St. Augustine’s Tips for Knowledge Workers

by Andrew McAfee on July 22, 2010

It is undoubtedly true that modern technologies can keep us from getting our work done. We drown in email, surf the Web endlessly, check in with our social networks, and constantly get interrupted and interrupt ourselves. Today’s digital workplace tools, the ones that are supposed to be making us so much more productive, seem to instead serve up endless diversions from the high road of effective and efficient knowledge work.

This is something new under the sun. Writer W.N Taylor observed a while back that “Temptation rarely comes in working hours. It is in their leisure time that men are made or marred.” He appears to have overlooked office romances, but he had a point. For many of us, the workplace used to contain fewer distractions than other environments.

But not any more. News, sports, video clips, games, chats with family and friends, gossip, shopping, and scores of other temptations are now as close as the nearest screen, and many of us spend most of the day in front of a screen. This is novel and uncharted territory.

Except that it’s not. Temptations have been around as long as people have, and sages have realized that they can actually be good for us. This is because the work of overcoming them and getting back on the high road forces us to confront our weaknesses and learn from them. This work forces us to acquire some self-mastery. It forces us, in short, to grow up.

St. Augustine, one of the great minds and souls of the early Christian church, realized this fact and articulated it with economy and grace. He wrote:

Our pilgrimage on earth cannot be exempt from trial. We progress by means of trial. No one knows himself except through trial, or receives a crown except after victory, or strives except against an enemy or temptations.

I have a colleague who unplugs his wireless routers when he needs to get serious writing done. Another gets up absurdly early and plays white noise through his headphones so he can concentrate. I’m thinking about adopting techniques like these because if I’m not getting enough good work done, it’s nobody’s fault but mine.

My friends and coworkers aren’t to blame, nor are the vendors of tempting technologies, nor, certainly, are the technologies themselves. To borrow a turn of phrase from Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make me unproductive without my consent.

The right strategy, surely, is to realize that the distractions and temptations of modern technology are just another set of temptations, and to react to them accordingly. This often means turning away from them or turning them off, at least for large chunks of time, so that real thinking can get done and we don’t spend all our time wading in the shallows.

Why do we find this so hard to do? Is it because today’s technologies are more seductive and addictive than what’s been available before? Because our bosses, customers, and colleagues are more demanding than ever? Because our IQs and coping skills are inferior to those of previous generations?

I don’t think so. I think we find technology hard to resist for the same old simple reason: temptations are hard to resist, and we prefer not to. And here again, Augustine got it exactly right. He distilled the eternal battle between virtue and vice into the most honest prayer I’ve ever heard: “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

What do you think —  do we stand a prayer against the modern technologies of temptation? How, if at all, do you rise above them at work? What kinds of self-mastery have you achieved or observed? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.

Tilak Palanisamy July 22, 2010 at 4:44 pm

To me, there is also this aspect of the illusion of novelty. Sheer volume of information about sports, news, experiences, ideas creates excitement around the experience of discovering something new. However, in hindsight it not always is.

Disconnecting completely has been very helpful, it takes me marginally additional time to skim over 250 tweets, than 50 and still find things that are of interest or have a conversation.

dlavenda July 22, 2010 at 10:14 pm

I believe it is all a matter of degrees. Resisting a ringing telephone and a pile of faxes is a lot easier than the percolating desktop alerts, text messages, mobile phone interrupts, tweets, etc. When you are completely pummeled with digital overload, it is very difficult to push back. It is no longer the gadget freaks who are affected. It is almost everyone – and that is what amplifies the impact. We are turning into a mass of digital zombies while we bemoan the loss of freedom from intrusions. Yet, how many of these people do you know who can “shut it off” and enjoy a day at the park, beach, pool, etc. I see far too many people in recreational situations email with their Blackberries to believe that number is very high.

digiphile July 23, 2010 at 1:57 am


I may need to give in and start getting up earlier to write.

Martin De Saulles July 23, 2010 at 6:06 am

I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago –… – I think it is important to turn the technology off when you need to get real work done and actually use your brain. 25 years ago when I started working I only had the fixed-line phone and co-workers to distract me – now I've got a cacophony of gadgets and applications beeping at me and demanding my attention. My current solution? The Freedom application ($10) which allows you to turn off your internet connectivity for a set amount of time. A more elegant solution than fumbling to unplug cables at the back of your PC (assuming you have a desktop) and the timer allows you to break up the day into offline and online chunks.

Online IT Training Courses July 23, 2010 at 11:39 am

I think it’s quite related to our self control. we have already included some digital stuff in our basic need. Specially mobile and internet. Means we can’t live without these things. That’s not true as we know there is nothing impossible. We just need to set our mind out of this staffs.

Dan Pontefract July 23, 2010 at 6:57 pm

To me, it's always a matter of personal & professional life-work balance. One can become too engrossed with the latest and greatest tools (by temptation) both at home and at work. We all require a more advanced, or at least evolved, self management filter. Often, in my line of work (head of learning/collaboration) I see individuals get both personally and professionally swept up by hyperbole, hype itself and general tech/2.0 distractions.
Each of the tools should go through a personal filter answering hard questions as to whether or not they provide value; and if so, how much time is appropriate on each in order to further their objectives, personal aspirations, etc.
The new 'time management' is not really new … it's merely incorporating these tools into a more advanced filter. I've had to personally cut other aspects of my life-work balance in order to incorporate 2.0 into my various productivity/personal streams. In doing so, I am being proactive with my time, realizing the tools/concepts are in fact helping me, but not at a consequence of causing a time imbalance with my life and/or work.

European Furniture Mississauga July 25, 2010 at 6:11 pm

White noise, separation, discrimination – 3 elements of successful block of working time. Attention is one of the most scarce resources in our modern society, and thus one of your most valuable resources (see how much is spent on advertising and you'll know why it's priced so high) – don't give it away to “funny jumping cat video” or breaking news that “a hut collapsed somewhere 3000 miles away killing a cow”.

When I reframed my understanding of attention I found that it's much easier to turn off, blogs, and other distractions, as I'm now handling them my precious resource, not just taking a “short break to boost my energy”.

Prakash Dogra July 26, 2010 at 6:02 am

The “temptation to be connected to know / be aware” is the reason for defocus. The urge to collate more information to meet the goal by connecting is what leads only more confusion and delay in arriving at a solution. The trade off is a good level of connected information vs overload of information. I switch off in 2 ways – 1. Work on paper with pencil : the brain is truely challenged and exercised. 2. When i need to work with computer on tools like mindmap – i shut down the connectivity. In both cases, the key still is the focus on the goal to achieve.

acuvue oasys July 26, 2010 at 7:30 pm

Isn’t that interesting. We now need noise to distract us from noise. Almost everything now can be arranged, organized and co-ordinating through the Web. However there is always one DEMOTIVATING factor to not go online when at work – if you know your web activities are being logged!

WhiskeyTangoFoxtrot-over July 27, 2010 at 10:11 am

Good habits. Discipline. Work ethic. Responsibility. Dare I say it: Morals. If you have these attributes it really doesn’t matter what the temptation is, you can resist it. Unfortunately, like common sense, they are uncommon. Snacks, coffee, newspaper, wired phone calls, daydreams, radio, etc – none high-tech, but tempting distractions nonetheless. It’s not the technology, it’s the person. Ask yourself: If I owned the company, would I want me as an employee? Then act in a way that allows your answer to be an honest “yes”. Everyday. All day. I posted this on my lunch break :-).

Michael Ricard July 27, 2010 at 11:35 am

You devil’s advocate you. Goading us with religious allusions to come forth on the side of the angels. E2.0 tools such as microblogging and other activity streams, properly FILTERED, are indubitably (I always wanted to use that word) an aid and a useful resource to getting things done in the workplace. People who get distracted and overwhelmed by social media only need training and more experience using it. You’re getting very creative in eliciting comments and opinions. Kudos Andrew.

“May you always have work for your hands to do.
May your pockets hold always a coin or two.
May the sun shine bright on your windowpane.
May the rainbow be certain to follow each rain.
May the hand of a friend always be near you.
And may God fill your heart with gladness to cheer you.”
~ Irish Blessings

Gregory Rader July 27, 2010 at 9:54 pm

I do think there is something new going on, at least as a matter of degree, in that our temptations are generally developing more quickly and are becoming more tailored to our specific tastes, than are the tasks we are being distracted from. While work is no longer the chore that hard manual labor once was, for many people it is still a chore. In contrast, the internet is enabling many people to learn more, create more, and make more of a difference than they ever could before. There is a sense in which some of our temptations are becoming more “productive” than our work. Your job might be what pays the bills, but if no one notices your work while 1000 people read your blog or your twitter feed or facebook comments, which is the more valuable?

Guido Masnata August 5, 2010 at 9:25 am

Temptations are inside human nature. However it should be a big step ahead if we will be able to be “distracted” by interesting things related to our business/activity, such as professional blogs, and so on (sorry, no fb updates about friends holidays…). I use google reader and a selected panel of RSS: when I am tired of working at least I read something interesting (without being intererrupted by newsletter in email..).

Jordan Pritchard August 19, 2010 at 3:35 am

I think this is a learning curve for a lot of people. I only find myself becoming overwhelmed by information when I expose myself to information I don’t care about or don’t find interesting. In my daily work I focus on 3 things: Africa, technology & peace / security operations. I know exactly what I have to search for and learn about. The rest I just leave for another time.

amcafee August 21, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Michael, thanks for the kind words, and for the great Irish blessing, which I’d not heard before. I’ll remember it.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: