all posts tagged 'cal newport'

On Ultra-Processed Content

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In the context of nutrition, we’re comfortable deciding to largely avoid ultra-processed food for health reasons. In making this choice, we do not worry about being labelled “anti-food,” or accused of a quixotic attempt to reject “inevitable progress” in food technology.

On the contrary, we can see ultra-processed good as its own thing — a bid for food companies to increase market share and profitability. We recognize it might be hard to avoid these products, as they’re easy and taste so good, but we’ll likely receive nothing but encouragement in our attempts to clean up our diets.

This is how we should think about the ultra-processed content delivered so relentlessly through our screens. To bypass these media for less processed alternatives should no longer be seen as bold, or radical, or somehow reactionary. It’s just a move toward a self-evidently more healthy relationship with information.

This mindset shift might seem subtle but I’m convinced that it’s a critical first step toward sustainably changing our interactions with digital distraction. Outraged tweets, aspirational Instagram posts, and aggressively arresting TikToks need not be seen as some unavoidable component of the twenty-first century media landscape to which we must all, with an exasperated sigh, adapt.

They’re instead digital Oreos; delicious, but something we should have no problem pushing aside while saying, “I don’t consume that junk.”

Brilliant analogy from Cal Newport.

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Cal Newport — How to Embrace Slow Productivity, Build a Deep Life, Achieve Mastery, and Defend Your Time

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One of the dominant reactions to burnout right now is an all-out rejection of work itself, like, "well, any drive to do things, it’s a capitalist construction, and the real thing to do is just do nothing", but that doesn’t last.

And the people who are telling you to do this are not doing nothing. They’re striving really hard to make sure that their Substacks and books about doing nothing are going to have a really big audience and they’re giving talks on it.

You can’t just focus on the "doing less" part, you need the "obsess over quality" part, and that’s where you’re able to still fulfill the human drive to create, and that’s where you still build the leverage to control your life and make a living.

As someone who has been unemployed for nearly five months now, I can assure you that the “doing less” part sucks.

I don’t want to do less.

I just want to be able to go through my waking hours making something which will make society a nicer place to live for everybody.

Then, I want to go to sleep at night knowing I inflicted the least amount of harm on as many living things as possible.

Why are those goals so difficult to strive for?

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On Disruption and Distraction

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Value-driven responses are not as immediately appealing as finding a hyper-charged digital escape, but these latter escapes inevitably reveal themselves to be transient and the emotions they’re obscuring eventually return. If you can resist the allure of the easy digital palliative and instead take on the heavier burden of meaningful action, a more lasting inner peace can be achieved.

I’ve been finding more and more ways to become detached from my devices the past couple weeks1, and believe it or not, it has been an unbelievable boon for my mental health.

Here is a short list of things I’ve done:

  • Turned on grayscale. I wanna find a way to wire this up to my shortcut button on my iPhone 15 Pro, but (a) too much work and (b) see my next bullet point.
  • Steeling my nerves to activate my Light Phone 2 that I got for Christmas. It’s a pretty big commitment to switch off the iOS ecosystem, but I’m getting close to trying it for a month or so.
  • Deleted most apps off my home screen. Everything is a swipe away anyways, so why not just have a barren screen that messes up your negative muscle memory?
  • Used a content blocker to block Reddit and LinkedIn. I can’t tell you what a relief it has been to not go down the politics rabbit hole this cycle so far, and that’s all because I blocked Reddit. LinkedIn is just as bad for me, and if I am going to keep building my network over there, I should try to be strategic about it and not mindlessly scroll it all day.

Tech is so, so cool, don’t get me wrong. But I, for one, am sick of being addicted to the allure of social media.

I’d rather spend my tech time building goofy websites and writing stuff.

  1. Except for the last three days, because I installed the Delta emulator for iOS and cannot stop playing Dr. Mario.  

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TikTok and the Fall of the Social-Media Giants

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The era of social-media monopolies has been unhealthy for our collective digital existence. The Internet at its best should be weird, energetic, and exciting—featuring both homegrown idiosyncrasy and sudden trends that flash supernova-bright before exploding into the novel elements that spur future ideas and generate novel connections.

This exuberance was suppressed by the dominance of a small number of social-media networks that consolidated and controlled so much of online culture for so many years. Things will be better once this dominance wanes.

In the end, TikTok’s biggest legacy might be less about its current moment of world-conquering success, which will pass, and more about how, by forcing social-media giants like Facebook to chase its model, it will end up liberating the social Internet.

I saw Cal reference this article in his most recent post, and I’m glad he mentioned it because I must’ve missed it a couple years back.

I have been grossed out by TikTok’s blatant predatory behavior ever since hearing how their algorithms work.

Sure, most major social media companies have resorted to similar tactics, but there was something brazen about the way TikTok does it which feels egregious.

Cal’s analysis seems spot on to me. TikTok represents what happens when you’ve won the race to the bottom, or when the dog catches the tire.

As soon as you’ve got the thing, what else is there to do? Where else is there to go?

It’s all sizzle and no steak.

I’m sick of having my attention stolen from me under the guise of “connectedness.”1 Real connections require compromise, empathy, and growth. Sure, I get some dopamine hits when I see a funny or enraging video, but I don’t seem to get much else.

  1. When viewed under those terms, reflecting on Facebook’s mission to connect the world gives me even more of the heebie jeebies.  

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The Year in Quiet Quitting

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As we approach the sixth month of debate over this topic, what’s interesting to me is not the details of quiet quitting, or even the question of how widespread the phenomenon actually is, but our collective reaction to its provocations: we’re simultaneously baffled and enthusiastic. To understand this complicated reality, it helps to adopt a generational lens.

Though quiet quitting has gathered diverse adherents, its core energy comes from knowledge workers who are members of Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012). This is reflected in the movement’s emergence on TikTok, and in the survey data.

Indeed, a look backward reveals that knowledge workers in every previous generation seem to have experienced a similar pattern of work crisis followed by reconceptualization.

It’s probably no surprise to readers of this site that I am a Cal Newport fan, but I really appreciate his summary of the quiet quitting movement.

The interesting part of this article is how he discusses how each generation views employment. It appears every generation since WWII has a similar crisis.

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My awakening moment about how smartphones fragment our attention span

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I anticipated navigating other challenges, like how to deal with the cognitive dissonance of working for big tech. Could someone who worked for big tech use a flip phone? Yet I liked the idea, argued by Hari, Williams, and Newport, that we need to be aware of technology’s designs and ensure that tech is working for us rather than against us. I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to technical innovations, but I grew increasingly skeptical that my smartphone was working for me.

This whole article combines many disparate sources (like Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism and Rolf Dobelli's Stop Reading the News) into a cohesive manifesto for why we should stand up and reclaim our collective attention spans.

It actually motivated me to take some action.

Last night, I went through every app on my phone and deleted the ones I no longer use. I wasn't too picky though; if I had even a slight inkling that I might need it in the future, I kept it.

I went from 314 apps to 133.

133 still seems like too much to me, but just imagine the cognitive and infrastructural burden that 181 apps was inflicting on me and my phone!

All that wasted bandwidth to download updates.

All those wasted notifications attempting to get me to come back in.

My home screen went from this:

An iPhone home screen with tons of apps on it

to this:

An iPhone home screen with far fewer apps on it

It's step one of being intentional with my technology, which is subsequently the first step towards getting my attention back.

Comparing these two screen shots is making me excited to make more cuts. Some of these apps will go away after we wrap up with a client project in the next couple weeks (like Teams and Protect) or when I finish up physical therapy (like Medbridge Go).

Others (like Untappd or MN Beer) are ones that don't really need a front page billing all the time in my life.

More cuts to come in the weeks ahead, to be sure!

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Fixed-Schedule Productivity: How I Accomplish a Large Amount of Work in a Small Number of Work Hours

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The system work as follows:

  1. Choose a schedule of work hours that you think provides the ideal balance of effort and relaxation.
  2. Do whatever it takes to avoid violating this schedule.

This sounds simple. But think about it for a moment. Satisfying rule 2 is not easy. If you took your current projects, obligations, and work habits, you’d probably fall well short of satisfying your ideal work schedule. Here’s a simple truth: to stick to your ideal schedule will require some drastic actions.

I often turn to Cal Newport for glimpses of maintaining sanity while being bombarded with responsibilities.

I revisited this blog post recently and it is fascinating to see how his theory from 2008 about staying productive evolved into full books like Deep Work.

I’ve really gotta start saying “no” to more things.

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Favorable Conditions Never Come

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We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.

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Staying Productive on Distracted Days

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Cal Newport:

I don’t normally spend much time reading information online, so I definitely noticed this morning the unusual degree to which I was distracted by breaking election news. This points to an interesting question that I’ve seen discussed in some articles in recent days: what’s the best way to keep getting things done on truly distracting days?

My answer: don’t.

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