How To Break Free From Email Addiction
Unlike social media, email is especially seductive as its content is specific to you. Author Cal Newport offers tips for breaking free from this constant distraction.
In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, computer science professor Cal Newport admits to his aversion to social media. No Facebook, no Twitter, no way of reaching out or checking in, save the Washington Post that arrives at his doorstep every morning. What he’s sacrificed in distraction technologies he’s gained in dedicated work time, as well as dedicated free time, something he says also needs to be scheduled in.
Newport’s contention is not necessarily the mediums, but how they are used—predominantly for entertainment. We’re familiar with the dopamine hit our brain registers every time a new message appears. The exploitation of our brain’s novelty bias keeps us constantly disengaged from whatever is in front of us. Numerous neuroscientists and psychologists have pointed this out before; their warnings seem to have done little to dissuade addicts from getting their fix.
Newport takes a different approach in Deep Work by creating a program—really, a number of programs, as he recognizes we all have different capabilities for focus—to implement if you’re feeling dissatisfied with your ability to pay attention. Most interesting is his separation of email from the rest of the pack, something I had not considered as all such browsers are essentially labeled “other” while I’m writing.
Newport argues that email is different from other forms of social media and online engagement:
This quintessential activity is particularly insidious in its grip on most knowledge workers’ attention, as it delivers a steady stream of distractions addressed specifically to you.
Those last four words gave me a quick dopamine rush when I read them. My “other” categories are Facebook, Twitter, and email, along with lesser used mediums, iMessages, Slack, and Instagram. Five are used professionally while text is mostly to stay in touch with my wife and friends. While texts are obviously addressed to me and not the world broadly, I had simply lumped email into the other forms of connecting. Watching people walk around streets answering emails was essentially the same as surfing Facebook.
Newport’s argument makes sense. Since email is specific to you, it has a particularly strong hold on attentional resources, which are already limited. Keeping your email program open while working invites all sorts of distractions, making it harder to get back to the task at hand. As Newport notes it takes your brain roughly twenty minutes to overcome the “attention residue” left behind from even seemingly innocuous transmissions that do not warrant much attention at all.
All this makes it hard to get into deep work, Newport’s term for the ability to give your total attention to your work. To help cultivate this state he offers the following tips for breaking the chemical hold email has over cognitive resources. Like scheduling time to not work, scheduling email time (like social media time) proves to be more beneficial cognitively and emotionally than remaining on constant alert.
Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work.
On his website Newport places a disclaimer, which he calls a sender filter, warning you that he probably won’t respond unless it’s something that makes his life more interesting. That way people’s expectations are lessened. This resetting of expectations is both psychologically freeing for the receiver and sender—no hurt feelings. When he does reply your surprise is even more valuable than if you simply expected a response. Any filler content that brings no value to his life is not worth a reply.
Do More Work When You Send or Reply to E-mails.
If someone sends a vague question Newport does not respond. His general rule is if it takes him longer to reply than it took the sender to send it’s not worth his time. Specific questions are a different story. Consider the difference between asking, “How are you?” (which might as well be like saying, “I don’t want to think about what to say so I’m passing it over to you”) and asking, “Is everything okay with your mother?” The latter has a point; the former is vague and noncommittal. In Newport’s eyes this sort of time suck is not worth being distracted.
On the flip side, if he has to send an email, he tries to be as specific as possible to not waste the receiver’s time. Writing in a process—the difference between “want to meet up?” and “want to meet at the coffee shop at 3 pm on Wednesday?”—is an essential way of moving the ball along, rather than hoping the other person assumes responsibility.
This is a tough one during a time when everyone expects a response. I’ve adopted this philosophy out of sheer habit. When I was a full-time music journalist I received hundreds of emails evert week to cover records and shows and interview artists. Answering email should not be a full-time job. Most publicists are used to not hearing from you if you’re not interested, but this is a unique situation.
As a health and fitness writer I now receive health questions, some of them quite detailed. I used to reply that I’m not a doctor and to see a professional, but I’ve found even that to be a distraction. It’s a difficult balance, but recognizing boundaries is important during a time when so many boundaries feel dissolved even though they are not.
Reading Newport’s excellent short book was a great reminder for a process that I began initiating last year: keep email closed except for dedicate email times. Setting aside deep work hours and sticking to them is a discipline, one that becomes easier over time. This is an especially important practice to implement during a time when media corporations are specifically tailoring content and advertising to you, as email already is.
Fending off the emotional response to such stimulation—“oh, look, Facebook cares about me”—is going to become more challenging as the algorithms improve. Taking a proactive stance in cultivating attention is a necessary component of every occupation. The costs of not doing so are not worth the cheap rewards: fleeting entertainment that result in an inability to keep your mind on the target.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Why self-control makes your life better, and how to get more of it.
(Photo by Geem Drake/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
- Research demonstrates that people with higher levels of self-control are happier over both the short and long run.
- Higher levels of self-control are correlated with educational, occupational, and social success.
- It was found that the people with the greatest levels of self-control avoid temptation rather than resist it at every turn.
Ready your Schrödinger's Cat Jokes.
- For a time, quantum computing was more theory than fact.
- That's starting to change.
- New quantum computer designs look like they might be scalable.
Quantum computing has existed in theory since the 1980's. It's slowly making its way into fact, the latest of which can be seen in a paper published in Nature called, "Deterministic teleportation of a quantum gate between two logical qubits."
To ensure that we're all familiar with a few basic terms: in electronics, a 'logic gate' is something that takes in one or more than one binary inputs and produces a single binary output. To put it in reductive terms: if you produce information that goes into a chip in your computer as a '0,' the logic gate is what sends it out the other side as a '1.'
A quantum gate means that the '1' in question here can — roughly speaking — go back through the gate and become a '0' once again. But that's not quite the whole of it.
A qubit is a single unit of quantum information. To continue with our simple analogy: you don't have to think about computers producing a string of information that is either a zero or a one. A quantum computer can do both, simultaneously. But that can only happen if you build a functional quantum gate.
That's why the results of the study from the folks at The Yale Quantum Institute saying that they were able to create a quantum gate with a "process fidelity" of 79% is so striking. It could very well spell the beginning of the pathway towards realistic quantum computing.
The team went about doing this through using a superconducting microwave cavity to create a data qubit — that is, they used a device that operates a bit like a organ pipe or a music box but for microwave frequencies. They paired that data qubit with a transmon — that is, a superconducting qubit that isn't as sensitive to quantum noise as it otherwise could be, which is a good thing, because noise can destroy information stored in a quantum state. The two are then connected through a process called a 'quantum bus.'
That process translates into a quantum property being able to be sent from one location to the other without any interaction between the two through something called a teleported CNOT gate, which is the 'official' name for a quantum gate. Single qubits made the leap from one side of the gate to the other with a high degree of accuracy.
Above: encoded qubits and 'CNOT Truth table,' i.e., the read-out.
The team then entangled these bits of information as a way of further proving that they were literally transporting the qubit from one place to somewhere else. They then analyzed the space between the quantum points to determine that something that doesn't follow the classical definition of physics occurred.
They conclude by noting that "... the teleported gate … uses relatively modest elements, all of which are part of the standard toolbox for quantum computation in general. Therefore ... progress to improve any of the elements will directly increase gate performance."
In other words: they did something simple and did it well. And that the only forward here is up. And down. At the same time.
These modern-day hermits can sometimes spend decades without ever leaving their apartments.
- A hikikomori is a type of person in Japan who locks themselves away in their bedrooms, sometimes for years.
- This is a relatively new phenomenon in Japan, likely due to rigid social customs and high expectations for academic and business success.
- Many believe hikikomori to be a result of how Japan interprets and handles mental health issues.
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