Wed, Mar 16, 2011
New York Times columnist David Carr says, “I’m so productive, I never get anything done.”
Sound familiar? Then you were probably too busy to attend this SXSW panel discussion, where Carr was joined by Molly McAleer, CEO of MollsSheWrote; Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor of The Atlantic; and Anthony De Rosa, a co-founder of Neighborhoodr.com—along with a large, diverse audience of hyper-connected attendees.
But were you busy working, or just doing busy work? Carr thinks that a lot of our time on computers is taken up by the latter: “Make the coffee, check the RSS, groom the avatar, freshen the blog, make nice with the Twitter—and now it’s time to do the same thing again,” he explains. “Meanwhile, your job/project/spouse/story sits there, staring at you with big cow eyes and wondering if you will ever leave the grid and do something real, something productive, something that will yield cash money and not just more followers on Twitter.”
Of course, people have always found ways to procrastinate or “slack off” from their work. A few minutes on Facebook isn’t so much different from the few minutes our parents or grandparents might have spent gossiping at the water cooler or on a coffee break. But for people who work at a computer, it’s harder than ever to stay focused. There are the temptations of our social networks, our email in-boxes, and our favorite Websites. And the problem, as Carr sees it, is that a lot of this stuff feels sort of like work—but it doesn’t actually produce anything.
And for McAleer, that is an important distinction. “When I’m working, there is going to be output,” she says. “When I’m not working, there’s no output.”
Carr feels the Internet makes him less productive. He explains, “What I do is make content. Lately, I have been so busy promoting what I do [on Twitter and so on], that I don’t do what I do.”
McAleer adds, “We have to impose self-discipline—but we always have. All known thought is a click away, so it takes more self-discipline.”
The Web is a great productivity tool, but these panelists also see it as a productivity destroyer. De Rosa says, “Sometimes I love the Web, but I feel like I always have to be monitoring it or feeding it.” He cited the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan as an example: he monitored live news of the disaster for many hours and discussed it with his network. And he thinks that, for many people, monitoring news events in real time reaches the point of compulsion.
Carr feels that the Internet can become a tool of self-obsession for many people who use it for social interaction or for self-promotion. We get online, and we “look for me, what does the word think of me,” he says. “You use to wait six months to find out what people thought of you; now you can watch reactions in real time.” That’s why, he says, email can a become a deceptive waste of time: “Email is all about myself, so I’m very attracted to it.”
Carr also thinks that Twitter can be an unhealthy symptom of self-obsession, and De Rosa agrees, saying it has rewired his brain and that he walks around thinking, “I need to tweet that later.”
Coates says, “At the end of the day, if you want to get [work] done, you get it done,” and he has an interesting take on procrastination: “For me, it was fear, not procrastination,” he says. “If I have full confidence about something, I just go ahead and knock it out.” And discovering that fear was the root of his being distracted made it easier to conquer, because he “didn’t want to be a punk.”
The panelists asked some interesting questions, to which there are as many answers as there are people. I’d like to pose those questions to you, and start a conversation about how we’re staying productive and avoiding the distractions of the online world—if it is, indeed, a distraction.
Share your thoughts in the Comments section.