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July 2017

I Is Not Enough – Amartya Sen on the Utility and Moral Dimension of Thinking Beyond Ourselves

One of the reasons for this blog is to share different frameworks of thought that I’ve found helpful or interesting with others. I am the kind of person who really enjoys having a conceptual framework for why, what and how I go about doing just about anything.

In the introduction to his book, The Idea of Justice, the economist Amartya Sen makes an eloquent case for his attempt at crafting a theory of justice. What I love about the passage that follows is that you could replace the word justice for any number of things such as: nutrition, monetary policy, relationships, investing, meaningful work, and have a compelling argument for why we should strive to build a theory around our actions and the actions of others:

The identification of redressable injustice is not only what animates us to think about justice and injustice, it is also central, I argue in this book, to the theory of justice. In the investigation presented here, diagnosis of injustice will figure often enough as the starting point for critical discussion. But, it may be asked, if this is a reasonable starting point, why can’t it also be a good ending point? What is the need to go beyond our sense of the word justice and injustice. Why must we have a theory of justice?

To understand the world is never a matter of simply recording our immediate perceptions. Understanding inescapably involves reasoning. We have to ‘read’ what we feel and seem to see, and ask what those perceptions indicate and how we may take them into account without being overwhelmed by them. One issue relates to the reliability of our feelings and impressions. A sense of injustice could serve as a signal that moves us, but a signal does demand critical examination, and there has to be some scrutiny of the soundness of a conclusion based mainly on signals. Adam Smith’s conviction of the importance of moral sentiments did not stop him from a seeking a ‘theory of moral sentiments’. Nor from insisting that a sense of wrongdoing be critically examined through reasoned scrutiny to see whether it can be the basis of a sustainable condemnation. A similar requirement of scrutiny applies to an inclination to praise someone or something.*

As compelling as this is for me, there are, I’ve been told, some people who consider an intellectual framework to be superfluous, if not downright stupid. To such people, a theory is nothing more than an extra layer of unnecessary complexity around a problem. Instead of theoretical frameworks for action, such people assign value only to their intuition and unique personal experiences.

For example, people often dismiss the need for an intellectual framework in the context of weight-loss and exercise. They say things like, “If I want to lose weight,  I just eat less and exercise more.” or “If I want to get stronger, I just go to the gym and lift heavy weights.” And in some sense these people are right, they recognize that often it is doing simple and effective things that make real progress and over intellectualizing can be a waste of time and energy.

The problem with this type of thinking is that it runs a dangerous risk of oversimplification and ignores the role that generalizable framework plays in improving the lives of others.

I say improve the lives of others because meaningful lives are the result of good decisions (on average) and good decisions are the result of understanding how the world works. In light of that understanding, the failure to try and think beyond our own intuition and experience can be viewed a failure from a moral dimension.

The failure to attempt to think beyond ourselves is a moral failure because it means we never stop to ask if and how our experiences manifest the underlying reality of the world. Such an approach to life precludes the possibility of creating a generalized framework that can be communicated, tested and then shared to better the lives of others. 

That said, there are good reasons to be skeptical of theory. Sometimes theories are bullshit.1 But the failure of an individual framework is not the failure of the method. We should consider what works for I and then carefully, and incrementally attempt to discover why and how it will work for we.

 

*Sen, Amartya Kumar. The Idea of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard U, 2011. Print.



My Favorite Tools For Escaping Social Media and Taking Back Attention

Social media is addictive. That it’s addictive is not an accident: Social media is built to be addictive. In the same way casinos design slot machines, the companies behind services like Facebook, Tinder, SnapChat, and BuzzFeed spend billions of dollars researching how to maximize your time spent on and continued use of their products. After all, more time on their sites = more advertisements served = more profits – it’s just good business.

But what’s good for Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth is not what is good for our lives. Social media habits can rob us of our ability to concentrate, to get sh*t done and even disrupt our relationships.

The good news is there are new tools that can help you take control of both how you use social media and your ability to focus. After a few weeks of experimenting with a number of these tools, I’ve achieved a level of social media use that lets me get the most out of what good these services do offer while maintaining control over my attention during the most productive hours of my day.

Here’s what I’m using:

Freedom App (Paid) 

An app called Freedom is the best tool I’ve found for taking control of media use and attention. Using VPN technology, Freedom allows you to control when and what you can access, across all your devices. Freedom lets you to block not only apps like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat but also specific websites, as well.

What really makes Freedom powerful is the level of control it gives you. It allows you to create customized lists of blocked services and then associate those lists with schedules that can be specified to times of day, days of the week and different devices.

For example, I created the above Blocklist titled “SansGmail” to block a number of social media services. I then associated that Blocklist with the below schedule to restrict those services from  6:30am to 8:00pm, Monday through Saturday, just on my phone.

 

By scheduling blocked-out times in advance Freedom allows you to stop relying on your finite supply of willpower to change. I made progress changing my social media use before using Freedom, but this app is what has allowed me to automate those changes to the point that they now feel like a habit

Strict Workflow Chrome Extension (Free)

The Strict Workflow chrome extension is a simple but effective tool for re-training yourself to focus and avoid mindless content while working. The app inserts a timer icon into your browser that will block any websites you specify for a set amount of “work time”, followed by an interval of “break time”, when nothing is blocked. For example, you would set the timer to block Facebook, Twitter and other news sites for a 45 minute work interval, followed by a 15 minute break interval.

After just a few months of using this extension, my ability to concentrate has improved dramatically. That said, at least once a week I still find myself reflexively going to Facebook or Bloomberg and I’m happy that all I have to do is press the timer to cut me off and keep me focused.

Turn Off Notifications (Free)

For anyone who wants to decrease their social media use turning off all notifications is an easy first step. Let’s face it, there’s no reason for your phone to buzz every time someone likes the latest photo of your lunch.

Similarly, moving social media apps from the first page into the depths of your phone can make it easier for you to resist the urge to sign into these services. If nothing else, having to swipe or click through numerous screens will make you more aware of how often, and how much time you spend reaching for social media dopamine hits.

Deleting Apps Method (Free)

Ok kids… time to turn off the Instagram……

Do you remember when your parents would tell you to turn off the TV for the night? I do. And I’ve adopted a similar strategy for tuning out habit forming apps like Instagram. I delete the app every evening, reinstalling it during my approved viewing hours at night, then delete it again before going to sleep.

I started doing this because I became so disgusted at how reflexively I checked Instagram. I realized that just seeing the Instagram app on my screen increased the likelihood that I’d try to open it, whether it was blocked or not.   

Airplane Mode (Free)

When I first started to take control of my ability to focus I used a combination of the Strict Workflow app and my phones airplane mode. Many people will balk at the idea of being completely cut off from their cell-phones. But if you do any kind of thoughtful work it’s more important for your career that you find a way to keep your attention on producing quality then it is to take every call the instant it arrives.

Placing your phone on airplane mode and setting a timer for 30 minutes is a great way to begin practicing attention and deep work habits.

One Day At A Time  

Habits are hard to change. It’s a rare person who can go to sleep one night saying they are going to be different and jump out of bed the next morning a changed man or woman. In reality we change incrementally: Bad habit’s don’t just stop, instead they are modified or replaced with more benign ones – one day at time.

I wrote this post because using these tools to change my social media use and take back my attention has changed my life. Being free of the mindless urge to look at Facebook, Twitter or Instagram is like having a whole other compartment of your brain freed up. I couldn’t be happier with the results and I think you will be too.

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So… have you tried to quit or change your social media use? If so please share your experience in the comments.

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