The NYT, the Shultz Hour and niksen

A few weeks back, in order to read an article on the New York Times website, I did what I’m often loathe to do and signed up for a free account. As a consequence I now receive their daily digest, The Morning, in my inbox and it’s been a really pleasant surprise. I find it’s really well done and presented – almost to the point of making me feel guilty for not paying for a NYT subscription – but I haven’t yet. It does make me wonder though if other news outlets have anything comparable – I’d love to find a version that’s as well done from a Canadian news outlet. If you’re aware of one, ping me.

So far the only drawback I’ve found is that there’s no easy way to share segments of the email – I usually have to resort to forwarding the whole thing to someone – perhaps maybe this is part of their plan to get more subscribers.

Anyway, in this case I’m just going to copy and paste a segment of it here. In an effort to properly credit – the byline at the top of these says they’re written by David Leonhardt. You can view past editions there. The segment from today’s edition that caught me is as follows:

You Should Try a ‘Shultz Hour’

When George Shultz — who died Saturday at 100 — was secretary of state under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, he developed a weekly ritual. He closed the door to his office and sat down with a pen and a pad of paper. For the next hour, Shultz tried to clear his mind and think about big ideas, rather than the minutiae of government work.

Only two people could interrupt him, he told his secretary: “My wife or the president.”

Shultz told me that story when I interviewed him a few years ago, and it has stuck with me, because it’s even more useful advice today than it was four decades ago. These days, we are constantly interrupted by minutiae, via alerts and text messages. They can make it impossible to carve out time to think through difficult problems in new ways or come up with creative ideas.

Letting your mind wander, Sandi Mann, a British psychologist, has said, “makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas.” The Dutch have a word for this concept: niksen, or the art of doing nothing. (And here’s a GQ interview in which the journalist Manoush Zomorodi argues that boredom could open the mind to creativity, problem-solving and more ambitious life goals.)

Shultz’s biggest accomplishment in government was precisely such a fresh idea: a recognition — which most other Reagan advisers lacked — that Mikhail Gorbachev was serious about reforming the Soviet Union.

As Amos Tversky, a pathbreaking psychologist, said, “You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”

The Morning, February 9, 2021, by David Leonhardt

I like that the Dutch have an actual word for this, niksen.

From another NYT article, The Case for Doing Nothing by Olga Mecking:

It’s difficult to define what doing nothing is, because we are always doing something, even when we’re asleep.

Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist who studies boredom and wrote the book “Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World,” likens niksen to a car whose engine is running but isn’t going anywhere.

“The way I think about boredom is coming to a moment with no plan other than just to be,” she said.

Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain, added that niksen can be “when we’re not doing the things we should be doing. Because perhaps we don’t want to, we’re not motivated. Instead, we’re not doing very much.”

More practically, the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. The less-enlightened might call such activities “lazy” or “wasteful.” Again: nonsense.

Though I don’t have a specific schedule or time block as Shultz did, I have been spending more and more moments each day ‘thinking’. In some cases it’s about nothing. Or just letting whatever comes up be expanded upon. I don’t write anything down – perhaps I should – but more often than not, I’m just sitting. I often chuckle at myself thinking, “dude, you’re just sitting here staring into space, you should do something,” but often the result is that afterwards I feel better and my mind is clearer and more able to focus on what ever it is that I have to do. It’s like maybe, I just needed to get that doing nothing out of the way.

It certainly sounds better than I was just being lazy, so I’m going to stick with it.

Facebook Co-Founder Says Break It Up

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has written an interesting opinion piece over at the New York Times, “It’s Time to Break Up Facebook”.

I’ve been off Facebook for over a year now and about six months ago stopped using Instagram and Messenger. While I had my own issues and struggles with social media use affecting my mental health and general disposition, what finally got to me was the realization that Facebook’s business model is at it’s core, unethical. While I could remain on the platform and dismiss it or monitor and curtail my use, I felt like using any of the products was a tacit endorsement of their business practices and that just didn’t sit right with me.

A few choice nuggets from the article, which I suggest you read in full if you’re at all interested in these things:

Mark’s (Zuckerberg) influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government. He controls three core communications platforms — Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — that billions of people use every day. Facebook’s board works more like an advisory committee than an overseer, because Mark controls around 60 percent of voting shares. Mark alone can decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their News Feeds, what privacy settings they can use and even which messages get delivered. He sets the rules for how to distinguish violent and incendiary speech from the merely offensive, and he can choose to shut down a competitor by acquiring, blocking or copying it.

Facebook makes its money from targeted advertising, meaning users do not pay to use the service. But it is not actually free, and it certainly isn’t harmless.

Facebook’s business model is built on capturing as much of our attention as possible to encourage people to create and share more information about who they are and who they want to be. We pay for Facebook with our data and our attention, and by either measure it doesn’t come cheap.

The most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Mark’s unilateral control over speech. There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people.

Facebook engineers write algorithms that select which users’ comments or experiences end up displayed in the News Feeds of friends and family. These rules are proprietary and so complex that many Facebook employees themselves don’t understand them.

You may be saying to yourself, “if you (meaning me) quit facebook, why still so much interest in it?” The simple fact is I find it fascinating. The story is – in its truest sense – far more engaging and interesting than science fiction. It’s a massive experiment being carried out on humanity in real-time. It’s like the car-crash of the digital age – one simply can’t look away. The interesting thing is that the majority of people are still in the car – and even when being told it’s about to crash opt to sit tight.

We Are Not the Thinkers of Our Thoughts

From a post over on, Tiny Private Mind Motions

“Every morning, when I screw the lid onto my steaming thermos of coffee, I think to myself, automatically, the phrase “heat capture.” I have no idea why. I’ve never used that phrase in any other context in my life. And yet I couldn’t stop it if I tried. After years of this, I finally mentioned it to my wife, who revealed a similar habit: Every night, when she shuts the bedroom blinds, she thinks to herself the ridiculous words, “Sleep Chamber: Complete.” She said she kind of hates it because it makes her feel as if she’s living in an episode of “Star Trek,” but she has no choice.”

Sam Anderson, New York Times

I have this kind of stuff happening all the time. Has for years. Glad I’m not the only one completely out of control of what happens to pop into my head at any given moment.

Of course, I can’t think of a specific example right now, even after a few minutes of trying because the Universe has a dark sense of humour.

Don’t Quit Social Media, Put it to Work Instead

An interesting article here in the New York Times pointed out to me by a friend, written as a counterpoint to the article I mentioned in my last post:

Don’t Quit Social Media, Put It to Work for your Career Instead

“Cultivating your social media brand is a fundamentally passive approach to professional advancement.”

“There are many people with a presence on social media who are what we affectionately call lurkers, those who may never or rarely post or share but who simply consume content widely. These activities may seem passive, but they are not. Lurkers may be doing much to further their careers: learning new things, keeping up with the latest trends or preparing for any conversation that might crop up in the break room or during a job interview.”

I admit to being – or trying to be – one of the latter. A lurker. I’ve been trying to not get drawn into the memes, the politics, the pandering and simply observe.

Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It.

Quit social media. Your career may depend on it.

Interesting opinion piece from the New York Times shared with me via email by a friend. The email share to a group fostered some discussion, here were a few words I contributed.

I fluctuate back and forth with regard to the ‘ability to concentrate’ issue. I’ve read articles in the past (that I’m not going to bother to track down now) that argue the opposite, that social media use throughout the day actually provided a ‘break’ for your mind, and allowed you to more fully devote your concentration and focus to your work when you were actually working. I guess the distinction here lies in how often you are actually checking your SM feeds.

A few other quips:

We’ve been told that it’s important to tend to your so-called social media brand, as this provides you access to opportunities you might otherwise miss and supports the diverse contact network you need to get ahead. Many people in my generation fear that without a social media presence, they would be invisible to the job market.

I have 100% felt this pressure, whether real or imagined. And at various times I’ve felt stress about not doing enough with my SM accounts to ‘further my brand’, especially with regard to trying to attract new freelance work or possibly influence those with whom I’ve applied for jobs. Conversely, some days, I come close to closing every account I have because it’s all bullshit. As the author says, any kid can make a shiny, pro-looking website and attract a legion of followers from his basement, doesn’t necessarily make him employable or qualified to do anything.

The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used — persistently throughout your waking hours — the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.

TOTALLY guilty here. Often times when I’m bored or between tasks and should probably do something else, I find myself stagnant, looking for something to do (both at work and at home). This would be predominately when I would hit up social media – as if something I found there was going to provide some sort of ‘spark’ that would get me headed in the right direction. Indeed perhaps the way a junkie needs a fix, I was looking for a nugget of inspiration that I, for whatever reason, couldn’t find elsewhere that would motivate me to do something. More often than not, I would just get lost down some rabbit hole for 15-20 minutes, finally snap out of it and feel even worse for having wasted the time unproductively. Without getting off on a tangent or proselytizing, Zen practice has made huge strides in this regard. When bored or without something to do for a moment, I now no longer struggle with what to do, and have stayed away from SM during these moments more and more consistently. That, combined with things like removing SM apps from my phone, have me checking in less and less and wondering if I could pull out of some or all of my accounts all together, perhaps to my betterment.

I’m coming to see it more as a challenge, and one the author touches on. The fact of the matter is, that SM and indeed ‘online brands/personas’ aren’t going anywhere, and arguably will only increase in presence in scope. How does one opt to not get caught up in that – something a generation like my kids will invariably be completely immersed in – yet still remain relevant and viable?