Early last month I had the agonizing good fortune of cracking open a notebook from the mid-1990s.
In one section I’d spent several months following some advice whose source I’ve since forgotten: keeping a log of daily writing progress. One day per line, bonehead-simple entries: date, project(s), page numbers, tally.
Cue reaction, January 2010: Holy hell! Look at those totals!
Comparing then and now, I felt I should’ve scribbled a note to accompany the final entry: “I will diminish, and go into the West.”
It wasn’t that I was no longer making progress on anything. Just not this kind of progress. Not the degree of progress that once constituted normal.
I undertook some serious pondering: What was different about then and now? Lots of things, but most had no relevance. When it’s go time, the basics are the same as they ever were. It still comes down to sitting in a chair, moving fingers, and making words march across a screen.
The factor that counted most, I decided, was my splendid technological isolation at the time.
My first computer was a humble workhorse that hardly gave me a bit of trouble over seven years of heavy use and still fires up today. And check the specs: 2MB of RAM. 40MB hard drive. 8 MHz processor. Internet? None. Even e-mail didn’t darken its ports until its final year of active duty.
Today I pilot an 8-core screamer with four hard drives whose combined capacity is up into terabytes. Yet with all that at my disposal I was working … slower? And Microsoft Word still doesn’t launch any faster than it used to.
Amazing and unpleasant things can transpire when you disengage the autopilot, stop accepting your behavioral status quo, and really start observing yourself. Here’s the self-image that began to form: a 5’10” lab rat pressing an e-mail lever in hopes of a random pellet of reward. You know the cruel effectiveness of the randomized reward, don’t you? That’s the distribution schedule that keeps the rats pressing the lever the longest. Go to a casino and you’ll see precisely the same behavior in the slot machine pit.
We have, legions of us, allowed ourselves to become history’s biggest source pool of stimulus-response conditionees. The chime. The lovely, melodious e-mail chime — it could be announcing anything! The links — ooo, who knows where they’ll lead?
And just where did the last two hours go again…?
I know: You’re making the “Well, duh” face. What, I didn’t realize the effect this was having?
Actually, I did. I was quite aware of it, and not fine with it. But the reward pellets were narcotizing enough to keep me thinking, C’mon, what’s one more quick check of e-mail, this forum, that blog. Then down the rat-hole I’d disappear. Until excavating that vintage notebook, I’d just never been punched in the face with the comparison-and-contrast results quite so starkly.
These were not bad habits that developed overnight. They accrued over years. They certainly weren’t in full bloom when we were still on a dial-up account. But by the time we switched to the always-on immediacy of broadband, I was well trained.
Worse, they didn’t even seem like bad habits. E-mail — in large part it developed out of a rapid response policy I wanted to use for nonfiction magazine editors I work with. The web — if I needed a fact or fact-check in the middle of something, it was out there. These looked like aids to productivity. The work would always be where I left it when I got back to it.
And it was. It had just gone cold.
Damage estimates vary, but the most recent I’ve seen is this: Jolt yourself out of the zone when you’re productively engaged in a demanding project, and it can take up to 45 minutes to bring yourself back up to speed. Keep the interruptions and focus-shifts coming, and you may never get there. It’s one more damning indictment against the myth of multitasking.
The solution was simple and ruthlessly effective. Pull the plug. Literally. It became January’s new, improved habit: Sit down to work and the Ethernet cable comes out of the router. Easy to reverse, but just enough of a fiddly act to force me to think about what I was doing and, thus, stop me from doing it.
And, back in the outside world, nothing bad happened. Astonishing. Nobody got angry. The globe didn’t flip its axis. Frogs never once rained from the sky.
Actual results? As much or more done in less or equal time. Consistently. January became the most productive month I’d had in years, with more time left for additional things that actually mattered. February is on track to be even better.
Now, regardless of what it looks like on the surface, this is not a Luddite rant against the siren song of the Internet. I still love me some Internets. But that may not be your call to the rocky shore at all.
Rather, it’s a case study in distraction, whatever the cause. Of deviating from the critical mission. Of veering off to glean the shiny, sparkly, but ultimately insignificant stuff scattered on top of the ground when the valuable stuff looks grubbier in the raw, and needs some rooting under the surface to get to it.
We all have our distractions, our sweet saboteurs, whether they pull us from the story we’re writing, or the story we’re living.
We also have the power to grind them beneath our heel and use the wreckage to plug the rat-hole.
There’s no greater ally here than awareness. Simple awareness. Stepping back to watch yourself in action, with enough brutal honesty to admit that it’s way past time to change the picture. Then looking for the simplest, most direct roadblock that will keep your feet and fingers on the path.
You have nothing to lose but inertia.