For reading in Chinese, please scroll down to the end of the English text.
For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a megacity of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River near the Three Gorges Dam.
(May 2020. From the 18th-floor homestead.)
Last week, I was watching my wife using the TV remote control to click rapidly through the channels to decide what looked most interesting; she was spending only a couple of seconds on each program. I observed the flashing kaleidoscope of offerings for a minute and was thinking about the range of programs. (I was also impressed with her manual dexterity and wondered if that dubious channel-flicking skill might also be related to a short attention span.) All the different programs made me aware of the incredible diversity in lifestyles we humans have developed in different regions and historical periods.
My second thought, though, was there were simply too many channels to choose from. Too many programs were trying to attract her attention. The sheer number of viewing possibilities was overwhelming. Plus, underlying all the channel flicking was the implied message that she might be missing something even better and more interesting than her current choice. (In internetspeak, it is called FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out.) What was supposed to be a good thing – a wide range of programming to fit any need, any interest, and any mood – has, instead, become challenging and unsettling and demanding too much decision energy before you receive any entertainment. I left my wife and retreated to my home office but the number of choices presented by the computer and its internet access was even greater than those offered by cable television.
Upon reflection, I believe we have too much information besieging us every day. Sadly, due to the ongoing pandemic, the current flood also includes too much misinformation (casually inaccurate or intentionally malevolent) to sift through and too much wild speculation. Likewise, too much time is spent in browsing through the latest news – even though recent experience has taught us we cannot depend on the latest news to still be true tomorrow. Too much stimulation, too many notices, too many decisions. Too much time is spent on the latest minidrama, AKA the crisis du jour. Too much!
It seems that, no matter how carefully I plan, a constant stream of interruptions prevents me from concentrating fully on my chosen activities. Whatever happened to: Plan your work, then work your plan? Or KISS: Keep It Short and Simple. Can you relate to my plight? Is my dilemma also your dilemma?
Today, with even more information, misinformation, and distractions flying through the digital air, the need for reducing our input and controlling our environment has become increasingly important, almost urgent. I just finished an excellent book, Indistractable, by Nir Eyal. In it, he discusses the subtle psychology behind the addictive deluge of notifications, announcements, and messages – plus many other distractions and interruptions – which prevent us from concentrating on the things we have deliberately chosen to do. Then, he suggests a number of steps we can take to reclaim our working time and space. Reflecting on the book, I was reminded of an article I wrote last year in the pre-Covid-19 era.
(October of 2019)
The Low-Communication, Low-Information Diet
“I am on a Diet”. Thus, the famous American food writer and teacher James Beard began one of his articles. Gaining weight is an occupational hazard for a cooking school teacher, restaurant consultant, and writer of cookbooks and food magazine articles. But, at 300-plus pounds, health problems forced this chronically overweight bear of a man to change his eating habits of a lifetime. James Beard used that dramatic opening statement to begin stressing the use of seasonings and variety to replace his beloved salted, sauced, and fat-laden foods. Why should I begin this article with a reference to James Beard? Because I, too, am going on a diet. Only, in my case, I am reducing my intake – not of calories – but of communications and information. Too much information and too much communication are clogging my mental arteries.
I have an internet friend, Liz Huber, who is a High-Performance Coach in London. From her website, www.refinedlife.io, Liz helps entrepreneurs achieve their top business goals with clarity, confidence, and focus. Often, her ideas are also very relevant to those of us on a quest for a simple life with improved quality of life and reduced stress.
In a recent article, “How to Get More Done by Communicating Less”*, Liz stated:
Research shows that the average office worker spends around 23 hours per week in meetings and receives 121 emails per day. That’s a lot of time spent on merely communicating what to do, when to do it and how to do it. Without actually doing it. One could argue that some of these office workers never actually get around to doing anything because they are stuck in the never-ending emails — meeting — emails — meeting loop.
I am a writer and blogger. Writers work largely alone. (Publishing is another matter.) Yet, even I get 20-50 emails, calls, and text messages in a typical day – every day. Plus, managing information and instructions between me and my two publishing assistants is also time-consuming and draining. I am not the office worker Liz described but I often find myself feeling overwhelmed by the deluge of information, opportunities, communications, and choices I am confronted with each day.
Several times in the past couple of years, I have seen statements by highly successful people in different fields who state that they deliberately keep their phones turned off throughout the morning so they can do their work without disturbance or distraction. Mornings are for creative work, they say, and afternoons are for production and communication. I have a friend who works on his computer every day but John rarely turns on his cell phone. If you want to communicate with John, you send an email and make an appointment to phone or meet. Be patient; he will get back to you. But he refuses to let himself be interrupted during his working time. (I am so jealous!)
Yes, I know the argument about the possibility of missing something important by not being available. I have used that reasoning myself to keep my phone turned on and to maintain constant internet access on my computer. If your work or family responsibilities require you to be available instantly, I can understand. But how many times have you had a genuine emergency that required your immediate attention? Honestly, how many times? Is it really justified to subject yourself to the digital flood in order to be available for dealing with such a remote possibility?
Mostly though, what I am talking about is your discretionary time, the times when you can choose to turn off your phone and internet access. If you think of how much time is wasted with trivial conversations, news fluff articles, details of the latest celebrity scandals, and other internet flotsam and jetsam, it is shameful. Even the matters that really are relevant or useful can almost always wait a few hours while you do some actual work.
And, additionally, think of the psychological benefits. Instead of spending your days responding to the latest-and-loudest interruptions, you have the wonderful sense of controlling your own life. You are choosing when to be available rather than constantly reacting to an endless series of incidents – spending the day “putting out fires”, we used to call it. Additionally, you greatly increase the amount of meaningful work you can process; that is a good thing as well.
I should warn you, however, that going on Liz’s Low-Commo, Low-Info Diet has a couple of side effects which you should anticipate. It is a big change and our systems have a tendency to resist changes.
1) Turning off your phone and internet connection is, for most of us, going to result in a lot of unaccustomed silence. Like being alone in the middle of a forest, you will hear the crickets chirping. In fact, it may be uncomfortably quiet. You may be tempted to reconnect merely to have a brief contact with someone. (Thus, you will be the one who is interfering with someone else’s work.) It will probably take some time to get used to working in silence.
2) Don’t expect the people around you to cooperate or even understand. Rather than support your efforts, some people will think it is amusing to find ways to interrupt you. Some L-C, L-I dieters find that wearing headphones and listening to white noise, quiet background music, or my personal favorite “river music” nature sounds – helps to minimize audible distractions. A few find their work environment is inherently distracting – like when my wife and son constantly distract or disturb me while I am working at my desk. My solution has been to make the lovely Chongqing Library (only a 15-minute bus ride from my home) my second office. But there is also a set of park benches very near my building, surrounded by lovely trees and shrubs for a feeling of semi-privacy.
3) When I began reducing my phone and internet access time, I actually felt a little anxious. Even though this withdrawal and the accompanying greatly reduced level of stimulation was my choice and was irrefutably a good thing, the change aroused some fears. My imagination goes quite out of control as I visualize missing an important phone call or email, an emergency summons to my son’s school, or someone needing my input before they can continue with their work. Then, there is FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), the internetspeak term for wondering what new and exciting developments I am not aware of because of my voluntary hermitage.
If you decide to try Liz’s Low-Commo, Low-Info Diet, you should expect – like a food diet – to be a little uncomfortable at first. But, you will probably find (as I already have) that the satisfaction of getting more work completed – work that is truly important and valuable – and of having a sense of control is a small price to pay for temporary discomfort. James Beard not only stayed on his diet and lost weight, he found other unexpected benefits. His health and energy level were vastly improved. He lived a number of years after he adopted a more reasonable food plan. And, as a writer and teacher, he uncovered a whole new vein of topics related to his new food worldview.
And what about you? Are you ready to give up the unnaturally high level of stimulation and distraction we have become accustomed to? Are you ready to take control of your work time? What would happen if you stopped trying to micromanage other people and let them just do their work? How much time would you save if you didn’t spend vast amounts of time in communicating in excruciating detail? Perhaps some of you reading this article will someday write a thank-you note to Liz Huber about how her proposal changed your life.
As always, your comments and stories are welcomed. (I’ll check them in the afternoon. In the morning, I am offline.)
(May 2020 again.)
Now more than ever, I feel a need to walk away from the noise, the madness, and the drama that never ceases. To parody an ancient hippie phrase: I want to turn off, tune out, and drop out. Subsequently, to follow Liz’s admonition, I am going back to a low-information, low-communication diet.
Concerning personal productivity, it is impossible to get into the zone – AKA as the flow state – when you are dealing with the unending interruptions from the outside world. However, this issue goes beyond mere production; it involves our quality of life – because there is no quality of life when you are frazzled, anxious, and stressed by too many distractions in your environment.
Here are some possibilities that, depending on your personality, commitments, and surroundings, could greatly increase your output of meaningful work and, at the same time, allow you to enjoy some peace and quiet:
One man carefully designed his workspace to almost completely eliminate outside stimulation. He made his office in a windowless room with a single, dim light barely sufficient for writing in a simple notebook on his small desk. Then, he left clear instructions that he was not to be disturbed while in his office. Working alone in his dark, silent office, he would sit and think – brainstorming by himself, as it were – of his current project or problem, making notes for action steps later. This is an extreme example but it worked for him. Other people might adopt this hermitlike workstyle but would use a small voice recorder or headset mic. Instead of writing on paper, they use a digital device to speak and record ideas for later transcription and action. (One caveat is that the devices must be unintrusive.)
However, many might find a complete absence of sensory input to be disquieting. They would feel more comfortable working from a coffee shop, a park bench, a library, or a similar area where there is some motion and human interaction. But they must be minimal – just enough that they don’t feel anxious about the lack of stimulation. Today, we must also allow for the restrictions of pandemic-necessitated social distancing. These venues are still possible but the range is not as great as previously.
Einstein famously said, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” Einstein may have been thinking about the endless stream of meetings and conversations we are subjected to in modern times. Between messages (direct and digital), notifications and updates, and the sheer amount of social media fluff, it is amazing that any work gets completed. Authorities like Nir Eyal and Liz Huber stress minimizing time spent in meetings with others. Yes, we must meet for agreeing upon action steps, responsibilities, and deadlines, but then work separately or in very small groups.
Turn off your internet access – don’t let it have access to you. If that is not feasible, make a firm personal commitment to only act on the incoming messages that are truly important enough to override your day’s plan. If they are of secondary importance, relegate them to later – after you complete your primary tasks. When those secondary-level notices arrive, make a note, file it, and then return your focus to your interrupted task. Still, we should remember that research shows it takes lots of time to recover your focus after it has been disturbed by an outside distraction. Best solution: set aside blocks of time and have a place where you are simply not available to be disturbed – either digitally or F2F.
In many ways, working from home is ideal despite the current resistance by some people to this idea. Undoubtedly, part of their reluctance is because it is associated with the stay at home/shelter in place restrictions necessitated by the pandemic. We naturally resent what is forced upon us, whether it be a stay at home order or a teacher’s required reading list. However, it is indisputable that working at home means you can have greater control over your work environment. You eliminate travel time from home to work, and you have greater control over who can access you while you are working. In your home space, you can consciously fashion your work environment to minimize distractions and maximize productivity.
In addition to the greater productivity of working at home, there are the benefits of solitude. Gordon MacQuarrie, my favorite North Woods philosopher, wrote, “There is much to be said in behalf of the solitary way… It lets people get acquainted with themselves. Do not feel sorry for the man on his own. If he is one who plunges into all sorts of work, if he does not dawdle, if he does not dwell upon his aloneness, he will get many things done and have a fine time doing them.”
Plus, in these pandemic days, it is safer to be working from home.
What about you? What can you do to put yourself on a Low-Information, Low-Communications Diet? And how would it affect your productivity and, ultimately, your quality of life?
不过，我的第二个想法是，可供选择的频道实在是太多了。太多的节目想吸引她的注意力。节目的数量之多，让人目不暇接。此外，在所有的频道翻来覆去的背后，隐含着一个信息，那就是她可能会错过一些比她目前选择的更好、更有趣的节目。(用internetspeak来说，它被称为FOMO，Fear Of Missing Out。)本来应该是一件好事–广泛的节目范围，以适应任何需求、任何兴趣和任何心情–但在你接受任何娱乐之前，却变成了具有挑战性和不安，并要求你在接受任何娱乐之前，付出太多的决定精力。我离开了妻子，退到家里的办公室，但电脑及其上网方式所带来的选择比有线电视所提供的选择还要多。
似乎，无论我如何精心计划，源源不断的干扰让我无法全神贯注地投入到自己选择的活动中。不管发生了什么。计划好你的工作，然后执行你的计划？或者KISS：Keep It Short and Simple。你能体会到我的困境吗？我的窘境是否也是你的窘境？
另外，再想想心理上的好处。你不用整天对最晚和最晚的干扰做出回应，而是有了控制自己生活的美妙感觉。你可以选择在什么时候有空，而不是不断地对一连串的事件做出反应—-我们习惯上把一天的时间都花在 “救火 “上，我们习惯上称之为 “救火”。此外，你大大增加了你可以处理的有意义的工作数量；这也是一件好事。
2）不要指望身边的人配合你，甚至是理解你的工作。有些人会觉得很有趣，非但不支持你的努力，反而会想办法打断你的工作。一些L-C、L-I减肥者发现，戴上耳机，听白噪音、安静的背景音乐，或者我个人最喜欢的 “河流音乐 “自然界的声音–有助于减少听觉上的干扰。少数人发现他们的工作环境本来就会让人分心–比如当我在办公桌前工作时，妻子和儿子不断地分心或打扰我。我的解决方案是把可爱的重庆图书馆（离我家只有15分钟的公交车车程）作为我的第二办公室。但在我的大楼附近也有一组公园长椅，周围有可爱的树木和灌木，给人一种半隐秘的感觉。
3）当我开始减少电话和上网时间时，我其实有点焦虑。尽管这种戒断和随之而来的刺激程度大大降低是我的选择，而且无可辩驳地说是一件好事，但这种变化还是引起了我的一些恐惧。我的想象力相当失控，因为我想象着错过了一个重要的电话或电子邮件、儿子学校的紧急传唤、或者有人需要我的意见才可以继续工作，我的想象力就会失控。然后，还有FOMO（Fear Of Missing Out），也就是internetspeak术语，指的是由于我自愿隐居的原因，不知道有什么新的、令人兴奋的发展。
爱因斯坦著名的说：”我爱的是人类。我不能忍受的是人。” 爱因斯坦可能一直在思考现代社会中我们所面临的无休止的会议和对话流。在信息（直接和数字）、通知和更新，以及大量的社交媒体上的繁杂信息之间，任何工作的完成都是令人惊讶的。像Nir Eyal和Liz Huber这样的权威人士强调尽量减少与他人会面的时间。是的，我们必须开会商定行动步骤、责任和最后期限，但要单独或以非常小的小组为单位进行工作。