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December 22nd, 2020
Our happiness and productivity is determined by the use of one finite resource: time. The economy continually shape shifts around the use of time. In the age of the assembly line, the correlation between hours and output was quite high. But as the economy becomes one termed as ‘knowledge work’, the correlation between hours and output appears to become far fuzzier.
The deception lies in the simple notion that a computer can be used for a nearly infinite variety of attentional uses, whereas a hammer cannot. The tools of the assembly line are straight-forward, often single-utility. We only pick up a flathead screwdriver when there’s a flathead screw to be dealt with. Nothing like that kind of straightforward relationship exists with the computer.
Compare the computer with it’s visual predecessor: the typewriter. Hours spent hitting keys correlate fairly reliably to one’s productivity while sitting at a typewriter. The same is obviously not true with a computer. One could be tapping keys on a computer for an infinite number of reasons, and most importantly, the reasons can switch effortlessly. Switching the reason why keys are getting hit on a type writer requires, usually, a brand new page, which is a bit of a task, especially if there’s any possibility of returning to the current task on the current page. Say switching between writing a letter and working on a novel. On a computer there’s about a much friction switching between such tasks as there is switching between thoughts. As a result, our productivity is now tied to our ability to direct our own focus in a kaleidoscopic world of possibility and distraction. This is no small feat, to say the least, and it requires a bit of training.
The recommendation is nearly platitudinal: training in meditation, concentration exercises, discipline, etc.
But there’s perhaps another sly animal running around the mind that can help if turned to with an eye of training. It’s that pesky monkey of the mind that’s looking for the next distraction. Certainly it can benefit from a little restraint, but what if it were pushed in the other direction?
What if we could get bored faster? Think about the moment when the mind decides it’s had enough of scrolling, indulging, and wandering. What does that feel like, and why does it happen? Is it always because of an impending guilt about something else that’s not getting done? Or is it also a kind of exhaustion, and a boredom, a sense that, eh, there’s nothing new right now…
If our attention has a hard time becoming concentrated, this also means that we aren’t easily fascinated to any degree of meaningful depth. We are just skimming in a perpetual state of non-commitment. Gaining traction on a subject means we can’t be easily distracted.
Our problem isn’t distraction, it’s a lack of fascination.
If anything, we are content with superficial activities because they are ‘enough’ in the moment, despite how much we shake our heads in mild disgust after the fact. The unfortunate truth is we don’t get bored of stuff that is, for the large majority, quite superficial. But imagine, what must happen if we grow bored with superficial things faster. Where does attention have left to go if each flick of the thumb yields more hollow content?
Does that big project suddenly seem like it might have something buried within the depths of effort needed to win some further progress? The answer is almost always yes once we get there, and delightfully, this feeling persists afterwards as a feeling of accomplishment. It’s of course, not as easy to switch into that mode of deep work. It’s much easier to switch to something that only requires a superficial amount of effort to comprehend and engage with. That is, unless every other option that’s easy to switch to is something we get easily bored with.
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