Weekly Thoughts

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Stupid Is As Stupid Does

Here is something that caught our eye this week:

A repost (with some updates) about finding a better a way to work 

Lately, we are feeling our attention is scattered. With all that’s going on in the world combined with extra communication between multiple email accounts, numerous Slack channels, group text messages, FaceTimes, Zoom meetings, and phone calls, there is a lot of potential for distraction.  We admit to starting one activity, getting a Slack message, seeing a text message, responding to the Slack message, getting an email, responding to the text message, getting another email, archiving the first email, drafting a response to the second email, getting another Slack notification… you can see the problem.  While this work style means we generally have quick response times to Quadrant 1 (Urgent/Important) and Quadrant 4 (Not-Urgent/Not-Important) messages, it also often results in inefficiencies and a lack of time for deep thought.

Last week, we decided enough was enough and that being in constant reactive/distracted mode would simply not suffice.  In a moment of self-reflection, we were reminded of an Atlantic article we read back in 2008 titled  “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” where author Nicholas Carr outlines his own struggles with concentration in the age of the internet:

“I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

Carr goes on to argue that the cost of access to vast amounts of information at an almost incomprehensible speed is a change in our collective process of thought. In other words, the way we think has changed. From the article:

“My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr’s reflection is confirmed by various research highlighting our collective dwindling attention spans in almost every facet of life. It also makes us wonder if we are opening ourselves up to multiple channels of potential distraction because it feels more comfortable to live in a slack/email/text/call warp than confront the unpleasant realities of deep thought and concentrated work.

Clearly, something needs to change. But what? Given our work responsibilities, we don’t feel comfortable simply going dark on the world.  We want to be available for our teammates and we want to be in the flow of information. We need to be available while protecting ourselves against the constant barrage of distraction.  So far, we have experimented with the following adjustments:

  • We don’t check our phone first thing in the morning. Instead, we stretch/meditate for at least 10 minutes and then get the kids ready for the day.

  • We installed the Mailman app in our gmail inboxes.  Now, we only get emails at 10AM, 1PM and 5PM. Batching our emails allows us to spend more time focusing on “real” work without being tempted to check our email – because there is nothing there.  Yes, sometimes we are a little late responding.  But the pick up in productivity vastly outweighs being a couple of hours tardy responding to an email.

  • When moving to a computer-based task (i.e., writing Weekly Thoughts), we close all other tabs to avoid distraction.

  • When in a meeting, we try not to take our computers or phones with us.  We have a note-book to track to-dos and takeaways.

  • If we do have a phone, we turn it to be screen-down so we don’t get distracted by incoming messages.

  • Borrowing from Professor Bob Pozen’s OHIO (“Only Handle It Once”) technique, we try to only check (or open) email if we intend to respond.  If we are not able to respond, we “Snooze” it for another time when we can handle it and don’t spend any more time thinking about it. We have a lot of Snoozes.

  • We spend at least 10 minutes every night before going to bed reading a real (paper) book. We like to switch between fiction and non-fiction. We just finished The President is Missing by James Patterson and Bill Clinton and are currently reading Uncontrolled Spread: Why COVID-19 Crushed Us and How We Can Defeat the Next Pandemic.

  • On the weekends, we leave the phone out of sight when with our kids.  We don’t need our phones on us to read The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food or do a stuffed animal scavenger hunt. If we’re going to parent, we’re going to parent all the way.

  • We installed daily time limits on email and social media apps (i.e., Instagram gets three minutes/day) to avoid wasting time mindlessly scrolling on our phones.

It’s been a bit over a year now, and while we’ve adapted some of our techniques, overall, they have stuck. That’s because we found that after only a short period of committing to these practices, our thinking feels more clear.  We find we are better able to concentrate on whatever task is at hand, and we are finding more enjoyment in all aspects of life. It sounds strange, but our brain just feels healthier. Furthermore, we have counterintuitively found that by batching our communications, we end up being more efficient processing information.  So, we are going to keep leaning into our newfound anti-distraction routine.  Sorry Google, you’ll have to find somebody else to make stupid.

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark Team

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