Be careful what information you take in. It’s commonplace to talk about the constant distractions of social media, buzzing smartphones, and endless emails. It’s a problem. And it’s a bigger problem today than it was in Shannon’s time.
But Shannon had to wrestle with distractions too—and his life teaches us that dealing with them isn’t about finding a bit of focus here and a moment of calm there. It’s about building systems to make sure you eliminate the things that pull your time and attention away.
Shannon did this in a few ways:
He didn’t respond to every letter he received. When we went through his letters, we found many more letters that he received than ones he sent out. In fact, he even had a bin that he labeled “Letters I’ve Procrastinated On For Too Long.” He tossed into it the kind of correspondence—from famous scientists, prestigious universities, prominent writers—that might have kept the rest of us up at all hours responding. For Shannon, it just wasn’t worth pulling his attention away from the work he cared about most.
Shannon wasn’t an office social butterfly. He wasn’t a jerk; he wasn’t unfriendly. He just kept his door closed a lot, which ran counter to a lot of people at Bell Labs. One colleague remembered, “You would knock on the door and he would talk to you, but otherwise, he kept to himself.” Privacy was central to his ability to think clearly. Closing the door wasn’t a social statement; it was a matter of personal preference.
Shannon also didn’t get caught up in the rat race for awards and prizes. Often his friends and his wife had to push him to accept the things he won. Yes, that’s right! Shannon would win honors that he just didn’t want to go through the trouble of accepting. Again, the travel and time was a distraction from what mattered most to him.
Some of this can seem extreme—I mean, none of would turn down an all-expenses-paid-for trip so that someone could hand us a trophy, right? And maybe we wouldn’t. But Shannon’s example of pruning and carefully choosing our inputs can still be a valuable model.