When I was a kid my mom would make me “coffee milk” — milk with a tiny amount of coffee in it. It was my favorite drink.
Now I realize that explains my predilection for iced lattes.
When I was a kid my mom would make me “coffee milk” — milk with a tiny amount of coffee in it. It was my favorite drink.
Now I realize that explains my predilection for iced lattes.
I want to be the person on the train who notices things and remembers faces and wasn’t glued to his phone the whole time.
I want to be present, even in the liminal moments throughout the day. Waiting in line, waiting for my coffee, waiting for the page to load.
I want to feel embodied as I walk my dog. I want to hear birds and feel sunshine and feel like part of the environment, rather than being stuck in my headphones.
I don’t want my day to be subdivided into podcast episodes.
I don’t want to find myself thinking in tweets.
I don’t want the most memorable parts of my day to be something I saw on a screen.
I can’t remember most of this stuff afterwards anyway.
There used to be so much more space to be bored, to be alone with my thoughts. The internet was someplace you went deliberately, not an ambient part of the environment. My hand didn’t twitch towards my phone if I forgot the name of an actor or something. I didn’t feel the need to check my email while pooping. My hand didn’t compulsively reach for my phone, because I wasn’t afraid of being alone with my thoughts for more than 30 seconds.
The web is built around hyperlinks, and yet I was so much better at making connections between disparate ideas before I carried the whole internet around in my pocket. Maybe having those connections constantly, instantly available has made my brain offload that function, just as it’s made me offload my memory. I’m 29, but I can’t remember things like I used to.
I’m scared of being remade in the image of the devices I carry.
Time feels disjointed to me now, smeared across the devices and websites and the services in which I’ve fragmented my identity.
The valuable things in life come with lots of friction. They take work and the capacity for deep, deliberate, concentrated focus. If we lose the ability for that, how can we muse? Savor? Pray? How can we Be, rather than Do?
Meditating using a smartphone app is like hosting an AA meeting at a bar.
Constant stimulation is a drug. The more content we consume, the more content we need to consume to feel satiated. Eventually we find ourselves on a treadmill and the only way our brains feel stimulated is by constantly consuming more and more. We have to check our phones while watching Netflix. We have to flit back and forth between Facebook and Twitter and Instagram while watching Netflix. Even that starts to feel boring. Eventually we’re bored all the time, because the world doesn’t hold enough interest for our gluttinous, addicted brains. The more stimulation we feed ourselves, the more boring everything becomes. Eventually we can’t even be in the world without listening to a podcast or checking the latest on our phones because all of Creation isn’t enough for us.
Sunshine and birdsong may reflect the glory of God, but have you seen this article on Buzzfeed?
I didn’t know what to write after that last sentence, and suddenly I realized I’d opened up Chrome and hit
T and return and suddenly I was on Twitter. It was a reflex. I didn’t even know I was doing it.
Slow is good. Boring is good. The more we allow ourselves to be bored — the more we allow ourselves to be alone with our thoughts — the less boring that boredom will seem. The world has infinite stimuli and infinite depth, but we can’t appreciate depth if we’re constantly training ourselves to prefer breadth. We’re skimming when we could be luxuriating. All because our monkey brains crave stimulation and the internet is the world’s greatest Skinner Box.
I want my brain back.
I want to be bored more.
Interface Lovers is an online publication that interviews product designers about who they are and what they do. It’s enlightening to hear how other designers got into their roles and learn about how they work, and I was flattered when they reached out to interview me.
I’ve changed jobs since I gave this interview, so a lot has changed, but this will give you some insight into my design philosophy and outlook.
Bonus: They ask every designer for some music recommendations, so I’m happy to say that you can now find some sweet worktunes at Designer Mix #140 — Jordan Koschei on Spotify.
I’ve spent the last two weeks in San Francisco, onboarding at Spoke, where I’ve joined as Senior Product Designer.
Spoke is an AI-powered ticketing and knowledge management tool for IT, HR, and any other team you can think of. Rather than directing your requests to a person, it figures out if it already knows the answer and surfaces the relevant knowledge. It’s impressively smart, and getting moreso all the time.
I’ll be continuing to work remotely from the Hudson Valley, traveling to the SF office a few times a year. It’s not a bad place to spend some time:
More to come!
This quote sums up what I believe about design:
I like to think of design as a form of hospitality — we’re creating digital environments in which our users will live for a time. Those environments should make our users feel comfortable and confident, and enable them to do things they couldn’t otherwise do. A good product gives the user superpowers without drawing too much attention to itself. It’s better to leave the user thinking, “Hey, I’m awesome” than “Hey, that product’s awesome.”
Thanks, Dave! Head over to User League to read the full interview.
TL;DR — The Dwell player was getting cramped, so when the time came to add some new functionality, I redesigned it to be more usable and better organized.
This is the story of how the new player came to be.Read More →
TL;DR — I’m building an iPhone app called Interlude, using the knowledge of Swift I’ve gained by working at Dwell. It’s a small project that will give me the chance to build something start-to-finish, rather than just editing an existing codebase, so I’ll learn more about the overall native development ecosystem.Read More →
Wake up. Shower. Eat breakfast.
Go upstairs: home office. Turn on computer. Wait for computer to boot up.
Go downstairs to kitchen. Start electric tea kettle. Fill up bottle of water.
Tea kettle taking too long. Check phone. Browse Twitter.
Tea kettle done! Pour water into mug, add teabag, add honey. Take tea and water upstairs.
Computer on. Open up email. Delete unimportant messages. Triage the rest.
Check in on communities — Dribbble, AIGA Upstate Slack, HV Tech Slack, friend Slack. Check Twitter.
Light candle — candle helps with focus. Turn on lava lamp acquired during wife’s cousins’ white elephant gift exchange. Candle and lamp essential pre-work rituals.
Open Basecamp. Wait for Basecamp to load.
Hands are dry — too much winter. Go downstairs, apply hand lotion. Go upstairs to office.
Click over to Basecamp notifications. Too impatient — hand lotion now on trackpad. Wipe off trackpad.
Check Basecamp notifications, figure out what happened at work since last check-in. Lots happened; work is one time zone behind, has whole extra hour in afternoon.
Open up Things. Look at personal items. Be realistic; move unpleasant tasks to tomorrow. Check work items. Move today’s tasks to Today view.
Start on first task.
False start — check Twitter. Check news sites. Check Hacker News.
Take two. Start on first task. Nope — Basecamp notification. Check Basecamp, say good morning to coworkers, return to task.
Encounter slight resistance in task. Pick up phone and check Twitter. Check news. Nothing changed in last ten minutes. Desk is messy; tidy up desk.
Remember to turn on Focus. Block distracting websites. Put phone on shelf out of sight. Ready to start for real.
Just kidding. Dog barks. Take out dog to go potty. Try not to be frustrated.
Come back inside. Walk upstairs, get situated. Try to remember first task.
Wait — computer desktop disorganized. Reorganize computer desktop. Keep going — reorganize Dropbox. Now all files have tags.
Drank too much tea. Go downstairs, go to bathroom.
Hands dry again after walking dog and washing hands. Re-moisturize.
Walk upstairs. Press button to put standing desk in standing position.
Never mind — too sluggish to stand. Lower standing desk back to sitting position, re-situate chair.
Remember first task. Don’t want to feel unaccomplished at end of day. Don’t want to let down self, company, coworkers. Time to get busy.
Take inventory. Candle lit, websites blocked, phone hidden, dog tended, email closed, hands moisturized.
Start work for real.
We took the dog to Long Dock Park in Beacon yesterday. The weather was perfect (a far cry from today’s freezing deluge), so here are a handful of photos to commemorate the sunshine.
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 →
Reading is the best.
I grew up reading a ton — one of the benefits of being an only child, and of having been born in the days before YouTube and Buzzfeed existed to divert one’s attention — and loved the sensation of sinking into a good book. You’d open up page one, find yourself gripped by the story… and emerge hours later, unsure of where the time went. You’d have knowledge you didn’t have before, or empathy and understanding for minds other than your own. Books can change you.
My reading fell off in college; there are few things that can suck the magic out of a book like someone forcing you to read it. But the past several years, as I try to counterbalance the mental effects of working on the web, I’ve been reading a lot more and rediscovering the joys of a good book.
Here are some thoughts on how I read, why I read, and how I find books I’ll enjoy. Your mileage may vary.
I generally leave the library with three or four books at a time, with some diverse offerings to make sure that I can switch gears if I feel burnt out on any one book. I like to switch up the topics I’m reading about, too, so I don’t get caught in a rut. I know some people like to dive deep into a single subject at a time; I like to dabble, and see how connections form between the different subjects in my head. Maybe that makes me a dilettante; I prefer to think I’m just well-rounded.
There’s a difference between reading to read and reading to have read — in other words, reading for purpose vs. reading for pleasure.
Most fiction, I read to read. Much nonfiction, I read to have read. I’m trying to close the gap between the two — ideally, everything I read would be for pleasure, and not solely because I want to accumulate the knowledge therein.
I find that there are three reasons I typically read a book:
Most books check at least two of those boxes. Some books — Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example — checked all three. That book deepened my knowledge of some ideas that I’d already encountered through Michael Pollan’s writing, introduced me to broader knowledge of sociology and anthropology, and was also a magnificent romp of a read. If I read it again, it’ll be for the sheer pleasure of it.
I keep a running list of books I’m interested of reading. It’s currently tracked in Things, using category headings to keep things organized, but anything will work.
It’s a flexible list — I add books liberally, remove occasionally, and feel no pressure to read everything on the list (good thing, too, since it’s got more than 80 items now). I just want a way to keep track of recommendations and interesting-sounding titles so I always have something new to read.
I also go off-list very often; if I see something interesting, I’ll read it. I don’t want to be one of those people who’s systemized every aspect of his life… that seems like a surefire way to suck all the joy out of it.
There are four ways I typically find books I’m interested in reading:
I try not to pay much attention to Amazon’s recommendations because I know they’ll be books that I like… which means they’ll probably be books that reinforce my existing taste. I’d rather broaden my taste by reading a wide variety of books than get into a rut by reading the same sort of thing over and over. I do have genres and authors I keep going back to, but I want to supplement those with non-obvious choices that no algorithm would think to recommend for me.
I went on vacation a couple of weeks ago. Before leaving, I removed Tweetbot and Instagram from my phone — anything with a feed, really, including Slack and email etc.
As expected, my mind felt clearer almost immediately. Without Twitter close at hand, I lost the constant urge to see what’s going on elsewhere. Without Instagram ready to go, I stopped unconsciously evaluating every moment for how well it would look on my Story.
Coming back, I’ve decided to end my relationship with Twitter for good. It’s been almost ten years — I started in college, quit after a little while, and then rejoined again. (All part of my usual love/hate relationship with all things social.)
Things were good back then. I followed lots of web people, and learned about things like web standards. There was less vitriol and more collegiality, less corporatism and more direct access to real, interesting people.
In many ways, Twitter kicked off my career. It’s how I discovered the people and publications that taught me my craft. It’s where I first connected with The Industry, which would be my first real contribution to the design community. It’s how I’ve found and referred work, and met people who’ve been influential in my professional life.
Part of the joy of Twitter was its openness towards third-party clients. Don’t like twitter.com? Use a different app.
I’ve been a loyal Tweetbot user for a long time. Even as Twitter switched to an algorithmic feed, and added Moments, and added advertising, Tweetbot felt like the old Twitter.
It was well-designed, chronological, and sane. Even before Twitter had built-in muting, I had robust filters on Tweetbot that would filter out almost anything political, histrionic, or otherwise obnoxious. It made Twitter feel more like the early days.
Of course, this story ends predictably — Twitter changed its policy towards API access, severely crippling Tweetbot and its ilk. No more automatic timeline updates, no more activity tab. They clearly want everyone to come back to their subpar first-party apps.
So with that, I’m done with Twitter. If it’s a choice between using Twitter in its current form — poorly-run, blood-pressure-raising, user-hostile — or not using it at all… well, I choose not using it at all.
There are other reasons. I don’t like what Twitter does to my brain. During periods when I’ve been using it heavily, I can feel a shift towards thinking in Tweetable phrases.
I want to think in paragraphs, not sentences. I want my brain to pursue complex trains of thought, not quips designed to maximize engagement.
For the foreseeable future, I’m turning Twitter on autopilot. It’ll publish links to my blog via a Zapier integration, but I won’t be posting or checking otherwise. I’ve pinned a link to my email newsletter, which I’m resurrecting for anyone who wants to still get updates from me.
Yes, this will shrink my reach a little (not that it was exactly huge to begin with). But better to have a handful of followers who truly care than a multitude who won’t notice if I’m no longer in their feeds.
I’ve been thinking for a while that I’d rather have my thoughts archived on a corner of the web that I own, rather than homesteading on some company’s land.
My priorities will never line up with Twitter’s. If I have something to say, then, I’d rather say it here.
Here’s a page of pure navel-gazing: a list of real-world (i.e., not software) things that I use on a regular basis. Some are tools, some are toys, but all are objects that bring me satisfaction in some way.
I like to tweak and experiment with my kit, so this is subject to change. I’ll do my best to keep this page updated as necessary.
(Note: No affiliate links here, just products I personally enjoy.)
MacBook Pro, 15in, Late-2013. This was my work computer two jobs ago, and they were kind enough to let me keep it (along with the Thunderbolt monitor and an iPad Pro), an exceptionally generous move that I’m still grateful for. The battery and screen are starting to show their age, but I’m unimpressed with the current line of MBP’s, so I’m still holding off on a replacement. I may get a new battery soon, though — better to pay the $199 for a refurbishment than the $3k for a new machine.
Bose QC35s. I use a pair of noise-canceling, wireless Bose headphones when I’m in a coffee shop or similarly noisy environment, or otherwise need to concentrate. Putting these on puts me right into work mode. Note that the link is for the second-generation model, while I have the first.
Apple AirPods. I got a pair of AirPods as a gift recently, and have been pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoy them. They pair to my phone or computer more quickly than the QC35s, and are great for taking calls or listening to music/audiobooks/podcasts while moving around. They’re a great supplement to my other headphones.
StandDesk. I use a StandDesk, a motorized sit/stand desk that can adjust its height at the touch of a button. I have presets for my sitting and standing height, though full disclosure: I mostly use it while sitting. I have a large-ish model (don’t remember the exact dimensions), with black legs and a white top. I originally ordered the bamboo top, but there was a customs issue — I ordered the desk soon into the company’s existence and they had supply chain issues, so I gladly accepted the white top instead. It’s a very good desk.
Fossil Buckner Messenger. I’ve been a fan of messenger bags since the first time I saw Jim Halpert sporting one in The Office. I had a Tumi bag made of ballistic nylon that lasted me close to 10 years with hardly any signs of wear. They don’t make that model anymore, but I keep it around in case I need to go out in heavy rain.
Currently I’m using a Fossil Buckner bag (I believe it’s black, though it looks closer to a deep blue), which is more stylish and “adult” than the Tumi that got me through college. It’s nylon with leather, so I’m wary of taking it out in the rain (I got caught in a storm recently and really thought the leather had water damage, though it dried fine), but it fits my computer perfectly and the magnetic clasps are a nice touch. It’s maybe my most-used gift of the last year (thanks, Erin!)
S’well Bottle. I use a 17oz Teakwood S’well Bottle nearby whenever I work, usually filled with water. I love this bottle — it keeps cold beverages cold for 24 hours, and hot beverages hot for 12. Really impressive bit of engineering.
Baron Fig Confidant & Vanguard. I’ve never been a huge fan of Moleskine notebooks, even though I’ve used my fair share of them. They feel cheap, and their whole contrived story about how they were the notebook of choice for the great early-20th century authors left a bad taste in my mouth, considering that the company was founded in 1997. I recently bought a Baron Fig Confidant hardcover notebook to serve as my journal, and have been very impressed with the quality. It opens flat, and the clothbound cover is a very pleasant to the touch.
I also got a three-pack of softcover Vanguard dot grid notebooks, which I use for design work. I got them to bump myself up to free shipping, but I wind up using those notebooks just as much as the Confidant.
Zebra F-301. I have terrible handwriting, and I find it helpful to use a pen with a fine point. I love the stainless-steel Zebra pens with a 0.7mm point — they feel great and write great, and they’re not particularly expensive.
I’m not a pencil guy. If it’s mechanical, I’ll use it.
Hudson Made Morning Shift Okay, story time: A few months ago I was at a work retreat at Mohonk Mountain House, and the soap in their shower was maybe the best thing I ever smelled: it was rosemary-mint, and it left my face feeling tingly after. A really great way to wake up in the morning.
When I got home and had used the remainder of the soap, I considered buying it online, but it was realllly expensive. Also, my wife said it made me smell like bread, so… deal-breaker.
Recently I was at Hamilton & Adams, a menswear shop in Kingston, NY, browsing some of their grooming supplies. They had soap from a local manufacturer called Hudson Made, including Morning Shift — a bar soap made of peppermint, rosemary, and eucalyptus. It smelled similar but not identical to the Mohonk soap, and still left my nose feeling tingly afterwards.
I went back-and-forth on if I should buy it, since it’s fully 4× the price of the other soaps I like. Finally, a few weeks later, I went for it, using some gift money. I haven’t looked back — it’s a fantastic way to start the morning, and leaves me feeling invigorated and refreshed. As someone who really values my morning routine, I think it’s worth being intentional about using products that make me eager to get out of bed and get ready.
Schmidt’s Cedarwood + Juniper. The idea of smearing aluminum into my armpits to block the pores freaks me out, but that’s exactly how antipersperant works. I’ve been trying Schmidt’s natural deoderant lately, and despite the reputation that natural deoderant has, it works well and smells great. I naturally perspire a lot, and it’s been keeping up just fine. You can get a stick at Target for just about $1 more than the usual deoderant, so it’s not a huge risk to try it.
Any questions? Hit me up on Twitter.
I’ve never been a “sports guy.”
Remember that kid in elementary school who was woefully uncoordinated, and didn’t know the rules to any of the games in gym? That was me. I was a computer kid — too busy tinkering with QBasic and making little movies and computer games to bother with anything athletic.
Not much has changed in the two decades since. But somehow, with no experience and no knowledge of soccer, I’ve become the stadium announcer for a semi-pro soccer team.
I live in the Hudson Valley, about 90 miles north of New York City. Though the region tends to fly under-the-radar, we’re in the middle of a cultural renaissance. Our food-and-drink scene is already legendary and continues to grow in influence; we’ve long been a haven for artists, writers, and musicians; our film industry is expanding rapidly. Best of all, we’re seeing a surge in the tech sector, spurred on by homegrown talent as well as an influx of tech folks from NYC who are “graduating” into upstate life.
What we don’t have, though, is a solid local sports culture.
In 2015, Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley founded Stockade FC, a fourth-division soccer club based out of the Hudson Valley city of Kingston. The plan was to bring the ethos of a tech startup to local soccer — information would be open-sourced, so other clubs could have an easier start, and the organization would be more tech-forward than most local sports teams.
In the three years since then, Stockade has become a local institution. It’s won its regional conference, gained high-profile sponsors like Lyft and AT&T, and put D4 soccer on the map among people (like me) who previously didn’t know or care. In 2018, Stockade qualified for the US Open Cup (a big deal). Perhaps best of all, it’s inspired other small teams to do similar work, sparking a groundswell in grassroots soccer community.
So how in the world did I get involved?
In 2014, I decided to tag along on my extended family’s annual trip to Germany. I wanted a cultural primer so I’d know what I was getting myself into, and for Germany, that meant understanding soccer. So, I invested in a copy of FIFA 2014 and started playing short games so I’d learn the rules.
“This is fun,” I remember thinking, “but I’d be much more invested if there was some local soccer culture in the Hudson Valley.”
At a local tech conference in 2015, I ran into Dennis Crowley, the founder of Foursquare and someone I knew from the Hudson Valley tech community. He mentioned that he was working on an idea for a community project that was going to be announced soon.
“I’m always up to talk about local tech projects,” I said.
“This one isn’t tech-related,” he said.
One morning in November 2015, I was browsing Twitter and saw Dennis tweet an announcement:
Awesome! I felt supremely pumped — a massive surge of esprit de corps for the whole Hudson Valley. I decided to drive over to Kingston, a few towns over from my place, just to soak up some of the community spirit.
I was sitting in a local coffee shop when my friend Kale walked in. Kale is an institution in the local tech community — he cofounded the Hudson Valley Tech Meetup as well as CatskillsConf, and generally knows about everything happening in the area.
I waved him over, and he sat down across from me.
“We’re getting a soccer team! How great is this?”
Kale told me he was going to be involved with the operations side of the team. Half-jokingly, I said: “If you guys ever need an emcee, let me know. That would be fun.”
Kale, not joking, said: “I’ll bring that up.”
And that was that.
I sit in the press box of the stadium with a microphone and watch the game.
Thankfully, I don’t have to give any play-by-play commentary — that’s left for people with more knowledge and experience than I have, who narrate the livestream.
My role is simple:
Since starting, we’ve made some refinements to the process:
Compared to the other volunteer roles, being the stadium announcer is thoroughly low-pressure. The trickiest part is keeping an eye on the player numbers and making sure that no goals or substitutions go unannounced; when a lot it happening at once, that can be a challenge, and it definitely helps to have someone else in the booth to confirm what just happened and update the sticky notes. Regardless, I think it’s the best job there — I get to watch the game from the press box, where it’s shady in the sun and sheltered in the rain.
Best of all, it feels great to be involved with an organization that’s helping to build the community I love. The world is built by the the people who show up — this is a way for me to show up and help with something I’d otherwise lack the skillset to be involved with.
Yesterday, April 20th, was my last day at Agrilyst.
I’ll try not to be a tech industry cliché with an overwrought blog post about leaving one job and “moving on to new adventures.” But I do want to commemorate my 21 months at Agrilyst with some standout memories:
When I started at Agrilyst I’d been reading a lot of Michael Pollan books, and this job seemed like the perfect way to fuse my skills and talents with my interest in the food and agriculture industry. I love that I can say that I worked for a company that genuinely cares for farmers, and is doing something important to help feed the next billion humans.
I’ll be joining the team at Little Lea, a company that builds two products:
Lightstock, a stock photography site aimed at churches and other faith organizations. Their photos are really solid, and free of the cheesiness that has unfortunately become a hallmark of church graphic design — other organizations source images from them too, including National Geographic and Penguin Random House.
Dwell is an audio Scripture app — think Audible or Overcast, but specifically for the Bible. It started as a Kickstarter, and became the fourth most highly-backed app of all time. This is something I’ve wanted for a while, ever since I tried to find a good audio Bible and found one read by James Earl Jones… only to realize that it had background music of cheap MIDI renditions of early 90s worship songs. Dwell is the remedy to that. Think of it as NeuBible for audio.
If you know me well, you probably know that I’m passionate about helping the Church pursue excellence. For too long, believers have been willing to settle for music, art, and design that’s a pale imitation of what the rest of the world has to offer. In my conversations with the Dwell/Lightstock team, I was impressed by their dedication to doing truly excellent work — not because they want to outdo anyone, but because they want to do justice to their calling. I love that. I’m thrilled to be joining such a team — I think I can both learn a lot and offer a lot. And I’m looking forward to doing my part for a cause I care about — helping the Church to rekindle its love and appreciation of beauty.
So much of my design career has hinged on writing. My first real exposure in the design industry came from writing opinion pieces for The Industry; my first job in a design agency came after the CEO read something I wrote and asked if I’d be willing to sit down and talk.
I’ve been writing less lately, since product work takes up most of my day and I jealously guard my personal time otherwise, but it feels good to see something I wrote in-the-wild occasionally.
You can read the post here: Are You Asking the Right Questions?
I’ve always preferred to use different devices for production and consumption: I like to use the computer to create things and do work, and my tablet/phone to consume content (read articles, watch Netflix, listen to podcasts, etc).
I don’t like to muddle those two modes — it’s too easy to get sidetracked. If I use the same screen for production and consumption, it’s far too easy to start working and find myself on YouTube, or reading Hacker News.
Recently, I decided to divide up those tasks further. I don’t want to use my phone for consumption anymore, but just for communication. As I wrote previously, I want to embrace boredom, stay aware of my surroundings, and not feel compelled to spend every moment consuming information.
With that in mind, here’s the new division of labor between my devices:
It’s working well so far, but it’s only been a few days. Keeping the division sharp between those modes of thinking feels cleaner, somehow, than using every device for every purpose.
One heuristic I find useful for making decisions is: will this increase or decrease my optionality?
In other words, will a given decision open up the range of future options available to me?
I have a friend who lived, for several years, off of 50% of his salary. This gave him several options that most of us don’t have:
Conversely, if someone is living off 100% of their salary, their options for other jobs are constrained — they either need to find work with equal or higher salary, or they need to downsize.
Debt is the prime example of a constraint on financial choices. If I take out a loan, it may increase my short-term optionality (I have more immediate funds to work with), but decrease my long-term optionality (a larger chunk of my income is now devoted to repaying debt)
Money is an easy example, but there are plenty of others:
I suppose this is all related to opportunity cost — time and resources are finite, so we can’t do one thing without reducing our bandwidth to do other things. Optionality is about understanding your priorities.
It strikes me that life is largely built around choosing where we’re comfortable reducing our available options, in order to open up more options.
I choose to work a full-time job because, even though it reduces my available time by 40 hours a week, it increases my available resources to spend on the other 128 hours.
I choose to work on my side projects because I value them more than I value whatever diversions I could spend that time doing.
At any branch in the path, though, I still find it useful to ask myself: will this increase or decrease my range of available options?
Most of us live in a constant state of Continuous Partial Attention. Rather than focusing on one thing at a time, our attention is constantly scattered among a variety of sources, each of which only has part of our focus.
We’re at work, but we’re also keeping tabs on a text chain.
We’re reading a book, but we’re also checking Twitter or Instagram every two paragraphs.
We’re in a conversation, but our eyes keep flicking up to the TV on in the background.
Maintaining a state of Continuous Partial Attention is rarely a choice, but our current media environment seems specially designed to keep us in that state. We keep our phones in our pockets like a totem, our hands and minds constantly reaching for them as soon as we feel the mildest itch of boredom.
We can no longer bear to be doing nothing. We can’t just stand in line, waiting, without checking some other source of information. We’ve sacrificed solitude — not even true solitude, but just being alone with our thoughts — at the altar of being Always On.
Checking our feeds makes us feel like we’re in control. Really, they’re just making us scattered and docile.
Ironically, it’s this same media environment that’s connected to the massive upswing in jobs that are considered “knowledge work.” And knowledge work requires more dedicated attention than other jobs. It’s hard to write, or code, or design without reaching a state of flow. And yet the things we’re writing, coding, or designing seem best suited to preventing others from reaching the same.
A professor of mine used to say:
You can’t use a hammer without getting a callous.
What’s the callous our current tools are giving us?
###All this is to say:###
I’m tired of never being fully present. This week, I’m issuing myself a challenge: only do one thing at a time.
If I’m eating, I want to be eating — not reading or watching Parks and Rec or doing something else at the same time.
If I’m working, I don’t want Twitter on in the background. Or Slack. Or email.
If I’m watching TV, I don’t want to be on my phone as well.
That’s my plan. Feel free to join me.
I’m making an effort to up my reading this year.
I used to be a voracious reader, but that fell off around college (yes, pursuing a degree was the main thing holding me back from getting an education). Lately I’ve been trying to spend less time immersed in the feeds on my phone and more time buried in books.
These are all books that I’ve read on paper — I find that my retention is much, much lower on a screen, even on e-ink devices like the Kindle — and that I enjoy being able to flip back a few pages when necessary to recall or revisit something.
I also find that the more I read, the more I’m able to read. I think a lot of people avoid books because there’s that initial friction to getting into them, but that friction goes away quickly the more you read. I suspect the friction comes from training our brains to expect the quick dopamine hits of Facebook and Instagram and quick-cutting TV commercials. I find it also helps to keep my phone in another room — if it’s out of sight, I can sink into the book much more easily.
That works out to 8 fiction and 16 non-fiction.
Of the fiction, 4 were hard sci-fi or alt-history speculative fiction, 2 were character studies told via trips through Spain, and 1 was about the soul of Abraham Lincoln’s son traveling through the Tibetan Buddhist afterlife.
Of the non-fiction books, 2 were biographies, 10 were sociology, and 5 were related to food and agriculture.
My most commonly-read authors this year have been Kim Stanley Robinson (2 novels and 1 anthology of short stories) and Michael Pollan (2 books on food).
I’ll read more, I’m sure, but I try not to plan out too far in advance. I prefer to order a few books specifically, and take out a few from the library spontaneously at the same time. That way I always have several books to choose from on my nightstand, some planned and some not.
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.
In light of my twenty-eighth birthday, I took some time to reflect on 28 bits of wisdom I’ve gleaned. Here’s the list — far from comprehensive — in no particular order:
I rarely talk about politics, philosophy, theology, or anything else that matters on Twitter.
Why? I have several reasons:
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?)
Anyone with an internet connection and enough motivation can learn how to design and program the next big thing, no degree required. Tech is no longer just for engineers and programmers. It’s for the retiree looking for a second career, and the 12-year-old who decides she wants to make her own video game. It’s for the college student who wants to boost his resumé, and the immigrant looking to get plugged in to their new community. Tech is for everyone.
This is the first entry in a newspaper column I’ll be curating in conjunction with the Poughkeepsie Journal and the Hudson Valley Tech Meetup. The monthly column will be written by members of the Hudson Valley tech community, and will cover design, technology, and their effects on the local economy and culture.
Here are some marginal changes that have had outsized effects on my quality of life. Maybe some of them will work for you.
I feel like my brain is getting slower.
Some context: when I was a kid, I used to feel like I was smart. Like, really smart. I taught myself to program, I was addicted to learning, and I read voraciously — up to 100 pages an hour at my peak. When I found an activity that interested me I’d sink into it obsessively.
But lately, I haven’t felt this way. I’ve felt less creative, less imaginative. It feels like my memory isn’t working properly. I don’t have anything close to the attention span that I once had. This isn’t supposed to happen when you’re 27.
I think I can chalk this up to lifestyle issues The brain is a muscle, and like all muscles, it grows or atrophies based on what you do with it. I’ve become convinced that a steady diet of Twitter and Netflix diminishes your ability to think deeply and creatively.
In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr describes this phenomenon as such: Different media encourage different types of thinking. The internet makes the brain into a jet ski – we skim vast swaths of information quickly, but shallowly. Books make the brain into a scuba diver – we cover less information, but do so more deeply.
The brain is optimized for quick, shallow scans of information. It’s how we survived on the savanna millions of years ago, when “living well” meant identifying threats and opportunities as quickly as they emerged. Left to our own devices, we’ll always go back to the quick-and-shallow media – Facebook, Twitter, CNN, Buzzfeed.
But I don’t want to think shallowly. It’s easier, but it also makes me feel out-of-control. An hour watching Netflix leaves me feeling unsatisfied — at the end, all I want to do is watch more Netflix. An hour of reading leaves me feeling the opposite — energized and satiated, ready to take on the world. Shallow media feels like binge eating fast food; deep media feels like savoring a good, slow meal.
All this is prologue. In 2017, I want to reclaim my attention, for three reasons:
Here are some changes I’ve made this year in the pursuit of a deeper, richer thought life. They’ve been working so far, but it’s been 30 days or less, so consider this a continuing experiment:
Here’s a brand new layout for my website, more focused on writing than before. There are a few reasons I chose to redesign now:
I really like Daring Fireball’s format for presenting external content with commentary. I find a lot of interesting links, many of which are pretty esoteric, and I want a place to catalogue what I find and add my own two cents.
Rands in Repose is a prime example of what can be done with long-form writing on the web, and I admire its ability to completely suck you in. If I read one post there, I can be sure that I’ll follow the trail of links and wind up reading several.
The site is built on Jekyll, a static-site generator. I build the site on my machine, then
git push the flat HTML files to the server. I just can’t deal with WordPress’s bloat anymore. I want to write in Markdown and push to the server — nothing more.
(Sidenote: I’ve used Jekyll before, so it was a thrill to realize that one of my Agrilyst coworkers, Nick Quaranto, was an early contributor. I love seeing people I know around the internet.)
I’ve decided to start archiving old versions of my site, so the previous iteration will remain available at 2016.jordankoschei.com. Narrator: It didn’t.
That’s all. More to come.