Sabbaths Have It Backwards

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Writing in Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics about the intellectual demands of the virtue of pride, Tara Smith discusses the problem of evasion:

Because the essence of morality is rationality and because evasion is rationality's basic rival, an ever-present threat, the person committed to moral perfection must exert special vigilance against this vice. He must look for the particular forms of evasion that he is most prone to -- particular methods of evasion, for instance, such as rushing decisions so as to avoid facing uncomfortable implications, or particular subjects on which he is most tempted to evade, such as decisions about spending or working. Perfection cannot be attained without candidly confronting all the lures that are liable to challenge one's resolve... (p. 233)
Among the things this passage reminded me of is a very common lure: The Internet. This lure is particularly dangerous because using the world's biggest library is very often necessary for one's job.

Fortunately, Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, offers advice on how to manage the temptation to give in to boredom it represents. Noting that many people suggest or use what they call an "Internet Sabbath" as a means of stepping back, Newport acknowledges the advantages these offer while noting a major drawback: Like a fad diet that effects no long-lasting or meaningful change in behavior, that measure does not really help on a daily basis. Instead, Newport devotes significant time arguing that one should turn this idea on its head and schedule breaks from concentration rather than breaks from such a distraction:
You might need to take more than an occasional break from such a place. (Image of opium den via Wikipedia.)
With these rough categorizations established, the strategy works as follows: Schedule in advance when you'll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times. I suggest you keep a notepad near your computer at work. On this pad, record the next time you're allowed to use the Internet. Until you arrive at that time, absolutely no network connectivity is allowed -- no matter how tempting.

The idea motivating this strategy is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain's ability to focus. It's instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. This constant switching can be understood analogously as weakening the mental muscles responsible for organizing the many sources vying for your attention. By segregating Internet use (and therefore segregating distractions) you're minimizing the number of times you give in to distraction, and by doing so, you let these attention-selecting muscles strengthen. (pp. 161-162)
Newport further addresses such matters as jobs that require lots of Internet use, and recommends also scheduling Internet use at home.

Internet use is not, in and of itself, evasion, but it can easily lead to drift and using it is a kind of "spending decision" -- of time, which is precious and irreplaceable. It is worth noting that even if one is in control of his Internet use, Newport's approach can be applied to other instances in which one might want to make the vigilance Smith urges easier, by incorporating it into one's routine. Sabbaths from temptation worse than fail to do this.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

I think the issue here is a misuse of the tool. Sabbaths don't help strengthen one's resilience against temptations; rather, they serve as tests of one's ability to do without some comfort.

The ancient Stoics advocating such self-testing in the form of abstaining from alcohol, or from rich foods, or from comfortable housing, in order to determine if they had achieved a state where they partake in these things because they wanted to, not because they were compelled to. Used that way taking time away from something--including the internet--can assist us in strengthening ourselves against temptation by showing us, by way of contrast, the reasons we fall into that temptation.

Sabbaths serve another useful purpose. By removing something from our lives we force ourselves to question our premises. If we determine that we will not use the internet for a week, for example, we are more able to determine why we use it, as well as seeing what we give up when we use it. When something is a habit it becomes our default, one that we often do not question; breaking from that default allows our mind to take a cognitive step back and examine the issue from a new perspective.

That's not to say that Sabbaths are perfect. And they certainly aren't the only tool one should use! But I do think they have a place in achieving moral perfection.

Gus Van Horn said...

Good points, and similar to my own staircase wit some time after posting.

I probably could have used, "Some" at the start of my title and made the points you do above. Thanks for posting.

Jennifer Snow said...

I'm a big gamer, and I find that I get a lot more done both in and out of game when I schedule time to play with someone else. Partly because I play less when I have a dedicated time.
Partly because I wake up with a deadline of "get my stuff done before X time". It limits how much dawdling around I can do before I need to Do Stuff in order to Get It Done On Time. And, I also don't sit down and fall into gaming by habit BEFORE I have Stuff Done.

Gus Van Horn said...


That's a nice, concrete example of a couple of the benefits of scheduling distractions.