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The man who’s pulling the plug on social media

Cal Newport advocates a complete break form Facebook, Twitter and the like, and being smarter with our smartphones

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“Social media is engineered to be very addictive,” says Cal Newport, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University
Gulf News

We live in a world where distraction is just one click away. From Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to the ubiquitous smart phone — distractions are everywhere.

“We have always had distractions but I think what has happened in the past 10 years is without precedent in our history in terms of the level and addictiveness of the distractions that are pulling at our attention,” says Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focussed Success in a Distracted World.

Newport observes that something new has happened over the past decade, something different to other times.

“You can talk about whether the television was distracting, or the telephone was distracting, books were distracting,” he says. “That is all true and people worried about them. But it a completely different order of magnitude when we are talking about the past 10 years.”

The term Deep Work was coined by Newport to refer to activity in which a person is focussed without distraction for a long period of time on a cognitively demanding task. This is a particular concern for knowledge workers, whose time for deep work is being replaced by what Newport terms “shallow work” — tasks that are less cognitively demanding. These include activities such as responding to emails, surfing the web and social media. Newport describes “deep work” as a kind of superpower. “I call it a superpower to emphasise that it’s not a small productivity hack. It a sort of complete transformation on how much you are producing and how good it is.”

Newport works as an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and specialises in the theory of distributed algorithms. He feels he is the right person to be talking about these issues related to the intersection of technology and culture. “I think the fact that I am a technologist is good because it shows I am not a Luddite and I am not anti-technology. I make a living trying to make technology better. I love technology so I think that gives me an interesting vantage point looking at our current techno-culture and saying ‘here are the places I am excited and here is the places where I think we need to be wary’.”

When it comes to social media, Facebook and Twitter, many of the positives are exaggerated while the negatives are ignored. Newport recommends that people quit social media for 30 days and if they miss something in their life after this period, then they should continue to use it. “On the other hand, if there is a particular service you signed up for and you said ‘I didn’t really mind not having it around’, nothing really bad happened, then that is good evidence that you shouldn’t sign back up for it.”

The allure of social media can be very powerful with many famous people using services like Twitter. “Well, JK Rowling for example, very specifically did not use social media until after she was done writing the Harry Potter books because she did not want to be distracted from doing the thing which was actually going to make her famous, which was producing something very hard with her brain,” says Newport.

“More importantly, if you actually ask someone to go through their different social media services and list what is actually important to them about those services, it is typically activities that could be handled in about 20 to 30 minutes per week. Certain things you like to check.”

Not surprisingly, Newport has never signed up for a social media account. “To me, it seemed like why would you do that if you make a living with your mind? I don’t want those distractions.”

He also recommends people take social media off their phone. “The applications on your phone are engineered to try to hijack your mind so that these attention economy conglomerates can make a lot of money off your time and attention. I always recommend to people if you use social media for particular uses, do it on your computer where you still have all the value, you still could access it completely, but it is sort of much less likely to sort of take over your time and attention. Or sort of hijack your mind.”

Newport makes a comparison with junk food. “I don’t think there is anything wrong for example if you eat a cookie every once in a while. But if you have you know bags of cookies in your house, which is just junk food that is just engineered to be so addictive to eat, it is just very hard to eat just one if it’s around. You are going to eat the whole bag. It will be very unhealthy. So, a lot of people say ‘I don’t keep bags of cookies in my house’. Social media is sort of the same way. It can be very addictive, it is engineered to be very addictive. It is engineered for you to use it hours and hours at a time. And so, it is something to be wary about — just like you would be wary about cigarettes or junk food.”

But in professions such as marketing and journalism, social media has become a kind of work requirement. “I have spent a lot of time talking with journalists about it. Journalists will often say ‘I get quotes off it, it is kind of useful’. But if you talk to them privately a lot of them will admit ‘I am using it way too much. I was better at tracking down sourcing, I was better at writing before Twitter came into my life.’ Because it is this addictive, completely distracting thing.”

He recounts how one reporter for the New York Times, who was only very reluctantly tweeting because of work pressure, “ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize the next year. So, it is kind of a great indication of someone who is essentially rejecting that technology and succeeding without it. So yes, it is necessary for some jobs, it is necessary for some things, but I think it is not as necessary as we think.”

Newport also doesn’t check his emails very frequently. “I am not good at email and I don’t use social media and the reason is what I really prioritise is working really hard on the small number of things that I do best, like solving theorems and writing. And this has been successful for me because ultimately, no one ever made a fortunate by being really good at answering emails. No one was ever given a Nobel Prize because they were very clever on Twitter or could respond or be very accessible to communication. I mean the things ultimately that generate real satisfaction, meaning and production professionally tend to be the things that require long, unbroken concentration.”

Sometimes Newport upsets people who need a quick response in a few hours. “There are a lot of sort of breaking news type of interviews where reporters or TV producers will send me something and say ‘hey, will you give me a quote on this?’ I just don’t see it in time.” He has come to accept the inconveniences in exchange for being able to concentrate deeply on things that are really valuable.

“There is a good essay about this that the American science fiction writer Neal Stephenson wrote called Why I am a Bad Correspondent. And, basically, he said he is similar. He is very bad at email and kind of ignores things. He said he doesn’t regret it but he said ‘if I am very responsive and I answer all the things, and I go to the conferences, what will I have in the end? I will have a lot of small conversations with individuals. Whereas, if I focus my time on writing instead, what I produce are good books that hundreds of thousands of people read and that leave a legacy.’ And he said ‘I am going to optimise producing a small number of valuable things over a large number of low value interactions’.”

There is one example in his book of someone who made people do a survey before being allowed to send an email to this person. “That was kind of a nice illustration of a point pushed to an extreme. That was someone who ran a popular website so he got a lot of emails from readers and most of them were things he had talked about before. And he made them answer this survey. I don’t think most people could do it. But it was a fun example because he made people jump through some hoops to contact him as readers. And the things that got through to him in the end were uniformly much more valuable and interesting then.”

Newport wrote his first book How to Win at College as an undergraduate student, his second book How to Become a Straight-A Student as a first-year graduate student and his third, How to be a High School Superstar during his PhD programme. His next was called So Good They Can’t Ignore You where he argued that “follow your passion” was bad advice.

“My critique over there is that American culture in particular tells the story that you should have a pre-existing passion that you identify in advance, and then you use that to figure out what you need to do for a job or what you should do for a living,” he says. “When I researched the topic, there is not a lot of evidence to support that as good career advice. Most people who are passionate about what they do, the passion comes later. It is something that is developed and cultivated over time.”

As if not having a social media presence wasn’t bad enough, Newport also recommends people embrace boredom.

“One of the problems with smart phones is that your mind can learn that at the first hint of boredom, it gets something interesting to look at. There is often an addiction to stimuli. When it comes time to focus intensely on something your mind says ‘no I need novel stimuli’ and you can’t work hard. And so, when I say embrace boredom, it is about practising being bored so that your mind doesn’t expect that it always gets stimuli. Your mind learns sometimes that ‘I am bored I get stimuli. Sometimes when I am bored I don’t’. You have to break that addiction if you have to succeed at deep work.”

So, being bored isn’t always a bad thing?

“You don’t always want to be bored but you want to be bored on a regular basis just so you can train your mind to be comfortable with that,” he says. “You don’t want to be bored all the time that would be terrible.

While he was always a deep worker, Newport became more careful about his habits when he started writing this book. “When I was writing this book, my productivity went up even massively more once I started getting much more technical and specific about what is the best way to support this skill once you have recognised it is important.”

“During the year in which I was researching and writing this book, even though you would think I would publish less papers because I was writing the book, it forced me to think more carefully about my deep working habits and to be better about my deep work. I was actually able to produce almost twice as much as I had in any previous year.”

Is this interview an example of deep work or shallow?

“There is nothing about deep work that requires you to be alone. I think a sort of thoughtful conversation with someone else where you are thinking hard about what you are trying to say and trying to learn what the other person is saying, that is something where you are giving something undistracted, unbroken concentration — is cognitively demanding — and so it is a great example of deep work.”

Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.