#100DaysToOffload - Review: Cal Newport's "Slow Productivity"

I like Cal Newport’s writing - although the person itself is also slightly strange to me: who would mention Joe Rogan’s mike choice as an example for something? In any case. Some good observations on the broken idea of measuring knowledge work productivity like assembly line productivity and fake bussyness.

I noticed that he seems to like to read biographies of knowledge workers in a broad sense and mines them for examples to illustrate what to do or why some things are or need to be a certain way. I may have to try to read more biographies myself. I love memoirs as a genre (I should read more of them), but never gave biographies a chance - because I am kind of allergic to the exceptional in general (but super-curious about the mundane).

The contents of the book are just confirming my feeling that slow and small is the future. As I express also in the end of this post here, for example:

[M]y own life’s plan: A (relatively) small but reflected life in the here and now is more rewarding, more livable, more rational, more emotionally honest and also more ethically sound, than any sweeping pronouncements of a “big life"™ could ever be.

My recent personal manifesto was inspired in part by reading this book.

It’s a quick read (or listen, in my case), apart from the Joe Rogan thing (and it’s not that that mike choice example was offensive, it just was weird and suggests maybe what podcasts Newport listens to? Maybe? Hopefully not? Hopefully not in earnest at least?) quite inoffensive.

People who know Newport’s books will most likely have heard many of those tips from him before, but the reframing in terms of slow productivity is interesting.

It’s maybe a little bit weird to start writing again by pointing to a post by Jakob Greenfeld I disagree strongly with. It’s about a book called 4000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. I’m not going to write a strong rebuttal about all of the claims in the post but rather focus on one important point and also add a few more general thoughts. But let’s start with a little context:

I do think embracing the limits of life to focus on what we can do is a good thing. I had written about the book myself a while ago. My main points were:

  • “I have to play the hand that I was dealt and resources (and everything is a resource) are not available in endless supply. If you take these two things together, it makes sense to go for a satisficist way of life.” - Or: privilege is not evenly distributed, but you can still forge a life out of what you got (just not every life).
  • “My here and now is not merely a transitory state in between the lacking status quo and an amazing future. Instead of improving things in the present moment, I would endure certain things simply because I defined my present situation as something that didn’t matter in the future.” Or: I am allowed to improve things in the here and now.

I think that Greenfeld’s post sees fallacies in Burkeman’s book where I see a not very generous reader. Greenfeld is a “hustle culture” kind of person whom I follow for useful notes on self help and productivity books but I do not always agree with him. One thing stood out as interesting to me in his post:

A cheap dinner with my parents is infinitely more meaningful than some networking dinner with strangers that costs me a fortune. In short, the amount of time/money you spend on something (and how much of it you possess) doesn’t dictate the meaning of anything.

This is a counterpoint against Burkeman’s claim that, because of the limited life span we possess, what we choose to spend our time on - and how much of it on what - becomes meaningful and defines our lives.

Greenfeld says that time = money. He then gives an example where spending relatively little money on an event doesn’t mean that that event couldn’t be more meaningful than another event that you spent more on. What Greenfeld has discovered is that you can’t compare single events like this but must compare topics: The question is how do you spend your time - over your lifetime? Comparing two singular events doesn’t make sense. But whether you spend your life mostly at networking dinners vs. mostly with your family does. This doesn’t mean that when you have disregarded an important aspect of your life that choosing to spend more time on it - even if at first it’s just a small amount - doesn’t feel meaningful. But the meaningfulness doesn’t come from it being a short event but rather from trying to rectify the neglect (or maybe exploring new frontiers).

I do think it can be worth it to read opposing opinions like this because it strengthens my viewpoint, it points to flaws in my approach or simply just widens my horizon. I am not convinced that what Greenfeld writes points out fallacies in Burkeman’s writing, but it still made me reconsider my own views, which is valuable.

The quoted passage for example made me think more deeply about my claim “everything is a resource” and how that relates to the sometimes very meaningful singular moments of life, as I’ve tried to untangle above. I think this passage especially hooked me for its relationship to my tendencies of sometimes living too much for a future that may never become a reality (it’s a risky investment strategy to always reinvest and never reap rewards). And that meaningful moments exist, reminds me how important it is to take advantage of choosing to be present for the things I am making my life about.

This post is also valuable because it’s an example of a person who is unwilling or maybe (as of yet) unable to recognize life’s limits. These people exist out there and they may not be easily convinced of the opposite. That’s useful to keep in mind. Greenfeld and I are holding different values that’s for sure and since values are personal one may be persuaded to think this is just a battle between differing subjective viewpoints. But the objective realities of life - e.g. that your lifetime is limited and being more productive doesn’t make life last longer or spending time fiddling with your productivity systems doesn’t make you enjoy the important moments more - do not care if you would like to forget about these facts (and rather work hard to grow your business or whatever). You will have to come to terms with them - if you like to contemplate these things, or not.

The post and its author is a useful counter example to my own life’s plan: A (relatively) small but reflected life in the here and now is more rewarding, more livable, more rational, more emotionally honest and also more ethically sound, than any sweeping pronouncements of a “big life"™ could ever be.

My mental model predicts that sooner or later everyone will have to open their eyes to the small life they are actually living and embrace it - or failing that will live with a lot of avoidable cognitive dissonance. Greenfeld suggests the opposite. We’ll see whose bet holds.

Quick little story: I was working on a relatively big task to duplicate a bunch of data in a system I barely know. Now, the biggest problem here was that the data in question was hierarchical sql data. That makes it tricky because relational tables (rows and columns) are not well suited to make it easy to traverse such trees. You could relatively easily use a migration logger functionality and click through the UI on the backend to record the sql that you need to migrate this data. But this gets messy quick and can go easily wrong. The more data you need to duplicate the more important it is that you do the right thing for an increasingly long sequence of manual actions. Also there is cleanup necessary afterwards, since the migration logger is not optimizing its lightly abstracted sql statements well. On top of that, I could not find a good interface to program my migration against either. It seemed that my options were:

  1. use the UI and record the changes using the migration logger
  2. write what you need using raw sql yourself

I decided to go with option 2. I found a great solution that did not require a nested set approach called a recursive common table expression. I felt like a genius. I also was sitting on my high horse, “How did no one ever come up with a good API for doing common things like: copying this entity over onto this branch? Well, I guess I have to do it myself…”

Even though progress was made to create migration helper functionality, it was slow and I had lots of questions regarding the structure of the data I was supposed to duplicate.

Yesterday my boss took 2 hours of his time to look at the problem with me. He pointed out that what I had been doing for the last three days was unnecessary. Of course, what could be done in the UI in the backend could also be accomplished programmatically. It wasn’t even that hard. It had all the scaffolding for customization of the process I could have ever wanted. This will allow me to write a readable migration in a few hundred lines, with no later cleanup necessary. We solved a big chunk of my problem in no time.

I was embarrassed. Not only did I underestimate my colleagues and the maintainers before me, I also underestimated the system and its capabilities. I felt especially bad, because I thought I had done the right thing, like asking many questions and communicating with the project management why there was such a delay. I thought I was dealing with a hard problem - and in a vacuum it actually was a hard problem - but instead I just didn’t know where to look or what to ask.

It’s a new day and I think I take a bunch of lessons from this:

  1. Ask more directly: Do not ask “Is it guaranteed that every group starts with a node that has itself no parent?”, but ask “Is there an API to copy categories just like the UI has?”. See also: The XY Problem.
  2. Be okay with making such mistakes. I am new in the company. It is almost inevitable that I will run in circles and it may take some time before my knowledge of the system matches my level of general problem solving skills. Because I could have solved the hard problem - which is why I tackled it - I just didn’t need to.
  3. Accept your expertise level. As I said I am new here and at the same time I have programmed for a while so I generally know what I’m doing. This is a great recipe for falling prey to the Dunning–Kruger effect: That is overestimating one’s ability in a particular context. I may be an okay problem solver, but I do not know the new system.

There is a certain inevitability to feeling a bit of shame while learning from mistakes. It’s part of the journey in a field as complex as programming. I’m still learning to embrace these moments, understanding that they are not just hurdles but stepping stones towards greater expertise and confidence.

As I move forward, I remind myself to maintain a balance: to stay humble yet curious, to recognize the boundaries of my current knowledge while also questioning established norms. This experience has taught me that becoming a better developer isn’t just about accumulating knowledge, but also about the wisdom to question, to explore, and, most importantly, to learn from slightly embarrassing fumbles.

So, with these lessons in my toolkit, I am moving on - a little humbler and wiser, a bit more prepared, and as eager as ever to challenge and be challenged. After all, it’s through questioning and exploring that we often find the most innovative solutions and grow beyond our imagined limits.

2021 - Year Of Strain

A difficult year. In better moments it was a so-so year. In other moments in which I take the bigger lines and shapes of my life into account it has been a bad year.

There is a dog now in the family and that makes me happy. We had a great summer vacation in northern Finnland. But this year was not without strain to keep moving in a positive direction or at least not lose ground. Like making it through fast flowing rapids. There was lots of stress: self-made and unavoidable at once. I broke my arm in the end of 2020 and needed to heal the first few months of 2021. Things at the job were hard and at times disappointing. Looking back, this year showed me the strength of my now six year long relationship; That we managed to get through this year together, trying to understand each other even more, giving each other space, when we knew there were lots of things going on. I am proud of us being able to talk, to forgive and to move on. Around midnight, when the neighbors were lighting fireworks, we acknowledged the year for what it was, especially for us two (the dogo was sleeping through the explosions…). Me being the more optimistic person even went as far as being hopeful for the new year. It carries the opportunity of a fresh start. We smiled and kissed.

The pandemic didn’t help. Being here in Finnland’s north meant that we both experienced increasing cabin fever: a new topic was discovered. Do we need to move? How do we manage giving space and time to each other in a loving, non-condescending way? One fascinating aspect of being in a long-term relationship is how the relationship and with it oneself and the other changes over time. I wonder what captures this dynamic better: The continued reveal of yet another onion skin or a more evolutionary abstract image of ever-changing symbiotic organisms. It is the question between an essentialist and non-essentialist viewpoint. Whatever it is: Not knowing (or rather: deciding) makes this dynamic no less interesting to me.

This year was hard and in many ways one I’d like to forget. But I won’t reduce the year to that. There were beautiful, funny, heartwarming, delightful moments. And these I won’t forget.

I am grateful for the past year’s me trying to keep the ship afloat even when I wasn’t feeling like it.

I am grateful that I continued to be interested in cooking dinner for us. I feel like I have improved a little.

I am grateful for the dog coming into our lives, our little chaos agent, that brought us so much happiness in a year of strain.

I am grateful for my relationship and my partner being there and giving me the reality check that I sometimes needed. Or the back rub. Or the space and time. Or the normality of everyday life. I love you for your honesty, humor, your smile and you holding me accountable. You, like no other can make me reconsider a strongly held belief. You, like no other can make me belief I could be a decent man if I tried. Thank you for being here with me, E.

Acceptance As A Worthwhile Struggle

As I said in my last review: I love autobiographical writing. To continue the theme, I recently listened to Joan Didion’s Books: The Year of Magical Thinking and Let Me Tell You What I Mean.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir of an especially tumultuous year in her life. After the sudden death of her husband and the hospitalization of her daughter, Didion finds herself detached from reality and has to claw herself back to reason. There is a certain sharpness in the way she puts things, a certain breathlessness in the intelligence with which she follows the paths of her own thoughts while mourning the loss of a writing partner and spouse (a parallel to Hampl’s book).

We see here a woman who is smart, quick and in control of her faculties wanting to fight and having to accept, that there is no real shortcut, no swift way to skip the all too human need to just feel shitty for a while, to be scared, to be upset, to not know, to maybe not even understand why your own seemingly better argument, the pointed question or educated guess doesn’t cut it. To be clear, what Didion focusses on is not this desire to skip the lowly emotions and loss of control that are part of the human condition. But, to me, she exemplifies how hard it is to accept the necessity of being a passenger, not the driver, for a while after an event like this.

One strength of Didion’s writing is that she can put a finger on the power of slightly changed emphases. Like in her text “” about Martha Stewart and her empire from the second book of her’s I have listened to: Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a collection of essays from 1968 to 2000.

In she turns the critique on Martha Stewart, a home maker turned CEO of a billion dollar company, inside out. The critique goes something like this: Martha Stewart is a fraud, because she pretends to be a simple homemaker, like her fans, even though in reality she is a driven business woman who created merely an artifice of being a homemaker. Didion is directing her more empathetic read of Stewart mainly against Jerry Oppenheimer’s unauthorized investigative Book on her: Just Desserts. Opposed to Oppenheimer, Didion concludes that Stewart’s success, Artifice and all, are inspirational to US-American women because Stewart managed to create her own rags to riches story: from homemaker to CEO.

One thing I picked up and that is eerily related to her empathy for Stewart is her own success. I stumbled upon the following review of The Year of Magical Thinking on Amazon that is an example of what I mean:

She certainly went through losses that would make anyone stagger. I just found that I couldn’t identify with her experiences. She describes months of folks making sure she was taken care of. Can’t relate. She recounts good times in a long marriage that involves luxurious travels and freedom gained through wealth. Can’t relate. Am I jealous? Probably.

Didion is well off, that much is clear. She has been a successful writer for a long time and coming up in a much more socially mobile era, she ended up being wealthy. The question is: Does this take away from her writing? And the answer is: Yes, a little bit. I wouldn’t go so far to suggest that I can’t relate or that what she has to say is not interesting, quiet the opposite, but because Didion’s voice is one of careful reexamination (it reminds of the idiom “show me, I’m from Missouri”) and her reputation is one of popularizing counter culture, of problematizing the American Dream I can’t deny that the success, although earned, subverts a little bit her persona, her self-conception or the frame from which I read her (so maybe, probably, this is on me). It complicates the relationship between me, the reader (or listener in my case), and her, the counter culture writer. Now, I am not owed an uncomplicated relationship. But I do have to admit that the contrast of a now wealthy writer that came from a place of socially conscious reporting - and still has those instincts but lives a totally different life - lead to some cognitive dissonance. It totally makes sense that lives like this exist. She is not the first, nor the last that will have had also monetary success from writing empathetically about various social issues. I still enjoyed the books, I just wish there was a way to ask the question: How do you integrate your being well off with writing so empathetically? How do you try to juggle not being perceived as patronizing?

  • You can find her Essay on Martha Stewart on the New Yorker’s website:

The Jerk Prodigy, Or: Who Am I To A Person That Doesn't Like Me?

When I was looking through my DayOne posts - the recent acquisition of the journaling app by automattic made me curious; I had not been using the app in a couple of years - I stumbled upon a journal entry that included a few screenshots of tweets that a quite popular German political Twitterer (maybe 30k followers back then, now around 50k followers) had posted, that berated me fiercely. How stupid I was and how dare I speak up against this person. They called me a baboon that needed to be put into place amongst other things. I think they called me sexist, too. I didn’t have the heart to plunge deeper into the post. As I was simply too shocked. I had completely forgotten about this life altering experience half a decade ago. But here it was. And the remembering began.

What had happened? When I was studying history of science and technology I was not shy to speak up. I was a young man that deemed himself smart and with a talent for research. I also had way too much time on my hands, which made me “dangerous” in class. I read and studied furiously. And what I learned I wanted to apply. That is, nothing went past me in class. Any little uncertainty that came up, I problematized - to the frustration of my professors, I’m sure, as well as my classmates. I wanted to be a researcher, or no, I wanted to be a prodigy. A person with great potential to become an exceptional researcher. I dreamt big. And I wanted my professors to see how smart I was. I had this dream that somebody would take me under their wing, make me behave, by offering a path to a career in research. I wanted to be tamed, I think, so that I could become the beautiful, creative researcher that I thought I ought to be.

In any case, this phase of my life was a messy one and so were the discussions in the seminars. Lots of arguments, lots and lots of monologuing on my part. Oh, my poor classmates, forgive me! But that’s who I was back then and although I look back with shame, I would be lying if I would not point out that this time of my life was one of the most instructive phases of it as well.

I remember neither subject of the course nor the specific book introduction, chapter or article that we were assigned to read for this weeks class. What I do remember is that I disagreed vehemently with the author’s premise that nobody had as of yet really looked into the topic at hand, except herself. That the author was female was incidental to my disagreement. But I never liked this take. To me, history was all about uncovering more and more aspects of the past. And a new take was adding a new shade, a new layer to the beautiful complexities of historiography as it related to the topic at hand. There is no singular fundamental take on history that subsumes all other takes - or at least not for long. History is best, I thought, if it was a humbling exercise, one in which your own strong opinions and values get somewhat relativized. History, to me, was a quest for authenticity, for serious inquiry, that ought not to bend to the political fashions of the day - even if I happen to agree with them. History ought to be historicist, in the German sense, where the understanding of a happening stems from a process of trying to find plausibility in the actions through sympathy for the actors - no matter how vile their behavior would be deemed, probably rightfully so, in our time. In short I was a young man looking for authenticity in a world full of ironic takes. I craved sincerity. “Be real with me”, I thought often, “I want to like you”. “I want to be sure that you like me”, if you say so, too. I was lonely and longed for reliability.

It was well known amongst history of science students back then, that we had a minor celebrity in our midst. This person was a young politician of some clout. An up-and-comer that had gotten a taste of political authority, of respect towards their own person, after being elected to the city’s parliament. They were invited to talk shows and interviewed a few times for TV and radio back then. They carried the aura of demanding respect into our classroom as well. Wearing nice long woolen coats, good fitting suits and expensive looking scarfs, not at all what the rest of us normals wore and especially not me, the wild man in the shabby cloths. They were standing out. They had understood that clothes make the person. At the same time their public persona was one of irony, of trolling for the greater good, or what they perceived as the greater good. They were a postmodern politician. One that always seemed to play both sides of the un/certainty coin: Claiming “Facts first!” but being crowned troll of the year some years earlier.

The actual quarrel around which I have been circulating for this handful of paragraphs is explained quickly: My adversary had read the text different than me - or not differently, but more affirmatively. The claim of a fundamental take did not repel them, quite the opposite. They bought the author’s points about what others had overlooked, maybe they bought the idea of a perfect all-encompassing historical take as well? I wasn’t sure back then, but I was sure that history doesn’t bend to a totalitarian approach. Writing history is a process of picking and choosing, of simplification. So I argued against their notion, vehemently. That the author had a feminist viewpoint - which was so incidental to my points - became the linchpin of the discussion. To this day I am sure of this: Even a struggle so central to modern societal progress as equality can only ever be an aspect of historiography. You may base a whole career on feminist history - and that would be an important pursuit - but nobody would claim everything is said and done when we have told all there is to tell about this struggle. No. No! And again: No!

I would like to claim that I stayed as calm as I am now, writing all this down however many years later, but that would be a lie. We shouted at each other. I didn’t permit this person, or my professor for that matter, to have the last word. I was incapable to give in, to allow this person to lug his intimidating aura around to steamroll me. After all, this was academia! Or its impoverished simulacrum at least. And arguments ought to count more than any accomplishments in other arenas of society here. Finally, the person just left in the middle of the class, infuriated, slamming the door. I was about to make another remark about their bad attitude, but was silenced by my professor: “Martin!” He only shouted this one word. My name. “Martin!” “There it was”, I thought. Finally an acknowledgement. I felt oddly good. I felt put into place. And wasn’t this what I wanted? To be put into place?

A few hours later, still pumped up from the altercation, I learned that my opponent had posted the tweets they did. I don’t think they assumed that I was a Twitter user or would seek ought their timeline - if they cared at all. I found myself in an exceptional situation: I could read what another person that didn’t like me thought about me. They just had put it out there for anyone to read. That included me and their kinda big audience. Some people liked those tweets, others retweeted them. And even though I knew, intellectually, that these tweets weren’t meant for me or were in the end about me, really (they were about this persons anger), I felt deeply hurt. I felt seen, in a bad way. I felt revealed, caught. I felt like I was laughable. The whole village, their village, had it out for me, pointing, be it in anger or amusement about this anti-feminist idiot, who came to town, unbidden, to insult the mayor with his retrograde ideas, the fool, not even able to see how antiprogressive he is. I felt my artifice was visible as such. The political ascriptions didn’t bother me, because they weren’t accurate. But the persona that was described between the lines did. This mess of piled up insecurities that held up the disguise of an eager student was laid bare. There I was, in my most unfavorable interpretation. However, I couldn’t deny the fact that it was a possible interpretation. It had a connection to reality. Yes, I was a self-serious jerk. And I knew it, I realized it, sometimes. And in this moment, I could see it clearly, I wasn’t the only one who was aware. I felt deeply ashamed.

As though a pill as it is swallow to remember all of this, to rethink all of this: I am grateful that I had the strength back then to screenshot those tweets and put them into my journal. I don’t know if I knew it back then, but I preserved a seminal moment in my life. There is no real moral here. And I couldn’t point to this vignette as the cause for things being different from there on out. I carried on a couple of years longer with this prodigy-jerk persona, before it finally clicked that this wasn’t the way. Erosion takes its time. But I will always think back to this moment in my life when thinking about where the beginning of the end of that persona is located. It’s right then and there. I am a better person for it today, prodigy or not.