OVERVIEW

Beyond the negative impact of our smartphones on our attention spans lie other harms. These negatives include anxiety, loneliness and a tendency to take extreme stances. Cal Newport says that by jettisoning all but the most essential digital tools for a month, not only can we learn “deep work”, we can also build more fulfilling social & family lives.

“Facebook is the new cigarettes…You know, it’s addictive. It’s not good for you. There’s people trying to get you to use it that even you don’t understand what’s going on. The government needs to step in. The government needs to really regulate what’s happening,” – Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce on CNBC (see https://www.cnbc.com/2018/11/14/salesforce-ceo-marc-benioff-facebook-is-the-new-cigarettes.html)

The route to professional success is paved with…deep work
It is fashionable these days to highlight social media stars who are apparently minting millions. Such people – whose cooking/ cosmetic make-up/ sports/ fashion design skills are so well honed that they – are deemed to have cut free of the conventional constraints imposed by old media and conventional corporate constructs. Hence by the time they are in their early twenties, these new age stars appear to have hit the jackpot of social media success.

This narrative does not hold up to rational analysis. For every Kim Kardashian there are millions of other youngsters who are doing their thing on social media for next to no reward. For every celebrity chef on social media there a billions of others cooking grub for no return. Of course, this is no different than what happens in the conventional world – for every Virat Kohli there are millions of cricketers who never get to play for the Indian cricket team.

In ‘Deep Work’ (2016), Cal Newport says that the free market – on a global scale – rewards people who master hard skills (eg. the ability to write high quality prose in the English language) and then produce consistently at an elite level (eg. writing Harry Potter novels which is what JK Rowling did to rise from poverty to become a dollar billionaire).

Newport points out that Rowling habitually locks herself up in a hotel in downtown Edinburgh when she is working on her novels. In a similar vein, he highlights that the young Bill Gates worked non-stop for two months to produce the first version of the programming language, BASIC. During this period of frenetic programming to write the code that would ultimately form the foundation of Microsoft’s dominant operating system, Gates would fall asleep in front of his computer whilst coding. He would then wake up an hour later and continue coding (for a short video on ‘Deep Work’ watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZD7dXfdDPfg).

In contrast, the vast majority of the cooking, sports, politics and make-up videos on social media are easy to replicate. In fact, that is exactly what millions of teenagers around the world – including my children – are doing. That is an interesting hobby for them to have but it is unlikely to be the path they take to build their name & fame.

Even if you believe that there are other drivers to JK Rowling and Bill Gates’ success, it is hard to rebut Newport’s key point: deep work i.e. “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit” creates value, improves your skills and helps you create output which is hard to replicate.

Even more interestingly, as an increasing percentage of people find their attention and their cognition fragmented by digital media and, specifically, by smartphones, “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

Alongside several others like Marc Benioff (see quote at the beginning of this note) and Kanye West, Newport believes that smartphones and social media are causing deep-seated psychological damage. Newport’s recent book, ‘Digital Minimalism’ (2019), elaborates on this point more extensively. Beyond the obvious distraction caused by checking your phone 85 times a day and spending three hours of screentime per day (stats of the average phone user in the United States), Newport highlights more insidious harms caused by smartphones:

  • Loneliness: Citing research conducted by psychologist Matthew Lieberman – author of ‘Social: Why our brains are wired to connect’ (2013) – Newport says “our brains adapted to automatically practice social thinking during any moments of cognitive downtime, and it’s this practice that helps us become really interested in our social world”. Basically, our brains are wired to be social – to read other people’s emotions, their minds, their feelings and then to connect with them and interact with them.

 

Smartphones and social media are damaging our ability to cognitively connect with the world around us in two ways: (a) by reducing the time available for such interactions because of amount of the time we spend on our smartphones; and (b) reducing the need to have such interactions by persuading us that we can interact with our friends, our colleagues and our suppliers on the phone rather than actually talking to them.
Newport says, ‘The loss of social connection…turns out to trigger the same system as physical pain…’What is the result of this? Brian Primack from the University of Pittsburgh showed in an article which appeared in July 2017 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that “…the more someone used social media, the more likely they were to be lonely. Indeed, someone in the highest quartile of social media use was three times more likely to be lonelier than someone in the lowest quartile.”

  • Extremism: Around the world, in large and seemingly mature democracies, the political discourse seems to be becoming increasingly polarised. Americans saw this in to the run up to Trump’s election, Britons saw this in the run-up to Brexit and Indians see this whenever a General Election is around the corner. The way social media is designed, says Newport, contributes to this: “….online discussions seem to accelerate people’s shift towards emotionally charged and draining extremes. The techno-philosopher Jaron Lanier convincingly argues that the primacy of anger and outrage online is, in some sense, an unavoidable feature of the medium: In an open marketplace for attention, darker emotions attract more eyeballs than positive and constructive thoughts. For heavy internet users, repeated interaction with this darkness can become a source of draining negativity – a steep price that many don’t even realize they’re paying…”

 

  • Anxiety: All of us need peace and solitude to do high quality work on difficult, complex subjects. The digital world robs us of this peace and solitude, not just in our offices, not just in our homes but also when we are at the playground with our kids, when we are on holiday and when we are relaxing with friends. Newport says, “Eliminating solitude also introduces new negative repercussions that we’re only now beginning to understand. A good way to investigate a behaviour’s effect is to study a population that pushes the behaviour to an extreme…these extremes are readily apparent among young people born after 1995…a 2015 study by Common Sense Media found that teenagers were consuming media….nine hours per day on average…If persistent solitude deprivation causes problems, we should see them show up here first…

…San Diego University psychology professor Jean Twenge…is one of the world’s foremost experts on generational differences in American youth. As Twenge notes in her September 2017 article for the Atlantic, she has been studying these trends for over twenty-five years. But starting around 2012, she noticed a shift in the measurements of teenager emotional states…Young people born between 1995 and 2012, a group Twenge calls “iGen”, exhibited remarkable differences as compared to the Millennials that preceded them…”Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed,” Twenge writes…“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”…”Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones,” Twenge concludes.”

As you would expect given how powerful the social media giants are, the negative commentary cited above has been countered by other psychologists who claim that the dangers of social media are being overstated. Says Jeff Hancock, a psychologist who runs the Social Media Lab at Stanford University, “Using social media is essentially a trade-off…You get very small but significant advantages for your well-being that come with very small but statistically significant costs.”

The website, Scientific American, summarised the results from Hancock’s research as: “Hancock and his team found that more social media use was associated slightly with higher depression and anxiety (though not loneliness) and more strongly associated with relationship benefits (though not eudaemonic or hedonic well-being). (The largest effect, at 0.20, was the benefit of stronger relationships.) He and his colleagues also found that active rather than passive use was positively associated with well-being.” (Source: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/social-media-has-not-destroyed-a-generation/)

Whilst the debate on exactly how damaging social media is continues, it is difficult to argue with the point that any form of distraction when you are trying to do high quality work reduces your effectiveness. So, how can we minimise such distractions?

The remedy: digital detox
Thanks to the success of ‘Deep Work’, Newport’s prescriptions for creating 90 minute slots for solid, uninterrupted work (without internet or emails or colleagues disturbing you) are now well known. Newport says that you should begin by trying to do this for an hour each day and then gradually build up to four hours deep work every day. As you do so, you will develop myelin – a white tissue which develops around neurons – in the relevant areas of your brain. This allows your brain cells to fire faster and cleaner. Effectively, you are upgrading your brain and this should allow you to come up with new ideas and solutions quicker.

But you can only do this if you get rid of your craving for social media, for text messaging, for constantly checking your emails and answering phone calls through the day. How can we break all these nasty habits which we have acquired from years of shallow work?

Newport’s book ‘Digital Minimalism’ advocates what it says on the tin i.e. he asks you to first quit social media (watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E7hkPZ-HTk) and then undergo a form of digital detox wherein for a month you abandon all forms of optional digital media (basically, abandon everything which is not essential for your family’s life safety & wellbeing). Since most of us are totally hooked to our phones, Newport gives us a few tips on how we can get ready of our one month digital sabbatical:

  1. Build up your social life: Before you begin your digital detox, you need understand how you will fill the void left by digital media in your life. For many people compulsive phone use fills up the void created by a well-developed social & family life. The itinerant life of the typical Indian professional – wherein almost every other year she moves cities – makes it even harder to build relationships in the local community. If you are such an individual – and truth be told, many of us are – you need to plan in advance which classes or community groups you will join or activities you will do with your family in the time freed up during your digital detox.
  2. Partial phone deprivation: During weekdays, start leaving your phone behind on your desk when you go for meetings or when you go for your lunch break. On holidays, start leaving your phone at home when you go our dinner or for a movie or – better still – for a long walk in the park. As you do this you will gradually get accustomed to staying away from your phone. That in turn will make you less prone to picking up your phone and peering at it repeatedly.
  3. Put your phone on DND: Even when you are with your phone, learn to put in on ‘Do Not Disturb’ (DND) mode so that you don’t get notifications for anything and you don’t get incoming calls. You can adjust your DND settings such that near and dear ones can reach you but no one else can. Then in specific chunks of time which you have set aside each day – ideally during your evening commute – get your phone calls done.
  4. Scheduled digital dosing: As with your phone calls, so with your use of the internet, social media and text messaging  – have pre-scheduled time slots each day in which you access the internet and do your emailing and text messaging. For the rest of the day, stay away from the internet and from messaging. If through the day you keep responding to every message which crops up on your screen you are giving yourself no chance to do deep work which also means that you are giving yourself no chance to develop your Myelin.
  5. Digital downtime every evening: When you are done with work for the day, try to shut down for the day completely. So no emailing, text messaging and internet surfing once you have shut shop for the day. That necessarily implies that you: (a) focus on your family and your social relationships and yourself after you have wound up work for the day; and (b) have a clear plan for how you will spend your evening. (If you don’t have a plan the chances are that you will drift back to digital media for entertainment.)
  6. Remove social media apps & use website versions: Social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn have a multitude of uses and whilst some of these features have become addictive for millions of users (this seems to be particularly true for Facebook), you might not want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Hence, one way to hold on to the best features of these platforms (eg. the ability to find like minded people, the ability to recruit the right people or find the right suppliers, etc) whilst jettisoning the worst (eg. notifications, ‘likes’) is to delete these apps from your phone and install the website versions on your desktop. You will find that the time it takes to boot up your desktop, then open your web browser and then fire up Facebook kills a big part of the impulse-driven behaviour which characterizes our use of social media.

 

Effectively what Newport is saying is that we need to try to build a routine for our workday wherein internet use takes place within pre-specified time slots and ditto for phone calling. By implication the rest of the schedule is freed up for deep work. In our 17th May 2019 blog on how great men & women have built their working days over the past four hundred years, we described how they had created a similar daily routine albeit before the arrival of the shiny smartphones: see https://marcellus.in/blogs/marcellus-the-working-habits-of-great-minds/

I have implemented bullets 2, 5 and 6. With a bit of help from my better half, I might be able to implement 1 and 5. Then I will be ready for Newport’s digital detox. When I begin my one month digital detox, Newport warns that the first two weeks will be painful and there are no tips or tricks that can mitigate that pain. But as I consciously pull back from all optional forms of digital media over the course of the month, I will find that things will settle down. Newport assures me that my friends and clients won’t abandon me. Gradually, I will find that the quantum and quality of interactions with friends & family improving. I will become less stressed, less anxious and less fidgety. After a month of full digital detox, I can then add back a small number of carefully chosen online activities that I believe will provide massive benefit to me for activities or goals which you deeply value eg. posting my blogs on LinkedIn (using the website version of LinkedIn), visiting the 3 websites where I find high quality commentary on Finance, Economics and Psychology and reading my email.

Investment implications
Amongst my colleagues, I can see a wide spectrum of behaviours in terms of smartphone usage. Two of my colleagues are super disciplined in terms of phone and internet use and I have seen for over a year now that these two guys have no trouble working in a focused manner for 90 minute intervals. Unsurprisingly, these two guys produce outstanding investment insights.

At the other end of the spectrum tend to be bright young interns who work for us – they belong to the iPhone generation and I can see that they struggle to read an annual report in one sitting. It takes them a few months before their minds settle down, their phones switch off and they start learning that concentrating for long periods of time is 50% of the skill required to be an analyst.

As I see the youngsters in our team grow up, I remember my teenage years when my dad used to sit next to me as I struggled with algebra & calculus. He would lock the door of my room, sit himself down next to my desk and say the same thing again and again: “Concentrate….concentrate…learn to concentrate”. I used to hate my dad for doing this but with the benefit of hindsight I realise that his years in IIT Kharagpur had taught him the value of deep work. I needed Cal Newport in order to learn the same lesson.

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