Challenges of getting into a ‘deep work’ state

Read Cal Newport’s book Deep Work for a refreshing take on the state of our minds in the 21st century. Also, the following video is a must watch if you think that social media could be impacting your attention span.

I’ve been noticing more and more lately how social media use has an effect on my attention span and I don’t like what I’m noticing.

I’m a freelance web developer in the evenings and I help businesses and organizations manage their web sites and other miscellaneous IT needs. I typically set aside 10 hours a week for freelance work so I need to make it count when I do sit down to work.

Starting to really notice a problem

Lately, during my freelance hours I’ve been noticing that when I come up across a problem that is not a quick and simple fix, my mind says “I’m outta here” and I have a reflex to jump to Twitter, reddit, or some other information junk food.

When I say reflex, I mean it in the most literal sense. An action that is performed as a response to a stimulus and without conscious thought. When a hard problem or situation that requires some deep thinking comes up, I can see this happening and it’s quite troubling.

I’ve always had love-hate relationships with social media (constantly quitting and rejoining). I think it’s time to cut the fat in some ways and remove all social media that isn’t being used as a means to serve some personal or professional goal (similar to how Cal Newport talks about it in Deep Work).

The information buffet line that social media serves up is rewiring us in a bad way. We run away from hard problems instead of coming at them head on. The sense of pleasure and accomplishment of sticking with a problem and seeing it through until it is solved has been replaced with the cheap, shallow gratification that social media offers us.

Social media companies want us to be consumers for life, constantly consuming the information on their platforms so they can aggregate data on us and sell it to advertisers. And we’re giving up one of our most valuable assets in the process: our time and attention.

I’ll end this rant by saying that I think the biggest challenge to entering a deep work state is social media. I struggle with my own social media usage and boundaries and I’m sure other people do as well.

The second biggest challenge is the sheer amount of notifications we all receive now from all of our devices. We all need to give ourselves some time to think and reflect once in a while.

I think as a society we need to take a look at what we’re doing as we could be heading down a path where significantly less people in the future will be capable of complex thought.

If you are a current social media user and have no problem controlling your attention span, kudos! Leave a comment, I’d love to hear how you do it.

Scene from the movie “Idiocracy” where many people are incapable of thinking things through.

Using utility classes (like Tachyons) on a Drupal 7 project

We all want to move quickly to create awesome interfaces right? Well, if you’re on Drupal 7, you know that it isn’t exactly the best system to quickly make great front end interfaces with.

I’ve recently found that using Panels/Panelizer and the Tachyons’ spacing classes, I can crank out interfaces very quickly. This is beautiful to me because before I would have to work locally to write/compile CSS, then push it up through dev and staging before I see a style change on production.

Further, every time I’d write a CSS change, it was typically a spacing issue (something like):

.component {
  padding-left: 2rem;
  margin-bottom: 4rem;
}

This is a big waste of time in my opinion because I’m essentially bloating my CSS with writing lots of the same spacing properties.

Instead of doing this, why not use a Tachyons-style approach and have a bunch of utility classes in your CSS that can be used to tweak spacing on the fly within Panels/Panelizer.

Panel pane configuration options after you click “Customize this page”

In fact, with a recent update of Panels, they’ve put a CSS button right on each pane so you don’t have to go into the styles menu to add them! This is perfect for quickly applying spacing classes.

There are a lot of other major benefits from using these small utility classes in production, but thought I’d share one use case that has saved me a lot of time!

The most important design principle: Be inclusive

I’ve made some previous posts about design systems, which are all the rage in 2017. We are still working through the creation of one at my organization. One of the core parts of design systems are principles.

These principles ideally shape the future of design for an organization. The most important thing that I keep coming back to when thinking about how to create interfaces is to be inclusive.

Be inclusive

This is the most important design principle you can have as an organization. Convincing people that it is important can take a lot of work and often times you will be fighting an existing culture that says “If it works on my computer then its good.” A lot of people don’t stop to consider all the other ways people can be accessing their site/content.

What does that mean?

If your creative team is well versed in inclusive design principles, then it’s easy: Hand over design authority to your creative team. Are you reaching as many people as you can? If your superiors look at your creative team as tools that will do what they say and create what they want then it is incredibly difficult to design inclusively.

The problem with this approach is that often times the stakeholders who are “driving the bus” so to speak, are not well versed in performance, accessibility, and usability — all three of these areas are vital to being inclusive.

Performance

It’s nice that the site works on your high speed, wired internet connection, but how does it perform with spotty WiFi or on 3G speeds? Are you able to access the site in these situations?

Accessibility

I think this is what a lot of people think of when talking about being inclusive. Is your site designed and developed in a way that takes into account WCAG 2.0 (the de-facto standard for accessibility guidelines)? Complying with these guidelines helps everyone, not just those with disabilities. Microsoft has done a phenomenal job at explaining that disabilities are not personal health conditions, but rather mismatched human interactions.

Usability

Usability is closely related to performance and accessibility. If the site isn’t performant and accessible then it isn’t usable. On top of that, ensure your site is following agreed upon UI patterns to ensure a consistent experience across your site.


This is not a complete or exhaustive list by any means but it seems to me that keeping these three areas in mind will go a long way in ensuring that your site is inclusive.