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Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

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“Distraction,” Simplicity, and Running Toward Shitstorms

Dr. Einstein goes into a little more detail.

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.

—Albert Einstein, “On the Method of Theoretical Physics” (1934)

Context: Last week, I pinched off one of my typically woolly emails in response to an acquaintance whom I admire. He’s a swell guy who makes things I love, and he'd written, in part, to express concern that my recent Swift impersonation had been directed explicitly at something he'd made. Which, of course, it hadn’t—but which, as I'll try to discuss here, strikes me as irrelevant.

To paraphrase Bogie, I played it for him, so now I suppose I might as well play it for you.

(n.b.: Excerpted, redacted, munged, and heavily expanded from my original email)

There are at least a couple things that mean a lot to me that I'm still just not very good at.

  • Make nuanced points in whatever way they need to be made; even if that ends up seeming “un-nuanced”
  • Never explain yourself.

I want to break both these self-imposed rules privately with you here. [Editor’s Note: Um.] Because, I hope to nuance the shit out of some fairly un-nuanced points. And, to do that, I'll also (reluctantly) need to explain myself. But, here goes.

First [regarding my goofing on “distraction-free writing environments”] I think there are some GIANT distinctions at play here that a lot of folks may not find nearly as obvious as I do:

  1. Tool Mastery vs. Productivity Pr0n – Finding and learning the right tools for your work vs solely dicking around with the options for those tools is just so important, but also so different. And, admittedly, it’s almost impossible to contrast those differences in terms of hard & fast rules that could be true for all people in all situations. But, that doesn’t make the difference any less qualitatively special or real.

  2. Self-Help Vs. “Self”–“Help” – Solving the problem that caused the problem that caused the problem that caused the symptom we eventually noticed. Huge. Arguably, peerless.

    • Viz.: How many of us ignore the actual cause of our problem in favor of just reading dozens of blog posts about how to “turbocharge” its most superficial symptoms? Sick.
  3. Focus & Play – Yes, focusing on important work is, as Ford used to say, Job 1. But, that focus benefits when we maintain the durable and unapologetic sense of play that affords true creativity and fosters an emergence of context and connection that’s usually killed by stress. BUT.

    • Again, what conceivable “rule” could ever serve to immutably declare that “THIS goofing-off is critical for hippocampal plasticity” vs. “THAT goofing-off is just dumb, distracting bullshit?”
    • Impossible. Because drawing those kinds of distinctions is one of our most important day-to-day responsibilities. Decisions are hard, and there’s no app or alarm gadget that can change that.

      • Although, they certainly can help mask the depth of the underlying problem that made them seem so—what’s the parlance?—“indispensable”.
      • Think: Elmo Band-Aids for that unsightly pancreatic tumor.
  4. Reducing Distraction through Care (Rather than braces, armatures, and puppet strings). Removing interruptions and external distractions that harm your work or life? Great. Counting on your distraction-removal tool to supplement your non-existent motivation to do work that will never get done anyway? Pathetic.

    • Frankly, this is a big reason I'm so galled when anyone touts their tool/product/service as being the poor, misunderstood artist’s new miracle medicine—rather than just admitting they've made a slightly different spoon.
    • Because, let’s be honest: although most of us have plenty of perfectly serviceable spoons, everybody knows collecting cutlery is way more fun than using it to swallow yucky medicine.
  5. Using a System Vs. Becoming a System. Having a system or process for getting work done vs. making the iteration of that system or process a replacement for the work. This is just…wow…big.

    But, maybe most importantly to me…

  6. Embracing the Impossibles. Getting past these or any other intellectual koans by simply accepting life’s innumerable and unresolvable paradoxes, hypocrisies, and impossibilities as God-given gifts of creative constraint. Rather than, say, a mimeographed page of long division problems that must be solved for a whole number, n.

    • I just can’t ever get away from this one. For me, it’s what everything inevitably comes back to.
    • The very definition of our jobs is to solve the right problem at the right level for the right reason—based on a combination of the best info we have for now and a clear-eyed dedication to never pushing an unnecessary rock up an avoidable hill.
    • YET, we keep force-feeding the monster that tells us to fiddle and fart and blame the Big Cruel World whenever we face work that might threaten our fragile personal mythology.

      • “Sigh. I wish I could finally start writing My Novel….Ooooooh, if only I had a slightly nicer pen…and Zeus loved me more….”

All that stuff? That there’s a complex set of ideas to talk about for many complex reasons—not least of which being how many people either despise or (try to) deny the unavoidable impact of ol' number six.

But, here’s the thing: as much as saying so pisses anybody off, I think the topics we're NOT talking about whenever we disappear into Talmudic scholarship about “full-screen mode” or “minimalist desks” or whatever constitutes a “zen habit”—those shunned topics are precisely the things that I believe are most mind-blowingly critical to our real-world happiness as humans.

In fact, I believe that to such a degree that helping provide a voice for those unpopular topics that can be heard over the din is now (what passes for) my career. I really believe these deeper ideas are worth socializing on any number of levels and in many media. Even when it’s inconvenient and slightly disrespectful of someone’s business model.

So, that’s what I try to do. I talk about these things. Seldom by careful design. Often poorly. But, always because they each mean an awful lot to me.


But, no matter how I end up saying whatever the hell I say, I believe in saying it not simply to be liked or followed or revered as a “nice guy” who pushes out shit-tons of whatever to “help people.”

Because, believe me, friend, a great many of those apparently “nice guys” swarming around the web “helping people” these days are ass-fucking their audience for nickels and calling it a complimentary colonoscopy. And, while I absolutely think that in itself is empirically wrong, I also think it’s just as important to say that it’s wrong. Sometimes, True Things need to be said.

Which in this instance amounts to saying, a) selling people a prettier way to kinda almost but not really write is not, in the canonical sense, “nice”—but, far worse, b) leaving your starry-eyed customers with the nauseatingly misguided impression that their “distraction” originates from anyplace but their own busted-ass brain is really not “helping.” Not on any level. It is, literally, harmful.

“Helping” a junkie become more efficient at keeping his syringe loaded is hardly “nice.”

It’s the opposite of nice. And, it’s the opposite of helpful. These are my True Things.

And, to me, saying your True Things also means not watering down the message you care about in order to render it incapable of even conceivably hurting someone’s feelings—or of even conceivably losing you even one teeny-tiny slice of that precious “market share.”

Well, that’s the price, and I'm fine paying it—best money I've ever spent.

But, it also means trusting your audience by letting each of them decide to add water only as they choose to—by never corrupting the actual concentrate in a way that might make it less useful to the smartest or most eager 5% of people who'd like to try using it undiluted. Because, at that point, you're not only abandoning the coolest people you have the honor of serving—you risk becoming a charlatan.

And, that’s precisely what you become when you start to iteratively inbreed the kind of fucktard audience for whom daily buffets of weak swill and beige assurance are life’s most gratifying reward.

Sure. Those poor bastards may never end up using any of that watery information to do anything more ambitious than turbocharging their most regrettable symptoms. But, who’s the last person in the universe who’s going to grab them by the ears and tell them to get back to work? Exactly—that same “nice guy” whose livelihood now depends on keeping infantalized strangers addicted to his “help.”

Holy shit—no way could I ever live with that. It’s so wrong, it’s not even right. ESC, ESC, ESC!


Okay. So anyhow, there’s a really long-winded, overly generous, and extremely pompous way of trying to say I don’t know how to do what I do except how I do it. But, I do genuinely feel awful when innocent people feel they have been publicly humiliated or berated simply because I'm some dick who hates people.

Which has to be my favorite irony of all.

When I was a kid, I thought my Mom was “mean” not to let me play in traffic on busy Galbraith Road. Today, I'm not simply grateful that she had the strength and resolve to be so “mean”—I actually can’t imagine how sad it would be to not have people in your life who care enough about your long-term welfare to tell you to stop fucking around in traffic. To where you eventually might start even seeking 12x-daily safety hacks from some of the very same drivers whose recklessness may eventually kill you. Wow.


Admitting when life is complicated or things aren’t shiny and happy all the time strikes me as a wonderfully sane and adult way to conduct one’s life. That there are so many folks offended by even the existence of this anarchic idea is not a problem I can solve.

No more than I can wish useless email away or pray hard enough that it never rains on anyone’s leaky roof. All out of scope.

And, then, I jizzed on at length about how much I admire the recipient’s work. Which I do.

Good work doesn’t need a cookie

I may admire your work, too. Especially if you care a lot about that work and don’t overly sweat peoples' opinions of it. Most definitely including my own.

For these purposes, it doesn’t really matter whether we're friends and, honestly, it doesn’t even matter whether I love, use, or agree with everything you do, say, or make in a given day.

It doesn’t matter because good work doesn’t need me to love it. Like tornadoes and cold sores, good work happens with total disregard to whether I'm “into it.”

But, conversely, let’s stipulate that the points-of-view undergirding our opinions—again, including mine—will and should survive either agreement or lack of agreement with equivalently effortless ease. Because, like really good work, a really good point-of-view doesn’t require another person’s benediction.

Guess we'll have to disagree to agree

Now, to be only vaguely clearer here, I'm not posting this circuitous ego dump in the service of altering your opinion of either me, my friend, his work, or practically anything else for that matter.

But, I would love it if we could all be more okay with the fact that real life means that we do each have a different, sometimes incongruous, and often totally incompatible point-of-view. Yes. Even you have a point-of-view that someone despises. Ready to change it now? Jesus, I sure hope not.

Then, to be only slightly more clear, I'm also not advocating for that fakey brand of web-based kum ba ya that gets trotted out alternately as “tolerance” or “inclusion” or some styrofoam miniature of “civility.”

I'm absolutely not against all of those things when authentically practiced, but I'm also really skeptical of the well-branded peacemakers who are forever appointing themselves the Internet’s “Now-Now-Let’s-All-Pretend-We're-Just-Saying-the-Same-Useless-Thing-Here” den mothers.

Because we're not all saying the same things. Not at all.

And, it infantalizes some important conversations when we tacitly demand that any instance of honest disagreement be immediately horseshat into a photo opp where some thought leader gets to hoist everyone’s hands in the air like he’s fucking Jimmy Carter.

Nope. Not saying that.

Who will you really rely on?

What I AM saying is that alllllll this seemingly unrelated stuff is absolutely related—that the pattern of not relying on other people for anything you really care about is arguably the great-grandaddy of every useful productivity, creativity, or self-help pattern.

Where’s this matter? Pretty much everywhere you have any sort of stake:

  • Don’t rely on other people to remove your totally fake “distractions.”
  • Don’t rely on other people to pat your beret, re-tie your cravat, and make you a nice cocoa whenever that mean man on the internet points out that your “distractions” are totally fake. (Which they are)
  • Don’t rely on other people to tell you when or whether you have enough information.
  • Don’t rely on other people to define your job.
  • Don’t rely on other people to “design your lifestyle.”
  • Don’t rely on other people to decide when your opinions are acceptable.
  • Don’t rely on other people to tell you when you're allowed to be awesome.
  • Don’t rely on other people to make you care.
  • Don’t even rely on other people to tell you what you should or shouldn’t rely on.

Yes. I went there.

Because that’s the point. These hypocrisies, paradoxes, and ambiguities that people get so wound up about—that many of us are constantly (impotently) trying to resolve—cannot be resolved.

Because, yeah: all of these harrowingly unsolvable problems are immune to new notebooks and less-distracting applications and shinier systems and “nicer” self-“help” and pretty much anything else that is not, specifically, you walking straight into the angriest and least convenient shitstorm you can find and getting your ass kicked until the storm gets bored with kicking it.

Then, you find an even angrier storm. Then, another. And, so on.

“Get the fuck off of my obstacle, Private Pyle!”

Doing that annoying hard stuff is how you grow, get better, and learn what real help looks like. Even if that’s not the answer you wanted to hear. You get better by getting your ass out of your RSS reader and fucking making things until they suck less. Not by buying apps.

You don’t whine about distractions, or derail yourself over needing a nicer pencil sharpener, or aggravate your chronic creative diabetes by starting another desperate waddle to the self-help buffet. No. You work.

And, for what it’s worth, just like you can’t get to the moon by eating cheese, you'll also never leave boot camp with your original scrote intact by telling your drill sergeant to try using more honey than vinegar.

No. That sergeant’s job is to make you miserable. It’s his job to break down your callow conceits about what’s supposed to be easy and fair. It’s his job to emotionally pummel you into giving up and becoming a Marine.

You? You're not there to give the sergeant notes; you're there to sleep two hours a night, then not mind getting beaten for 20 hours until a decent Marine starts to fall out.

Who knows? He may even surprise you by introducing a surprisingly effective “distraction-free learning environment.”

“Tee ell dee ahr, Professor Brainiac.”

Like most humans, I like things I can understand. Like most readers, I love specificity. Like most thinkers, I love clarity. Like most students, I love relevance and practicality. And, like most busy people, believe it or not, I actually do really like it when someone gets straight to the point.

But, here’s the problem. If my 2-year-old daughter asks me about time travel, and I blithely announce, “E=mc2”, I will have said something that is entirely specific, clear, relevant, practical, and/or straight-to-the-point. For somebody.

But, not so much for my daughter. And, to be honest, not even to any useful degree for me.

She'd probably either laugh derisively at me (which she’s great at), or she'd pause and ask, “Whuh dat?” (which she’s even better at).

Thing is, her understanding that jumble of characters less than me—and my understanding it WAY less than Professor Al—has zero impact on the profundity, truth, beauty, or impact of the man’s theory.

Sure. You could quite accurately fault me for being a smartass and a poseur, and you could even berate my toddler for her unaccountably shallow understanding of Modern Physics. But, in any case, you can’t really blame either Albert or his theory.

You're turbocharging nothing

Specifically, Albert can’t begin to tell us what he really knows if we don’t understand math.

So, let’s say this theory you've been hearing about really interests you. And, let’s also pretend, just for the sake of the analogy, that you haven’t completed Calculus III (212) or Quantum Mechanics (403) or even something as elementary as, say, Advanced Astrophysics II (537). I know you have. Obviously. But, let’s pretend. Where do you start?

Well, you could read some tips about learning math. You could find a list of 500 indispensable resources for indispensable math resources. You could buy a new “distraction-free math environment.” Heck, there’s actually nothing to stop you from just declaring yourself a “math expert.” Congratulations, Professor.

Thing is: you still don’t know math.

Which means you still can’t really understand the theory—no more than a pathetic Liberal Arts refugee like me or a dullard Physics ignoramus like my kid can really grok relativity.

Difference is, you will have blown a lot of time hoping that actual expertise follows non-existent effort—while my daughter and I get to remain total novices without charge. Only, we don’t get all mad at the theory as a result; a staggering number of fake math experts do.

I mean, be honest—after all that recreational non-work and make-believe dedication almost trying to kinda learn math sorta—you might actually get frustrated at how brazenly Al defies your fondness for shortcuts by continuing to rely on so many terms and proofs and blah-blah-blah that you still just don’t understand. So annoying.

You may simply decide that Albert Einstein’s a huge dick for never saying things that can be completely understood solely by scanning a headline.


You never really know what you didn’t know until you know it

But, Al just told the truth.

Problem is, Al’s truth not only requires fancy things in order to be truly understood—the more of those fancy things you take away from his truth, the less true it gets. And, by the time it’s been diluted to the point where you're comfortable that you understand it? You'd be understanding the wrong thing. Even I can understand that.

But, not one bit of any of this is Al’s fault. Al doesn’t get to control who uses, abuses, gets, or doesn’t get what he said or why it matters. Especially since he’s been dead for over fifty years.

All I know is, regardless of who has ears to hear it on a given day, it would be to Al’s credit never to mangle something important in order to get it into terms everybody’s ready to handle without actually trying.

And God bless him for never agreeing that your “distractions” to learning math are his problem.

So, yeah, if you only need to hand in a crappy 5-page paper, you could certainly Cliff’s Notes your way through Borges, Eliot, or Joyce in an afternoon, and feel like you haven’t missed a thing. Trouble is, if you did care even a little, it’s impossible to even say how much you're missing since you can’t be bothered to soldier through the source text. The text itself is the entire point.

Even the wonderfully cogent and readable layman’s explanations Einstein himself provided don’t really get to the nut, the application, and the implications of his real theory.

That all takes real math.

That “single datum of experience” matters

Sometimes, complex or difficult things stop being true when you try to make them too simple. Sometimes, you have to actually get laid to understand why people think sex is such a thing. Sometimes, you need to learn some Greek if you really want to understand The Gospel of John. And, yeah, sometimes, you're going to have to just work unbelievably hard at whatever you claim to care about before anyone can begin to help you get any better—or less “distracted”—at it.

The part I really know is what doesn’t work. Reading Penthouse Forum won’t help you CLEP out of Vaginal Intercourse 101. Watching a Rankin-Bass cartoon about the Easter Bunny will teach you very little about the intricacies of transubstantiation. And, if you can’t be troubled to care so much about your work that you reflexively force distractions away, dicking around with yet another writing application will merely aggravate the problem. Ironic, huh?

These quantum mechanics of personal productivity are rife with such frustrating “paradoxes.”

These are True Things.

Achieving expertise and doing creative work is all horribly complicated and difficult and paradoxical and frustrating and recursive and James Joyce-y—and any guide, blog, binary, guru, or “nice guy” that tries to suggest otherwise is probably giving you a complimentary colonoscopy. Do the math.

Want a new syllabus? Sure:

Run straight into your shitstorm, my friends. Reject the impulse to think about work, rather than finishing it. And, open your heart to the remote possibility that any mythology of personal failure that involves messiahs periodically arriving to make everything “easy” for you might not really be helping your work or your mental health or your long-standing addiction to using tools solely to ship new excuses.

Learn your real math, and any slide rule will suffice. Try, make, and do until you quit noticing the tools, and if you still think you need new tools, go try, make, and do more.

If you can pull off this deceptively simple and millennia-old pattern, you'll eventually find that—god by dying god—any partial truth that’s supported your treasured excuses for not working will be replaced by a no-faith-required knowledge that you're really, actually, finally getting better at something you care about.

Which is just sublimely un-distracting.


This article is dedicated to my friend, Greg Knauss. No, he’s not the app guy–he’s just a good man who does good work, who accidentally/unintentionally helped me write this rant. He also happens to be a fella who could teach anyone a thing or two about writing with distractions. Thanks, Greg.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
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