Deep thoughts on instaneity

Having recently finished Cal Newport’s Deep Work and went on a short vacation completely disconnected from the Internet or any sort of instant messaging, I realised how much anxiety these things are giving me.

Especially instant messages. Emails are challenging too. I think we really have to challenge the implicit social contract we seem to be signing ourselves up to. Questions to ask ourselves:

  • Do we have to respond to everyone?
  • Must we respond instantly? Or must we comply with the timeline of the sender?
  • Can we not set autoreply when we are actually at work and performing deep work?

Often the trivial stuff are the ones that compose of 80% of your mailbox and can be ignored (because someone else would be happy to take them up to feel productive); we ought to reserve our attention to the 20% that are the ones we should be handling.

Easy to say that; we have to create a system to manage all that expectation and have the competence to develop the right reputation so that we put most of the work upfront on the sender.

The Public Servant

Who is a public servant? More than 1 year since I left public service, I’m still enamoured with the concept of being a public servant. The idea of being able to do things that are altruistic, for the good of a nation, to serve the people for a regular paycheck sounds like a great idea.

What are our thinking around a good public servant? One who cares for the country, who works for the interest of the society, and deftly navigates the competing objectives of public policy to deliver outcomes. What are the values he or she should uphold? Surely honesty? Surely to do his or her work without “fear or favour”? But what does all of these mean practically?

Who are we really looking for to serve in the public sector besides having good grades and a good mind? Are we nurturing and promoting the public sector according to those values? Or is it usually easier to look at the ability to perform administrative tasks well? This can be incredibly difficult to tell. Who would you like it to be?

Opportunity cost II

Interestingly, it was around this time a year ago when I wrote about opportunity costs and my mind recently dwelt on this topic again while reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work. He talks about the opportunity cost of distraction, and of course, social media. He reminds all of us to think about the true cost of spending time and attention on social media.

Simply speaking, there is two. First is of course the time spent that could otherwise be used on more productive things. ‘Keeping in touch’ with thousands is known to be not just technically but cognitively impossible. So interactions on social media can at best be very shallow even if there’s rich engagement with a select few whom you are already interacting beyond the confines of the internet. So these online interactions are probably not adding that much to your relationships and the time can be better spent cementing the relationships within the family especially those living in close quarters.

The second opportunity cost is a little more subtle. And it has to do with the fact that social media trains our attention span to become even shorter and creates lots of little dopamine hits which really fools our system and cause us to lose the capacity for ‘deep work’ – the kind that requires more intense concentration and a persistent expenditure of intellectual and cognitive resources in order to achieve results.

I think these are incredibly valuable food for thought.

A fable

A factory made cookies. Of different colors and different designs at one of the early stage process. And they had many different cookie cutters, ingredients to make those cookies, cut and bake them. Once they were done and dried, they were then pushed to the next stage where all that cookie-cutting, baking and drying was going to contribute.

The next stage was when several different machines smashed these cookies repeatedly until they were just cookie crumbs. Not entirely pulverised. But small crumbs. With little bits of colors setting the crumbs apart that identifies their previous configuration. But the designs were gone, and shapes were no longer meaningful.

In yet another stage, the crumbs were mixed with some kind of oil, and stirred until everything was a thick paste. Now the mixture was a mishmash of colors that it lost any previous identity. The pasty mixture, like a speculoos spread is then thinly spread out on a surface, and left to dry.

That was the end of the factory production line. That was deemed the highest contribution of the cookies so painstakingly prepared in the beginning and whose little personalities and identities cultivated and distinguished.

Being organised

I was recently absent from work for a prolonged period of time and disconnected from it. I do however continue to post daily on this website because I’ve pre-written my blog posts and would like to continue sharing my ideas. But the period of disconnection made me think about the days back when we were younger and cellphones (mobile phones or mobiles as they are called these days) were uncommon.

We left our homes with no means of reaching our parents other than the public phone booths. And it was okay when we were uncontactable for hours or even days. Because we planned ahead, informed our family and friends (at least those who matter), and there we go.

Today, doing so would be unusual; and people we love can get seriously anxious or worried when we are not contactable. Even if we tell them we are away on vacation, or just out to run an errand. And there’s the discomfort if we don’t bring our phones out.

It dawned on me that being more organised, reliable, and predictable would be able to quell such worries and prevent these unnecessary anxieties. How do we build a reputation for that sort of organisation and reliability?

Clarity and the hustle

When people practice hard selling techniques and FOMO-marketing, are they getting more than their fair share of clients? By focusing on FOMO elements and putting pressure on the client (limited time for this pricing), the client is unable to get clarity on the real purchase decision, which boils down only to:

  • Do I need the product or service?
  • Is the need coming from within or out?

The problem with hustling and pressure selling is that clients do eventually wake up and realise he or she paid for something that he or she didn’t need and probably did not want in long run either. There was never any alignment between the client and the sales person.

Gaining clarity is important in every of such purchase decision so insulating yourself from the high pressure, from the rush, and the emotions is important. By reaching for clarity, you bust the hustle and create space. To breathe and to decide.

Likewise, is the society, the family, communities and expectations from outside hustling you?

Choice of problems

Questions we ask ourselves matters. Do we base our decision on the answer to “Is this good enough” or “Is this the best”? The result can deeply influence our ability to make other choices and commitments. I’ve been pondering about our power to choose and the manner we ought to exercise it.

Like I’ve said many times, our education system haven’t done enough to encourage questions compared to seeking answers and if we think life is a series of finding answers to problems thrown at us, then we have it seriously wrong. Yet that is what our system continually encourage us to think. Life do throw problems at us but we can choose which ones to solve and which ones to deal with first, or later. We are doing that continuously by procrastinating or neglecting certain problems we face.

Having to account for yourself or suffer the consequences of your choices does not take the power of choice away from you. So all the more we should be exercising the power carefully. The myth is that we can do it all and enjoy the set of consequences we want. The real world is more interesting than that.

Presenting differences

Having studied overseas and been exposed to a variety of cultures, even within Singapore, I came to recognise more so in workplaces and social environments the culture’s ability to tolerate differences. In reality, there will always be differences amongst individuals but some cultures require more appearance of conformity than others. Typically, these culture thinks that uniformity is the same as unity.

But uniformity and conformity is so different from unity; there’s a lot more in terms of spirit, morale and emotional connection that matters when it comes to unity. So different cultures requires that differences be presented differently. Confrontational cultures might be more accepting of being upfront with ‘I disagree’ – but for the less confrontational cultures, try saying:

  • I don’t understand this perspective, maybe you can explain [the point]…
  • Let us review the objectives of this exercise…
  • Have you considered some alternatives?

Power to choose

Did you choose the job you are in? Or the course you’re studying? Or the friends you have around you? Or the spouse you’re married to? How many were your choice? Which were results of social expectations or pressure? Whose wishes are you fulfilling in one choice or another?

Often, even when we have the power to choose, we willingly give up this power. It could be because we are unwilling to take ownership of the outcomes or that we feel unequiped to take on the mental load of making a well-reasoned choice. We default to some social expectations or conform to some kind of norm.

That can be a huge mistakes as these commitments can accumulate and affect subsequent options and choices. It is not going to be one-off but a continually-unfolding situation. So what will encourage you to take up your power to choose again?

Integrity or incompetence II

So some lawyers cheated in Bar exams in 2020. It is all the more ironic and shocking that one of the papers involved was about professional ethics. I’m afraid professional exams and papers including materials on ethics and conduct have descended into a mere tollbooth or barrier to entry rather than serving its meaningful purpose of qualifying the right candidates.

As a culture, we have gradually focused more and more on measureable attributes especially such as competence, at the expense of character. And because character wins out only in the very long term, in a society where speed, convenience, showing immediate results are important, attributes like integrity takes a big hit.

These incidents call to question whether taking exams on code of conduct is sufficient. And whether character is built upon knowing some kind of moral code vis-a-vis believing and practising them.

I’ve an inkling, but no research to back me up, that the prevalence of family breakdowns, rising rates of divorce and dysfunctional relationships can in themselves be traced back to this failure as a culture to invest in and bother with character attributes. Relationships, personal and family are the ones that have to really withstand the test of time unlike a job, a business traction or a year in school. These would naturally suffer more when our view of character has come so low in our thoughts about what makes a successful human being.