This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 5: Eliminating, subscribe and buy here
Andrew Smart is the author of Autopilot, a fascinating book that puts forward the scientific arguments for doing less and being “idle” more of the time. I read Autopilot as part of my 2014 Reading List and I was fascinated by its topic, particularly the idea of a “resting state network” – an area of your brain that theory suggests could be critical to creativity and memory retention – which activates when you’re at rest. Andrew is also very outspoken about productivity and time management techniques, which I’m keen to explore with him to see whether Bojan and I fall into the category of “time management evangelists” that he vilifies in his book.
On the whole, there’s a great deal of sense in Autopilot and I believe that many of its concepts are strongly aligned to what Alpha Efficiency is all about – defining your own priorities and not conforming to the rigid structures set out in some areas of time management. I’m thrilled that Andrew has been able to join us to delve into the detail behind the book and some of its concepts.
Welcome to Alpha Efficiency Magazine Andrew! Why don’t you tell us a little more about yourself?
First of all, thank you for the invitation to the interview and for your interest in the book. Right now I am working as an engineer at a large company working on medical devices and mobile technology. Before that, I worked at Honeywell Aerospace doing research on using EEG in image analysis and brain-computer interface applications. I worked on human factors, aviation psychology, and flight deck touchscreen displays as well. Before Honeywell, I worked at New York University as a lab manager in a brain imaging lab that studied the neural bases of language using MEG, fMRI, and EEG. I did a masters degree in cognitive science at Lund University in Sweden and I did an amazing internship at the [Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience](http://sccn.ucsd.edu) at UCSD. My fundamental passion is to understand human consciousness and how our brains create a subjective first-person experience. But I also love technology, computer programming and things like brain waves.
I started out though at art school 20 years ago. I originally wanted to be a painter. And to be honest I have found that actually my art school background has served me extremely well in science and engineering. I always marvel at how people want to get rid of art and music programs in favor of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) in school. I am one example of how art education can actually help if you end up in a STEM career!
I am also an old punk rocker. One thing I can say is that the rebelliousness and anti-authority attitude you have as a teenage punk rocker is also something that is important in science and engineering. Over the years, while I have mellowed out considerably, I have learned that the original punk instinct -that authority is usually not justified- is true. Either I refuse to grow up, or punks are correct.
How did you come to write a book about the science of being idle?
When I left NYU for Honeywell, it was my first real job in industry research. There are many similarities between academic and industry research and in fact, at Honeywell, we often collaborated with university labs. In both situations, there is a lot of pressure to produce very quickly. Whether it is churning out publications in high impact journals so you can get another grant or tenure in academia, or hitting project milestones for stakeholders in the industry who are in turn trying to get promoted and make the company the maximum possible short-term profit.
I have always been relatively scatter-brained; I oscillate between extreme focus and extreme distraction. In academia there are many people like this and the trait can work well. In industry, however, you are expected to be focused all the time because there is so much more bureaucracy to manage. I spent hours every day filling in this web form or that project plan, tracking project hours or doing process improvement webinars. It’s quite amazing to me that at many large companies they hire very highly-educated people, who are among some of the smartest people I’ve met, to fill in web forms.
I began to have a lot of time-management issues. My technical or research work and contributions were always good and appreciated, but I received a lot of negative feedback about the fact that I did not fill in this or that web form in time. I began to doubt myself and wonder if maybe I wasn’t a “high-performer”.
It’s quite amazing to me that at many large companies they hire very highly-educated people, who are among some of the smartest people I’ve met, to fill in web forms.
I read Getting Things Done and many other time-management books because I had a genuine fear that, while I liked the scientific work I was doing and I seemed to do it well, I would lose my job because I was constantly late with completing “company process X” form or whatever. But I could not take that stuff seriously because I honestly believe that a well-trained monkey could do it; in fact, I do think that large companies don’t want the next Isaac Newton, they want well-trained monkeys – or actually robots. The problem is that robots are not creative; they talk a lot about innovation but really what they do is the opposite.
So I was immersed in time-management literature, trying to figure out how to do my scientific work and keep up with the bureaucratic bullshit, all the time getting more and more depressed. Then it occurred to me, kind of as a joke at first: what if I wrote an anti-time management book? The book would be about not getting things done and about doing nothing.
I then discovered that one of my philosophical heroes, Bertrand Russell, had written an essay called “In Praise of Idleness”. I found Tom Hodgkinson’s work, “How To Be Idle” and discovered there was a long trail of literature about the benefits of idleness, going back all the way to ancient Greece. I looked into Newton and one of my favorite poets, Rilke, discovering that it is very likely that their inspirations came when they were just sitting around doing nothing.
My instinctual loathing of the cult of modern time-management was confirmed by these authors and thinkers; I then connected all of this with the recent discovery of the default mode network using my understanding of cognitive neuroscience. This lead me to realize that a serious scientific case could be made that the way companies are run, along with our culture of busyness, are just wrong.
I understand that neuroscience is still quite an embryonic field and many of its topics are quite contentious. How much scientific debate is there around the topics you present in the book?
There is quite a lot of debate about the significance of the resting state network. I would say scientists like Marcus Raichle, Michael Gazzaniga, and György Buzsàki fall into a new school of thinking in neuroscience: that the brain is not primarily reflexive. That the function of the default mode network is to keep the brain in an active state so that it can react very quickly -and even anticipate the environment- if necessary. Karl Friston has a mathematical theory about this called the free-energy principle which basically says that the brain is always trying to minimize surprise or minimize the difference between the model it has made of our environment and sensory input. So in a sense when you turn off or reduce sensory input it seems that your brain gets busy processing itself; the brain is never idle.
But I don’t think anyone doubts that the resting state network is real anymore. It has been independently verified many times. However, there is a very long-standing tradition in neuroscience and psychology to view the brain as just a passive processor of external information. Personally, I think this assumption is wrong. The problem is that experimental technology only allows us to probe what happens when we stimulate the brain. It is very difficult to study spontaneously generated thoughts using objective methods.
What would you say is the single most important concept behind Autopilot?
I think it is to embrace idleness and mind-wandering. Even though studies show that people become unhappy during mind-wandering, I think it is because there is such a stigma attached to it and we feel guilty that we are not being “productive” when we are daydreaming. The kinds of things that bubble up into our awareness when we are idle might not always be nice, but I think they are important. Most of our brain’s operations, maybe 99%, are unconscious. In other words, we only become aware of a tiny fraction of what our brains are doing. My theory is that being idle and letting your mind wander allows more of these unconscious operations to become conscious. This is because of the central hub structure of the default mode network. The default network is connected to more parts of the brain than other networks and so it can access information from many far-flung brain regions whose operations do not enter awareness.
I enjoyed the idea that your brain is distracted by dealing with the “challenges of the moment.” How good are you at dealing with all these stimuli?
When your brain is bombarded with stimuli like emails, phone calls, text messages, Facebook updates, errands, driving around, talking to your boss, checking your to-do list, etc., it is kept busy responding to what neuroscientist Scott Makeig, director of the Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience in La Jolla, California, calls “the challenge of the moment.”
Good question. I am probably terrible, which is why I wrote the book: to justify my inability to deal with the challenge of the moment and to argue that the number of challenges the brain can deal with at any moment is limited. When we allow for long periods of idleness we deal with momentary challenges much better! In all seriousness, I am like everyone nowadays, trying to keep up with email, calendars, tasks, and children. I do think my ability to focus deeply has suffered because of digital technology and the way modern offices are organized.
This month’s theme is “Eliminating”, where we talk about the importance of not doing things and being aware of the activities that are invisible to your conscious brain. This seems to resonate nicely with the themes in your book. How do YOU eliminate the unnecessary elements from your life?
I probably do it the wrong way. I simply ignore what I think is unnecessary, but as I said this gets me into all kinds of trouble from time to time. However, I do find that for many of life’s little annoyances, whether it’s at work or at home when you ignore things long enough they go away because the people requesting them are too busy and move on to other things.
We ask all our interviewees to share their home screens with us; Do you use a smartphone? If so, could you share your home screen and talk about how you use it?
I used to use a Samsung Galaxy, but at my current job, I have an old-school Samsung with no touchscreen. I used the Galaxy for tracking my runs and bike rides, distance, time, speed, calories etc. But now I actually don’t do that anymore.
You give time management techniques a pretty rough ride – I think my favorite quote is where you describe Six Sigma (a process improvement methodology) as an “organizational epileptic seizure.” In your opinion, is there any place for time management or productivity techniques?
Nowhere in Allen’s imperative to “become a wizard of productivity” does he suggest that if you must rely on perpetual mnemonic and digital gymnastics to get through your day, maybe you have too much to do.
I think it gets to the heart of how the system of what I would call “wage-slavery” is organized. I think that time-management is great for things that you yourself want to do. For example, I am working on a new book, I love to do these interviews, to give talks, participate in public debates; I also love to be with my wife and my kids and just do random things. To do all of these things I need to manage my time. But at companies, almost everything you have to do is externally induced. Almost of none of the tasks you have to do at work are things you would normally do but you have to do them because someone else said you have to do them. To me, this is the fundamental distinction: Time-management is necessary to keep up with tasks that are given to you by other people. I am not saying this is always bad, but I do think in our culture and economy the external demands are far too great.
Exploring that idea a bit further, you make an interesting analogy between “organized” time and failed attempts at scientific forestry, citing:
Forests, too, are self-organizing systems. Their health is maintained by an extremely complex interaction between diverse types of soil, animals, insects (such as ants), plants, fungus, trees, and weather. By disrupting this exquisitely balanced and harmonious system through uniformity and attempting to make the forest “productive,” scientific forestry caused the forest ecosystem to collapse.
I think the reason that so much effort is put into time-management at large companies and in our lives is that it’s really a Sisyphusian task. It is the height of absurdity to think we can will our brains into profit-producing, hyper-efficient machines. Instead, I argue we should stop and instead try to understand how our brains are really organized.
Here at Alpha Efficiency, we believe that individuals can become more productive by thinking about the way they work in a more flexible, personalized way. Do you think any kind of productivity thinking is destructive, or are there specific types that you’re particularly set against?
I would agree with that, but I definitely question the notion of productivity as a goal in itself. For me, we should embrace life as much as productivity. Productivity is not a goal in itself. If you enjoy what you work on you will do it well and you will be “productive”. I take issue with the profit-oriented idea of productivity: that we all should be these cogs in a machine making money for the owners of the economy.
time-management is great for things that you yourself want to do… But at companies almost everything you have to do is externally induced. Almost of none of the tasks you have to do at a job are things you would normally do but you have to do them because someone else said you have to do them.
You cite an example where Romanian workers left their jobs at midday after the technology was installed that improved their output. You stated:
Technology such as PCs that are ostensibly supposed to give us more free time actually either reduce our leisure time or eliminate it.
Isn’t this misrepresenting the role of technology? In the commercial world, companies typically pay for an individual’s time, not their output…so technology allows companies to increase the output of an individual within that agreed time window. Other than the pervasiveness of technology into our “personal time” (a la the “Crackberry”), how do you justify your statement?
To me, this is the very definition of wage-slavery. Because we are all in debt in one way or another, we are forced to rent ourselves and our time to the people or organizations who have the capital. I think it is an interesting idea: if you can do your work in less time why can’t you leave work early? The company wants you there all the time doing more, but why is it always necessary to increase output? I try to address this issue a little as well at the end of the book, where we see that from the perspective of the whole system, the drive for constant economic growth has had a dramatic effect on climate change, which will in turn damage economic growth.
But I do think the use of technology spreads then into our personal lives, and the boundary between when we are working or not is blurred. Therefore, all of our time can be online and productive because we have mobile computers.
Another provocative idea that you present is that the aspects of the brain that tell us “who we are” (our conscious representation of our selves) are more active when we’re at rest. You seem to be suggesting that the busier we are, the less clear we may be about our own self-identity. Is that the point you were making?
Yes, that is exactly the point I am trying to make and while this hasn’t been confirmed empirically, and I honestly don’t know how it could be, I am quite convinced of this.
What makes you so sure?
Even though exact estimates are very difficult because we don’t have a clear neural definition of consciousness, as I mentioned it is likely that 99% of your brain’s operations are inaccessible to awareness. When we are idle the brain seems to begin to process itself, rather than incoming information from the environment. The brain regions that make up the default mode network have all been associated with processing self-awareness – like the precuneus – which is a major hub node in the brain. The precuneus has a very high resting metabolic rate. My own idea is that whatever drives or motivates you does this largely unconsciously. But of course everyone has a model of themselves – an identity – and regions like the precuneus seem to specialized for storing and processing this representation of ourselves. As part of the default mode network, the precuneus seems to become less active during externally directed mental activity, but increases its activity during rest, along with the rest of the default mode network.
I think mind-wandering is almost like showing your consciousness a mental mirror. The things that drift into your awareness during mind-wandering is your brain’s way of saying “this is you”.
In another interesting quote, you state:
research indicates that young people who send text messages extremely often tend to score lower on tests that measure moral reflectivity. This could be because, with each new text, the task-positive network is engaged, thereby suppressing activity in the default mode network.
Are you suggesting that technology is making us immoral? Can you expand on this a little more?
Well, as I talk about in the book, when your brain is constantly forced to process external information, simplistically the default mode network is toggled off. There is evidence that the default mode network is involved in processing emotion, self-reflection and moral responses, which are all tightly related. This is connected to processing unconscious information and when you are glued to your mobile device your brain has no chance to process what is going on internally. You become like a rat in a lab compulsively pushing a button for a drop of juice. I suspect that our addiction to status updates and tweets and emails leads to less moral reflection simply because our brains actually need idleness to process this information.
The things that drift into your awareness during mind-wandering is your brain’s way of saying “this is you.
Companies worldwide may be shaking in their corporate boots at the notion that their workforce may suddenly decide to be idler; What advice would you give to an individual working a typical 9–5 job about how to improve the quality of their working life?
I would suggest trying to steal a little bit of daydreaming time every day. I am sure we all do this. I look around and see people staring out the window. Maybe you can find places at work to hide and space out. The thing that companies do not get is that if they allow people to be idle, they may not hit all their arbitrary performance metrics every month, but in the long run, the company will be better off. The people will perform better; they will be happier, and healthier.
Thanks for talking to Alpha Efficiency Magazine!