Unplugging (from the bad stuff)

Last fall a friend sent me a link to this blog post by Cal Newport, a computer science professor who is “particularly interested in the impact of new technologies on our ability to perform productive work and lead satisfying lives,” according to his About page. Newport points to another blog post by expert woodworker Christopher Schwarz explaining why he had stopped interacting with the public via email:

Trust me. It’s not you. It’s me. I had multiple public email addresses for 17 years and answered every damn question sent to me – no matter how odd or how much research it required. I helped lazy students with their papers on hand craft. I found links for people too lazy to use a thing called Google. I answered sincere but incredibly time-consuming emails from people who wanted to tell me their life story and get detailed advice on the steps they should take to become a woodworker.

It all became too much, so Schwarz simply deleted his public email address, and now rigorously ignores any emails from the public which happen to find their way to him. Which earned him Newport’s admiration.

Mine, too! I spent some time looking around Schwarz’s website, in part because our son Jerry has shown some interest in woodworking. Remarkable work, beautifully photographed. I was also delighted to discover that he has publicly declared himself to be an anarchist. That goaded me into scheduling a road trip to Schwarz’s workshop on the proper Saturday of the month, with Chris and Jerry in tow. We didn’t talk anarchy—it was actually a bit awkward, since I couldn’t think of much to say that wouldn’t come off as fanboy-ish—but we bought some of his books, and perhaps there will be more opportunities down the road.

Newport’s final paragraph got me thinking.

In more detail, what impresses me about Schwarz is that he rejected the fear of missing out — on a new lead, on a new opportunity, on a new fan — that permeates so much of our digital age business culture …

No question that FOMO is a much bigger problem than any of us suspect–not only does it put us in a position of weakness and dependency, but I don’t think people are aware what vast amounts of time they devote to avoiding missing out.

Early last year I once again took the pruning shears to my information feeds, this time cutting away anything that made me the slightest bit agitated, irritated, or bored (not much left!). Afterwards I was startled at how much less I knew about the news of the day (I was barely aware of the two hurricanes last fall, and didn’t hear about the Mexico City earthquake until three days after the fact) and how much time opened up as a result. And I’m less agitated, irritated, and bored–how sweet is that?

… and started instead from a simpler question: how do I get better at what I do best? Honest answers to this query rarely involve spending more time online.

Well, depends what you mean by “spending time online.” Socializing, commenting, following controversies, contributing to controversies, posturing or following on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram … all true. But of the time I spend getting better at what I want to do well, or more knowledgeable about what’s important to me, a large proportion is spent in online research and study. Chris would say the same, I think.

We live in a golden age for autodidacts, where experts share their knowledge freely and anyone with an internet connection and the proper search skills can do a deep study on just about any topic they choose. Lots of time-wasting temptations mixed in there, of course, but easily avoided if you pay attention to what you’re doing.