Making room for real work

In 1911, Alfred Whitehead, a British philosopher observed:

“It is a profoundly erroneous truism that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. “The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

According to Tony Schwartz writing for Harvard Business Review, the advance of individual humans is not unlike the progress of civilizations. Successful people do not have more energy, will power, or hours in the day than the rest of us. Their secret is that they make the bulk of everyday tasks automatic, thus, concentrating their attention and energy on what really matters. 

Modern professionals deal with multiple demands, goals, tasks and projects, each taxing mental energy, attention, and cognitive abilities. Unless we are able to ease this cognitive overload by avoiding thinking about some of tasks, making them automatic, we won’t be able to concentrate on really important decisions and choices.

Schwartz’ Energy Project, David Allen’s Getting Things Done and other systems help to reduce unnecessary thinking by introducing ‘habits’, ‘rituals’ and workflows that make performing difficult tasks automatic. Our task is more modest: we look into how your Mac can help to reduce your cognitive load and enable you to focus on the most important thinking at hand. The idea is simple: if our brains have evolved to think of maximum 5 things at a time and our life demands that we think of 100, let’s try to have the computer to take care of the remaining 95.

It should be clear that automation does not mean that Mac would do your thinking for you. Computers can’t think, at least not yet. They are not much smarter (perhaps not smarter at all) than the Lizard Brain.  Unfortunately, many people fall into the trap of trying to substitute their own thinking and choices by computer programming. Have you ever seen emails which are followed by randomly selected quotes of famous people? I bet there is software for doing that! And there clearly are people who try to delegate thinking about their email signatures to computers. So we end up with emails complaining about course grades and ending with quotes from Gandhi! Or ‘Out of Office’ replies cc’ed to 1000 people. This is what I called ‘stupid automation’.

Over many years of trying I figured that a computer cannot even decide what is my most important task for the next hour, say nothing about more complex things. The goal of automation is not to let computers think for you. It is precisely the opposite: to get your Mac to free your brain for important thinking. This is achieved by reducing the number and the complexity of actions which you need to perform to do a particular task.

For example, TextExpander, one of the five Mac-Ninja tools, me saved 45,901 characters or 1.91 hours of high-speed typing over some 20 months. Is it really worth the fuss? Well, it is. I expand words such as Bosjökloster (the place I leave in). In TextExpander I have to type three letters without thinking about the spelling and changing the keyboard layout to Swedish. To post notes by email I send them to Naturally, the address is in my Text Expander and I do not need to look through my records, much less remember it – I simply type /.sn/. Thus in addition to saving 2 h of pure typing time I am spared from 2,218 distractions (that’s how many times I used TextExpander).

Another example. I have recently registered for a newspaper online edition. My password is RRU9Tr6BWqnfr. It’s generated and saved by 1Password, another of the Mac Ninja tools. Not only is it secure, not only someone potentially hacking into the newspaper’s website won’t be able to hack into my email because I would use the same password, but I am also spared to remember several passwords which I would otherwise use for different websites. My memory really has better use!

Automation means not only reducing the number of things you have to type (as in TextExpander) or remember (as in 1Password), but also reducing the usage of your mouse in favor of keyboard shortcuts. Why is this important? Precisely because reaching for your mouse, finding the right menu and doing the right clicks not only takes more time, but also taxes your cognitive abilities (e.g. visual recognition). You get distracted in many small ways that add up and dissipate your attention. Applications using keyboard shortcuts (e.g. LaunchBar, also part of the Mac Ninja Kit) allow you to do most tasks without your fingers leaving your keyboard. These tasks become your muscle memory, you don’t need to think about them any longer. Your frontal cortex is now free for more important battles with the Lizard Brain!


About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He researchers energy and environment and coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
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10 Responses to Making room for real work

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  9. Vincent says:

    Hi, (cough) if that’s Alfred North Whitehead, he passed away in 1947 🙂


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