Jordan Koschei jordan koschei

Culture

Attention is the Resource We Treat Most Casually

All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

Blaise Pascal, likely before compulsively checking Twitter

For knowledge workers — designers, programmers, writers, analysts, and desk jockeys of all kinds — our minds are our greatest asset. We get paid for our ability to turn our brains towards a problem, ruminate on an answer, and produce a solution. It’s how we create value.

Our attention is our most valuable resource, yet it’s the one we treat most casually.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but tell me if this sounds familiar:

I think long and hard before spending money. I hate to waste food or drink. I cringe at the thought of leaving a light on unused. And yet I’ll sink an hour into browsing TechCrunch or Hacker News and barely realize it.

Media Diets & Mental Junk Food

When it comes to our bodies, we understand intuitively that diet is important. “You are what you eat,” after all. Fruits and veggies in, your body gets stronger. Twizzlers and Twinkies, not so much.

We’re less attuned to the way our media diet affects our minds. We may know on some level that an hour of browsing Reddit isn’t the same as an hour spent reading a good book, but that doesn’t stop us from making the easier choice. The short bursts of Twitter are more enticing than the slow burn of literature; the driving beat and nursery-rhyme melodies of Katy Perry are more fun than the impenetrable riches of anything classical. Pull-to-refresh provides a stronger dopamine hit than ponder-and-fathom.

It’s irrational, isn’t it? If our livelihood is based on our ability to focus our attention, then we should flee from anything that weakens our attention span and flock towards anything that strengthens it. As the “knowledge economy” grows, we should see a whole army of voracious readers and dedicated meditators. Instead, we have a world of quick cuts and hot takes. It takes an addiction to make us act so irrationally against our own self-interest.

Junk food short-circuits our genetic predisposition towards sugar and fat to make us crave it more than any fruits or vegetables. Similarly, the mental foods that are bad for us short-circuit our cravings for information. We may know that John McPhee is better for us than The Bachelor, but that doesn’t mean we won’t pick The Bachelor every time.

(Maybe it isn’t The Bachelor for you; maybe it’s something else. Or maybe you have better self-control than I do and this isn’t a problem for you at all. Anyway, isn’t Demi the worst this season?)

Saving Our Attention

The mind is a clearinghouse for information. Information goes in, is processed by a set of particular filters and biases and mental models, and comes out as knowledge.

That’s what we should be preserving at all costs — our minds’ ability to focus well.

It seems like everyone in tech circles is talking about this. Daily meditation, tech sabbaths, internet detox retreats, focus-boosting apps… they’re everywhere. They feel a little like putting a Band-Aid on a broken bone. But, in the absence of a better solution (or the willpower to ditch Twitter and Reddit), they’ll have to do.

I’m admittedly terrible at following my own advice, but here are some resources I’ve found that have helped boost my attention, or at least mitigate my distractedness:

  • 📙 Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. A book by the guys who wrote Sprint about techniques they’ve found to focus better and remember more of their days.
  • 📘 The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It’s a few years old, but this book by Nicholas Carr explores how our brains rewire around the media we spend time with. The more time we spend with quick, shallow information (like Twitter and Reddit), the less capable we are of consuming deep information (like books). Scary.
  • 📙 Amusing Ourselves to Death. This classic by Neil Postman was written before the era of the internet, but its discussion of the effects of television on our brains feels as timely as ever.
  • Focus. A macOS app that disables distracting websites and apps for as long as you specify, with no take-backs.
  • 🔗 Liberate for iOS. Same idea as Focus, but for iOS. It blocks websites only (no apps), and unfortunately can be disabled, but still helpful.

Postscript

I like the idea of meditation, in the sense of sitting quietly and thinking deeply for a stretch of time. If we hold that deliberate practice is the single most effective way to get great at anything, than it makes sense that the best way to increase your focus and attention is to practice being focused and attentive.

I don’t like the pseudo-spirituality of apps like Headspace and Calm (yes, even the apps that claim not to have a spiritual bent seem to have a spiritual bent, whether they themselves realize it or not). I like the idea of having a meditation timer with soothing sounds and a bell to tell me when my time is up, but I’d rather have an app dedicated to that purpose than use a timer buried in a more fully-featured meditation app.

Since I haven’t been able to find anything like that yet, I’m building my own. It’s called Interlude, it’s an unguided meditation timer, and it’s my first solo iOS app. I’ve had a chance to do some work in Swift while working on Dwell, and this seems like a good way to flex my engineering muscles and create something of my own.

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Digital Terroir

Hello, CatskillsConf! This is the written version of my talk, given on October 20, 2018 at 4:00pm. There might be some slight differences between the written version and the spoken verison. All images are from Unsplash, except for the Hudson Valley image, which I took myself from the top of the tower at Mohonk.

Read More →

Handwriting

As I get older, I’ve come to value handwriting more and more.

When I was a kid, I never understood why we had to handwrite everything in school, often in (gasp) cursive. I preferred the speed and precision of typing, especially as someone who had terrible handwriting. I felt the same way throughout my academic career, especially when it was validated in college by the expectation that everything would be type.

Even in college I noticed that my retention was lower when I typed. I ignored the signs then, because I still preferred typing to hand cramps, but now there’s research backing up the idea that typed notes are less effective than handwritten ones. As the Wall Street Journal asked: Can handwriting make you smarter?

Similarly, my retention is lower when reading a book on a Kindle rather than on paper. Anecdotal, I know, but I suspect the data would bear this out.

[begin unscientific conjecture]

My guess about why paper and handwriting beats screens and typing? The human brain has been tuned over millions of years to register geographic data as important. Where’s the best source of food? Where’s good shelter? Where’s that den of vicious animals to avoid?

Screens don’t have their own geography — no matter what you’re reading on a screen, it’s still the same screen. Your brain has less reason to automatically memorize it. There’s no geographic data like there is with the page. Similarly, handwriting has a spatial component that typing does not — the texture and smell of the page, and the feel of the pen as it glides over the paper, make a difference.

[end of unscientific conjecture]

All this is to say: I want to be someone who writes things out longhand more than I do. I want to carry a commonplace book around with me to record quotes and notes. I want to draft essays on paper and then transfer them into my computer. I want to keep a journal that doesn’t rely on a hard drive. I want the notes I put in the margins of books to be comprehensible by future generations.

What’s stopping me? Mostly my handwriting — it’s atrocious. I often can’t read things I wrote a few hours earlier.

I wish I’d spent more time working on my handwriting in school. It’s possible to practice and change your handwriting, but it’s hard, and you have to work through the decades of muscle memory (and hand cramps).

Also, there’s the downside of having a notebook that looks like it was last used by a serial killer. Row after row of capital A, lowercase A, capital B, lowercase B. I’m just inches away from “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

But it’s worth the effort.

Why I Don't Talk About Politics on Twitter

I rarely talk about politics, philosophy, theology, or anything else that matters on Twitter.

Why? I have several reasons:

  1. I can’t stand it when I follow someone because I’m interested in their thoughts on design and CSS architecture, and am then subjected to their political views. I don’t want to be that person to anyone else.
  2. Nobody’s mind will be changed, so it would have no purpose except to make me feel better.
  3. I’m used to my views being heterodox to both the Left and the Right, so it would more likely be an exercise in self-flagellation.
  4. Twitter leaves no room for nuance, and I can’t think of a single opinion I have that doesn’t require some nuance. I’m not interested in spewing aphorisms. Those aphorisms are part of the reason our political climate is what it is.
  5. Twitter makes any political statement sound arrogant.
  6. Twitter makes any political statement sound like a rant.

Talking about politics on social media almost always leads to someone losing respect for someone else. Respect is the key to healthy discourse, and any medium that doesn’t foster an environment of respect is unsuitable for talking about serious things.

There are many venues which are conducive for discussing serious things, but Twitter isn’t one of them. (Nor is Medium, in my opinion, because of similar echo chamber effects. Has anyone’s mind ever been changed by a Medium post? Has any political Medium post that you disagree with not come across as arrogant?)

New ≠ Better

Here’s a video of a grass mowing competition in which a scythe beats a modern, powered lawnmower:

Our society fetishizes newness. We want new technology, new entertainment, new thinking, new solutions. Sometimes, our desire for newness prevents us from seeing the value in what already exists.

Modern industrial farms have no place for horses, even though horses can handle some types of terrain better than our most advanced industrial farming machinery. There’s land that modern farms let return to wilderness, even though it could be productive and fruitful if we used technology that was commonplace two generations ago.

Of course there are always tradeoffs. A scythe may be faster than a lawnmower, but it uses more human energy — it’s harder for someone who’s out-of-shape to use it, and it’s harder to use over long distances. If an industrial farm started supplementing their machinery with horses, they’d damage their economies of scale. (There’s a case to be made that a farm that can’t be managed by a team of horses is too large, but I’ll leave that to Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan to argue.)

I’m not a Luddite — I don’t think that new things are necessarily worse than old things. I just don’t think they’re necessarily better.

It’s really hard to break out of the new-is-better pattern of thinking; it’s so pervasive that we’re immersed in it. It’s like asking a fish to describe what it means to be wet.