I recently had a friend ask me for book recommendations. This wasn’t unusual, but something she said caught my attention. She mentioned that she was going to spend the next few weeks “catching up on her reading.”
At first I thought: sure, why not? Spending time inside without interruptions seems like the perfect recipe for dusting off that reading list.
I sent my favorites, but had the sneaking suspicion that most of my recommendations would end up abandoned after just a few chapters. This has less to do with external distractions, and more to do with how we manage our time.
What my friend asked for was not just a reading list, but recommendations on how to spend uninterrupted stretches of time. It made me consider why people wait until quarantine to start a reading habit.
For people who build optimistic reading lists, there is a tendency to believe that reading is something that can only be done with a completely free afternoon. It’s something to do during a vacation (or a self-imposed quarantine). Ask any bibliophile though, and you’ll get a very different answer: reading doesn’t take them much time at all. Not because they are faster readers, but because they know it’s something you can do in small chunks.
Believing that reading requires a few hours to get started makes it seem daunting, since you’ll have to sacrifice other things to make time for it. The common analogy for reading is a feast. A better analogy is hors d’oeuvres.
It’s much easier to get through a book by sneaking a page here and there. When you crack open the book every few hours, you can pick right back up where you left off. Waiting for an unbroken stretch of time to read is like waiting until Thanksgiving dinner to eat: you’ll starve before you get to the main course.
Even when armed with the information that books can be sipped from, I don’t believe many people will suddenly find themselves pouring through page after page. The alternatives are just too good. Given the option, it’s no wonder that we consistently return to social media. The penalty on our time seems much lower.
Seems is the key word here. It’s actually quite the opposite.
By surfacing the most engaging content at the top of your feed, social media rewards us in just a few seconds. This is why it’s so hard to compete with it as a form of entertainment — it has the lowest activation time of any type of content.
I think about activation time as the minimum amount of time required to make meaningful progress on a task. Depending on what you’re trying to do, this can range from a few seconds to an entire day or more. Distractions tend to come from tasks that have a lower activation energy than the one you’re currently working on. If you’ve ever found yourself reading an unrelated article halfway through some tedious task, this is why.
Tasks with a higher activation time tend to be more valuable. Successful companies, beautiful art, and groundbreaking scientific achievement come from these tasks. This type of concentration is difficult to maintain because as the value of the task increases, the number of items that qualify as distractions will begin to grow alarmingly large beneath you.
More creative tasks tend to require unbroken stretches of time. Unlike books, these tasks really do suffer from interruptions. And since shorter tasks give you a quicker reward, it’s tempting to slip. The result: your schedule fills up with short, reward driven snippets, rather than extended periods of concentration.
This feedback loop plays a large role in how we structure our days. We tend to slot in activities based on their activation time. This is the reason why we fire off emails between meetings, rather than get started on the big project with an approaching due date.
Consider the “Business As Usual” schedule for many office workers:
Trying to start anything significant between 9:00 and 10:00 would be a nightmare. You’re time-boxed between the commute and the looming meeting, unable to start any task with an activation time of longer than an hour. Instead, it’s better to focus on emails which typically have an activation time of just a few minutes.
Across the country, people are experiencing massive changes in their daily routines. Widespread furloughs and work from home policies have changed our mornings from “Business As Usual”, to something closer to this:
In the New Normal, our schedule is better suited to tasks with a higher activation time. At first, this may feel unusual. Many workplaces are interrupt driven, and we’ve been trained not to ignore the blinking notifications from email and social media. The natural instinct will be to recreate shorter chunks of time by diving into email, texting, and browsing the internet. Resisting this urge and channeling energy into longer tasks will define who is able to successfully transition to the New Normal.
As an unexpected benefit of the lockdown, I believe we will see an explosion of creative output over the next few months. Unemployment in the U.S. is projected to rise to nearly 30%, and millions of smart, creative people will be asking themselves: what can I accomplish with my newfound free time?
These workers happen to be out of a job due to a macroeconomic event, rather than through some fault of their own (choosing a job in hospitality or travel notwithstanding). Assuming that the government will step in to provide them with basic support, these workers will now have the time to work on creative projects and ventures.
The literature around this topic is mixed (e.g. Google's decision to remove 20% time), but some studies have shown a correlation between college breaks and successful Kickstarter projects that lend merit to the idea.
Call it a silver lining, but I’m one to look for the positive in any scenario. If a sudden, widespread rise in average activation time happens simultaneously across the country, we could be on the cusp of a digital Renaissance. Finding people online to collaborate with will become accelerated by the social distancing measures being enforced. As I’ve written about before, nurturing friendships is a key component to curiosity and creating new ideas. The other component of creativity is time, and we’ve suddenly found ourselves with an abundance of it.
Personally, I will be ramping up my time spent on projects that I can complete from behind a laptop screen. As my favorite social activities become more limited, I’m planning on doubling down on my writing, learning, and building.
Now that you’ve got the time to get started, what else are you waiting for?
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