Tag Archives: distraction

Our Iconoclastic Moment?


When did burning down the house become the preferred solution for sorting out its various problems? 

In the best of times persuading someone to do or believe something is difficult.  And these are definitely not the best of times.  One could be forgiven for assuming that self-destruction is not in our nature: that it doesn’t need to be proved or argued.  But watch enough Youtube videos of people engaging in behaviors that can only end badly, or Britons willingly separating their nation from its European neighbors, or voters who seem comfortable channeling their free-floating anger into a political movement, and you begin to wonder.  When did burning down the house become the preferred solution for sorting out its various problems?

A common theme on this site is that we are distracted and over-committed.  It’s harder to be thoughtful when time and fatigue overtake solid values like risk avoidance and forbearance.  The exasperation we all feel at times when incrementalism and caution seem too tepid sets us up to accept non-incremental change, even if adopting it means trashing rational impulses like fact-finding and circumspection.  Both are tools for informed change that can seem too slow to deal with the wounds of class, ethnic resentments, or the sloppy machinery of self-government.  They are easily vanquished  by the incendiary language of a demagogue.

If we are lucky, this phase of seeking big change with little understanding is only one moment in a political cycle that will change. That’s the conventional wisdom.  But a better case can be made that we are steadily moving toward a new kind of American politics where many in Congress and those seeking the presidency are motivated more by expressive opportunities than the actual work of governance. In the parlance of older members of the Senate, these folks are “show horses” rather than “work horses.”  Even shutting down the government–a draconian step taken by Ted Cruz in 2013 to deny a vote for the Affordable Care Act–was done with more defiance than shame. Governing through compromise and cooperation seems to not be in their nature, leading to outcomes where the spotlight on the successful conciliators would have to be shared. By contrast, demagogues inclined to use bumper-sticker solutions that resonate with an angry electorate may know that their methods are at odds with the deliberative nature of their work, but they also know that throwing rhetorical grenades will mean that they can have the spotlight to themselves.

This is a pattern that great writers on American democracy like Walter Lippmann worried about. The public, he noted, can be dangerously out of step with national needs, converting trumped up fantasies into the urge to push for too much too soon, or too little too late. Such it was with the Communist witch-hunts of the 30s and 40s, or the current fashion for deprecating diplomacy in favor of the raw application of military power.

The questions that are white-hot right now are part of the same maelstrom:  Should we block entry to the U.S. based on a visitor’s religious beliefs?  Will it help us in the long-run to strong-arm China, which owns so much of American debt? Should we deport the mostly hard-working undocumented families woven into the American fabric? These are blunt proposals, better written into the third acts of revenge films than ginned up to be the policy positions of a great nation.

There’s a Tom Cheney cartoon in the New Yorker of a frustrated office worker standing over his computer with his desk chair in his raised arms.  He’s ready to bring it crashing down on the non-functioning device, with its innocent screen command to “Strike any key to continue.”  We know the feeling, and there are times when we would give anything for the shortcut a grand unilateral gesture. But the current preference for trashing caution will fill us with regrets later.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu


Coping with the E-Mail Tide

Image: Kevin Phillips
                              Image: Kevin Phillips

For most of us something like a “rule of 10” applies: for every 10 messages in our inbox there may be one with some relevance to our lives.

Nearly everyone is overwhelmed with too many emails.  Those that work in large organizations are especially likely to face the same daily high tide that rushes in at a rate of one or two every few minutes.  So this requires a daily routine that includes clearing out our inbox, which means getting rid of a lot ‘fishing’ emails from outside groups, not to mention missives from fellow workers who use the “send to all” button as an easy claim to institutional relevancy.

The simple problem is that the system feeds on itself.  The more emails we answer the more we get. And for most of us something like a “rule of 10” applies: for every 10 messages there is one that may have some relevance to our lives. Sometimes the ratio seems more like 100 to 1.  The bigger problem is that email is usually a distraction that keeps us from doing more useful things.

How can we deal with this sponge on our time?  The strategies vary, none of them perfect. Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian recommends a solution tried by Tony Hsieh, the President of Zappos.

He calls it “Yesterbox,” because the premise is that you should stop focusing on email received today, except when urgent, and instead try to deal with everything that came in yesterday. It’s an idea so simple, your first response might legitimately be, “Huh? What difference could that make?” A big one, it turns out.

The logic is that a “closed list” of yesterday’s emails is easier to get through.  Burkeman notes that “in your Yesterbox, you’re no longer on a treadmill: one email dealt with means one fewer to deal with; the target you’re aiming for isn’t receding constantly into the distance.”  That may be true, but it’s small comfort and a minor psychological advantage gained over working from the most recent to the oldest.

Here are some additional suggestions that can result in spending less time each day on stuffed in-boxes, even within an organization that treats email as the “official” channel of communication.

  1. Turn off the audio email notifications on your computer.  They feed our curiosity and can break the rhythm of more significant work.
  2. Check email only once or twice a day.  Give it the lower priority it usually deserves.
  3. Save email for the low part of your daily productivity curve.  If you are the most creative and energetic in the morning, don’t waste your time on it then.  The tedium of going through it can probably wait until that after-lunch miasma kicks in.
  4. Don’t substitute texting for email.  The norm of instant response for texts can be a major time-killer, intensifying the problem you are trying to solve.
  5. Spend more time in “airplane mode,” even when you are on the ground.  Our addiction to screens is real and growing.  In order to tame it, set aside sizable segments of the day when you are more available in real space more than virtual space.  Anyway, you look smarter when not seen by friends and coworkers frozen into a “screen thrall,” which looks only slightly better than drooling in public.
  6.  Like most most forms of communication, emails from co-workers usually have an expressive purpose that outweighs the need to respond.  For these a simple acknowledgment is enough.
  7. Some groups are serial offenders in over-sending messages.  Attempts to unsubscribe or block them will probably not work.  Learn to be fast with the delete key for these groups.  And if you do reach a live body at the organization, express your displeasure with their abuse of your inbox.

Now, if I can just get with the program myself. . .

Additional Suggestions? Comment at Woodward@tcnj.edu
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