Tag Archives: Writing

Conservation and Concentration of Energy

I got to thinking about the conservation of one’s personal energy because of a story told by the British historian, Paul Johnson, about his boyhood encounter with the great man, Sir Winston Churchill. The story goes that the precocious young Johnson, in his youthful wisdom, asked Churchill for a piece of advice for life. This in itself shows that Proverbs is right about the fact that wisdom is not an achievement, but an attitude. The boy could hardly be adept in worldly matters, but displayed the right desire—the desire to know, to learn, to be taught. This desire in itself, so it seems, constitutes wisdom. The path to knowledge is wisdom.

A Legend
So much for my panegyrics! On to the story: Apparently Churchill replied to Johnson that “economy of effort” was his most important life principle. Johnson himself recited the 1946 story to the Wall Street Journal a few years ago:

He gave me one of his giant matches he used for lighting cigars. I was emboldened by that into saying, “Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?” and he said without hesitating: “Economy of effort. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” And he then got into his limo.[1]

The story might be apocryphal, or at least colored by the passage of time, but it has stuck with me. Two details stand out to me. First, Churchill’s stated idea is in one way confirmed and in another way belied by his own life story. That is, it is said that he used a standing desk[2]—so he didn’t sit whenever he had the opportunity—which seems to fly in the face of his own example of never standing when you can sit down. But lest we think the great Prime Minister a hypocrite, he is also reputed to have taken regular daily naps.[3] Second, Churchill punctuates his dictum with such a hilariously apt embodiment of his stated principle: getting into a limo, the most effortless way to get around.

Conservation of Energy
“Economy of effort” could also be labeled “conservation of energy,” which is how my memory has preserved Churchill’s idea. I suppose it stuck with me that way because of the First Law of Thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy, which I must have memorized at some point in my schooling. Obviously, there are no physics at work here in Churchill’s idea, only commonsense. That is, a person only has so much energy in a given day, a given workweek, a given lifespan. That energy must be conserved and then deployed at the right time. If you tire yourself out doing the wrong things—say wasting thousands of hours on Facebook—then you have substantially less energy to engage in the right things, like writing the next great American novel or building a treehouse.

Economy of Force
Churchill himself might have borrowed the idea of “economy of effort” from the military strategy idea of “economy of force” proposed by the 19th century Prussian strategist, Carl con Clausewitz.[4] This strategic concept is actually part of U.S. Army doctrine:

Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts.
A-10. Economy of force is the reciprocal of mass. Commanders allocate only the minimum combat power necessary to shaping and sustaining operations so they can mass combat power for the decisive operation. This requires accepting prudent risk. Taking calculated risks is inherent in conflict. Commanders never leave any unit without a purpose. When the time comes to execute, all units should have tasks to perform.[5]

When thinking in military terms, this makes perfect sense. In war, there’s nothing worse than wasting effort and resources on the wrong objectives. If you leave 1000 troops on guard duty and only take 100 into battle, you might be overwhelmed by superior forces. It’s better to spend little and economize in the areas where you can in order to spend the most resources on the most essential task.

Dissolution
Now to my mind one of the greatest evils of our age is dissolution, the opposite of economy of force. You could call it “dithering” or “procrastinating” or something else, but the point is that so many us of us so much of the time simply waste our time. While it is easy to regard one’s own era as worse than previous ones—and most such regarding is off-base—I do believe that we have seen an uptick in dithering for one simple reason: there are so many new ways to waste time! If you wanted to waste time 100 years ago, you might have to read a long novel or write a silly letter in longhand to an old friend, activities which we would consider highly productive. But now, to waste time, all you have to do is reach in your pocket, pull out the smartphone and wile away the hours on Candy Crush or YouTube or Twitter or texting. A new study from dscout just showed that on average, we are touching our phones 2,617 times per day.[6] While it’s true that some useful, efficient business is conducted via smartphone, the largest share of activity in the study was given over to Facebook.

Concentration of Forces
So what should we do to combat our own dissolution and dithering? Well, I think it goes back to another related military doctrine: concentration of forces. You economize your use of forces in order to concentrate them. The Army also adheres to this doctrine:

Concentrate the effects of combat power at the decisive place and time.[7]

This is what I think most of us struggle with a lot of the time. We have a lot of effort, time and attention to give, but it can easily be squandered on ephemeral pixels rather than on what really matters. If you don’t believe me, have you ever found yourself repeatedly clicking the send/receive button in your inbox? There’s something about digital information that makes us twitchy. It is very easy to fall into a pattern of seeking quick hits of information, looking for some sort of stimulus that will prompt us to act—a new email, a new task, a new article—rather than planning out our strategy from the beginning and concentrating our forces on what we are actually trying to accomplish. Why do you think so many people read internet articles under 1000 words and so few people read long books?

Concentration of Energy
While the Army tries to concentrate military assets “at the decisive place and time,” each of us individually must do the same thing in order to be remotely effective in our own lives. Advertisements, for example, are the precision-strike enemy of our ability to concentrate. They deliberately distract us from our purposes and show us information we didn’t need to know or want to know, about products, prices, services and the like, most of which we don’t need, all of which we don’t need now. That’s why people hate watching TV with commercials and instead binge on Netflix. They’d rather concentrate on what they want rather than on what other people want them to concentrate on. But Netflix brings us back to the dissolution problem.
In order to meet our goals, launch our projects, achieve our personal objectives, we need to concentrate our own energies in the right direction. Allowing our attention span, our physical energy or our motivation to be sapped by the forces of distraction, whether they be low-priority, easy tasks like email or time-sucks like Netflix or Facebook, brings us down into a vortex of useless behavior, wasted time, unproductive days. Instead, we could and probably should limit the distracting inputs and focus on concentrating our time and energy in order to bring it to good effect “at the decisive place and time.”

I’m still trying to figure out how to do this in my own life and work, but I don’t think I’ll easily forget Paul Johnson’s encounter with Winston Churchill. If Churchill attributes his success to such a simple principle of “economy of effort,” then there must be ways to implement it now in the digital age. A kind of digital austerity might be a solution—deliberately avoiding unnecessary media stimulation. Some people have tried, in fact, by turning their smartphones to black-and-white,[8] implementing screen color changing software,[9] or adopting typewriter-like digital composition tools.[10] I don’t think any one of these tweaks is a total solution, but perhaps they point in the right direction. They represent efforts to concentrate one’s forces and act according to the economy of effort principle. Only time will tells, perhaps, whether we become incapacitated phone zombies[11] or effective, creative humans.

References

[1] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703558004574583820996589810

[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24532996

[3] http://www.artofmanliness.com/2011/03/14/the-napping-habits-of-8-famous-men/

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_force

[5] https://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-0.pdf

[6] http://blog.dscout.com/mobile-touches

[7] https://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-0.pdf

[8] http://pocketnow.com/2016/06/07/pocketnow-challenge-one-week-with-a-black-and-white-smartphone-screen

[9] https://justgetflux.com/

[10] https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/adamleeb/hemingwrite-a-distraction-free-digital-typewriter

[11] http://www.salon.com/2014/08/08/rise_of_the_smartphone_zombies_what_we_lose_when_technology_gives_us_everything/

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Hark, Hearken, Harking

800px-Boar_and_Bear_Hunt,_V&A_Museum

Every once in a while my inner grammar bully comes out. Today, I keep harking back to “hark.” It is one of those dangerous archaic words. That is, it sounds so great, but means well, nobody knows. It shows up in a Christmas carol: “Hark! The herald angels sing…” But it might as well be up there with “mean estate” and “fum, fum, fum” as far as our actually knowing what on earth it means. You could throw in “behold,” “thine,” and “God rest ye” for good measure. Of course, “hark” and “harking back” often gets confused with “hearken.” So…I decided I had to clear the air. Here we go:

 

1. Hark is usually a verb that means to “listen attentively,” as in “Listen up!” Here you would simply use the word as it shows up in the carol, solo, with no object: Hark! It’s a command. Now, “hark” the verb can also be used with an object, but this is weird (aka archaic), as in, “Hark the bell.” Yes, in this case, “hark” is an annoyingly transitive verb. The OED gives a poetic sentence from Tennyson: “Hating to hark The humming of the drowsy pulpit-drone.” “Hark” can also be used with “to,” which sounds extra strange to our ears: “Hark to the train whistle!” I don’t recommend using “hark” ever, but if you really have to, don’t use the transitive form.

2. “Hark back” is probably the only way to use this word that people will really understand, so it’s worth exploring how to do it correctly. “Hark back” actually comes from hunting for rabbits or birds with the use of a hunting hound. The dog might lose the scent and need to retrace his steps to find it again. This would be “harking back.” So, when you or I “hark back,” we are acting like hunting dogs, retracing our mental steps until we pick up the scent again so we can go forward after the quarry.

3. Now, there is another word, “hearken.” This word is derived from the same Old English word as “hark”: heorcnian. Basically what we have here is a usage problem. American English prefers “harken” but English English prefers “hearken.” (Kind of like center and centre, theater and theatre.) The word “hearken” is again usually an imperative and intransitive verb, simply, “Hearken.” But it can be used transitively, if oddly, as “hearken my words.” While you can “hearken” and be doing the same thing as someone who “harkens,” you cannot “heark back,” but only “hark back.”

Most stylists look down on the use of archaic words, but if you must use “hark” or “hearken,” then please use them the right way. I guess I could say, “Hark to my advice” or “Hearken my grammatical wisdom” so you don’t come “harking back” to find the right way to employ “hark” in your writing.

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Dissertation Writing

Dissertation writing is its own world of joy and hurt. It involves incredible effort, research, creativity and tenacity. In the process, I have found that sometimes thinking and reading about the process itself helps. Now reading about the process of dissertation writing may become an exercise in omphaloskepsis. One might end up spinning wheels and dithering. But for me, reading about the process makes the whole thing make more sense. So…what books have I found particularly helpful?

First, I picked up Professors as Writers by Robert Boice. Boice is a psychologist so he thinks about writing from the psychological perspective. But he doesn’t let you get bogged down in statistics and psychological surveys. No, he wants to get down to brass tacks and help you write. He hosts writing seminars regularly where he helps wayward academics get on the writing bandwagon. Three of his techniques are worth mentioning. Firstly, he encourages free-writing in short periods of 10-15 minutes to get the writing juices flowing. This seems to be a common theme among writing experts. Secondly, he advocates what he calls “generative writing” in which you maintain the same flow and speed of free-writing, but focus your writing on the topic your are wanting to actually write about at the end of the day. Thirdly, he proposes what he calls “contingency management” or what most people would call negative reinforcement. That is, if you don’t meet your writing goal for the day, he wants you to punish yourself in some way–by not taking a shower or by sending a check to organization you despise. This “contingency management” technique has led to the highest success rate among his clients, he claims. He gives a ton of other fruitful advice. I have found the book super helpful for establishing a daily writing habit. If you only get one book, this is the one to get. (I have to say that I have not experimented heavily with “contingency management”, but maybe…)

Second, I bought an older book called How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation by David Sternberg. This book, also written by a psychologist, walks you through the various stages in the dissertation process and offers advice at every turn. The author has directed many dissertation students and they have found his advice helpful. The book is okay, but founders in being too discipline-specific. If I were a psychology student, I would find it more helpful. But I have learned a few things from it.

Third, I checked out Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker. She’s a psychologist (Are you noticing a pattern here?) and a writing guide at Harvard. This book is much less formal than the other two and it has a distinct casual flavor to it. What I like about Bolker’s approach is that it aims to make writing fun, almost a game. Writing is a creative process and is meant to be a wonderful, even pleasurable experience. Bolker brings that idea to life and offers tons of great maxims like “Write first!” that remind a writer what being a writer is all about. Her anecdotes are amusing and offer various approaches to the task of getting the writing done.

I suppose if I devoted as much attention to actual dissertation writing as I do to thinking about the process I may be further down the road. But then again, I may have mired myself in a mudhole back up the road. If you happen to be writing a dissertation, thesis or book, you may find these resources useful to you on your writing journey. Writing is often a lonely activity and it’s easy to bite off more than you can chew. So break it up into bite size pieces, write every day and keep the creative juices flowing!

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Conflating Realities with “-ologies”

So often, too often, scholars are seduced by the similarity between the studied and the student, the researched and the researcher that they make the unforgivable mistake of combining, conflating and confusing the reality of the thing studied with the discipline that studies it. Thus, certain problems between people become “sociological” rather than “societal” or people engage in building “high ethnological walls” rather than high “ethnic” walls.

This phenomenon is an abuse of language. So next time you encounter conflicting neighborhoods or some addiction that afflicts human society, refer to the “social” or “societal” problem you are observing. In this manner, you will be engaging in an act of “sociological” study. Likewise, if you see someone building high walls between ethnic groups, remember that they are “ethnic” walls and that you have just made an “ethnological” observation.

All you Greek scholars out there (and anyone who has ever taken a biology class) know that the “-ology” at the end of a word comes from the Greek word logos, “word, knowledge.” So “biology” is “the study of bios” or “the study of life.”

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