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Guest post: More on distractions, from Paul Ford

Last week, I enjoyed and linked to Paul Ford’s Ftrain post, “Followup/Distraction.” It led to us exchanging a few chatty emails, so I asked Paul to favor us with a deeper write-up on his idea of narrow vs. broad distractions. More specifically, I asked: “Is there such a thing as a good distraction?”

Are there "good" distractions?

by Paul Ford

I don't want to differentiate between "good" distractions and "bad" distractions. I want to stick to the idea of "narrow" and "broad" distractions. Because sometimes a broad distraction--like, say, getting drunk and watching the movie Red Dawn--is exactly what you need. In fact, one of the best things I can do when I'm in a rut is go see some utter-crap movie that features CIA operatives and lots of gunfire. I like to goof off a whole lot. I think it's insanity to try to justify that in any way.

I struggle, though, because my PC can play a DVD of Red Dawn while I check my email and work on an essay. This sort of computing power is fine for strong-willed people, but for the weak-willed like myself it's a hopeless situation. My work requires me to patiently work through things and come up with fresh ideas. And I can honestly say that since broadband Internet came to my home a year and a half ago my stock of new, fresh, fun ideas has grown very thin. It's just too much. My mind can't wander, because, with anything that interests me, I can look it up on Wikipedia to gain some context. Before I know it I've got thirty tabs open at once in Firefox. Then new email comes in. I loathe the way computers blink to demand your attention; the computer wants to tell me, for instance, that it can't load a web page. On the Mac, my Firefox icon starts jumping up and down like an anxious toddler (I know I can probably turn this off, but there are always more pop-up windows). My computer constantly wants to share totally asinine, useless information like that with me. So I've started using an Alphasmart Neo to draft text, and WordPerfect for DOS to edit and revise. My average daily word count has doubled as a result, and my stock of fresh ideas seems to be replenishing.

Talking about Harper's Weekly

One of my tasks at work is to write a weekly roundup of the world's news called "the Harper's Magazine Weekly Review." It's a free weekly compendium of despair and hopelessness. We send it out via email to tens of thousands of people and put it on the web. And I feel a real duty towards those readers to somehow summarize the week, to try to capture the world, and to entertain my audience as I do so. I've been writing it every week since February, 2005, when I took the Weekly over from the person who created it, Roger D. Hodge, after he became Deputy Editor at Harper's Magazine and was too busy to write it every week.

At first I thought that the only way I could write a summary of the week's news was to be truly, broadly distracted. I followed as many links as I could. I set up an RSS reader with literally one thousand feeds--every possible news source I could find. But it didn't work. An RSS reader seems like the perfect application if you're trying to write a summary of the world, but it was worse than useless. I was including too many different events, and my Weekly Reviews were too long and ponderous. Looking back on them I can see myself struggling. So I went to Roger and asked him how he used to put the Weekly together each week without losing his mind.

“I set up an RSS reader with literally one thousand feeds--every possible news source I could find. But it didn't work. An RSS reader seems like the perfect application if you're trying to write a summary of the world, but it was worse than useless.”

Roger is an uncannily organized and diligent person, and I learn a great deal by watching him in action. What he used to do, he told me, is take the New York Times and read it over the week, then circle the stories that were interesting, tear them out, and put them in a pile. Most of the important details, he said--the most revealing quotes from politicians, the most obscure, ridiculous details--tended to be well into the story. He supplemented the things he learned from the Times with his other reading, with Google News searches, and so on. But there was a single source that he used as a starting point. So I canned my RSS reader and started using the Times as my base of operations, and began to read individual news articles with much more care. Immediately my prose was tighter because, by going slower, I became more informed about the subjects I was trying to summarize and was less overwhelmed. The number of subscriptions to the Weekly Review shot up right away and I got a great deal more positive feedback from readers. Readers could sense that I was more confident, I guess. I haven't opened an RSS reader in five months. I just peck away during the week, gathering news stories, a few each day. I use BBC News more than the Times, now, because I prefer to read online and the BBC News site is incredibly easy to navigate and has good coverage of world affairs. On Monday morning I edit and put it all together--I use a spreadsheet with one line per statement and source--and check my facts. Then three people edit it, one after another, which is a real privilege, because they invariably catch me doing something stupid.

On "Amish Computing"

When I tell other geeks about these processes (and God knows talking about process is something that we tend to do the point of exhaustion), I sometimes get accused of being a Luddite, which is nonsense. I love technology with a passion. I spend half of each day programming Java in Eclipse and use Subversion to manage files; I enjoy hacking around inside of Apache and Tomcat. I love Semantic Web technologies. But my personal goals are pretty specific: I want to be a good writer, and I want to have a full command of web technologies. This means that I must spend a lot of time writing and thinking, and working in my little corner of the web. I try to focus on these goals for between eight and twelve hours a day. And during those eight or twelve hours there are narrow distractions that help me become a better thinker--say, an interesting article about a new Java technique or a really interesting, well-edited galley that's going around the office, which I'll read and think about--and then there are disasters, like reading Slashdot threads, or meandering through Google News, or "researching" something on Wikipedia and following a chain of fifty links.

“For most of my life people saw me doing the things I liked to do and said, 'you have too much free time on your hands.' I’ve decided that when you hear that it means you’re doing something right.”

These last few months I've had real trouble getting things done(™), which has really bothered me because I really like programming and writing; those are two of my favorite things to do while sitting. When I'm not getting enough done I get unhappy and depressed and think about the billions of years I'll be dead before the heat death of the universe erases everything. I want to feel like I did something during my brief life besides check my email. And lately I've been working hard to become more productive. I've started quit every application that isn't relevant to the issue at hand and tried my damnedest only to allow the good distractions to come in the door, rather than to let the broad, wide world in at all times. I try not to multitask when I can help it. I think of this as "Amish Computing." You push the worldly things away because they distract you from your goals.

I've been programming and designing a new version of Harper's website, one that can grow over the years to accommodate every page of the magazine since it began publishing in 1850. I think it's a worthy task and I want to do a good job. It's my responsibility to design the site, program the subscriber functions, and going forward, to see hundreds of thousands of page images scanned, corrected, and quality controlled.

The Amish don't drive cars. My "car," with regards to programming the new Harper's Magazine website, would be something like Ruby on Rails. When I see something like Ruby on Rails I get very excited and think, "Wow! I'll be able to learn a whole new set of skills, and I'll spend hours hacking away, creating new problems to solve. Come on AJAX! Come on dynamic database objects!" But I have this big set of problems I'm already trying to solve, and I have the skills to solve them, and a roadmap already written. A few months ago I spent several days dabbling with Ruby on Rails, wondering if I should ditch Java for the Rails framework, until I realized that it was just another broad distraction posing as a narrow distraction. Not to say it's not a great advance, but in my life switching over to Rails would create more problems than it would solve. It would disrupt the close connection I feel with the Java code I've already written. I decided that I would lose more than I'd gain.

Of course, the Amish have a high rate of dwarfism and genetic disease transmission because Amish communities interbreed over generations. This is bad. You need to let the big, broad world in, otherwise we'd all be writing FORTRAN and COBOL. But basically, if you have an Internet connection, you're guaranteed access to the big wide world whenever you want it. The ideas will be there, for the taking, when you need to solve a problem. At a certain level I want to avoid creating new problems just so I can have the pleasure of solving them because then I end up starting projects and never finishing them.

Because I'm a data glutton. When I'm in my most distractible place I don't chew my thoughts properly. The most productive times in my life are the ones where I'm just doing my own thing, focused, and trying to solve some problem that I find interesting--when I'm narrowly distracted. I've met people who are very into model trains, or knitting, or coding games for the Commodore 64, and I feel a real kinship because they find the same pleasure in their activity that I do from writing and programming.

I’m very paranoid about any metric of productivity. One person’s wasted time is another person’s productivity. For most of my life people saw me doing the things I liked to do and said, “you have too much free time on your hands.” I’ve decided that when you hear that, it means you’re doing something right. I hear it a lot less now that I’ve got a novel out and work at Harper’s Magazine, which is a job that carries some prestige. But that doesn’t make sense, because I’m doing the same things I did before anyone else took interest. External metrics are pretty useless. I like to think about Allen Ginsberg, when he confessed to his shrink that all he wanted to was write poetry, and his shrink said “well, why don’t you?” If you measured life by productivity, who would pick up a guitar? Besides, I’m happiest when I’m narrowly distracted—when I’m working on a task and I find it interesting enough that the rest of the world goes pale and I can really focus and explore. And luckily I find “boring” things, like programming and revising text, to be very exciting.

I just want to spend more time doing those things and less time flipping between windows waiting for some new signal to come over the wire. It’s a struggle, because the easiest thing to do is just swim in the ocean of data. I can spend hours browsing the web without coming up for air. But ultimately that leaves me far more bored than doing the mundane, repetitive tasks that constitute “working.”

About the Author

Paul's eyePaul Ford is an Associate Editor at Harper's Magazine, an occasional contributor to NPR's All Things Considered, a contributing writer to TheMorningNews.org, the sole proprietor of Ftrain.com, and the author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star--an amazingly funny novel about indie rock that you will not regret reading (coincidentally, it's available on Amazon.com).




An Oblique Strategy:
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