Gen Z on Deep Work

I asked students to read an excerpt of the first chapter of Cal Newport’s book Deep Work and comment in a discussion board. The prompt asked whether deep work goes on in college and what are the barriers to deep work. I think it’s important for society that some people engage in deep work on our problems. I’m interested in how 20-year-olds perceive Newport’s ideas on focus and what barriers they identify to deep work.

Replies ranged from “I do believe that deep work is happening at college, but I think that it is hard to find students using this strategy regularly.” to “I know multiple people who do not practice deep work….” They each have a different subjective view of “deep work” and their replies are anecdotal. It’s possible that some students are too hard on themselves, considering that I biased them to be negative with the discussion prompt. Some of them might have thought that “deep work” requires many consecutive hours of focus, which is not actually what I expect of undergraduates. Still, the discussion could be helpful to others who aspire to deep work.

The following barriers to deep work were identified:

“The barriers that we experience include social media, roommates, friends, significant others, going to classes, having to work, and any number of other things that cause our day to become disjointed …  We are the first generation that has spent the majority of our life utilizing social media… and in general, are used to taking in information from a large number of sources over a short period of time.

“Most students cannot spend a large amount of hours just focused on the one task at hand and that is required for deep work. For most college students it will be nearly impossible to practice deep work because of a job, outside social life, or a heavy class workload …

“I believe that deep work happens in college a lot.  Students often times must prepare/study for tests for a long time and that is when it happens the most.  When someone has to study for hours they are intensely focused if they put themselves in a good studying environment…

“This can be achieved when you are able to clear your mind of external things and place yourself in a non-distracting environment. As a college student, this can be difficult especially because we are constantly thinking about our to-do list, when will we hang out with friends, or what’s for dinner.

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Andrew Weaver is Searching for the Skills Gap

Andrew Weaver is doing interesting work on “the skills gap.” One of his key methods is to create new data by interviewing firms. As someone who has looked hard for good data on the skills gap, I can say that we need more work like his.

Weaver’s 2017 paper with Paul Osterman is about data for U.S. manufacturing firms. These findings may or may not generalize perfectly outside of manufacturing, but I think this was a great place to start. There is plenty of talk about the decline of U.S. manufacturing and at least some of the talk was about a lack of skilled Americans to meet the great demand for high-tech doings. For this survey, they only ask about “core workers” who are doing the specialized roles of making widgets.  

Here are two important empirical questions:  a.) do American manufacturing firms want high-skill workers? b.) do they have trouble finding them? The authors answer, “not as much as you might think from policy discussions.”

There are lots of details in the paper that I don’t have time to cover. In table 2, they go over the determinants of a firm facing long-term vacancies. What is common among the (minority of) firms that report having long-term vacancies? Advanced computer proficiency is not associated with difficulty of filling jobs. The implication is that most manufacturing companies around 2017 were able to find workers who had the computer-related skills needed to do the core production tasks. What seemed to be a limiting factor was not computer skills but advanced reading skills. Half of the establishments surveyed said that they require workers with extended reading skills. That could mean, for example, reading a 10-page technical article in a trade journal.

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Scheduling The Day

What to do on the Monday before Christmas? My 5-y-o son was beginning a long winter break from school. Thanks to Covid, we were home all day. I wanted my son to do a few chores and some learning.

There were some fun activities I knew we would end up doing that day, such as playing chess and letting him watch some TV. One option would have been for me to order him around all day. If he balked at cleaning up his room, I could threaten to withhold TV. Instead, I made a jar of activities written on slips of paper.

He picked papers out one at a time. The only rule I imposed was that he would do that activity immediately. If he drew tidying his room, then we went straight to his room. Mixing in papers that read “30 minutes of TV” and “pick a snack to share” made the game seem fun. He would have ended up watching TV anyway. I included a paper in the bowl that said, “give Mommy a compliment.” Everyone needs some affirmation!

This tactic was so successful that it got me thinking about how adults, including myself, could benefit from something similar. Adults need structure. I contemplated whether I would want someone to put all my activities for the day in a jar. Something I have done and even paid for is to go to a gym and have a fitness instructor tell me what to do for an hour.

One reason the jar game worked is that my son could not do all the fun activities first before the more unpleasant tasks (i.e. math worksheet). Almost every successful writer says that they write first thing in the morning. They don’t procrastinate.

If you’d like to hear from a real live human who actually does the writing scheduling thing, you can listen to Jennifer Doleac’s recent interview on The Hidden Curriculum podcast. She really does the thing! No wonder she’s so amazing and professionally successful. (She’s also generous with her time and supportive of young scholars.)

I think many of us could think of an excuse for not scheduling every hour of our work days a week ahead of time, as she does. I feel like I have excuses, but I also bet I could get closer. A great book on productivity is Deep Work. Something I took away from that book is that, even if you can’t go full Doleac, every person can do better.

The author, Cal Newport, points out something we all know by now: constantly checking email and social media eats up your day and reduces productivity. After arguing that it’s optimal to block out hours for exclusive intense focus, Newport deals with the objection that some people need to be accessible to others throughout the day. A manager or teacher needs to read and respond to emails promptly. Newport’s response was something like “Ok. However, you can probably check your email LESS frequently than you currently do.”

The New Year is coming. Let’s try again. Let’s try harder. I want to waste LESS time than I currently do. And I’ll so some more of the surprise jar game with my son.

Thanks for the Patent System

Although I write on a variety of subjects, my main professional training (through the PhD level) is as a chemical engineer. Chemical engineering is one of the broader technical disciplines. It bridges between chemistry, which is mainly associated with academic-type laboratory work, and huge chemical plant equipment. One year I was making and testing catalysts in the lab, then next I was calculating fluid flows and designing internals for a 100 ft high distillation tower (and climbing around inside that tower to insure the parts were being properly welded in place):

In my work in industrial research, I have been paid to develop technical improvements which could have economic value. A key incentive my company had for investing in this research was the expectation that if we came up with a novel improvement, that we could have exclusive rights to practice that improvement. There would have been little point in paying for research if our competitors could immediately make use of our hard-won insights. A snip of one of my patents is shown below.

For the world, and for most large groupings such as nations, the average income per capital is roughly equal to the average production per capita. The way to get more “stuff” (goods and services, and all their benefits) is to make more stuff. The way to make more stuff (per capita, and for fixed a workweek) is to make workers more productive. A key factor in productivity is technology. Two hundred years ago, nearly everyone in the U.S. had to be out in the sun and cold, working the soil, sowing by hand and plowing with the aid of animals, to grow enough food to feed everyone. Now I believe we are fed by only 2% of the workforce, using artificial fertilizers, improved seeds, huge tractors and combines, and satellite-aided computer scheduling. Most of the rest of us get to work in air-conditioned offices (or homes, in a pandemic year) and eat as much food as we want.

The patent system of the U.S. and other nations is designed to promote progress in productive technology. Early on, the newborn U.S. Congress passed the Patent Act of 1790, titled “An Act to promote the progress of useful Arts”.  Without getting into all the legal details, a valid U.S. patent allows the inventor to exclude any other party from practicing their invention, for a period of twenty years. However, one of the requirement for a patent application is to clearly explain to the public how the invention works. When the twenty years is over, anyone can take advantage of the technology which the inventor has disclosed, which hopefully leads to widespread practice of technical improvements. While we can always ponder improvements to our system of patents, readers can thank it in part for many medical advances, and for delivering them from trudging behind a plow.

Charter Cities and Genetic Algorithms

My dear friend Mark Lutter has had me all riled up about charter cities for a few years now. I link to a new podcast from USFQ’s Aula Magna magazine on the subject that gives a very short introduction to the topic. After recording the podcast I returned to preping a class on genetic algorithms and got all riled up because I saw a connection between the two I hadn’t seen (clearly) before. Charter cities can be real life genetic algorithms for institutional innnovation.

Genetic algorithms are a form of machine learning that searches for solutions to problems by trying out a variety of solutions. As the name implies they are based on the evolutionary algorithm of diversity-selection-amplification to adapt solutions. In a genetic algorithm a population of of possible solutions to an optimization problem is instantiated and solutions with high fitness and reproduce (using cross over, mutation, and other genetic operators) to create new populations of solutions. over enough iterations genetic algorithms are goods ways to search for solutions whe the solution space is complex and poorly defined, which is probably what institutional space looks like.

Now imagine a country that is designed as a genetic algorithm and charter cities within the country as posible institutional solutions. The constitution of the central government is the overall framework of the genetic algorithm and the diversity of institutional arrangments at local government levels (i.e. different charters) are posible solutions.

Viewing charter cities in this light, the interesting question now turns to the rules of the central government and not necesarily to the rules implemented by the charters themselves.

A few of the questions that have begun to bother me follow. What country level rules lead to convergence, or at least continual adaptation to better institutional arrangments at the local level? What should the constriants be imposed on the charters for better, faster convergence and learning? Zoning and housing restrictions would be a clear impediment to convergence as they limit foot voting. If we view charter cities (and fiscal federalism) as an experiment to search for solutions to institutional arrangements for governance, can we use the criteria used by IRB boards as the minimum set of requirements that informa the central government constitution/framework where this experiment takes place?

Gen Z on “The Social Dilemma”

Undergraduate student of data analytics, Liza Thornell, writes her reaction to the documentary on social media. My earlier post on the same topic is here.

A new Netflix documentary has recently caught the public’s attention. The Social Dilemma has caused speculation to form around big tech companies and has also sparked the deletion of social media applications across the nation. The Social Dilemma explores the steps that were taken to create the powerhouse social media platforms, along with exposing the negative effects the platforms have on its users.

Social media platforms, such as Facebook, gain the majority of their revenue through advertising. Due to its privacy settings (or lack thereof) Facebook is able to obtain astronomical amounts of data about its users. The data that is collected from social media platforms entices marketers because they can reach more customers for less money. These platforms market specific products based on the data that they collect through their users. According to The Social Dilemma not only can social media market products to you, it can also mold and shape your opinion as well, changing your preferences over time. In the Social Dilemma several former Silicon Valley executives explain why this can be bad.

According to the documentary, social media is harmful due to its design and how it affects mental health. The purpose of these apps is to hold your attention captive for as long as possible. In order to do so, it is important that the app keeps providing fresh new content that is relevant to your preferences. Everything we do on our phones becomes predictive data for what we will do next. The ideal situation for social media platforms is that you will end up down the ‘rabbit hole’ of specifically tailored content because the longer you spend scrolling and clicking through social media, the more data these platforms can collect about you. According to the Social Dilemma, the rabbit hole is a dangerous place to be.

Social media in its initial design was not created to be hurtful. It was made to bring people together. The Social Dilemma states that big tech companies have strayed away from their initial creation story. Now, social media is about holding its audience captive, molding public opinion, and increasing sales through tailoring marketing. The content is distracting us from the serious ramifications that can come from spending all of our free time scrolling instead of engaging with the world around us. It makes us crave instant approval at all times, from people and the media.

The Social Dilemma does not condemn social media. This documentary supports social media, just not the way it’s currently working. The biggest take away from this documentary is that we have gotten lost in the rabbit hole and have to find our way out to preserve our privacy.

From the standpoint of a college student, I found this documentary to be eye opening. I believe that the average college student struggles with being addicted to social media platforms and our attention spans are shortening as a result. Reliance on social media directly correlates with the decline of in-person interaction and interpersonal communication skills. Companies such as Apple have released features on phones that track screen time in order to enlighten consumers on their usage. The ability to track usage is a tool for managing and limiting social media use. For college students, cutting down on social media consumption can positively impact mental health and productivity.

The Problem of Paying Attention in Online Classes

Currently, I subscribe to Bloomberg Businessweek. Instead of ranking MBA programs, this year they decided to report on a survey of students about switching to online classes. (in the Sept. 21 issue)

Overall, the reaction from students has been negative. They believe an online MBA is not as valuable as the traditional in-person experience.

Something MBA students state, which I have already heard from my own undergraduates, is that it’s difficult to focus during online instruction hours. If your face isn’t being watched through your webcam, then it’s tempting to “multitask” and not pay attention to the professor. I feel the same temptation when I join online research seminars.

What’s the most sympathetic view of this situation? Doing your online classes “isn’t that hard”. I feel like the scold looking over my bifocals at millennials saying, “going to a dry cleaner isn’t that hard”. (We millennials cannot be bothered to go to a dry cleaner.)

Here’s my first and brief thought: College students today have been taught to use screens for recreation by their parents.

Parents put kids in front of screens to get rid of them. I get rid of my own kids by putting them on screens. I ensure that they are not watching something evil.

I hope parents are diligently ensuring that their preteen daughters are not chatting up predators. What responsible parents have been told is to try to limit total screen hours and also to try to keep your child out of the digital equivalent of dark alleys.

That kind of guidance doesn’t teach students how to use screens constructively. They are suddenly being asked by teachers to be constructive on the screen. Some of them can hack it. Some of them can’t. None of them were prepared for this.

Your typical 20-year-old college student today must have done well in traditional classrooms because they did, after all, get admitted to college. But when they were on their screens, they were scrolling and gaming and indulging their impulses. As long as they physically showed up to class on Monday morning and turned in enough homework assignments, no adult was going to make them do chores on screens.

Since screens are here to stay, we need a lot more research on how to raise humans who know how to be responsible on screens.

No answers came to me when posed this question to the hive mind:  

Two short polls on work habits

I ran two polls on Twitter about work habits. These are not scientific polls that are representative of the American public. The people connected to me on Twitter are mostly economists and data scientists. The strongest claim that I could make is that these results tell us something about the kind of professionals who check Twitter regularly. We are all working from home even more than usual because of coronavirus restrictions.

The first poll was about when and if people who are working from home break for lunch. I usually want to break for lunch at 10:30am but push myself to hold out until at least 11am. I wondered if there is anyone else like me.

The next week, I was reading about a new fancy software that helps you organize your own notes and writing schedule. I mostly write notes in Notepad, a text editor from the 1980s! Should I get with the times? First, I thought I’d ask my respectable friends whether they have bothered to schedule their writing times.

Most of them don’t schedule writing. So, I’m just going to stick with Notepad for now. I’m definitely open to the idea that I would be more productive if I worked harder on productivity. Maybe next year I’ll start doing every thing right.

Internet reading that has shaped me

For the first time, I’m starting my day by writing in my blog. EWED for short. That’s the past tense of a female sheep.

I’m going to dedicate this post to some of the online resources that have been useful to me. As I said before, Marginal Revolution is a blog that I have checked every day for years. I never intended to make that into a habit. It’s just so interesting and fun that I would go there to avoid doing my actual work. There is a lot competing for my attention when I sit down at my computer to start my work day. Social media is fun but not always a good use of time. MR never leaves me feeling guilty like I just wasted the time I should have spent working.

Aside from MR, I do read other blog posts written by economists that interest me as a citizen or help me with my work. No matter what is broken in your house or what you dream of cooking for dinner, today you can always find a blogger who has explained it all for you.

I read articles by publications, not just individual bloggers. There is not much to say about that, except that I do think good writing is worth paying for. If an article is behind a paywall, I never get resentful. In theory, the rational version of me never gets resentful.

Lastly, I have gotten excellent advice from the comments in message boards. Hackers have provided me code snippets that I use for my work. I learned to code primarily from message boards that I found through Googling. There are dozens of us. Dozens!

A student once wrote in my teaching evaluations, “Dr. Buchanan doesn’t know anything because she told us to Google our problems.” Since getting that comment, I have tried to be more intentional with the way that I explain to undergraduates how real professionals search the internet for answers all the time. I feel indebted to the people who write good comments. Sometimes they can leverage their reputation professionally, but most truly want to help.

It was the puzzle of unpaid labor that contributes to open source code bases that sparked my first idea for an economics journal article. If I’m being completely honest, it was also the experience of watching the loading bar creep forward for two hours in middle school while I waiting for one pop song to come to me free courtesy of Napster.

An experiment on protecting intellectual property” demonstrated that people will sometimes tinker with creative output even if they are not making money from it and have no IP protection. We found that when we did provide IP protection, entrepreneurs emerged who were able to create value for others (and capture money for themselves) by specializing in the creation of non-rivalrous knowledge goods. Experimental subjects who had never experienced IP protection in our environment did not call it theft when their creations got copied. However, if we provided IP protection and then took it away, then we got the following objection from one subject:

The entrepreneur in NoIP12 complained in the chatroom, “why do you
sell my colors? stop re-selling my colors or ill stop making and no1 will have”. This
is the only explicit objection to piracy in our experiments. Experiencing protection in
the IP treatment led him to demand that his intellectual property be respected in the
No IP treatment.

Buchanan and Wilson (2014)

My online real estate

I bought my first domain name in 2008 through Dreamhost. I have been spending some of my own money to sit on internet real estate ever since. I have joybuchanan.com and nicodemusstory.com and economnomnomics.com and a few others. It’s fairly cheap – we are talking coffee money – simply to maintain control over those domain names.

Today I started this blog, so I bought economistwritingeveryday.com through Dreamhost, just in case this every becomes A Thing (TM). Have I mentioned that I am a hoarder? You can tell if you come to my house.

To save myself a lot of time and money, I do not build my websites from scratch. I redirect people to the places where my material is hosted for free in near-zero-work websites. My professional website joybuchanan.com redirects to a Google Site. If you click and look at the URL bar, you’ll see what I mean. I designed the site using the free tools in Google Sites. If I personally ever become A Thing (TM) then I could pay for a custom website and I wouldn’t have to worry about whether the domain name that I really want is available. If you just want to get a page of information out to the public immediately, Google Sites is the easiest tool that I know of. There is no programming or advanced knowledge of the internet required.

WordPress and another product called Blogger (owned by Google) are the easiest ways that I know of to start a blog. I set up this blog today using WordPress. I’m not paying WordPress, but I could advance up to a paid tier easily if I wanted more features or support. It took me two hours to get started, including editing my own first blog post several times. Now, I can publish new blog posts with just a few clicks. In my case, I want the words to be the focus of the site. If you wanted pictures to be the focus of your site, then even with the help of WordPress templates, it would probably take you longer to get started and develop an eye-catching aesthetic.

I wrote the HTML code for nicodemusstory.com myself in a text editor. I took a community college class in HTML when I was in middle school (thank you to my Dad for encouraging me to do it). HTML is not a real programming language, but it is a great introduction to writing for machines. If you can get a middle schooler to play around with HTML, you might be setting them up for lifetime professional success.