Postscript to Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective

This is the Postscript to my first (and currently only) book Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective.

Some Recent Literature Pertinent to Cognitive Productivity

Since the initial publication of Cognitive Productivity, some pertinent new books have appeared. Here are comments on only a few of them.

Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World‎.

This book is quite pertinent to cognitive productivity. Like Cognitive Productivity it is an explicitly pro-active, realistic, humanistic response to The Shallows (Nicolas Carr) aimed squarely at knowledge workers. It is an inspirational and practical account of the value of deep work and of threats to deep work. It offers important strategies to remain focused for the sake of value in the face of these threats. So I recommend the book.

You can think of Deep Work as a “shell” or motivator for Cognitive Productivity. Newport’s book doesn’t address the nitty gritty of the challenges to cognitive productivity that I outlined in chapter 3 and part 3 of Cognitive Productivity. It doesn’t at all deal with meta-effectiveness. It has very little to say about the architecture and mechanisms of deep work. That is, apart for some token references to popularized psychology, such as flow and Ericsson’s theory of expertise, the limitations of which I mention in my book, it doesn’t deal with cognitive science. That is not a criticism of Deep Work. Our books are simply complementary to each other.

Deep Work has been criticized for being based largely on anecdotal evidence and informal case studies. As a cognitive scientist, that bothered me at first too. However, it does provide a cogent argument for deep work. My book and Newport’s are both part of a broader project that is essential to modern society. (See the introduction to Cognitive Productivity.) As such, just as I have encouraged researchers to assess the meta-effectiveness framework conceptually and empirically, I encourage researchers to test Deep Work.

In some respects, Deep Work is more general than Cognitive Productivity because it sets the stage for many types of cognitive productivity (or ‘deep work’) :

  • knowledge building and product development,
  • service delivery, and
  • deliberate learning.

Cognitive Productivity also is meant to help users with these processes. However, the main concept of my book is meta-effectiveness, which is captured by the subtitle. This has to do with the motivation, mindware, science and strategies of knowledge-based self-improvement. Such self-improvement calls for cognitive productivity and can make us more cognitively productive.

You can think of Cognitive Productivity, though written earlier, as taking off where Deep Work ended. Given a person that strives to work deeply, the end point of Deep Work, we can ask:

  • what aspects of mental architecture are pertinent to deep knowledge processing?
  • what principles and mechanisms of mind should we keep in mind when designing our deep information processing strategies?
  • how can we use information technology, in a way that jives with general cognitive science, to process knowledge with a view to improving ourselves deeply.

Deep Work doesn’t have much to say, positively, about these issues. In particularly, it doesn’t provide positive strategies using information technology. In Deep Work, Newport focuses mainly on what not to do with technology. Again, not a criticism of Deep Work. Just a difference.

My career is focused on using technology productively (based on cognitive science) for self-improvement. Cognitive Productivity gets into lots of nitty gritty details about that. My next books will too. I will even publish some free software for a specific aspect of the main idea of Deep Work.

I will write more about Deep Work later. Look for blog posts tagged deep-work.

The New Edition of David Allen’s Getting Things Done Book.

What I said in in Cognitive Productivity about the first edition of Getting Things Done applies equally to its recent edition. I use some Getting Things Done principles and software myself. But the ideas in Getting Things Done account for a small part of actual deep work.

The Getting Things Done book does not deal in any detail with processing knowledge resources. The examples in Getting Things Done are based on tasks like sorting paper mail and cleaning your garage. When it comes to surveying, assessing, selecting, delving and mastering knowledge resources, which are core problems that distinguish real knowledge work from other occupations, you’re on your own. Those problems are dealt with at length in Cognitive Productivity.

I may write a more detailed, rare iconoclastic critique of Getting Things Done book. For a hint about my direction,

  • read the comments about it in Cognitive Productivity carefully,
  • try comparing that book to Cognitive Productivity,
  • find empirical literature on the framework,
  • think deeply about knowledge work,
  • read Keith Stanovich, _How to Think Straight About Psychology.

and so on.

Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information

The Organized Mind surprised and disappointed me. It promised to help people deal with ‘information overload’. Yet it deals mainly in factual psychology. When it comes down to the practical specifics, to my complete amazement, it defers to David Allen, and very old fashion note taking. Yet David Allen’s book, although supposedly tailored for knowledge work, does not address the constitutive problems of knowledge work (in my view).

It is somewhat ironic that Deep Work, a book written by a computer scientist, should delve so little in psychology and yet be of much more practical value in getting deep work done.

Continuation of Cognitive Productivity R&D Project

I have several research, software development and writing projects related to Cognitive Productivity. As my readers know, the heart and brains of my work on cognitive productivity is cognitive science. Simply put, the problems of cognitive productivity, including “deep work” , are too important and too serious not to be addressed with scientific methods. This is partly a matter of mining general cognitive science. But it also involves scientific problematization, speculation and empirical work on cognitive productivity.

Hence, I intend to do for some aspects of cognitive productivity what I have done with respect to sleep onset and insomnia, and what the nStudy/ Learning Kit project, of which I was a founding member, did and is doing, for self-regulated learning. (Paste “nStudy Phil Winne Beaudoin” in a web search engine for more information on the latter).

Some of them are captured on this web site. Some of these projects will lead to software published here and at CogSci Apps Corp., of which I am co-founder. For instance, in the near future I will publish a free, simple time tracking software tool. (Actually, it’s interestingly more than a “time” tracking tool!).

Upcoming Books Related to Cognitive Productivity

Interleaved with too many projects, I am slowly developing two new books that are based on Cognitive Productivity:

I’ve never communicated with Cal Newport, but here’s some more synergy between our projects. Whereas I started my Discontinuities project before Deep Work was published (in fact, I’ve been publishing chapters online since 2012), Deep Work provides a motivating rationale. Deep Work argued that engaging in deep information processing during time off is important for a good life. Well, the Discontinuities project provides many examples of processing art deeply.