Can Walmart beat Instacart?

It’s been fascinating to see Walmart level up from bargain bin to bleeding edge, as they entered the e-commerce race against Amazon. Their acquisition of Jet.com and expansion into e-grocery delivery were only the start. Their latest announcement left me beaming with hope for the future of online grocery shopping, as they step up as that someone to save me from my Instacart woes. This is Star Trek level next horizon tech, deployed for our shopping delight. Drum roll please….select your own produce via 3D imaging!

Okay okay, this may not sound as thrilling to you who have no trouble getting to a supermarket any given day. But if you’ve lived in an urban supermarket desert before, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve tried FreshDirect and gotten a bruised $2 tomato. You’ve tried the Instacart route, where they had 90%+ accuracy on your first order, but your second order was half missing or substituted with “equivalent foods”. SPAM IS NOT HAM! GRADE A EXTRA LARGE EGGS ARE NOT THE SAME AS ORGANIC FREE RANGE VEGETARIAN GRASS FINISHED EGGS! AND DRIED CRANBERRIES…well, actually, those are all the same.

I think we all want food to taste good and not be wilted and on its way out when it arrives to our kitchen. When the patent clears and the tech is rolled out, I will be there to test it out, in the hopes that it is the harbinger of a brave new grocery world.

Robo-composed music to help you focus

Music has long been understood to have remarkable impact on mood and cognitive functioning – hence fun fads like expecting mom’s playing classical for their unborn children. And for me, moving from open office to open office, customizing my auditory environment has become an integral part of the focused work experience. Over the years I’ve tried playing all sorts of things, from white noise to movie sound tracks. Finally, I think I’ve found the ticket to getting on the right wavelength: brain.fm.

Brain.fm was dreamt up as a music writing software that has designed dozens of tracks to guide your brain into one of three states you select from: focus, meditation, and sleep.

 Brain.fm leverages emergent technology to create patterns of beats that get you in the right frame of mind
Brain.fm leverages emergent technology to create patterns of beats that get you in the right frame of mind

Listening in, I hear binaural beats overlaid on soft melodies, which induce a deep state of engagement. While I haven’t hooked myself up to an electroencephalogram to measure efficacy, I’m sure the pros behind it are testing this out.

The focus option does the trick to blur out all distraction and leave you to think deeply. The first few sessions are free, so give it a try – you’ll thank yourself for it later when you see how well you’re using your time!

 

The Church of Deep Work

I have uncovered a mythical place, a place rumored of and nearly forgotten by the throws of modern life. It is a somber house, full of reverent heads bowed with devout focus over their written works, towards which their hearts turn. I walked in, uncertain of whether to speak. “May I help you?” the lady behind the booth asked. Slanting the volume of my voice downward, I reply, “The three last issues of Wired magazine, please.”

 The 42nd Street New York Public Library has the reverent quiet of the singularly purposed
The 42nd Street New York Public Library has the reverent quiet of the singularly purposed

Yes, it was the New York Public Library. The silence hits you like a wall when you enter an archive or a reading room. There is a shared agreement and understanding: all come to work, to thrive upon the focus in the air, which each new devotee adds to.

I can almost imagine benefactor Samuel Tilden standing upon the steps of the 5th Avenue entrance, declaring in the lantern light: “Give us your addled, your burdened, your distracted masses who yearn to focus freely!”

 Patience the lion greets and guards the 5th Avenue entrance to the New York Public Library
Patience the lion greets and guards the 5th Avenue entrance to the New York Public Library

The entrance to the Church of Deep Work is narrow – because of the bag check security – and it’s followers may be few, but I see a revolution coming! Robopocaplyse? No, it’s the fleet of knowledge workers striding singularly, together, on their independent, intertwining journeys.

Hats off to Patience and Fortitude for guarding the way for newspaper-readers, writers, and researchers alike to find their place in the stacks.

 

The Index Card Summary of “Deep Work”

Does it ever feel like your brain is overheating from fragmenting attention between too many things, flitting back and forth between tasks, with sometimes little progress to show for it? Well you’re not alone, and Cal Newport is going to be our Dr. Phil of attention, helping us to improve our quality of work and quality of life. The following summary of Deep Work walks through his advice on how to build our ability to engage deeply with our activities.

 

The Premise

Newport argues that in the modern economy there will be three types of winners: 1) those with access to capital, 2) those that are the best in their fields, and 3) those who work well with increasingly complex machines. The most viable route to economic success for must of us will be Path #3.

To work well with ever-evolving machines, you must be a great learner who can do deep work, i.e. focus intensely. Fun fact: intense focus triggers the same brain cells repeatedly and builds up myelin, which bulks up that neural pathway. Sort of like body building for your brain.

 Deliberate practice of a task bulks up the myelin in the related neural pathways
Deliberate practice of a task bulks up the myelin in the related neural pathways

The approach

1) The measure of deep work is time spent x intensity of focus. That’s what you want to maximize!

2) Deep work can be done bimodally (days to months as a time); rhythmically (several blocks of time each day); or like a journalist (whenever you can squeeze time in on the go)

Note on Technique: for those with less control over your schedule and less recent practice with deep work, the Pomodoro Technique may work best for blocking off deep work sessions followed by shallow work sessions or breaks. For example, 40 minutes of deep work followed by 20 minutes of shallow work 6 times a day can still achieve the target of 4 total hours of deep work per day. These shallow work periods may end up as over-flow buffers initially as you train yourself up to longer, unbroken periods of time.

You need to have 10 consecutive unbroken deep periods of a given time increment, as short as 10 minutes, before you start building up to longer periods.

3) Set up a systematized ritual – create a time bound, distraction free environment with all the right materials and enough food/energy

4) Avoid frequent task switching, as this leaves “attention residue”, a state of semi-attention as you’re still thinking about the last task when you start a new one

5) Choose to work on “the wildly important”

6) Collaborate with others in a way where you still break off for independent deep work

 

Pitfalls and solutions

1) Switching to an easier thought task – avoid this by structuring the path forward

2) Looping, i.e. reviewing what you know already – avoid this by consolidating gains upon which to build

3) Shallow activities – cut these out without excessive apology

4) E-mail – lay out a ‘path to closure’ to open-ended e-mails by laying out all steps to completion in one fell swoop

Note on E-mail: we’ve all rattled off quick replies that we know will generate three or more back-and-forths. Nip this in the bud by laying out everything you know will be discussed, including your availability for meetings requested, or any further information you will need. Add “no reply expected” or “I will consider your reply a confirmation” to minimize future e-mail traffic.

The path forward laid out by Newport is a call to action, with the knowledge that this means dragging our brains kicking and screaming. Our brains are seekers of distraction yet, paradoxically, convey the most satisfaction to us when we hit the “flow state” associated with deep work. Like eating your greens or hitting the gym, your body and mind will thank you for the deep work exercise you put it through. So pull out that weekly schedule or that Pomodoro timer, block out that time or set that target daily hours tally. You can start sculpting that focused mind today. (I say this having written this post with only one coffee break and two 5 minute side chats in between. We’re all a work in progress 🙂