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2012: the year of productivity

2012: the year of productivity

Back in 2006, when I was trying to make a living as an adjunct instructor teaching composition and literature classes at a small pile of Boston-area colleges, I spent an awful lot of time rushing around. My 13-mile commute in to Boston took about an hour, and the 5-mile train ride from one college to another took about another 45 minutes. I had no office, just a common area for meeting with students. I had no money--anyone who's done adjunct work knows why--and I eventually snagged a part-time job on top of my full time course load. The money was nice, but I spent so much of my life running around, you know?

Also in 2006, I stood opposed to new technologies. I refused to get a cellphone. A friend gave me an iPod as a holiday gift and I worried about whether I would use it. In fact, I worried about whether even owning an iPod would degrade my life. Out of the mouths of babes, right?

That year, I required all of my students to read a NYTimes opinion piece bemoaning humanity's move toward constant technological stimulation. The piece, called Feet and minds need a chance to wander, argues that creativity, powerful ideas, and genius of all sorts require silence, time for daydreaming, and an unplugged mind. The author, Clyde Haberman, offers the insights of several MacArthur Genius Fellowship winners:


If you ask MacArthur fellows about creativity, you find near-unanimity on the importance of staying unwired.

It is not always easy to do so, said Dorothy Q. Thomas, a human-rights consultant in New York and a 1998 winner. Work requires her to be on her cellphone ''even while walking, even while eating.'' She accomplishes a great deal that way. But no doubt, Ms. Thomas said, it ''drains a lot away from reflection.''

Christopher Chyba, an astrophysicist and a 2001 fellow, recalled a light-bulb moment that came some years ago while he was taking a walk. The thought struck him that water from comets played a role in creating the earth's oceans. ''It is probably true,'' Mr. Chyba said, ''that if I had been listening to music or to Books on Tape, it wouldn't have occurred to me.''

''The thing that is so precious, which becomes so hard to get, is uninterrupted time,'' he said.

AND cellphones are, if nothing else, time thieves.

''Nonconnectivity becomes a commodity, something to cherish,'' said Jonathan Lethem, a Brooklyn novelist and a new MacArthur fellow. ''You won't hear different, particularly from novelists. You need so much ruminative time to build these elaborate alternate realities. Every novelist is running away from the telephone. Has been for 100 years.''

It troubles Majora Carter, another 2005 winner and founder of a group called Sustainable South Bronx, that many young people are wired all the time. ''They don't have the ability anymore to create things in their own head, to create fantasies, to create dreams for themselves,'' she said.

For that matter, young or old, people seem also to have lost the ability to whistle melodically. When was the last time that you heard someone whistling sweetly on the street?

In 2006, I agreed wholeheartedly with Haberman and his MacArthur Geniuses that feet and minds need a chance to wander.

By 2009, I had changed my tune.

I had acquired my first cellphone, then my second: a smartphone with unlimited data and messaging to best accommodate my mobile technology needs. I was on my third laptop, for which I purchased extra memory and two external hard drives--necessary for holding the videos, music, and creative work I was generating. I was on my second iPod, one with more memory (but that still was unable to hold all of the media content I wanted to carry with me). You get the idea, right?

Now it's 2012. My awesome mom gave me a Kindle Fire for Christmas and I immediately purchased insurance for my Kindle because I carry all my technology with me all the time, and I'm so hard on my stuff that I bust basically all of it. I'm reorganizing my house this week, partially around my need for a charging station near my desk, partially around the chaotic nest of plugs and chargers and cords that stretch around every seat in my apartment.

And recently, I talked to my pal Nick, a doctoral candidate who's serious about finishing up his dissertation right nao, about his productivity strategies. He purchased the software tool Freedom, which blocks your laptop's connectivity for a time period that you set. The only way to disable Freedom once you turn it on, he said, is to restart your computer--"which is just humiliating."

When Nick sits down to write, he turns on Freedom and puts his cellphone in a closet on the other side of his apartment. In 2006 I would have admired him for his self-discipline. In 2009 I would have scoffed at him for hiding from his technology. And now, in 2012, I admire him for his self-discipline.

Here's a NYTimes article I ran into this morning: The joy of quiet. The author, Pico Iyer, explains that

[i]n barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight.

It's a new year, and I want nothing more this year than to rein myself in. I want to shed my distractions and up my productivity. I want to find ways to separate my professional and personal lives, intertwined primarily because of my constant connectivity.

And I'm considering buying Freedom, even though I could easily just turn off my internet connection. (Though if it was "easy," wouldn't I already have done it?) I'm considering leaving my technologies at home, docking my laptop to my desk. (Making it a desktop computer?) I often shut off my phone's email app, and when I charge my phone at bedtime, I like to do it across the room from my bed to stop myself from checking it when I wake up during the night.

Nothing feels better than productivity. And there's a lot that I'm willing to do to get the good feeling back.


1 comment

Thanks for this, Jenna. It's becoming increasingly clear that communication technology is not good nor bad, but a tool which can be used well or poorly like any other. My problem with tools like Freedom and Anti-Social is that there is almost no work (besides thinking, which I don't get paid for) that I do either personally or professionally that can be done without an Internet connection. Even the very rare writing that I do is nearly always composed in Google Docs so that I can work on it from a variety of settings. The best thing I've found to manage my distraction is a timer (I use Minuteur), so that if I need to go post something on Facebook or do some tweeting for HASTAC, I can set the timer to ring after 10 minutes to make sure I don't get comepletely lost down the rabbit hole. The bottom line is we need batter habits, and there's no app that can do that for us.

But here's a fun fact that ties this all together: The creator of Freedom is none other than former HASTAC/DMLcomp staffer Fred Stutzman