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Tsundoku, Distraction, and Focus

2019-08-04

I already know that I buy more books than I’ll probably ever have time to read, and apparently, there is a word for it. That word, tsundoku, basically means buying too many books. I didn’t need any proof that I’m an ardent practioner of tsundoku, but I was bored and decided to look over my Amazon purchases – for as long back as they would allow.

The results of this review, which (thankfully) only went back to 2013, showed that I bought way too many books. I’m almost embarrassed to mention the number, but I basically could have bought a reasonable used car for what I’ve spent on books. They are, as you can imagine, stacked piles high in my apartment.

In a month I’ll be moving into my girlfriends house, and many of these books will have to go in the basement. Considering that these books, besides some furniture, and my computers, amount to basically all I own, I figured I should make a list of them. The grand total (of the ones I tracked via Amazon orders) was about 363 books. This doesn’t even count digital purchases.

So yes, I have a book buying problem. Yes, it is very expensive, and yes – there is a library within walking distance (a real library, not the joke library that is my living room).

But I have something ingrained in me that makes me buy books. More than I can read for sure.

I added it up actually. I figure I’ve read about 70 of the 363 books that I’ve bought. Which to be fair is a pretty good number of books to have read, and if I add in the digital ones, it’s even higher than that. So that means on average, I have about a 19% chance of reading any book that I purchase.

My typical process is get excited by a topic or author, and then proceed to buy everything I can about it. Rarely am I content to start with one and plan on buying more later. Nope, it’s buy anything that looks promising about the given subject.

There was a time six or seven months ago when I “managed” my book buying addiction on Amazon. This lasted for around two months and then I forgot that plan.

Upon making my list there unfortunately are books which I at this point regret purchasing. But overall most of them I still like and would like to read.

So I’m a pretty good practicioner of tsundoku. If I have mastered anything, this may be it.

But it’s time to recognize a wee little bit of a problem and the actual monetary expense that it is. I’ll set an arbitrary book buying limit of not buying any more books for 2019, and only buying 20 books in 2020. I’ll go one further, and limit myself to only five books related to technology and business in 2020. I’m overloaded here.

Of course with this limit I’m already thinking of making my 2020 list…

Now one of my other issues, besides tsundoku, but something that I believe partially drives my tsundoku, is the issue of distraction.

Being distracted is a state of being which it is easy to fall into currently. In fact, I read a book about it, ‘Deep Work’, by Cal Newport. It was a bit of a pop lifestyle book, but it was an easy read and contained quite a bit of truth.

Now, in case you have just awoken from a 20-30 year coma and this is the first thing you read on the interent, let me give you some advice that I need to practice myself (Actually never take advice from the internet in general including this).

The internet is a powerful tool, and the world wide web, built on the internet is a source of good and bad. There is a lot of good stuff on the web. The problem is most of the web is hype drive nonsense designed to grab your attention and shovel advertisments in your face to get you to buy something.

In fact, many of the world’s great minds are busy at work, as you read this, not practicing medicine, or curing cancer, but figuring out how to track and study you so that they can craft more effective advertisements. The other great minds are figuring out how to build fast distributed systems which are incredibly powerful, and basically are for either advertising or selling (or buying). Sorry, I almost forgot about the computer games. They’re working on that too.

Everytime you open up your window into the web, companies worth billions and trillions, who are basically responsible to nobody, perk up their antennas and divert their attention to getting you to look, click, like, share, engage, and buy. And they track everything you do on the web. In fact, now that we have our phones, this process is in continual motion, every minute, hour, day, week, month and year. Nonstop.

And to be perfectly honest, while I don’t like the way it’s going in general, I don’t have a tremendous problem with it. In the pool of evil enterprises, shoveling advertisments to get you to buy something you probably don’t need, doesn’t quite rank up there with say building nuclear bombs or giant aircraft carriers which apparently can’t actually have planes take off from them.

My advice would be to use the web as sparingly as you can. Use it as a tool. Because if you’re not careful, you might think you’re consuming it, but I have a feeling it’s the other way around. At least for me it is sometimes.

For me, the web is an endless source of distraction. I’ve known this for a while, and I’m very slowly getting ever so slightly better at not wasting endless amounts of time producing nothing and consuming garbage. It’s hard to stop, and given the resources and interests of the “producers” of “content” I cut myself a little slack.

So I struggle with distraction. In fact, the section of this post about distraction digressed into a moderate rant on the web, which I blame for my distraction, although I’m sure it isn’t really the cause of it, but more so an enabler of it. I got distracted mid topic!

Why do I even care about being or feeling distracted?

That’s actually a pretty good question, and one that is difficult to answer.

In some ways, I’m afforded the luxury of distraction. I’m able to come home and be distracted, or be distracted with my iPhone whenever I feel like it. In fact, the internet allows me to save so much time in general I can afford to be distracted so much of the time.

I should just shut up and learn to love distraction. If there ever was a first world problem, it might be the nature of distraction.

I guess it boils down to wanting to feel like I’m doing something. And when I’m distracted, I’m not doing anything. I feel some guilt when I don’t read, write, code, or think (rarely cleaning is on this list). And I mean on top of working full-time. In my mind, when I’m not working for the man, I should be doing something I want to do. For me, something I want to do isn’t included in the realm of distraction.

I want to be a better software engineer, build a solid base for future economic security, and on occasion I want to be a super hero or character in Star Trek.

Being distracted slows me in this progress. Well what’s the opposite of being distracted? I suppose it’s being focused.

And being focused is hard for me. It’s hard to even think about it, and all of the times I’ve failed to be focused when I’ve planned to be.

I mean I read ‘Deep Work’, it should be easy! That book says to just shut off social media and work in a cave as much as you can. I also read a number of other books which touch on the topic in a number of ways, and I have to say, I think ‘Deep Work’ strikes some good chords but misses the mark. It’s a nice hypothesis that you need a conducive place to do “deep work” and avoid distraction. I’m sure it’s true. It’s kind of like a book on dieting, and actually, a lot of what it said is right I think.

But to actually do it I’m convinced is a little harder than the book makes it out to be. I would wager a bet that few folks who have read the book are now deep workers, although I’m sure some are.

If the book shows anything it’s that if you can perform “deep work” you most likely will be rewarded for your effort by a society increasingly in need of the product of such work.

I’m convinced that the path which leads to the conditions for deep work is through habit. The requirements for focus are as hard to develop, because to focus on one thing is to sacrifice another.

And it would be pretty pointless to do deep work if you weren’t focused, in fact it’s basically a prerequisite.

Being focused means making a choice, and when that focus is applied consistently, what you didn’t choose is left behind. I doubt I’m the only person who finds this hard.

And when I look at the results of my tsundoku, I feel this pretty acutely. In reality I will most likely never read all of these books. If I get up to 40% of them in the next three of four years it will be quite an achievement. Especially if I actually work through them.

With each book I purchased I saw possibility, and when I browse the titles in my list, or look at the piles on my floor, knowing I won’t get to them all is hard.

It’s the same way with ideas for software. To pursue one is to give up another.

To focus, even relatively generally on one or two things, one technical and one other, is taking a risk.

I can only imagine all of the deep work unrewarded by society, which I don’t think deminishes it, but in a certain context makes it a wager taken and time spent on what may ultimately be regarded as a trivial pursuit.

But it’s this notion of reward and the need for financial security which in many ways reduces this focus. I find myself hedging, and trying to keep up with the latest to ensure my position on the job market, if something were to happen. I battle with focusing on what I want to focus on purely out of interest and personal desire, and working on the “safe” choice. In fact I always try to overlap the two.

Perhaps this struggle for focus leads to distraction, or at least contributes to allowing it to take hold. But with it is time wasted, and instead of sacrificing one thing for another, both are lost.

So again I’ll give myself a break, because I’ve actually worked through a lot of stuff over the past few years. And there are trillions of dollars of market value who make money the more I’m distracted, so the scales are weighted a little to one side. At least in my case it’s basically just Amazon trying to sell me books.

If you’ve read this far you have way too much time on your hands. Go do something.

Oh look a squirrel.