A KAIZEN HABITS ORIGINAL

Pseudo-Work

For the last few months, I’ve spent my weekends in the library. It’s a quiet place that is conducive to clear thought and productivity. A few weeks in, two of my friends joined me to study for their CPA and CFA exams. After several months of preparation, they both took their respective exams and failed.

I will admit that their failure did not come as a surprise to me. I had been watching them work for several weeks and was relatively confident that they would fail. So why did I stay silent? Because as you will see later people often don’t want help. Especially if it means pointing out flaws and weakness in their personality. I’ve also found that failure is the best way to learn. It’s not until a student flunks Calc, or fails to get that job, that he may decide to change. The negative feelings that arise upon failure, provide the key factor: desire. With desire he is now motivated to seek out the causes for his failure. He understands what led him to that point and why. Now with his understanding he will not make the same mistakes twice.

I am not some sage who was born with the knowledge of how to work correctly. I was able to predict their failure because I had seen the same work flow patterns mirrored in my own past which led to the same result. I was lucky enough to be pointed in the right directions by wiser people. Had I not read the books and articles they suggested, I might have joined my 2 friends in failing my own exams. Luckily my failures came early and were able to be corrected quickly.

What I learned from my experience and theirs, is how little the average person knows about the effect of habits on perceived intelligence. My theory is that some students pick up positive habits early on, from older siblings, parents, or good teachers. They may not consciously realize that they are studying the right way because to them it’s the only way. This may create the “illusion of intelligence” and to others these people may come off as unusually gifted.

 

On the flip side some may have picked up bad habits. Maybe they were born intelligent and coasted their way through high school. Once they got to college they realized that a hard engineering major was a lot more challenging that high school. They never picked up the habits that a rigorous STEM degree requires and as a result they can’t cope with the workload. They begin to think “I’m not as smart as I thought I was”. Others may have had unskilled teachers, busy parents, or nontraditional upbringings. Because they didn’t have the same advantages growing up their grades suffered and led to a downward spiral. As their grades dropped they compared themselves to their peers and labeled themselves as “dumb”.

I believe my friends belong to the latter category. They failed not because of an inherent lack of intelligence but due to flaws in their methodology. I have dubbed these flaws and patterns of work as “pseudo-work”

 

What is pseudo-work?

 

Pseudo-work is an aimless, inefficient style of working. Pseudo workers lack the ability to identify the most difficult and crucial area they need to be working on. They exhibit an easily distracted, start and stop type, of work flow.  Instead of hour long blocks of working, pseudo-workers routinely engage in 15-20 minute bursts partitioned by frequent breaks for irrelevant activities such as email, social media, YouTube, and texting. The psuedo-worker feels that he has been productive in terms of sheer time spent, but the output and quality of work shows otherwise.

Let’s compare two workflows

Employee A: 15 minutes of work with 5 minute breaks repeated for 120 minutes.

Employee B: 90 minutes with a 30-minute break for a total of 120 minutes.

Both parties perform 90 minutes of total work with 30 minutes of rest. But one has worked uninterrupted for 90 minutes while the other for 15 minutes. Do you think their results will be the same? If you thought worker B would be more productive you would be correct.

Employee A’s style of work does not promote learning or retention. In fact, it actually weakens his ability to learn and retain information in both short term memory and long term memory.

Here’s an example of a typical employee A:

  1. He wakes up eats a quick breakfast makes a coffee and comes to the library. So far so good.
  2. Opens his laptop checks email, quickly browses the front page of reddit, checks his Facebook feed.
  3. Finds an interesting article, quickly skims through the page from paragraph to paragraph.
  4. Begins to work, spends about 5 minutes reading, checks his phone because he got a Snapchat.
  5. He goes back to work and gets through 5-6 problems.
  6. Gets a text so he pauses to read.
  7. Back to work...realize he are pretty tired.
  8. Goes to the cafe to get a coffee quick.
  9. Works for another 15-20 minutes
  10. Decides it’s lunch time stops to eat.

 

As you can see, the pseudo worker is plagued by a constant need for distraction. Even when he makes the decision to be focused and do his work, he still feels the urge to check Twitter or Snapchat. He may find himself confused despite repeatedly reading a paragraph. The ability to concentrate deeply eludes him. He finds himself restless and jittery, after 20 minutes he gives in and reaches for his phone.

Don’t think this is an extreme example. These days this style of work is the norm not the exception. I have noticed this pattern in everyone from college students to full time professionals with PHDs. As further evidence, here is the account of Aaron Swartz aka “The Internets Own Boy”

 

 

The usual sense that I’m never really here, I’m always worried about the million things around the corner: a todo list that goes for pages, a thousand emails to respond to, hundreds of blog posts to read, twenty open tabs, a dozen IM windows, a text message to answer, a Twitter stream to catch up on. I never used to think about these things as a benefit or a distraction — I didn’t think about them at all; they were just how life online was. This was the era of multitasking and I was its child. If I felt anything about it, it was pride — a kind of joy in (mostly) managing to handle a thousand different things thrown my way at once. But I never knew what life was like when things weren’t constantly being thrown at you. Until it stopped, I never knew how awful it really was.

 

 

The example of Employee A and Aaron’s account illustrate one of the key dangers associated with the internet: mindless browsing. Doing activates online with no specific goal or purpose. Believing that these activities are crucial to your real goal: doing quality work. Mindless browsing cause neuroplastic changes that result in your brain rewiring to handle short, high intensity stimulation. Each time you become distracted you are further weakening your focus and attention span and adapting to your mindless browsing.

Furthermore, these changes are present as long as we continue using the internet. So don’t make the assumption that once you put your phone down, your cognitive abilities return to normal. This is not how the brain works. These changes will take some time to eradicate even after a user starts to employ the proper habits.

 

Most of this information I learned from reading “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr. This book was a Pulitzer finalist for exposing the unpleasant side effects of the internet. The scary thing was that it was published in 2011…years before Facebook Reddit Instagram Twitter and Snapchat became the giants they are today.

 

I highly urge you read this book as it goes much more in depth that this article.

If you still find yourself skeptical after reading, I urge you to perform a brief experiment.  For the next month disconnect from the internet. Keep a daily or weekly log to see what changes you notice. I guarantee even the staunchest proponent of the internet will experience positive changes in his concentration, attention span, and general wellbeing.

These are some notes that I wrote down during my disconnect period:

 

Week 1:

Can’t sit still. Feel the need to check my phone every 10 minutes but my phone isn’t here. I think I’ve been classically conditioned. Can’t seem to sit and write for more than 15 minutes.

 

Week 2:

Feel like things are settling down. Thoughts seem to come slower but in a more linear fashion. Feel less jittery. Mind is probing for paths and finds there is only one avenue to go down.

 

Week 3:

Feel like my brain was a glass of muddy water that the internet was constantly stirring. Now it seems that things are settling down and my mind is becoming clear. Can sit down and read, not skim, material.

 

Week 4:

Can sit down and just do work. There is no strain or effort involved. No need to exert will power to force myself. Feel more relaxed and less stressed throughout experience. Do not feel drained after working for several hours.

 

As you can see, I started to notice benefits about 2 weeks in. It took another 2 weeks for me to feel almost fully back to my normal, pre internet era state. The benefits continued for several months until now I finally feel that I am operating in my optimal cognitive state. My mind is not full of irrelevant thoughts. I do not feel the urge to reach out for my phone, go on YouTube, or waste time in another fashion. I get twice the work done in half the time.

 

After realizing these benefits, my immediate urge was to proselytize. I looked back at all my academic failures. My SAT’s, my GPA freshman year, my failed blogs.  I realized all these failures arose from my tendency to pseudo work. I wanted everyone to know how their attention and focus had been robbed. I told all my friends, my family, anyone I could find that would listen. Unfortunately, the reactions where not what I assumed. I thought I would be treated as someone who stumbled upon a great secret. But most were quick to discredit me and point out otherwise. Some pointed out that these negative effects would only apply to “internet addicts” who had no control over their use (they’re wrong). Others touted that the internet actually helped them become smarter and better at their job. Many lamented that while they would like to stop it was too essential for their daily life for them to do so.

Sometimes making positive changes in your life is a hard thing. People find reasons to keep doing drugs, drinking, eating junk food…any vice you can imagine. Only the few with the strength to make the correct decisions can experience the benefits that come with those decisions. I hope you are in the latter category.

 

The last thought I leave you with is that this has to be a lifestyle shit. It’s nots something you can do for 90 days and then go back to your normal habits. For your mind to function at the highest level you have to quit the internet outside of School and Work forever. You have to make these habits permanent. You will have to give up most of your internet use outside of School and Work. Many will realize that this is a gift not a punishment. I will admit I was not one of these people. It was incredibly difficult for me to give up social media. I had to force myself to do it and not login back in every few days. But it wasn’t until I did that my grades, and my work improved. Overall it has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.