I recently described how I started off a voracious reader, slipped through a wormhole, and found myself in another dimension. I thought I was still reading every day, but I wasn’t.
Then my mother handed me The Shallows, in which Nicholas Carr talks about the neurobiology of ‘deep reading,’ and that phrase woke me up to the fact that skimming, surfing, and scrolling are fundamentally different from, you know, reading. Also to the fact that my brain was fried.
(With apologies to what used to be known as Partnership for a Drug-Free America.)
So I’m putting myself on a recovery program and issuing an Intellectual Declaration of Independence. But first, a few words in self-defense.
Yes, I Can Multitask.
I’m running a project that involves some 30 people on four continents. And I don’t mean to brag [THIS IS DIGITAL ACOLYTE’S ID: YES SHE DOES], but it’s going well. I can keep plenty of things going at once. I have six young kids, for goodness sake. I’m well aware that the employment model of, ‘Sit down at your desk and concentrate on one thing all day for the rest of your career’ ended when the last monk left his scriptorium.
But I’ve still been told that I need to get better at ‘multitasking’ by bosses who then reward me at the end of the year for getting stuff done. Dear Boss: There may be a connection between my unwillingness to take on useless side projects and my superior delivery. [Note to my present boss: I am of course talking about previous bosses.]
No, I am Not (Entirely) a Luddite
The printing press changed the way people shared knowledge. Instead of sagas shared collectively and out loud, people read deeply, alone, and came up with original ideas. It was a change, but it wasn’t a bad thing for humanity. From my wholly unbiased perspective.
If the Western literary mind is on its way out, maybe it will be replaced by something better, some networked model that is enriched by its interconnectedness with other brains and memory banks. Maybe we’ll learn to combine the best of the deep with the best of the broad.
But right now, I can count the people I know who use technology to enrich and share their deep, creative, original intelligence on the fingers of two fingers. (I’m not one of them.) The late-model brains on display are not impressive. I’ll keep my old brain a bit longer and let someone else do the beta testing.
My Recovery Program
I started my recovery program over a long weekend. Working in the garden. Looking at the ocean. Reading paper books (Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen and The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, since you ask). After a couple of days, clarity and focus began to return. So I’m going to consciously make time for these kinds of activities. I also decided to get the email situation under control, so I sent an email entitled My 2012 Email Resolutions to my project team. There’s nothing like telling 50 people that you want to send/receive less email to make you feel like an idiot when you email unnecessarily.
My 2012 Email Resolutions
- Before sending, I will ask myself whether I’d send the email if I had to pay $5.
- On problem resolution or research threads, I will not cc anyone who can’t contribute. If a thread includes unnecessary cc’s, I will give them a heads up and remove them. If they need to know the outcome of the discussion, I will send them a summary at the end.
- I will ask you to remove me from threads where I can’t contribute and send me a summary at the end.
- I will not send emails to say thank you for routine transactions (e.g., sending a file), to show that I’m working late, to make it look as though I’m paying attention when I’m not, or for any other silly reason.
- I will not email funny remarks that probably entertain me more than they entertain you. It’ll be hard, but I’ll try.
- I will be available to overseas colleagues outside US working hours but will try not to respond to US emails that can wait until morning. It’s unfair to my family and fosters a team culture in which everyone feels the need to be on all the time.
- When it appears that an issue is becoming a crisis I will quickly take it offline for thoughtful discussion. Email flurries are neither the fastest nor the most effective way of resolving problems.
- If a thread starts with a subject like “Meeting minutes Jan. 11” and turns into something else, I will replace the subject with something meaningful so you can go back and find it later.
- OK, maybe not #5.
I got several enthusiastic responses, plus one “I don’t do any of that.” From a colleague who, to give him credit, doesn’t.
My Declaration of Intellectual Independence
- My parents endowed me with a curious, well-read, thoughtful, critical, creative brain. It was a good brain.
- Some adjustments were needed. The adjustments have gone too far.
- My new brain isn’t as good. It’s twitchy and overcaffeinated.
- In a world of twitchy and overcaffeinated brains, brains that think deeply and creatively and solve tough problems will be a rare advantage. I intend to get mine back.
- I will make time for deep reading. By definition, reading from a Blackberry is not deep reading.
- I will give my brain downtime, as often as possible outdoors.
- I will politely ignore those who tell me that I need to do more of things (like amassing Facebook friends or Twitter followers) that are likely to degrade the quality of my life, my brain, or my work.