Turns Out Interruptions Are Bad, Who Knew?

by ElizabethAceso Under Glass2 min read11th Jun 202015 comments

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ProductivityPractical
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I’ve been known to accuse people who say open offices are “fine with a few mitigations” of not paying attention to the cost of their mitigations. I believed they shrunk their thoughts down to the point that not much was lost from an interruption, at the cost of only being able to think the thoughts that fit in that interval. Any thought that would take too long to process could not be conceived of.

I’ve also been known to accuse people who advocate for deep, uninterrupted work without the distractions of social media of “not understanding how valuable social media is to me”. And  besides, my workflow works best with frequent breaks (that I choose the timing of) because I “background process”.

*Cough*

I maintained this illusion until, inspired by a stupidly expensive device that only does one thing, I taped my old phone to a bluetooth keyboard* and began to write in offline mode. It was immediately a magical experience. It was so *quiet*. I could go on my porch and write and it was quiet. My thoughts got much larger because I wasn’t subconsciously afraid I’d interrupt them. I began to feel angry at my laptop. Why did it insist on hurting me so much? Why couldn’t it be pure like the offline phone/keyboard experience? Why couldn’t I just create things?

[* I only found two bluetooth keyboards with an inlay for phones/tablets. The other one lacks a built in battery, and shipped with a broken key]

Locally, this lasted for about 10 minutes before the social media cravings kicked in. But that was enough. I deeply resented work for taking me away from my magic writing device and making everything so noisy

Since I started, my desire for using the quiet device has waxed and waned. At first I thought this was reflective of some deep pathology, but after two weeks it looks a lot more like “sometimes the benefits of quiet outweighs the benefits of being able to look stuff up, sometimes they don’t’”.  I’ve also changed how I interact on a connected device- I’m more likely to close Signal, less likely to open Twitter. This is less due to a utilitarian calculation of the costs and benefits of Twitter, and more that once I’m in a good state, I can notice how switching to Twitter is almost physically painful.

The problem is that I wasn’t wrong that social media was genuinely very valuable to me, and that was before we were all locked inside. But I definitely was wrong that getting those benefits were costless, in a way very analogous to mistakes I accused others of making. I’m glad I have the information now, but I haven’t figured out what to do with it yet.

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I maintained this illusion until, inspired by a stupidly expensive device that only does one thing, I taped my old phone to a bluetooth keyboard* and began to write in offline mode.

 

Love this, just ordered that keyboard, and spent a little chunk of time converting an old tablet to be a writing tool.

Interesting to compare this to my own experience. When I'm by myself I often feel the draw of social media, which distracts me from work. But when I'm around other people (in an open office or otherwise), whom I could socialize with if I wanted to, then social media (and other internet distractions) are less of a draw, and I find it easier to focus.

So I agree that distractions are quite disruptive. But for me, being by myself is itself a source of distraction.

The sweet spot so far for me was when I was working in a startup house (open office) with just a couple of other people in the room -- people with whom I was working closely. We'd spend most of the day working by ourselves, but would chat every now and then, usually to solve some particular problem we were working on.

It was just enough interaction to keep my social bar pretty full. While at the same time providing a minimum of distractions and interruptions.

In my experience, colleagues are usually not a distraction, bosses are. With colleagues, I have more control over the timing ("not now, I am right in the middle of something... okay, now I am free"), and half of the chatting is mutual help. With bosses, the typical interaction is that I am interrupted in the middle of solving a problem X, and asked to provide progress report on an unrelated problem Y.

Interesting model. For me, it's not an issue of potential socialization, but one of potential embarrassment. The thought of me scrolling through social media in public makes me nervous.

This is a factor for me too.

Good for you!

If you haven't heard of him, I'd recommend checking out Cal Newport's writing, particularly Deep Work and Digital Minimalism.

This post seems like a good illustration of the value of Trying Things, particularly when the upside is high and the risk is low. It may seem obvious, but I know that I personally have a lot of low hanging fruit in this area that I haven't acted on for whatever reason.

Cal Newport was specifically who I was thinking of when I said "people who don't understand how useful social media is to me." And I still think he doesn't, I'm just now more aware of the cost as well.

I agree that he is very suspicious of the value of social media. But much of Digital Minimalism is written acknowledging that people do extract value from digital interactions (among them social media). It's simply an approach to extract as much as the benefits as possible while minimizing the costs, which seem like what you want.

So I would still recommend that you check it out.

Ah, I have only read Deep Work.

I wonder if there are apps that disable wifi for a while which could be used to achieve a similar result...

As for the Freewrite, I think I'm a sucker for high-quality products that only do a few things well. I think I've gotten a lot of value out of my Onyx Boox Max, which is an absurdly expensive e-reader that has the benefit of being very very big, such that reading textbooks / Arxiv papers no longer feels like a chore (or has to contend with other internet alternatives).

On a laptop, you can easily write a script to do this. On iOS, using Siri Shortcuts, you should be able to cobble up something, too. BTW, I, too, really like my Kindle Oasis, but it sucks for academic text. How good is this Onyx thing? What are its disadvantages compared to an iPad? How good is it for surfing the net? (I personally like the “doesn’t bother my eyes” part much better than “distraction-free”)

It's actually running a modified version of Android, so you have a lot of possible functionality. For example, YouTube and Google Drive technically work. However, the low refresh rate means that you're not really incentivized to do anything else other than read.

I think it's just very good at what it does, which is display ebooks at a very large size. It also comes with a stylus to draw and markup text, but I don't really use that.

I care a lot about visuals, so the e-ink display (as opposed to just an iPad Pro) is a really big pro for me. If you're fine with a backlit display and want to be able to multitask in any reasonable capacity, the iPad is probably still better.

Do you write in Roam using a phone? Do you read literature sources on it as well?

Do you write in Roam using a phone?

 

Yes, but not as part of this workflow, because Roam doesn't support offline yet and not being online is pretty critical. I will sometimes move things I write as part of this workflow into Roam after the fact.

 Do you read literature sources on it as well?

Not sure what "it" refers to or what you mean by "literature sources". If you mean "do I do the kind of research I frequently talk about elsewhere using this workflow?" the answer is no.