How a single non-fiction book confirmed and connected all my ideas about productivity

It’s been a while since I wrote something on Productivity. This was mostly because I was long engrossed in a book mentioned above — The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. This is not a Productivity-centred book but it does have a lot of facts regarding confirming Neuroplasticity and the adverse effects of the Internet on our daily life.

‘The Shallows’ ebook on Kindle
Source: Author| The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

This book has a lot of facts that confirm all the Productivity-related tricks I have been sharing on this page for the year. So let’s do a deep dive into the top 5 facts that I loved reading about:

1. You and your phone need to part ways… when you work

Smartphones have got smart over the years. And even after using different tricks like the ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode while working, it has been difficult to stay focused.

In the book, a study has been mentioned where a few students were asked to take a test after studying some material. One group of students was allowed to keep their phones with them while the other group was asked to leave them in another room. Here’s what happened next:

The results were striking. In both tests, the subjects whose phones were in view posted the worst scores, while those who left their phones in a different room did the best. The students who kept their phones in their pockets or bags came out in the middle. As the phone’s proximity increased, brainpower decreased. It was as if the smartphones had force fields that sapped their owners’ intelligence.

This is something I have written about before. The sheer presence of the phone -whether connected to the internet or not, has surprising effects on the way humans focus on work. I did an experiment a few months back talking about my experience when I put my phone to sleep for a day :

Here, I used the Pomodoro technique throughout the day. This helped me take small breaks while maintaining my focus on the work for the rest of the time. You can read more about the Pomodoro technique right here.

2. Your BrainRAM is limited

Yeah, fine there is no such thing as BrainRAM. It’s something I had made up while writing an earlier post. However, this book made me feel I wasn’t completely wrong. There is such thing as “working memory” which works similar to RAM in a modern computer — basically, a short-term memory that is used to offload/upload information to the larger memory.

Here’s what the other has to say about it while quoting another researcher in his book:

Working memory could typically hold just seven pieces, or “elements,” of information. Even that is now considered an overstatement. According to Sweller, current evidence suggests that “we can process no more than about two to four elements at any given time with the actual number probably being at the lower [rather] than the higher end of this scale.” Those elements that we are able to hold in working memory will, moreover, quickly vanish “unless we are able to refresh them by rehearsal.”

This is exactly what I had spoken about in a previous post about the Eisenhower Decision Matrix — dividing your work-tasks into 4 independent categories and forgetting the rest.

You may ask — is this really necessary? Well, you may be one of those who may be able to juggle more than 4–5 tasks on a good day, but maybe not every day. And there is a reason for it, backed by science itself. This “working memory” is a short-term memory that has to then transfer all of its content to the long-term memory and that transferring process has been defined very beautifully in the book.

Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory. By regulating the velocity and intensity of information flow, media exert a strong influence on this process.

That’s right! Media here could be any form of distraction and not just social media and news headlines that pop up as notifications on your phone. These could be your roommate asking for help, a family emergency, or something else (a mood swing, maybe?). While some tasks can be ignored for the better, some cannot be — and dealing with them today and now becomes a priority.

If you want to read more about this “BrainRAM” thing I wrote about before reading about this “working memory” concept, be sure to save the link below for a future read.

3. Multi-tasking is bad. For Real.

“The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.” You become, he argues, more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought.

Glad I was able to put this out sooner than later. I haven’t written about this much on my page as I am still gathering more evidence. Thanks to this book I have got 90% of the facts and studies done on this subject, finally.

The author talks about cognitive load over here which is like the maximum threshold speed with which the working memory can transfer to the long-term memory.

The information flowing into our working memory at any given moment is called our “cognitive load.” When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information — when the water overflows the thimble — we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory. We can’t translate the new information into schemas. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains shallow. Because our ability to maintain our attention also depends on our working memory — “we have to remember what it is we are to concentrate on,”

The factors affecting cognitive load, according to the author, are:

  1. Extraneous Problem-Solving
  2. Divided Attention

Both the factors seem to be working in some sort of loop where one becomes the cause for the other to occur.

I always wondered how people managed to study while listening to music on their headphones. For a long time, I struggled with the notion. And maybe, I was right about it — it doesn’t work! The author even has evidence quoted from a research study that talks about this:

“Auditory and visual working memory are separate, at least to some extent, and because they are separate, effective working memory may be increased by using both processors rather than one.”

Basically, it’s a compromise of your working memory’s efficiency, consciously or unconsciously, when you listen to music while working. I would rather prefer using all my BrainRAM for a single task at a given moment than fragmenting it.

There are two prerequisites to multitasking and they are not long-term solutions or something that works 100% of the time every, single time. That’s for another day but if you are into understanding how the mind learns to focus amidst all distractions that we carry about, go ahead and read about the Pareto Principle

4. Remembering to Focus

Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible to us — our brains are quick — but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it’s repeated frequently. As the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex kick in, our brains become not only exercised but overtaxed.

Yes, I am guilty of this today. This whole article has been a giant web of links trying to lure you into clicking on them to read another post written on a similar topic. If you have made it this far, CONGRATS! Because you have counter-attacked every distraction to throw you off from this post.

Keeping this in mind, let’s understand how focusing can be improved. There’s no rocket science involved but if you are chasing a target — you aren’t focusing.

Hear me out: when people have a target in mind (usually with a deadline), it prevents them from focusing on the greater details that need to be addressed while working. Let’s say you get an assignment from school. If your sole target is to get it completed somehow — you would either end up plagiarising it from sources you find on the net or simply skimming through links and jumping between them to get a very shallow understanding of the topic.

While there is some understanding and knowledge gained through the second process — it’s no deep work! And this is how 99% of the Internet works. One of the best examples could be this article itself. if you have just read the title and the sub-heading(s) of this post — which by the way, might be enough for all major takeaways for this post, you have become a victim of the Internet’s Attack on the way your mind works.

Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention — and it’s in Google’s economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible. The last thing the company wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction.

I have written about this too earlier on this page. Rather than jumping to this article mentioned below, you could save it for later reading. If you did save it for some other time:

Score: Internet — 1 vs You — 2 😇

5. Be careful of the tool you use

“We shape our tools,” observed the Jesuit priest and media scholar John Culkin in 1967, “and thereafter they shape us.”

This is something I haven’t written about before but certainly something I have felt in the past. Over the years, especially in Lockdown, I have started using apps like Notion, Roam, and Obsidian much more than usual. I would use them for a few weeks, at most months, and then take a break or sometimes forget about them completely.

I realized these tools were really good but using them every day to structure my workflow was either tedious or upon successful scheduling, making me automatic — like some sort of… Robot. This is when you need to step back and think about all the tools you use daily because the sheer dependence on these tools for a long time can affect the way we work.

Every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities. The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function.

Also, it’s okay to use analog techniques like planning with pen and paper instead of using an app on your phone or PC. Even relying on your memory once in a while, can be helpful sometimes.

When a ditchdigger trades his shovel for a backhoe, his arm muscles weaken even as his efficiency increases. A similar trade-off may well take place as we automate the work of the mind.

That’s all the Productivity-dose from me, today. While I was aware of most of these productivity hacks, it was good to come across a book that backed every little topic with logic and research-studies that were conducted.

So these are the major takeaways for today:

1. You and your phone need to part ways… when you work: Your phone can be a distraction whether connected to the Internet or not. And yes, there are studies to back it.

2. Your BrainRAM is limited: There is only so much you can remember at one moment because your working memory is limited. Do not juggle multiple tasks at once.

3. Multi-tasking is bad. For Real: Fragmenting your working memory is bad. Depending on such one stream of working memory for your work is like using a single core of quad-core processor for a heavy task. Good but not efficient.

4. Remembering to Focus: The Net is filled with distractions and is ready to make you jump between links. As long as you are connected to it, the deep focus isn’t going to happen.

5. Be careful of the tool you use: The tools that you use today very frequently are going to shape you (or, you’re) tomorrow. Be wise about which tool you control and which tools control you.

Thanks to Nicholas Carr who wrote this amazing book and brought all these studies and facts into the limelight. If you have made this far into the post, reading every word (and not just the takeaways above), CONGRATS once again!

Your Score: Internet — 1 vs You — 5

What’s your high score? Tell me about it in the comment below and let’s see who’s got a better score.

~Aditya Darekar



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