Hard work and distraction: together at last

I just read this piece by Mike Elgan. Elgan’s argument is that hard work is dead in an age where we have Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. to constantly and effortlessly distract us.

There seems to be a mistake in this reasoning. If all that’s changed from now and the golden age of hard work (whenever that might have been) is that we have more media for distraction at hand, what follows immediately is that people were less distracted in the good old days. But to say that someone is less distracted doesn’t suggest anything about their “work ethic” without some meaty assumptions.

The lack of distractions (or, to put it in more neutral terms, the lack of alternative avenues for your attention!): this sounds like the very definition of boredom. But boredom – a state you find yourself in – isn’t directly related to how hard you work – a choice you make. It’s true that boredom might drive you to devote your energies to something in the way that exemplifies a good work ethic, but on the other hand it might not, and you might end up staring at the wall as I so often do. On the flip side, someone who is never bored (i.e. is constantly distracted) might well be working very hard all the time. Anyone who tries to keep up with their feed reader knows how hard you have to work to maintain a respectably high level of distraction.

More importantly, though, the assumption that there is something holy about the work ethic of our grandparents is off. Work ethics are not inherently valuable; they only derive value from their products. Thus, for example, a writer’s work ethic is valuable because of the things that she writes, or even the kind of person she becomes as a result of this work ethic. But things like good writing and being a good person are, as philosophers are wont to say, multiply realizable, and while it’s true that the supposed tunnel vision of our forebears sometimes resulted in the kind of work that is independently valuable, it doesn’t mean that equally good or better work can’t come out of more distributed, “distracted” processes.

Isn’t it at least conceivable that, for instance, an obsessed Twitter user might write a poem that is not only as good as a more “focused” poet, but one that would be impossible without something like Twitter?

This is not to say that I don’t think total focus is not valuable. I do think, however, that distraction can have value too, or at least that the question is an empirical one.

5 thoughts on “Hard work and distraction: together at last

  1. Hilary

    Interesting. I’m probably the most productive when I’m in a more scatterbrained/distracted state. I can’t say for sure the quality of the work is there… but polishing can be done later when–

    I got distracted chatting with my dad on facebook and reading email.

  2. erin

    hey there. i like your point that new technologies may enable new forms of communication, and new styles.

    and i’m not sure it’s distraction that’s the operating factor now as much as the availability of a variety of frames. you can be clicking through sites in a research frame, or twittering in a networking frame, or emailing in a collaborative frame. it’s what you’re doing with the technologies, not the technologies themselves, of course.

    and i think some of these technologies cultivate a different kind of selfawareness that may be generative. i know i have started to think about what i’m doing and how to express that in facebook status style…and i think about that short task with a good deal of intensity.

    perhaps another assumption underlying his piece is about the length of time/sustained attention “real work” takes. one can be highly productive in spurts, in bits…i know i am…

    i came across an interesting post on lifehacker.com, about productivity through having multiple open projects…this is definitely how i work…i am more productive if i switch between things according to what kind of work i feel like doing in the moment. typically, i dip in and out of projects, rather than working on one thing for a sustained period of time.

  3. Boone Post author

    Thanks for your thoughts, Hilary and Erin. Maybe something like the following theory would explain the sorts of experiences that you’ve each described in your comments. It may well be true that technology and culture provide more viable outlets for our attention and interest than there used to be. And thus it may be true that a person who is used to doing her best work in a more focused environment will have a hard time dealing with the distraction. On the other hand, someone who has always had these distractions to deal with might actually find it disorienting and counterproductive to deal with the kind of focused work that Elgan elegizes. Kinda like how, when you live in a loud city for long enough, it’s hard to sleep when it’s too quiet or dark. If this is right, then the rapid increase in distractions might indeed be harmful for the productivity of people of a certain age or upbringing, but it’s not necessarily bad for those who were raised in the right kind of environment.

  4. Boone Post author

    Oooh, thanks for that Doctorow piece, Erin. I’m writing a tech-ish piece for our QC Writing zine and I was hoping to deal with the issue of distraction. This’ll be great fodder for that article.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *