About the Manual

The Nerd Manual is meant to be both a useful resource for nerds and a guide for the people involved with nerds. If you're a nerd you can find information here that will help you improve your life and perhaps better understand yourself. If you're close friends with, dating, or married to a nerd, I want to give you insight into things nerds do that a lot of people have difficulty understanding.

I hope to avoid offending anyone--either nerd or non-nerd--but please understand that the manual will get into some sensitive topics, stray into contentious territories, and even use stereotypes to illustrate points. It's OK to disagree with something, but keep your comments civil.


The Fire Hose vs Hyper-Focus

Here's an observation:
nerds deal with information differently than the average person.

Think about the number of messages vying for our attention each day: 24 hour news, music in all its formats, reality TV, everything you deal with at work, everything you deal with from your family and friends, and of course the relentless deluge of advertising in all its forms.
"How Much Media", a study by the Institute for Communication Technology Management at U. of Southern California, suggests 74 gigabytes of information per person daily in 2015, not including information for work.

Most people pay selective attention to all this data: for example you tune out most of the irrelevant information and only allow the important stuff to enter your brain so you can stay on task and finish your job. Sometimes this doesn't work, and you find yourself distracted by a song on the radio, a friend's personal problem, a juicy tidbit of gossip...you get the idea. It's enjoyable to give your brain a break from one task, and studies show that it's actually productive to let your mind cavort around something frivolous for a few minutes before putting it back to work.

On a day-to-day basis, people operate somewhere in a happy middle ground between fun and focus, but you will often find nerds at one extreme or the other, and here's why.

Usually nerds drink their information from a fire hose. They want it all, as fast as they can get it, and usually they can handle it. They may not be able to multitask any better than the rest of us, but they can soak up gallons of information quickly and sort through it later. While this is happening, they're bouncing around like a SuperBall, tapping on their phones for weather, social network updates and movie reviews, DVRing six different TV shows, clicking furiously on their laptop to get through the 36 open tabs on their browser, and scanning 8 different top-50 lists on streaming audio. Nerds really don't like to miss things. This machine gun spray of attention leads to jokes like, "I downloaded the new edition manu--oh! that Scalzi book was aweso--wait! your Mom calle--hey! squirrel!"

While the fire hose is satisfying, nerds will shut it off when faced with a project. They strap on headphones and tune out the world. Nerds have the ability to gather every volt of their attention and bring all that brainpower to bear on a single task, which can be disconcerting because they wall themselves up in a nearly impregnable fortress—the phone goes into airplane mode, e-mail gets muted, the streaming playlist switches to a string of rhythmically hypnotic tunes, and they hunker down for an all-out assault on the project in front of them. A nerd in this hyper-focused state is as close to being in an alternate reality as is humanly possible. It's very much like the sort of focus achieved by yogis and zen masters.

Unfortunately, nerds are still mere humans and might need a reminder to take a break every couple of hours and recharge their focus batteries. Warning: disturbing a nerd in hyper-focus can result in a Wrath of Kahn moment, so it helps to bring up the idea of breaks before a critical focus period, and back up your suggestion with data.
A U. of Illinois study shows that continued work on a single task leads to decreased focus, but brief periods of diversion increase focus on that task.

Researchers at the University of South Carolina published results showing that sedentary behavior increases a person's risk of cardiovascular disease.

An AustralianDiabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle study determined that sitting in front of a TV for an hour each day (hey, it's the same as sitting in front of the computer) results in an 18% increase in the likelihood of death due to cardiovascular disease.
If you're concerned about a nerd's health, but you noticed there's a distinct problem if you're the one reminding the nerd to take a break, suggest installing a break timer app such as Protect Your Vision or a pomodoro productivity timer like Marinara.

While nerd power-focus is great for solving the world's problems, it has the nasty social side-effect of alienation. Some people don't understand that it's a bad idea to try to talk to a nerd who's in the zone, and they interpret the glare-and-growl response as I'm a mean jerk all the time rather than I'm busy right now, please give me some space. It's an understandable mistake that can be avoided with a little mutual respect.

Clone Trooper by Jon B.
Tips for people who interact with nerds
Clues that show they're in hyper-focus mode:
  • headphones on,
  • forehead scrunched up,
  • face close to the computer screen
  • door closed
If you see these signs, try to wait until later.
If you absolutely must intrude, it may help to bring coffee, an energy drink or Pop Tarts.
Clues that it's safe to interrupt:
  • Leaning back in chair with arms behind head
  • Smiling
  • Talking with someone in casual tones
Show them that you appreciate their work.
  • Chat with them when they're not busy.
  • Ask about what they're doing.
  • If you don't care, be polite and listen anyway. You might learn something.
  • If you don't understand, it's OK, say so.

Tips for nerds
Try to make it easy for people to know when you're entering hyper-focus mode.
Help the people around you understand how intense you can get.
If possible, set aside times during the day when you are open to interruption.
Tell people beforehand that you're getting to work.
Put up a polite/humorous sign when you're working.
If you are interrupted, speak as calmly as possible and say something like, “Gosh, I'm at a critical point right now, let me finish and I'll come find you later.”
Show everyone you're not a troll.
  • Respect other people's need to focus.
  • Chat with them when you're taking a break.
  • Tell them about what you're doing.
  • Ask what they're doing.
  • If you don't care, be polite and listen anyway. You might learn something.
  • If you don't understand, it's OK, say so.

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