Wired for Distraction

Wired for Distraction

“Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work.

 

Our technology today is not built nor designed to provide us with the best space for focus, it is not intended to provide us the maximum possible value, and it is not sold to us to truly enhance our lives. A lot of our technology today is intended to keep us engaged, to grab our attention, and to earn someone else a few bucks. What we get are curated distractions, constantly renewing streams of information that we pretend keeps us in the know, keeps us entertained, and provides us value. Even though our devices have this negative downside, we lie to ourselves about our need for our technology, and we are not honest about how much we rely on technology as a distraction to save us from a few minutes of boredom.

 

I find myself constantly checking Strava, just to see if anyone new has liked my run. I don’t like watching dishes without watching a YouTube video on my phone, and I don’t like cooking without listening to a podcast. Just like everyone else it seems, I’m hardly able to wait in line at the grocery store without pulling my phone out to just click around for the five minutes I might have to wait.

 

The problem with all of these habits is that it trains my mind to be distracted and constantly entertained with something flashy, new, and interesting.

 

Cal Newport, throughout Deep Work, returns to an idea, “The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.” If we are not training ourselves to focus, and instead train ourselves to be distracted, we will never be able to do deep work, and will never be able to concentrate on things that matter when it matters. “efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”

 

Boredom and not having something stimulating for our brain has been seen as terrible. Being stuck in traffic, waiting at the doctor’s office, and having to vacuum the floor are all times when our minds used to be stuck in a state of boredom, but now can be in a state of distraction. All of our distractions train our minds to be dependent on interesting information and stimuli. Newport describes the problem this way:

 

“If every moment of potential boredom in your life – say having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives – is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where … it’s not ready for deep work–even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.”

 

If we want to be successful, do meaningful things with our careers, and engage with interesting and meaningful ideas and topics, we have to find ways to put down our phones and learn to concentrate through boredom. It isn’t easy and it isn’t fun, but it can help our mind adjust so we are not distracted and oblivious to the world around us. It can help our minds be prepared to do meaningful work when the time comes.
Willpower maximization

Limited Willpower

When we imagine who we are going to be in the future, what we want to accomplish, and how we are going to reach our goals, we see ourselves as a super version of who we are now. We imagine that we can focus and achieve anything we set our mind to, at least if we can work hard enough. All it takes, in our vision of the bright future, is willpower to push ourselves to work harder, be smarter, and do the challenging but important work to get to the top.

 

The reality for us, however, is that this ideal version of ourselves will not simply appear with the flip of a switch. The hard work we view ourselves completing is not just hard, it is impossible to complete without focus and an ability to engage in deep work. We have to cultivate this ability if we want to see it in our lives, it is not simply a matter of willpower.

 

In the past I wrote about Dan Pink’s book When and how we move through several predictable stages throughout the day. For most people (those of us who are generally morning people – night owls are the same process in reverse), we wake up and our brains are fresh and ready to tackle the day. We can do our best focus work and complete important analytical work during the first roughly 6 hours of the day. Afterward, we fall into a trough, where our brain is tired and we are not good at being focused or doing analytical work. Later in the day we see a rebound, where we become a bit better on complex thinking work, but still find ourselves easily distracted.

 

What Pink’s research shows is that our day and our work isn’t driven so much by willpower but by the biological reality of the brain. Cal Newport’s research in his book Deep Work supports this idea. Newport presents several studies which show that our willpower only lasts so long before we give in. As he writes, “You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.”

 

We are not superheros and don’t have superpowers. We operate with a brain that can only handle so much before it becomes tired and stops working as well as we would like. We can resist those donuts in the morning when our brain is still fresh, but as the day goes on, we are going to become weary from the tough decisions we have to make, and our ability to fight off the donut craving will likely fail. We need to remember that our willpower won’t last forever and we need to set up systems and structures to help us do our best work when our brains are at their peak. Through these structures we can avoid negative temptations when our brains are in a rut. Plan ahead reasonably, and work to take steps that align with the reality of the brain. Don’t force yourself to rely on a superhuman effort that just isn’t realistic to be successful and accomplish the important things in your life.
What is Deep Work

What is Deep Work?

Deep work is the opposite of the state of mind that many of us find ourselves in most of the time. One of the biggest challenges we face, is focusing on the important things. Our lives have become very busy, but not necessarily busy with more important work. Our lives have become busy with noise – in both the sense of unwanted sound, but also in the sense of the Merrian-Webster online dictionary definition of unwanted signals and disturbances.

 

At home, we often have the TV on for background noise, our phones have red notifications from multiple apps every time we open them, and we know that our social media feeds are constantly refreshing and offer us new things to see and look at. There is always something new, something distracting, and something to pull our attention away from the things which take substantial mental energy.

 

In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport provides the following definition for Deep Work:

 

“Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

 

The focus needed for deep work cannot be developed when we are constantly distracted. When we allow ourselves to be taken over by our phones, when we allow ourselves to have a million things pulling at our attention, when we constantly have some type of stimulation coming in while we do our chores, drive to work, and walk the dog, we train our brain to jump from one thought to another. Our daily life encourages a brain that cannot focus, destroying our ability to do deep work.

 

I have seen this in my own life. For 2 years I was working full time and in grad school. To get my work done, I had to work on focus, and I had to dedicate a lot of time to reading and completing school work. Outside of my job, I spent a lot of time trying to focus. A lot of house chores were ignored, but I found academic success, and found myself continually doing better focus work on the job as well.

 

A year after grad school, and into a boring job which doesn’t keep me as engaged as I would like, I have found my brain more distracted and I have found it harder to focus when I need to. I often watch YouTube videos while doing dishes, I listen to podcasts while doing laundry, and I find myself pulling up twitter or various blogs when I get bored. I have allowed myself to be distracted when I don’t need to be doing any deep work, and that has reduced my brain’s capacity to focus when I need to. I’m working against this now (partially thanks to a mental refocusing from Ryan Holiday’s book Stillness is the Key),  but it is hard work and requires that I think about what I am doing at any given moment and why.

 

Deep work is mentally taxing, and when the brain gets tired it wants to be distracted and shift to a low value cognitively easy task. However, if we focus on deep work, and train like an athlete to improve our thinking and focus, we can get better at it. We can push ourselves to be better at focusing on important things, and in the long run we will find that we can do better work, accomplish more important things in shorter periods of time, and be more focused when we need to be.

How Our Poorly Evolved Brains Contribute to Political Dysfunction

One of my beliefs about human beings is that we are currently operating in a world that has far outpaced the realities that our brains were evolved to live within. We are social creatures that operate in political tribes, and the social and political situations of our ancestors lives have pushed our brains to be bigger and pushed us to be smarter, but have not necessarily pushed us to be more adapt at understanding reality or seeing the world in a clear and honest way. This has happened in our brain, however, while we have maintained the basic hardware and default mechanisms which were originally developed for the purpose of survival on a savanna or in a jungle. Our brains are still built for making quick decisions between safe and threatening, but we have layered on great intelligence through social and political games that require smarter and more deceptively cunning intelligence. The result is that our brains are powerful, but deeply flawed and inadequately evolved for current circumstances.

 

This is important because we live in a world that is incredibly complex and requires that we make decisions among noise and competing values with varying levels of social and political consequences. Our world is filled with decisions that must balance multiple variables, but at their base, our brains really just want to make a quick decision between two variables: safety or threat.

 

I see so many situations in my own thinking where I reduce the world to one or the other. Someone is either a great person because they gave me plenty of space in their car while I was riding my bike, or they are an evil human being who couldn’t move over for me. Someone is either lazy and dumb, or hard working and brilliant. Considerations of the middle ground are complex, and as a result I default to an either-or mindset when looking at the world. For most of my daily interactions and situations this doesn’t matter much, but when we layer these tendencies up throughout society, it becomes dangerous and is a contributing factor to the political dysfunction and social unrest we see around us today.

 

In their book The New Localism, authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak hit on this point. About our political disagreements between Democrats and Republicans (the authors use Left versus Right which I disagree with for other more complicated reasons) they write,

 

“The battle between these two choices in public asset management [public ownership and provision as favored by Democrats versus the undeterred use of market forces as favored by Republicans] has contributed to political partisanship by posing a false choice between management mediocrity and the loss of ownership rights. These choices, driven by fallacies that are supported by old ideologies, contribute to political dysfunction.”

 

Katz and Nowak argue that we make huge political decisions in our country based on outdated models that feel comfortable for our brains (as our brains scan for safety versus threat) but that don’t really reflect reality. Good public management, the authors argue, in today’s age requires a merger of public and private asset management strategies. Public ownership cannot be absolute because it can lead to politically biased decisions with elected officials acting as arbitrary gatekeepers. Open markets, however, can leave people out and be leave us with greater inequality rather than provide us solutions to pressing problems.

 

One solution the challenge above might look like public ownership a of a private corporation, adding a layer to reduce political influence and bias, and using experts to maximize public benefit as opposed to using business insiders to maximize shareholder value. This is just one example of a third approach to a problem that our brains would rather see as a choice between two variables. We want to see the world as good versus evil, because that is how our brains have evolved. It didn’t matter if there was some nuance to our early ancestors about eating mushrooms, running from animals, or traversing down a steep cliff. What mattered was survival and having an innate sense of safety versus threat was advantageous. Today however, that same innate sense is at play (even though we don’t recognize it) and is holding us back and creating chaos rather than helping us successfully reproduce.

How To Describe a Norm

What inputs drive what types of behaviors in humans? This is a question I think about at an incredibly basic level all the time, but I don’t really hear much insightful discussion about this topic. We all like to believe we (and everyone else) is in complete conscious control of our thoughts, minds, and decisions, but we know that can’t be true. If you leave someone in a room with a plate of freshly baked cookies in front of them, they will almost invariably eat a cookie, even if they had woken up that day determined not to eat any cookies. If you deprive someone of sleep for a whole day while they travel across the country from Seattle to Orlando with multiple layovers and tired and cranky kids, you are bound to hear a few exasperated yells, even if that person was determined not to yell at their children (or anyone else). At  a certain point, the inputs that make their way into our mind have a big influence on the resulting behaviors that we see in the world.

 

Norms are one way that we establish certain inputs associated with certain behaviors. They help us regulate what kinds of behaviors are acceptable and desired. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “The essence of a norm then, lies not in the words we use to describe it, but in which behaviors get punish and what form the punishment takes.” Norms are guidelines for nudging peoples behaviors by changing the inputs into their mind.

 

We can applaud, ignore, or punish a behavior to change the likelihood of an action taking place again. If I send out a tweet with terrible insults, and that tweet is re-tweeted and I receive encouragement for speaking out against the people I insulted, I am receiving cues that suggest I should do more of that. If however, I see an old lady walking to the register at the grocery store, and I use my youthful speed to quickly jump in front of her, I am likely to receive angry looks and possibly be forced out of line if a big enough person sees me jump ahead of the little old lady. If the punishment in this situation is embarrassing enough, I likely won’t repeat this behavior the next time I am at the store.

 

Our minds and, consequently it seems, our brains, are changed by the norms we use. What is possible in our wold is shaped by how we know other people will respond to what we do. The agency we feel when we think about the world is constrained by the thoughts, looks, and actions of other people. We rarely talk about all the inputs that may change our thinking and decision-making, but it is clear that we operate in a space where many physical and non-physical things can shape what we do, believe, and think. The mind absorbs many inputs and we are not always at liberty to decide how we will respond to those inputs if we are constrained or encouraged by certain norms.

Our Devious Minds

“We now realize,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “that our brains aren’t just hapless and quirky–they’re devious. They intentionally hide information from us, helping us fabricate plausible pro-social motives to act as cover stories for our less savory agendas. As Trivers puts it: “At ever single state [of processing information]–from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others–the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual goal of appearing better than one really is.” 

 

Recently I have been pretty fascinated by the idea that our minds don’t do a good job of perceiving reality. The quote above shows many of the points where our minds build a false sense of reality for us and where our perceptions and understanding can go astray. It is tempting to believe that we observe and recognize an objective picture of the world, but there are simply too many points where our mental conceptualization of the world can deviate from an objective reality (if that objective reality ever even exists).

 

What I have taken away from discussions and books focused on the way we think and the mistakes our brain can make is that we cannot always trust our mind. We won’t always remember things correctly and we won’t always see things as clearly as we believe. What we believe to be best and correct about the world may not be accurate. In that sense, we should doubt our beliefs and the beliefs of others constantly. We should develop processes and systems for identifying information that is reasonable and question information that aligns with our prior beliefs as much as information that contradicts our prior beliefs. We should identify key principles that are most important to us, and focus on those, rather than focus on specific and particular instances that we try to understand by filling in answers from generalizations.

 

A fear that I have is that as we come to doubt the information around us and the perceptions of our minds, we will begin to doubt institutional structures that help us with the flow of information. We should be continually thinking of ways to strengthen institutions that can help us navigate a complex world. At the moment, one of the things I think we are seeing across the globe is that as we doubt information, we doubt institutions which have been valuable in helping human societies advance. We need to find ways to make institutional knowledge more trustworthy and clear so that we can develop institutions which have incentives to provide the most reasonable, clear, and accurate information possible so that we can overcome the biases and misconceptions of the mind.

What’s Happening in Our Brains Behind the Conscious Self

Toward  the end of the introductory chapter of their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain what they observed with the human mind and what they will be exploring in the coming chapters. They write, “What will emerge from this investigation is a portrait of the human species as strategically self-deceived, not only as individuals but also as a society. Our brains are experts at flirting, negotiation social status, and playing politics, while “we” – the self-conscious parts of the brain – manage to keep our thoughts pure and chaste. “We” don’t always know what our brains are up to, but we often pretend to know, and therein lies the trouble.”

 

The last few days I have written about a few instances where we deceive ourselves and hide our true motives from ourselves. We do this so that in our political and social world we can appear to have high-minded motives and reasons for doing the things we do. Simler and Hanson show that this does not just happen on an individual level, but happens at group and society levels as well. We all contribute to the failure to acknowledge what it is that drives our decisions and why we do what we do.

 

This process takes place behind the conscious self that experiences the world. In the past, I have borrowed from Ezra Klein who has used a metaphor on his podcast about a press secretary. The press secretary for a large company doesn’t sit in on every strategic decision meeting, isn’t a part of every meeting to decide what the future of the company will be, and isn’t part of the team that makes decisions about whether the company will donate money, will begin to hire more minorities, or will launch a new product. But the press secretary does have to explain to the general public why the company is making these decisions, and has to do it in a way that makes the company look as high-minded as possible. The company is supporting the local 5K for autism because they care about the children in the community. The company has decided to hire more minorities because they know the power of having a diverse workforce and believe in equality. The company was forced to close the factory because of unfair trade practices in other countries.

 

On an individual level, our conscious self is acting like the press secretary I described, and this spreads throughout the levels of society. As individuals we say and think one thing while doing another, and so do our political bodies, our family units, our businesses, and the community groups we belong to. There are often hidden motives that we signal to that likely account for a large portion of why we do what we do. This creates awkward situations, especially for those who don’t navigate these unspoken social situations well, and potentially puts us in places where our policy doesn’t align with the things we say we want. We should not hate humans for having these qualities, but we should try to recognize them, especially in our own lives, and control these situations and try to actually live in the way we tell people we live.

Outsiders Within Our Own Minds

How good are you at introspection? How much do you know about yourself and how much do other people know about you that you don’t actually know? I try to ask myself these types of questions and reflect on how much I don’t actually recognize or know about myself, but it is really difficult. I much prefer to look at what I do with the most generous interpretation of myself and my actions and decisions, but I know that somewhere out there someplace is someone who looks at me with the least generous interpretations of me and my actions, in much the same way I look at a person smoking or a person with a political bumper sticker that I dislike and instantly want to ascribe a whole set of negative qualities to them. Beyond simply the idea of looking at ourselves honestly, looking at ourselves from the least favorable position is extremely uncomfortable, and reveals a bunch of things about who we are that we would rather ignore.

 

Luckily for us, our brains protect us from this discomfort by simply failing to be aware of our true actions and motives in any given point in time. The brain ascribes high-minded reasons for our behaviors, and hands us a script with the best interpretation of what we do. When it comes to the brain, we feel like we know what is going on within it, but the reality is that our own minds are mysteries to ourselves.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about this in their book The Elephant in the Brain. “In other words, even we don’t have particularly privileged access to the information and decision-making that goes on inside our minds. We think we’re pretty good at introspection, but that’s largely an illusion. In a way we’re almost like outsiders within our own minds.”

 

We tell ourselves that what we do makes sense, is logical, and is the best possible outcome for everyone in a given situation. The reality is that we are likely more focused on our own gain than anything else. We don’t want to admit this to anyone (even ourselves) and so we sugar coat it and hide  our motivations behind altruistic reasons. Piercing through this with self-reflection is challenging because we are so good at deflecting and deceiving our own thought processes. It is comforting to believe that we are on the right side of a moral issue (especially if we get benefits from the side we are on) and uncomfortable with no clear path forward if we look inward and discover that we may have been wrong the whole time (especially if it seems that our social group has been wrong the whole time). Increasingly in my life I find it imperative that I consider that my brain doesn’t see things clearly and that my brain is likely wrong and short sighted about many issues. Remembering this helps me avoid becoming too certain of my beliefs, and keeps me open to the ways that other people see the world. It helps me recognize when people are acting out of their own self-interest, and helps me pull back in situations where my ego wants to run wild and declare that I am clearly right and those other people are obviously violating good moral ethics.

Deceiving Ourselves

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about evolutionary psychology of the brain in their book The Elephant in the Brain to explain why it is that we have hidden motives and why those hidden motives can be so hard to identify. The authors write (brackets mine, italics in original), “The human brain, according to this view [evolutionary psychology], was designed to deceive itself–in [Robert] Trivers’ words, ‘the better to deceive others.'” The authors look at how self-deception can be positive from an evolutionary perspective, and how that shapes the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world.

 

Fudging on the rules from time to time and making ourselves look better than we really are can be good strategies to survive, or at least they potentially were for our ancestors. Humans evolved in small, political, social tribes with rules and norms to adhere to and enforce to varying degrees. Slight amounts of cheating, if they can go unnoticed, can be beneficial for survival. This drives an evolutionary pressure to pass along selfish genes that favor individual survival, hold up the rules when it is convenient, but push rules aside when it benefits us. Simler and Hanson argue that this pressure is so strong, that we evolved to not even notice when we do this.

 

We also seem to justify our actions (a process known as motivated reasoning) in a way which says that we didn’t really do anything bad, we were just making the best decision we could given the circumstances or we were upholding fairness and justice in the absence of a greater authority to administer justice. The more we can convince ourselves that we are right and that we are on the correct side of a moral argument, the more we can convince others that our actions were just. If we are blatantly lying about our motivations, and we know we are lying, it will be harder to convince others and build support around our actions.

 

If however, we convince ourselves that our actions were right and our motives pure, we will have an easier time convincing others of our correctness and of our value to them and to society. When we give to charity, at least part of our donation is probably driven by a desire to want to be seen as the person who gives to charity or as a person with enough money to give some away. These two motivations, however, would be frowned upon. Instead, we convince ourselves that we give to charity because it is the right thing to do, or because we think the cause is incredibly important. Those both may be true, but if we completely convince ourselves that we are donating for the high-minded reasons, we will be more authentic and better able to convince other people that we made donations for high-minded and not selfish reasons. We are wired not to see the world how it is, but to see it through a filter that magnifies our greatness and minimizes our faults, deceiving ourselves so we can do a better job of presenting the best version of ourselves to the world.

Our Brains Don’t Hold Information as Well as We Think

Anyone who has ever misplaced their keys or their wallet knows that the brain can be a bit faulty. If you have ever been convinced you saw a snake only to find out it was a plastic bag, or if you remembered dropping a pan full of sweet potatoes as a child during Thanksgiving only to get into an argument with your brother about which one of you actually dropped the pan, then you know your brain can misinterpret signals and mis-remember events. For some reason, our hyper-powerful pattern recognition brains seem to be fine with letting us down from time to time.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write, “There’s a wide base of evidence showing that human brains are poor stewards of the information they receive from the outside world. But this seems entirely self-defeating, like shooting oneself in the foot. If our minds contain maps of our worlds, what good comes from having an inaccurate version of these maps?” 

 

The question is, why do we have such powerful brains that can do such amazing things, but that still make basic mistakes all the time? The answer that Hanson and Simler propose throughout the book is that having super accurate information in the brain, remembering everything perfectly, and clearly observing everything around us is actually detrimental to our success as a social species. Our view of the world only needs to be so accurate for us to successfully function as biological creatures. We only need senses that satisfice for us to evade predators, avoid poisonous mushrooms, and get enough food. What really drives the evolution of the brain, is being successful socially, and sometimes a bit of deception gives us a big advantage.

 

It is clear that the brain is not perfect at observing the world. We don’t see infrared wavelengths of light, we can’t sense the earths magnetic pull, and we can’t hear as many sounds as dogs can hear. Our experience of the world is limited. On top of those limitations, our brains are not that interested in having an accurate picture of the information that it actually can observe. We must keep this in mind as we go through our lives. What can seem so clear and obvious to us, may be a distorted picture of the world that someone else can see as incomplete. A good way to move forward is to abandon the idea that we have (or must have) a perfect view and opinion of the world. Acknowledge that we have preferences and opinions that shape how we interpret the world, and even if we are not open to changing those opinions, at least be open to the idea that our brains are not designed to have perfect views, and that we might be shortsighted in some areas. We will need to bond with others and form meaningful social groups, but we should not accept that we will have to delude our view of the world and accept alternate facts to fit in.