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Thursday, December 01, 2011


A distractive world does lots of bad things to our motivation, our intelligence, and our happiness. But even though we can’t fathom the disease, each of its symptoms has a fathomable cure. So you tinker around the edges of our real problems, and come up with nifty procedures that like a set of wrenches in a tool box can be pulled out to solve any problem. This finds its most awful representation in the helpful hints articles that plague our discourse on human motivation. Indeed, a cottage industry has popped up to take the little and consistent correlations of life and package them into the equivalent of a set of Philips screwdrivers.  So rather than understand the system, we are content merely with hacking into the system, and making a fix is good enough even though it is not nearly enough.  The problem with screwdrivers though is that you have to try quite a few before they fit, which leaves you fiddling about the tool box since you have no idea of how to explain your carpentry problem, which would of course narrow the choice of screwdrivers to one.

Now expand this metaphor to human motivation, and you come up with the popular concept of ‘lifehacking’.  Originally pertaining to short cuts computer programmers would use to be more productive, the same phrase has expanded to any sort of trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life. Or, in other words, anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever or non-obvious way might be called a life hack[i].  The problem though is that shorn of explanation, life hacking becomes itself a source of distraction. Ironically, it was the blogger Merlin Mann, an early adopter of lifehacking, who recognized this.

One of the weaknesses of lifehacking as a weapon in the war against distraction, Mann admits, is that it tends to become extremely distracting. You can spend solid days reading reviews of filing techniques and organizational software. “On the web, there’s a certain kind of encouragement to never ask yourself how much information you really need,” he says. “But when I get to the point where I’m seeking advice twelve hours a day on how to take a nap, or what kind of notebook to buy, I’m so far off the idea of lifehacks that it’s indistinguishable from where we started. There are a lot of people out there that find this a very sticky idea, and there’s very little advice right now to tell them that the only thing to do is action, and everything else is horseshit. My wife reminds me sometimes: ‘You have all the information you need to do something right now.’  or Mann, many of our attention problems are symptoms of larger existential issues: motivation, happiness, neurochemistry. “I’m not a physician or a psychiatrist, but I’ll tell you, I think a lot of it is some form of untreated ADHD or depression,” he says. “Your mind is not getting the dopamine or the hugs that it needs to keep you focused on what you’re doing. And any time your work gets a little bit too hard or a little bit too boring, you allow it to catch on to something that’s more interesting to you.” (Mann himself started getting treated for ADD a year ago; he says it’s helped his focus quite a lot. Mann’s advice can shade, occasionally, into Buddhist territory. “There’s no shell script, there’s no fancy pen, there’s no notebook or nap or Firefox extension or hack that’s gonna help you figure out why the fuck you’re here,” he tells me. “That’s on you. This makes me sound like one of those people who swindled the Beatles, but if you are having attention problems, the best way to deal with it is by admitting it and then saying, ‘From now on, I’m gonna be in the moment and more cognizant.’ I said not long ago, I think on Twitter—God, I quote myself a lot, what an asshole—that really all there is to self-help is  Buddhism with a service mark.)[ii]

In my opinion, Mann is right on mark. Conforming to and far antedating our recommendations, Buddhist practices require not changes in the various styles of living, but a global change in life style. Like prayer in the western world, Buddhist mindfulness and meditative procedures require more than a little faith but are not dependent upon religious faith, yet for those who are beset by distractions; they are an answer to their prayers.  As we have seen, science would tend to agree, but the science of distraction must necessarily emerge from an explanation of motivation, and it is explanation that compels.

Above is an excerpt from my new e-book on the psychology of the internet:

[i] Lifehack, Wikipedia.
[ii] Anderson, S. (2009) New York Magazine, In defense of distraction