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In Defense of Distraction

When I call Merlin Mann, one of lifehacking’s early adopters and breakout stars, he is running late, rushing back to his office, and yet he seems somehow to have attention to spare. He is by far the fastest-talking human I’ve ever interviewed, and it crosses my mind that this too might be a question of productivity—that maybe he’s adopted a time-saving verbal lifehack from auctioneers. He talks in the snappy aphorisms of a professional speaker (“Priorities are like arms: If you have more than two of them, they’re probably make-believe”) and is always breaking ideas down into their atomic parts and reassessing the way they fit together: “What does it come down to?” “Here’s the thing.” “So why am I telling you this, and what does it have to do with lifehacks?”

Mann says he got into lifehacking at a moment of crisis, when he was “feeling really overwhelmed by the number of inputs in my life and managing it very badly.” He founded one of the original lifehacking websites, (the name is a reference to David Allen’s Getting Things Done, the legendarily complex productivity program in which Allen describes, among other things, how to build a kind of “three-dimensional calendar” out of 43 folders) and went on to invent such illustrious hacks as “in-box zero” (an e-mail-management technique) and the “hipster PDA” (a stack of three-by-five cards filled with jotted phone numbers and to-do lists, clipped together and tucked into your back pocket). Mann now makes a living speaking to companies as a kind of productivity guru. He Twitters, podcasts, and runs more than half a dozen websites.

Despite his robust web presence, Mann is skeptical about technology’s impact on our lives. “Is it clear to you that the last fifteen years represent an enormous improvement in how everything operates?” he asks. “Picasso was somehow able to finish the Desmoiselles of Avignon even though he didn’t have an application that let him tag his to-dos. If John Lennon had a BlackBerry, do you think he would have done everything he did with the Beatles in less than ten years?”

One of the weaknesses of lifehacking as a weapon in the war against distraction, Mann admits, is that it tends to become extremely distracting. You can spend solid days reading reviews of filing techniques and organizational software. “On the web, there’s a certain kind of encouragement to never ask yourself how much information you really need,” he says. “But when I get to the point where I’m seeking advice twelve hours a day on how to take a nap, or what kind of notebook to buy, I’m so far off the idea of lifehacks that it’s indistinguishable from where we started. There are a lot of people out there that find this a very sticky idea, and there’s very little advice right now to tell them that the only thing to do is action, and everything else is horseshit. My wife reminds me sometimes: ‘You have all the information you need to do something right now.’ ”

For Mann, many of our attention problems are symptoms of larger existential issues: motivation, happiness, neurochemistry. “I’m not a physician or a psychiatrist, but I’ll tell you, I think a lot of it is some form of untreated ADHD or depression,” he says. “Your mind is not getting the dopamine or the hugs that it needs to keep you focused on what you’re doing. And any time your work gets a little bit too hard or a little bit too boring, you allow it to catch on to something that’s more interesting to you.” (Mann himself started getting treated for ADD a year ago; he says it’s helped his focus quite a lot.)

Mann’s advice can shade, occasionally, into Buddhist territory. “There’s no shell script, there’s no fancy pen, there’s no notebook or nap or Firefox extension or hack that’s gonna help you figure out why the fuck you’re here,” he tells me. “That’s on you. This makes me sound like one of those people who swindled the Beatles, but if you are having attention problems, the best way to deal with it is by admitting it and then saying, ‘From now on, I’m gonna be in the moment and more cognizant.’ I said not long ago, I think on Twitter—God, I quote myself a lot, what an asshole—that really all self-help is Buddhism with a service mark.

“Where you allow your attention to go ultimately says more about you as a human being than anything that you put in your mission statement,” he continues. “It’s an indisputable receipt for your existence. And if you allow that to be squandered by other people who are as bored as you are, it’s gonna say a lot about who you are as a person.”