Skip to content

Four Digital Life Tweaks

User interfaces and experiences, once all waiting patiently for your orders from a command line, are now designed to to be hard to resist.  But your app’s “engagement” is your distraction.  Humans can’t multitask but think we can.  Everything from the millions of apps to the the endless tabs possible in our browser nevertheless beg us to.  What is this state of being?  Until the Singularity, it’s (apologies to Heidegger:) Neinsein?  So many hours obliterated before I knew it.

Could have learned a lot of Violin in the same time...
Could have learned a lot of Violin in the same time. Worse, helped bring down Quinn Wageman with me.

How to crack the whip?  I won’t claim to overcome it but think I’ve made good progress of late and had a fantastic weekend of organizing things.

1) Have a plan.

The plan orders events, not the other way around.  Incorporate new events into the plan by all means.  In the day to day work that means inverting the primacy of “email” and “tasks”.

Email inboxes’ reverse chronology is an inadvertently pernicious design that only recently gmail has managed to help at least start to filter.  It has still deeply imprinted a last-in-first-out method of approaching tasks.  We all know to try to dispatch things quickly whether they show up in paper or in email but email inboxes UI/UX suggests strongly otherwise.   Emails become a task in themselves, not representations of or steps within, tasks.  Every email feels productive, and the variable reinforcement mechanism of replies has its own illusory satisfaction.

Tim Ferris suggests only checking email at certain points in a day, and others say to turn off the alerts.  All these are helpful but pushing against the tide unless you have a good task manager.

The one place in my life, over a multi-year period, I’ve managed to implement this, might be my reading lists.  Even though that isn’t fully under control I’ve come a long way since college.  Synoptic reading – lots of books on one subject matter – makes each of the books themselves more enjoyable and lasting.  If I see a book I try to wonder what kind of plan I could put it in.  Otherwise it’s doomed to a lot of dusting, re-organization, and moving around fitfully.

I’ve found the good-for-me planning tool with Asana.  I’ve started to use it for a software development project with five people, and it appears to do just about everything Pivotal Tracker does (save for a point-to-time estimation feedback loop.)  I’ve finally started to use Asana personally as well and spent a good deal of time putting various notes and goals and tasks into it.   I wish Asana were a bit better organized for projects around “goals” or “dreams” or some such but that leap is a lot less hard than getting projects & tasks into shape.  As an independent firm with wealthy founders on a mission I’m not worried about getting’med here.

2) Cleaning out the emails

Most of the productivity literature says you don’t need to delete, just archive.  I consider this a form of surrender to inbox madness but I’m giving in to it after several efforts to delete as much as I can.   I already did the other usual suspect tricks:

a) Unsubscribe from as many lists as possible.  Really important news will find its way to me, I don’t need fifteen curated news summaries a day.  If I need to read InfoWorld or Crunchbase I’ll do it as part of a daily scheme.

b) Be thoughtful about sending email, and use ‘Reply All’ judiciously.

c) Auto-archive after sending a reply.

But the hydra kept rearing its head.  Even other productivity managers such as Asana keep showing up in unnecessary email batches (yes I could turn them off but I am worried to do so.)  Tech services virtually always duplicate their notifications with email too.

moving 12k emails


The empty box feels a heck of a lot better.  I installed Mailbox and tried getting in lots of swipes but that also felt like a fruitless rear guard action.  If I feel like more pruning should be done I’ll do it in the archive.  Thanks to Charles Hudson & Mike Ghaffrey’s book Inbox Freedom for this suggestion, which if not unique finally got me over the top to do it.

Putting noise on twitter that you reached inbox zero would have been too ironic
Putting noise on twitter that you reached inbox zero would have been too ironic

3) Organize your mobile phone apps

a) First, there is a purge.  Is there an app which might tempt you, whose content would not also be accessible on the web? Sorry Klout, Quora: see you when I need you.  Thanks for the memories various sports apps and the obnoxious apps from sites which could just as well be rendered in HTML5 on a normal browser when I need them.  Various Amazon apps I’m not using much of were dissed as well.

b) Organize the survivors.  Those that I use sometimes (Hotel Tonight) either got moved to a general utilities folder, or, for games, all brought together into a folder.  (Drag one over the other when organizing/deleting them to automatically create a new folder on iOS.)  I’ve been using the Mailbox app but the default email icon had been sitting at the bottom of my tray – no more.

I’ve started to use Waze and Audible a lot – where the heck are they?  I’d scroll left, scroll right.  A heuristic of familiarity worked as long as I didn’t move or delete a single app in front of them.   This rule applies in a lot of places in life.  You think you’re stronger in some field than you really are, when you’re just habituated.  Put three Queens on a chessboard and see how chess masters react:

“As impressive as the chess masters’ memories were for chess games, their memories for everything else were notably unimpressive. When the chess experts were shown random arrangements of chess pieces — ones that couldn’t possibly have been arrived at through an actual game — their memory for the board was only slightly better than chess novices’.

4) Your Windows Background & Start Menu

Lose all the icons.  All the shortcuts.  Programs all clamor to be part of the automatic upload – and if you use Skype daily its good to have it there on the ready.  I don’t.

a) Go to msconfig.exe from your start menu and uncheck all the apps you’re not using on a regular basis.  This not only shaves many minutes off a windows boot session but I’m also by default less tempted to while away hours on Steam if the icon isn’t at the ready.  I have to decide to play, not fall into it.

b) Productivity tips often appropriate the word “zen” but this particular tip might be closest in appearance.  Why have so much clutter on your desktop?  Choose to load a program, you know how to do it.  Have it be a part of your plan.  Lose the mess of files on your desktop.  Keep it clean and peaceful.  This tip comes to me from Charlie Cleveland, who I believe got it in turn from Leo Babauta who has a ton of good suggestions in his book (p. 56 for:)

» Clear your desk.
» Turn off computer notifications.
» Find soothing music and some headphones.
» Clear your computer desktop. [emphasis added]
» Clear your floor.
» Clear your walls.

I’ve done all the above except the music.

Yosemite will be around a lot longer than I will.  Think about that instead of swimming in shortcuts.
Yosemite will be around a lot longer than I will. Think about that instead of swimming in shortcuts.

Now the hard part: staying on track for sustained concentrated work on long term projects that aren’t offering immediate reward.


Published inGoals

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.