your browser and change the password to something bothersome to type in and remember, then hide the password somewhere inconvenient and only use the desktop version at the selected time.

This works on 3 levels:

Friction

It adds friction to the process. Having to log into a specific computer, type in an annoying password, finding where the password is written, all adds up to extra effort. This extra effort can overcome the quick urge to check your Facebook. Having overcome the initial urge, you can more easily do something else, breaking the habit.

Scheduled Use

Having a specific time when you tune in, trains your brain to associate that time with using social media and to avoid it the rest of the time, eventually, it stops being an option. You know you don’t check your social media now, because it’s not the scheduled time, so the urge goes away.

Fewer Forces to Resist

The version on your desktop browser has slightly fewer attention manipulating features making it easier to log out at quitting time.

Make Your Devices Single Purpose When You Need to Focus

If you use an app like Freedom, you can block certain apps at specific times, like when you need to focus at work. Having the apps blocked for you, removes the need for your willpower. Eventually, you will build focused habits and not need the app.

If you really can’t trust yourself consider giving the password to unlock the app to a trusted partner.

Use Social Media Like a Professional

You may not want to quit Facebook entirely if there is a particular group that has updates you really care about. Maybe your problem is the distracting newsfeed.

Instead you can log in at a specific time as above and only use it to check on the groups you care about, so you don’t lose total connection to the group, but you also don’t get sucked in wasting time on the other crap. You can even get a newsfeed removing extension on Chrome.

This will allow you to use social media on your terms, so you still get the high-value parts and can ignore distractions.

Embrace Slow Media

Avoid “breaking news” on sites like Twitter where you get trickles of information from unreliable news sources, drowning in misinformation and memes. Getting strangers’ hot takes on issues doesn’t inform you, their opinions aren’t held to any standards.

Instead subscribe to publications or authors whose work you respect and trust, like a favoured publication or blogger. They will likely have thought the news through and journalists from good publications care about getting the truth.

Dumb Down Your Smartphone

You could replace your smartphone with a flip phone or call forward to a flip phone for periods where you need no distractions, but still need calls. This is a tad extreme and I haven’t tried it. I also do get distracted by my phone, so maybe I’m missing out.

To find out more buy the book or see my other summaries.

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Choosing Real Hobbies Over Digital Distractions

Look how fucking zen this guy looks, that could be you
Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash

Digital Minimalism encourages you to cut back on low-quality, digital distractions and spend more time doing high-quality analogue things. Once you have succeeded in reducing digital distractions, you will have a lot more spare time. Without a better way to spend your time, you can easily slip back into old habits.

There is a better way.

You start a new hobby or rediscover and old one. The effort of doing more may make you groan. After a hard day’s work it’s tempting to zone out and scroll through your newsfeed or binge-watch the latest Netflix show. You will feel more energised and getting a greater sense of satisfaction from doing something difficult and/or creative. The initial hump of effort is worth the positives.

Why to Choose Hobbies

Change is difficult. Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism has advice is advice on how to survive this new change and I, your humble blogger, have summarised it for you:

1) Choose To Do Hard Things, Rather Than Passive Things

It is much more effort to read a book than to watch TV. Humans have evolved to listen to voices and watch people, so we find those easy. Learning to read requires stealing resources from your brain that used to do other things like pattern recognition of symbols, processing the meaning of words, phrases and grammar and so on.

Effort is rewarding.

A day of binge-watching can leave you feeling like you wasted your day, even if you liked the show. Part of you feels guilty for wasting your time. There’s an emptiness afterwards. Reading a book feels good though. You can look at the pages you read and feel a sense of accomplishment. Your brain is fatigued by the mental effort of having read something, but it is a pleasing kind of tiredness, like you earned it.

The effort felt good.

2) Creation > Consumption

Make Something

Building something with your own hands is satisfying. It gives you a sense of achievement to look at something you built and know you built it. It might not even be that good, but you did it. It’s even the secret to IKEA’s success, most people’s favourite piece of furniture is often something they struggled to build from IKEA, rather than the most expensive item.

Making can be any creative hobby. You could do woodworking, knitting, writing essays, drawing etc.

The key to enjoying the hobby, rather than getting frustrated and giving up, is to focus on the process. Focused creating is meditative, you are only aware of what you’re doing, your other worries don’t cloud your mind for a while.

Don’t think about how good the end result will be. Putting too much pressure on yourself to be good can kill the fun for you. So consider not sharing the results online. You want to do something for yourself.

If later, you get good at the thing, and feel proud and want to share it, then go ahead. Just do it for you at first, not for adoration or Likes.

Fix Stuff

Next time you find damage in your house that you would usually call someone to fix. See if you can do it yourself. There are plenty of ways to learn how to do anything online, just try to avoid getting stuck in YouTube rabbit holes. You want to fix a loose hinge not find out if there are real mermaids.

Once you can fix things, you will get a feeling of confidence that comes from having a skill. You don’t feel so panicked when something goes wrong in your house or you tear your favourite shirt, because you’ve fixed something before and you can do it again. You feel more capable and ready to take on the challenge. You might even save money by not needing to call contractors for each little thing.

3) Get Real

Making Something Real

Coding or doing digital art, whilst creative, don’t give you something you can pick up and touch. There’s something more satisfying about tangible creations, than something you an only see on a screen. Maybe it’s why people still buy real books and vinyl records, even though their digital counterparts are so much more convenient.

An added issue is digital creations can be closer to the distractions you were previously trying to avoid. You are just an open tab away from a YouTube rabbit hole.

Doing Something Real

Playing a sport or getting exercise is good for your physical and mental health, we all know this. A lot of the time it seems like a bother, but being fit and healthy feels good in ways you don’t expect. You have more energy and confidence in your body. You don’t need to become an Olympian, you just need to be moving a bit each day.

Social media won’t give you the same good feelings from socialising, you will have much better experiences in person, which is difficult right now, but outside sports are still allowed.

Getting physically exhausted by doing exercise will feel better as well. It’s not that you will be too tired to do anything else in work or life, but instead you will feel more energised day-to-day than when you just scroll all day. You will feel more tired at night, but it’s a good tired, like you’re ready for bed and to recharge, not tired like you can’t get through another minute of life right now.

How To Choose Hobbies

Now that you’re convinced of the wonders of high-quality leisure time, you may be wondering how to put this advice into action, the following tips should be a good starting point

Make or Fix Something Every Week

Think of something creative you used to do when you were younger but no longer do. Do that. If there was nothing you did when you were younger, think about something you always told yourself you wanted to do but never have done.

If you need materials you don’t have, get the cheapest stuff you can find. You don’t need the pencils Da Vinci used to draw or Hendrix’s guitar. Go cheap and simple, if you over-complicate things at the beginning you will stop yourself before you even start.

If your hobby requires you to setup and put things away, try to make this process as automatic as possible. The more friction there is in your hobbies, the more likely you will put it off.

Look around your house, something is probably not in the best shape. Stick to something safe, don’t go changing wires if you don’t know how. A wonky chair could be a good start or a loose tile. You’re not looking to be a master builder, just to fix something that bothers you.

Make Time For Your New Hobby

Don’t rely on inspiration. You might never do anything.

Set yourself a schedule for when you can do your new hobby and stick to it. You don’t have to plan to the minute, just find an hour a week when you expect to have some free time and stick that in the diary. Then show up and do it.

You will meet some internal resistance at first, but fight through it. It can take a few weeks for a a habit to form, then you won’t have to keep scheduling time, because you will automatically do so. If the habit slips due to a change in schedule, then rinse and repeat.

Join Something

Joining a class or team sport, usually means there will be a schedule, you are obligated to go at certain times. This helps you maintain a routine which makes hobbies easier to stick with, rather than having to set your own schedule or doing it when the mood strikes you.

Doing things with other people is also enjoyable because humans are sociable creatures by nature. If it’s a hobby you would like to do but know you are unreliable at, having a group who relies on you could keep you accountable, so you actually follow through. You can’t quit running half way through a group run, because you would let your team down, or you can’t avoid finishing the book because it will ruin book club. The social pressure can keep you in check.

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Conversation Beats Connection

Photo by GESPHOTOSS on Unsplash

Conversation Gives You Lots of Information, Connection Gives Little

Conversation is speaking to someone on the phone, on video or in person. It’s high-bandwidth, lots of information is conveyed to the other person, not just text. It’s all your gestures, expressions, tones, and rhythms.

Connection is Liking, Reacting, Commenting, Sharing, Texting and any other low-bandwidth media, where you don’t give much information in your actions.

If I just Liked what you said, you couldn’t glean much from that. There’s so little information in a Like. What did that Like even mean? There’s no nuance. Social Media gives the illusion of sharing your life with your friends and family or even strangers, but a Like is never going to be as meaningful as a deep conversation. Your mum will be much happier getting phone call on Mother’s day than a tribute Facebook post. Cardi B will never remember that Like you gave her latest post.

Talking is in the moment. You can see how your words affect the other person and adjust your speech accordingly or keep going because you’re getting the effect you want. There’s an immediate action-feedback loop. You tell a joke they laugh, you tell another joke, they laugh more, then another, they don’t laugh, you stop.

Coversation Expands, Connection Stops Immediately

Conversations are more serendipitous. You can jump suddenly to a completely different topic because something the other person said reminded you of something totally different, so a conversation about the weather leads to the systemic issues in our government and a million things in between.

Likes can’t create mental leaps, they don’t have enough meaning. They’re meaningless. Next time you have a conversation try to trace the last topic back to the first one. There may be 40 different jumps. I don’t think that will be the case with the last Like you gave.

Conversations Share More

If I have a hard day I want someone to listen to me and soothe me with comforting words or a hug. I don’t want 50 likes on my latest tweet. When something good happens to me, I want to jump and and down with with my friends, I don’t want Shares of a self-congratulatory post.

Loneliness triggers the same systems in your body as physical pain. It hurts. I’m sure if you think back to lockdown, you know what I mean. Likes and Shares don’t relieve loneliness. Only real conversation and touch can do that.

How To Have Conversations Over Connections

Phone-Call Office Hours

You’re busy. Your Mum’s busy. Your friends are busy. Time is scarce, therefore it’s the most valuable thing you can offer someone. You can make more money, you can’t unspend time.

Set a time when you are always free to a select group and stick to it. Make sure those select few know this time and know you mean it, they will feel appreciated and valued.

These are your “phone-call office hours”. The concept is taken from university lecturer office hours. Lecturers have schedules and research to do. They don’t want to see students all day everyday, but they do want to help their students when they have time. The solution is a fixed time every week where they welcome interruption and will help you learn. Instead you are ready to chat to anyone who might call.

A specific time works better than saying “call me anytime” because everyone knows you don’t mean any time. They may miss a few calls and get disheartened, or never call to begin with in case they bother you. This is a gradual process, but it’s how you end up thinking “Oh, I really should call Kate” 6 months after losing touch.

If you stick to times you are genuinely free, and keep telling people that time, your loved ones will realise you are reliable and call in these times more.

Reply to Texts in Blocks

If you’ve been replying to texts here and there all day, you might feel like you’ve been connected to your friends. But when you look back in a month, you will realise that connection isn’t as good as conversation. You may have never had a more meaningful connection than asking how their day was.

You can set your phone to Do Not Disturb and this will stop your phone buzzing for every text, breaking your concentration. You can also configure these settings to just let phone calls through or specific contacts, in case you still want to receive updates from people who need to get through at any time of the day.

Then once a day or as often as you like, you can check your texts and fire off all the replies in one go. This will help you feel like you’re not just answering texts all day in a constant haze of low-grade connection and then make time for real conversation.

Don’t “Like” or “Comment”

If your friend is important to you, call them or arrange to meet in person. If they’re not important to you, then drop them. You will get more meaning out of a few great friends than millions of followers.

Find out more here or read the book.

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Why Time Alone is Good for the Soul

Photo by Andrew Teoh on Unsplash

Constant connection to the internet is not good for your mental health. Phones need to recharge and so do our brains. The solution? Solitude.

What Solitude is

Solitude is a part of your day where you are free from anyone else’s thoughts. This means :

  • No Reading
  • No Talking in person or on the phone
  • No Screens (phones, TV, computers, tablets etc)
  • No Music
  • No Podcasts
  • No Radio

What Solitude Is Not

Solitude Does Not Need to be Drastic

Solitude does not mean cutting yourself off from reality, you could find solitude in a coffee shop, in your home, on a walk or on public transport.

Solitude Does Not Need to be Permanent

The idea is not to become a hermit and never speak to anyone ever again. You don’t need that much solitude, humans are social animals after all. It’s about getting some space to reflect on your life and emotions. Connection is not the enemy, 100% connection is.

The Benefits of Solitude

Now you know what solitude is and what it isn’t. But why should you care? There are many benefits to getting some solitude:

Be More Creative

Creative ideas come when we have time to think and let our minds wander. Ever notice how you seem to have your best ideas after the problem like in the shower or driving home? This is because time alone allows your mind to wander and make connections that have been brewing in your subconscious without you realising. If you had been distracting yourself with an audiobook, you would be too focused on the story to have your own thoughts flow.

Get to Know Yourself

Time alone can give you time to think about stuff. If you are really busy at work, then you come home, watch some TV, cook some dinner, scroll through Twitter, go to bed and rinse and repeat, you can go weeks on autopilot.

Taking time to think about your day, your dreams, your hopes, your fears, can help you understand what you want out of life.

It’s tempting to get out of your head when you’re stressed. The numbing distraction of a scroll through the newsfeed can stop you thinking about what’s bothering you. This doesn’t solve the problem. You will still have those feelings in the back of your mind. Dealing with them is the only way to grow.

Have Better Relationships

If you don’t have constant distractions, you can focus on what matters. You can listen to your partner or friend better when they need a sympathetic ear, you can be present rather than half-talking-half-scrolling but being a whole crappy conversationalist.

Switch Off

Before we had mini computers in our pockets interruptions weren’t that frequent, so we had plenty of time alone with our thoughts on walks to work, drives to the shops, queues to get coffee and so on. Yes Walkmans existed and such, but the constant presence of texts, music, notifications, pings, buzzes, bleeps and bloops is something that came in with the Smart phone.

Nowadays you have to make a conscious effort to get away from some form of communication or technology. The constant connectivity means your brain is always on. Your brain craves the rest it gets when it is not under constant stimulation.

Concentrate Harder and Longer

The quick glances we give our phones seem innocent enough, but you can take 20 minutes to regain your full concentration. That’s 20 minutes to get back on track with the hard problem you were trying to solve at work.

Check how many quick glances you give your phone next time you are at work or with a friend and make a quick tally. At the end of the day multiply the number by 20 and see how many minutes of lost concentration you had just to see if someone had a new photo uploaded in the last 5 minutes. You’ll realise how much of your own time you are stealing.

Improve Your Mental Health

Gen Z, the kids who grew up with fast internet and mobile tech, have the highest rates of anxiety and depression of any previous generation, this is true even when you account for the decreased mental health stigma meaning more people are willing to get diagnosed.

Experts say that the constant connectivity and ability to always be distracted means they have no mental downtime and have not learnt how to regulate their emotions, because anytime they get riled up, they can browse some dank memes and forget about it.

Now everyone with a smart phone has this problem.

How to Get some Juicy Solitude

You’re now fully convinced that solitude is a good thing, but don’t know how to get some. Luckily there are some tips:

Leave Your Phone Out of Reach

Leaving your phone in a separate room from the one you are in can be enough separation to cut the habit of a quick check or a 30 minute browse. Stopping yourself at the moment you feel the urge to do a habit, the cue, is the easiest time to break that habit. It requires much less willpower to just not walk over to your phone, than to drag yourself away mid-scroll.

If you’re chatting to a friend and you go to check your phone, then realise it’s not in your pocket, it’s all the way upstairs, you decide it’s not worth checking, you carry on chatting to your friend, the conversation is more meaningful because you’re engaged and you feel a little closer to Mark. Great result.

If you are worried you may miss an emergency, feel free to keep the phone in the same room but just out of sight, so you can hear it ring, maybe turn off social media notifications, so that not every buzz captures your attention.

Take Long Walks

Walks have helped great minds think for thousands of years. They clear your head and even get the brain more active than when you’re just sitting. The key is to leave all devices at home or to just not use them. Try leaving them in your pocket or your bag.

Scenic walks work best, nature has a wonderful calming effect on the human mind, if you’re stuck in a city like me, consider a park, it doesn’t have to be the Amazon to be nature.

Bring a pen and pad so you can write down the ideas you have. No point thinking up a solution then forgetting it. If you write the notes on your phone you may get distracted by some notification or give in to the urge to listen to something, ruining the effect.

Write To Solve Problems

Writing is thinking. So if you take the time to write down ideas, you can really crystallise those ideas and think more clearly than you can using just your mind.

You can write on anything a scrap of paper is fine, the act of the writing matters here more than keeping the notes for later. If you do want to read it later that’s fine too.

You could summarise your best ideas succinctly in a separate notebook, so anytime you need a good idea to solve a problem or write about, you just flip through your idea notebook and have a load of ideas ready to read.

Write To Clear Your Head

If you just need to get the thoughts out of your head, I find getting them on paper to be best. Once you have written down your worries, they leave your head. This is especially helpful if you’re prone to thoughts racing through your head late at night, stopping you sleep.

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Find out more

Stop Scrolling, Start Living

Photo by Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash

Scrolling down an infinite page of updates passes time but it feels shit. You kill time rather than enjoying your time. This deflates you.

Doing something that takes effort feels better.

It’s easy to just scroll Facebook or Twitter for a bit, but it doesn’t feel good. Despite this, you can end up wasting hours a day doing it.

Big Tech companies spend millions of dollars researching how to make their apps as addictive as possible. Something you barely think about has been fine-tuned to be as manipulative as possible, that’s not a fair fight.

Take Facebook for example, it’s free, yet they make billions of dollars every year. They do this through advertising. Advertisers pay for you to look at their stuff and buy it. To Facebook, more time looking at the screen equals more money. If they can stop you ever looking away from their screens, they make more money. So their goals of making money, don’t align with your goal catching up with friends.

They don’t care if you enjoy the app, they care that you look at it.

Willpower alone will fail. Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport has the tools you need.

The 30 Day Digital Declutter

  1. Take a 30 day break from the optional technologies in your life (social media, streaming, gaming etc)
  2. Explore and rediscover activities and behaviours you find satisfying and meaningful (reading, sports, travel)
  3. After the break, reintroduce tech you find valuable and meaningful, slowly.

1. What’s Your Optional Technology

To have a successful declutter, you need a plan. Having a plan will give you a written record to refer to, when things get tough.

Critical Vs Convenient

Write out a list of the technologies you use, defining them as “convenient” or “critical”.

Convenient technology you use to entertain yourself, or for fun and nothing more.

Critical technology includes apps you actually need to live. This could be maps to get around or emails to answer clients.

Exceptions to the Rule

Some convenient tech could be used in specific situations only. You don’t want to be with a group of friends and have to leave the room, because they put a movie on. Socialising could be an exception to a “no Netflix” rule.

Total Bans

Decide which technologies need a total ban. This can and should (in my opinion) include Facebook, Instagram and any other social media that harvests your personal data for profit.

Note: I am on Twitter, more on that later.

Remind Yourself Daily

Write down your rules on a small note and put the note somewhere you will see it everyday. This helpful reminder, could prevent you giving in when the declutter gets tough.

2. The 30-Day Break

The time has come. This is the difficult part, but the most rewarding as well.

30 days, isn’t a hard rule, but 1 month is a clear time and long enough to create a new routine.

Every Journey Starts with a Single Step

The first few weeks are the most difficult, this is when your natural rhythms will urge you to reach for your phone when you’re in a queue or put on Netflix when you have an hour to kill. After these first few weeks, it gets easier and eventually the urges die off.

Rediscover and Explore

The easiest way to fall back into the habit of mindless scrolling and watching is to have nothing to do instead. The beauty of Cal’s ideas, are that you aren’t expected to just power through the process. Instead, you replace the old unsatisfying activities with new, fulfilling ones.

Now is the time to try hobbies you used to enjoy, dust off the that bike and go for a ride, try another model kit you built as a kid or draw something just for fun.

It is also a time to explore new hobbies. You may not know what you would rather do than mindless binge-watches of Netflix shows. Try something new and see if you like it. The key is to look for activities that actively engage you.

Effort is rewarding.

Scrolling and binge-watching are easy, but that’s why they’re so unsatisfying. To actually build something, achieve something or get somewhere, takes more effort and that’s why it feels so much better. You’re going from passively to floating through life, to living life the way you want to.

3. Reintroduce Technology

30 days have passed. You no longer feel the urge to scroll through Instagram, like photos, or catch up on the latest memes.

Now you choose what tech gets to come back, based on if :

  • It serves a deep value, not just some value.
  • It is the best way to serve that value.
  • You can decide how and when to use it.

Deep Value vs Some Value

You decide what matters to you. A deep value, could be YouTube, because you use it to learn new skills. Maybe the YouTube rabbit-holes were your issue, so you could get a plug-in that turns off the recommendation algorithm. Then use YouTube by searching for the lesson you want and leaving. No Browsing. You get the value you want and leave before you get sucked in.

Is the Technology the Best Tool for the Job?

If your goal is to keep in touch with your friends, maybe liking the occasional photo isn’t the best way. You build a much deeper connection by calling someone or having a video call or if you’re able, meeting in person. You will have a much more satisfying experience than just scrolling past their latest pics.

Have Rules for How and When to Use the Tech

You may come back from your 30 day break and realise you did actually get something from the information you get on Twitter. You may follow thought-leaders who post interesting content but don’t have a newsletter.

One way round this is to have a set time to go on Twitter, then you don’t go on anymore than that set time.

Adding friction to the processes can help too. Such as a rule to only use your PC for Twitter. The app is the most addictive version, because Big Tech know people always have their phones on them, so they pour the most additive functions into the app version. The added friction of having to turn on your computer just to go on Twitter may be enough to stop the addictive cue and you can go and do something better. This is strengthened if you log out of Twitter on your browser and delete the app on your phone.

30 days to reset your digital habits.

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Digital Minimalism: An Introduction

Technology isn’t bad, letting it rule our lives is.

Digital minimalism is about using our devices less, so we can live better, more intentional lives. If you’re anything like me, time spent on social media mainly consists of scrolling, liking and sharing. This is distracting and occasionally amusing, but it lacks something. You can feel worse than before you started browsing. How many of your favourite memories have you swiping on a screen?

Digital Minimalism isn’t anti technology, tin hat wearing madness. It’s finding ways to have technology serve you. Digital Minimalism gives you the tools to fight back against the digital Goliaths who make money off your attention, so you can focus on meaningful and satisfying activities instead. Ever heard someone complain they were too satisfied? Me neither, so maybe it’s worth a try.

Why Digital Minimalism?

Minimalism is about getting rid of clutter. You live a simpler, better life.

Minimalism is about optimisation. You make big, effective changes and forget about the small details.

Minimalism is about living your life you choose, not just letting life happen to you.

Apply all that to your devices and you get Digital Minimalism.

What is Digital Minimalism?

The Digital Declutter

You intentionally remove all the virtual messiness from your life for 30 days. That’s a long time. 30 days of no scrolling, no liking and no commenting (online, you can comment in person if you wish). Then you slowly reintroduce technology back to your life.

Once 30 days have passed, you leave your interrogate your digital habits that took so much of your time and decide which ones improve your life. You get rid of the rest.

For me that was Facebook, Instagram and Reddit. Somehow Twitter and Imgur have survived, no one’s perfect.

Optimisation

You’ve decided which apps get to stay and which ones to throw out. Now you must figure out how these apps, websites and widgets will serve you best.

How can you get the most value for the smallest amount of effort? You find the smallest changes that will have the biggest impact on your life.

Once you’ve made the big changes, stop optimising. You will just waste more and more time getting smaller and smaller results, this is the law of diminishing returns.

Satisfaction

Your spare time should always be yours.

The Digital Declutter may result in you having much more spare time than you used to have. To make sure you don’t slip back into old habits and to reap the biggest rewards, you replace that time with high-value activities. These look different for everyone, yours could be football or playing guitar, mine tend me to reading and learning something I’m curious about.

Apps are convenient, but self-direction feels better.

Learn more here:

https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Cal-Newport/Digital-Minimalism–Choosing-a-Focused-Life-in-a-Noisy-World/24893628

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Lessons Learned From Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World – Part 4

Range : How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Hardback Book

https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/David-Epstein/Range–How-Generalists-Triumph-in-a-Specialized-World/23483102

Shake Things Up Occasionally

The older a company gets, the more rigid the culture gets. Employees have new ideas less often and things get done the same way. Certain ideas, become the “company way” of doing things. There is no perfect company culture, so change is necessary for growth.

People Don’t Like Change

Epstein tells us about a study about wildfire firefighters. In wildfires, the fire can spread fast. The firefighters need to sprint to escape and even then they can be too slow. Dropping their tools would increase their running speed, but many don’t. It may not be a conscious decision, but to them, dropping their tools is dropping being a firefighter. Even though, it could save their lives. This instinct not to change, is hard to overcome.

Simple Changes Can Make a Big Difference

Your company may be brilliant at improvising solutions, but a bit slapdash. Hiring someone by-the-book, who knows industry standards could give your company some needed structure. This new structure could help stop sloppy mistakes.

The opposite is true if your team can maintain consistent, high-quality work. They may be stuck in their ways, unable to handle a sudden change, say a global pandemic. Someone who can adapt to the unexpected may make your team more flexible.

Good Ideas Can be Found Everywhere

David Epstein tells the story of Frances Hesselbein, the most successful CEO of the Girl Scouts to date. Hesselbein joined the Girl Scouts never having been a C-suite employee, nor did she have formal business training. Hesselbein knew that the higher up a company you are, the less you know about the day-to-day. She wanted to make changes with real benefits. She couldn’t work every job to get the knowledge of the company at every step of the ladder. Hesselbein had a radical idea, she would take ideas from all levels of the Girl Scouts. No-one was too junior to give their opinion and good ideas got rewards. The higher-ups were still the decision makers, but idea generation was company wide. This method led her to her being the most respected CEO of the Girl Scouts of all time.

How Specialisation Ruined Science

Science is currently facing a “replication crisis”, scientists can’t recreate each other’s results in experiment. Getting the same results each time is key to proving something is true. So no replication = no truth.

David Epstein argues that a cause of this crisis is that scientists hyper-specialise so fast, they don’t learnt to think. Scientists have limited time, they can learn deep and narrow to progress, or they can learn broadly and risk falling behind in their career. This deep, narrow specialisation leads to silos of knowledge. Each expert understand their narrow field but nothing that falls outside that boundary.

Imagine you asked mathematicians to judge the gymnastics at the Olympics. The scores would be nonsense. They don’t have the expertise to judge one gymnast from another. This is what it’s like trying to get hyper-specialised scientists to peer-review each other’s work.

Peer-review is the process of scientists judging each other’s work. The idea, is that if scientists can find flaws in each other’s methods, the work being reviewed can be improved. If you don’t understand someone’s work, you can’t be an accurate judge. So flawed science passes review without anyone realising. Later, millions of studies can’t be replicated, leading to the crisis!

Connect Ideas to Make New Discoveries

Epstein says that most ground-breaking discoveries happen when two fields overlap. The issue with hyper-specialisation, is there is no overlap. No overlap, means no discoveries from combining fields.

The grants process discourages research into overlapping fields. Scientists review grants. More scientists than ever are specialists. Specialists see value in specialised work, so they grant specialist research. So specialised work continues to grow and broad work doesn’t.

Specialisation isn’t the Enemy, Speed is

Epstein doesn’t hate specialists, but there’s no rush. He says we will all specialise to some extent in the end. You need to specialise to gain depth in any subject. His main lesson is don’t worry about that you’re progressing too slow.

Late-starters take longer to progress, but they often end up with greater success and longer careers. Cross-boundary science papers don’t get lots of citations immediately. They’re not overnight successes. But often, they get cited for longer and overtake the specialised papers.

Most “smash-hit” science papers overlapped topics.

Neils Bohr didn’t go straight into quantum physics. He ended up becoming the greatest quantum physicist of the 20th century. Bohr continued to learn subjects outside of science all his life. Einstein started as a patent clerk whilst he developed his ideas of relativity. Both late starters, both great successes.

Experimentation for the win!

Wicked environments don’t compare to sports well. In Wicked environments you achieve big wins through slow experimentation. This will feel alien to fast-moving specialists. But the wins can be huge. A home-run in baseball gets you 4 runs. A huge win in a wicked environment could be worth 1,000 runs.

Experimenters don’t fail less than anyone else but they are less hurt by it. Experimentation is uncertain and difficult, but the results can be huge. Andre Geim was messing around when he discovered the miracle material graphene. He couldn’t have predicted the outcome, but he did mess around on purpose. He calls his process Friday Night Experiments, times when he works on strange ideas to see where they lead. He purposefully introduced inefficient experimentation into his work and eventually got a huge win.

See part 3 to learn why job switching can make you happier and how generalists make great predictions. See part 2 to see why interleaving and analogies are so useful for learning. See part 1 to find out if you work in a Kind or Wicked environment and how abstraction helps you understand seemingly disconnected ideas.

Lessons Learned From Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World – Part 3

Range : How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Hardback Book

https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/David-Epstein/Range–How-Generalists-Triumph-in-a-Specialized-World/23483102

This book contains so much wisdom I have had to split the posts into separate parts.

In the first part I looked at what Epstein told us about abstraction and learning environments and in the second part Interleaving and analogies.

In this third part, I am going to summarise Epstein’s findings on why job-switching can be a good thing, when a generalist or specialist is best for solving problems and how being a generalist can make you better at prediction.

Job-Switching Can Lead to Greater Happiness

The traditional career path of our grandparents was to get a job, stick at that one company, learning the ropes and gradually climb the career ladder through hard work. Today, millenials change job more than any previous generation. Epstein’s research tells us that is not a bad thing. Phew! I’ve had 5 jobs 5 years out of university!

Successful job-switching does require some planning to be successful though.

The key is to try your hardest to get something out of the job before you move on. Learning what you do and don’t like requires dedication. Job-switchers, are more likely to find a satisfying career, than people who stick at their first job.

Epstein tells about how Van Gogh became one of the greatest painters of all time. He was the best switcher in the game, he tried a different art style every few weeks. Each time he would try a completely new style. Become obsessed with it and completely focus all his efforts on perfecting it. Then one day he would get bored, and drop it. The he’d move on to a new art style doing the same thing all over again.

A typical few months for Van Gogh could look like this:

  1. Learn oil paints
  2. Master oil paints
  3. Never oil paint again
  4. Learn charcoals
  5. Master charcoals

… You get the idea

Fear of Changing Career

Quitting a career path can feel like you have wasted too much time and effort getting to where you are. This is often called the sunk cost fallacy and is the wrong way to think about this problem. Epstein quotes Seth Godin, saying the time is already wasted. It’s actually braver to quit and start something new, than to keep on in a career you hate.

Little Bets Beat Grand Plans

When you leave school and often many years before, people will ask you “what do you want to do?”. For most of the western world, we start our first careers between the ages of 18-29. Between these ages, you tend to change more as a person, than at any other point in your working life. These personality changes make it almost impossible to plan your career. You’re planning for a stranger.

A better method to make effective career decisions is to make a short plan, test it, then reflect. Little bets.

Little bets allow you to try out lots of different ideas and learn from each one. You will learn more by making these little bets than you would from deep introspection. You can get real data about how you respond to certain jobs and environments. Analysing the data allows you make better decisions.

The analysis can be simple e.g. working as data analyst:

  • Did I like working behind the scenes or would I rather be on the front lines?
  • Did I like the intellectual challenge or do I want a different kind of challenge?
  • Did I like being at a compute all day or do I want to be outside more?

When Hyperspecialisation is Blinding

Hyper-specialisation has created experts who know very narrow topics at extreme depth. This has led to many fields having problems that their experts can’t solve. These experts think too narrowly, they can’t connect ideas outside of their expertise.

A new point-of-view can often help solve a problem. This is the logic behind sites like https://www.innocentive.com/. The site offers up problems to the public for anyone to solve. The problems have usually stumped experts for too long. The hope is someone not specialised in the field will see something no one else has. The reward for doing so, is a cash prize.

Depth Vs Breadth

Lateral thinking is being able to think broadly and make connections across multiple concepts and fields.

Vertical thinking is being able to think deeply and specialise in a topic.

Deep thinking doesn’t trump broad thinking and vice versa. But together they make great teams, when they are able to work as a team. Often a T-shaped person, someone who has both depth and breadth, can bridge the two types of thinker.

3M studied inventors and found :

If the question is unclear and the outcome you want is unknown, hire a broad thinker.

Do you have clear problem with specific limitations? You need a specialist.

Polymaths often have wider interests than generalists, but less depth than a specialist. These tend to be the most successful inventors of all.

Specialists Make Bad Predictions

Professor Tetlock, author of Superforecasters, has names for the two types of forecaster: Hedgehogs and Foxes.

Hedgehogs can do one thing very well and tend to do that thing often (specialists)

Foxes can do many things quite well but not as good as any hedgehog at each thing (generalists)

Foxy Thinking

Foxes make the best forecasters, not because they know more, but because of how they think.

Foxes view their ideas as hypotheses they can test. Foxes will update their ideas when new information disproves their original idea. They change their ideas to match evidence, not the other way round.

Foxes do everything they can to disprove their own ideas. They don’t aim to prove they’re right, they aim for the truth.

Foxes are open-minded and flexible. They don’t follow simple cause and effect models. It’s not if X then Y, but rather many small chunks of information combined. Each chunk having its own cause and effect. Foxes use statistics to find what is most likely, rather than attempting to find certainty.

Hedgehog-Style Thinking

Hedgehogs makes predictions based on a specialised theory. Once they gain new information they change their interpretation of the data to fit their original idea. Hedgehogs have low open-mindedness.

Hedgehogs tend to be stubborn. They believe that if they succeed, their theory was correct, if they fail, then it must have been a near miss.

Hedgehogs are so specialised they tend to think with blinkers on. They don’t have a super focus on ignoring new evidence that disagrees with their beliefs. They excel at finding evidence that supports their beliefs. A good example would be any conspiracy theorist.

Lessons Learned From “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World” – Part 2

Range : How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Hardback Book

https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/David-Epstein/Range–How-Generalists-Triumph-in-a-Specialized-World/23483102

The Slow Power of Interleaving

Interleaving is practising many skills in one session. Block learning is practising each skill one at a time. An example of a study plan for each, where the exam contains the 3 topics Shapes, Sums and Algebra is below:

DayTopics
1Shapes, Sums, Algebra
2Shapes, Sums, Algebra
3Shapes, Sums, Algebra
An interleaved study plan
DayTopics
1Shapes
2Sums
3Algebra
A block learning study plan

Block Learning

Block learning is easier and leads to quicker progress in the beginning. The quick progress feels good to students. Students who feel good in their learning, leave better reviews of their teachers. However, the surveys don’t mean everything, as the block-taught students often get worse exam results.

Block learning only teaches you how to do a skill, not when to use it. You can end up knowing lots of solutions to problems, but not be able to match solutions to the right problems. For example, if you were a software developer, you may know the perfect way to write an algorithm but have no idea when it’s useful. Making your development skills pretty poor.

Interleaving

Compared to block learning, interleaving feels like more of a struggle. Short-term progress is slower, but this discomfort is good, you learn more deeply.

When you interleave, you learn to look at a problem and figure out which method will fix that problem. In the working world, you will face many problems where the solution isn’t clear. Again, if you were a software developer, someone in the business might need you to get them all the sales from June. They don’t know how to do it, that’s why they asked you. So you need to know how to report sales in June and which of your tools will best solve the business person’s problem.

Interleaving Vs Block Learning

Block learning teaches you how.

Interleaving teaches how and what.

Block learning and interleaving give you the tools to solve problems. Only interleaving teaches you when to use which tool. This is why when studying for an exam, it can be better to study past papers. The different topics are all mixed up. You have to recognise the question and which tool will give you the answer.

Block learning can be useful to drill one topic, then you put it back in to the mix once you’re more comfortable with it.

Use Analogies to Understand

An analogy is finding a similarity between two things that aren’t obviously similar. For example in your science class at school, your teacher might have compared the heart to a pump. Your heart is an organ, a pump is a tool, but each one pushes liquids around.

Epstein mentions a study that tells us that the most effective labs have scientists from the wide-ranging fields. The scientists tend to be multidisciplinary. Having knowledge across 2 or more fields helps them find solutions not obvious in either one field. Specialists have extremely deep knowledge in one narrow field, so they can’t make these cross-boundary discoveries.

What Makes a Good Analogy?

A good analogy will be different on the surface but similar at a deeper level. Where a ‘good’ analogy is one that helps you understand something new.

Social distancing that everyone is talking about these days can be pretty confusing. It’s not a term we used before the COVID-19 pandemic. Why are we doing it? Does it help if I say that normal social conventions include mass gatherings and contact with multitudes of people on a daily rate, that can cause an exponential growth of the disease by multiplying infection rate?

Or does the below video that compares infections to ping pong balls make the concept clearer?

On the surface infections and ping pong balls have nothing in common, but at the deeper level, this analogy explains how social distancing helps using an analogy we can understand more easily.

Using Analogies to Learn

Making good analogies is hard. To deepen your learning, interrogate your analogies, where do they fit? Where do they fall down?

How are ping pong balls hitting mousetraps not the same as a population of people who may or may not have COVID-19?

Learn about abstraction, Kind and Wicked environments and more in part 1

Lessons Learned From “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World” – Part 1

Growing up I would jump from interest to interest all the time. I thought this meant I gave things up too often, but perhaps I was a generalist. If, like me, you find that focusing on one path forever doesn’t suit you, then this book is for you. David Epstein teaches us why not wanting to specialise may be our biggest strengths.

The book had so many interesting ideas that I couldn’t summarise them all in one post. Instead, I will be splitting the summary into a mini-series, starting with this post.

Kind Environments and Wicked Environments

Careers are not made equal. You have Kind environments and Wicked environments.

Qualities of Kind environments:

  • Easy to define successes and failures
  • Clear feedback
  • Examples include games, music and sports

You can measure success in a game or sport by winning or losing. When playing music, you can hear if it is wrong. Sports have world champions, Orchestras have First Chair’s. In Kind environments specialising is better for success and outdoing the competition.

Wicked environments are the opposite:

  • No clear definitions of success
  • Feedback varies in usefulness and how often you get it
  • Examples include most knowledge work

You can’t win or lose at accountancy. How do you compare software developers? Who is the world champion at repairing cars? Where do you rank in your job?

Abstraction is a Skill

Abstraction is understanding connections and differences between things.

To give an example, you see a bike, a tricycle and a car. You can tell that the bike and tricycle are similar and the car is different. You pedal a bike and a tricycle, cars have engines.You can also tell what a car has in common with the bike and tricycle. They all have wheels and are all modes of transport.

You can access more information on your phone than your grandparents saw in their whole lives. You can categorise all this information. These categories allow you to say what is similar and what is different between billions of things. Your ability to do this would seem superhuman a few hundred years ago.

Epstein illustrates this with a tale of some remote villagers. They had lived in their small part of the world for generations, not having access to the outside world. They were the closest thing we have to humans before the modern world. Researchers asked the villagers questions, to see how they think.

The villagers were told “in cold, snowy weather, bears are always white, north of here it is cold and snowy” then they were asked “What colour are the bears?”

The villagers replied “I don’t know, I have never been there” – they decided they couldn’t know something that was outside of their direct experience. They couldn’t abstract information.

The villagers were asked to find the odd one out given the following items:

  • Bullet
  • Rifle
  • Dagger
  • Bird

The villagers said there is no odd one out, they are all connected. You put a bullet in a rifle, to shoot the bird, which you cut for meat with the dagger, it’s the only way – they didn’t see a difference between weapons and prey, but instead saw how each one connected to their daily experience.

Self-Taught Vs By-The-Book Teaching

If you want to learn an instrument, you may feel it’s best to get a teacher. It will be easier and at the beginning and quicker. But, if you are willing to struggle at first and take your time, you could become a better musician.

It is slow and difficult to learn to play music by ear, but it forces you figure it out for yourself.

You learn how to learn.

Musicians who learned by mimicking music they’ve heard, are often called “naturals”. They seem to have a way with the instrument. In truth, they have the hard won skill of learning how to learn effectively.

Many classically trained musicians, whilst being elite musicians, struggle to improvise. Classical training is very strict, there is a right way and a wrong way to play. Improvisation is more free flowing and it’s harder to define what’s “good”.

Classical musicians are specialists in their music, playing with discipline and precision. Improvisers are generalists, able to pick up any tune and make it their own.

Come back next time to see what Epstein can teach us about interleaving and analogies.