The book is exciting and the story is funny. In fact, I'm learning something new. So much so, that I keep writing down my ideas and shuffling their implications. And suddenly, I realize something. In the past 15-minutes, I've only managed to cover three pages and I'm already thinking about next things I'm supposed to do. Cleaning, picking-up the groceries, doing my excercises, writing a couple of lines of code, watching a movie...
Is this supposed to be my Saturday off work?
So I stop and think. When was the last moment that took longer than 10 seconds, where I didn't have an urge to check an app on my phone, see if I got new email, or impulsively do something else?
By now, where I live, it's been many months of nightly curfews and limitations on travel and social life. I consider myself a very fortunate person to have suffered a relatively small impact from the global pandemic. Nonetheless, I can't stop but think about why my mind feels so exhausted while at the same time requiring a constant stream of stimulus that results in overbearing distraction.
It was already before the pandemic that I heard my colleagues talking about "digital detox" and discussing their efforts to break out of being constantly connected while trying to regain their energy and allowing for some rest. Thus, I surely know that I'm not alone with these thoughts.
Finally, after subscribing to Audible last summer, there only remains little time in my day when I am not stimulating my brain in one way or another. It was some sort of a panic that hit me when I realized that I am no longer able to enjoy a thing that I've always enjoyed so much, reading a great book at length.
Today I called with a good friend of mine and he said:
"Yeah right! It's like we must constantly be multitasking or something... Even when I get to playing a Playstation game and it starts to load, I just all the time have to unlock my phone and check what is going on..."
To observe and reflect
I recently read a book where Naval describes what meditation means for him, and I cannot help but agree with his way of putting it.
One only needs to stop and observe his thoughts in a calm state. Your mind is like a monkey in a room, misbehaving and throwing feces all over the walls. It is fascinating how you realize this while trying to focus on your breath and not let your thoughts wander. In a matter of seconds, however, you already catch yourself thinking about entirely something different. When practicing to focus your attention and letting your thoughts pass, this inner monkey seems to eventually calm down and let you achieve a little peace of mind. It is not so easy.
After so many months of being limited with our social interactions, it feels like the scariest thing out there is to be left by ourselves. Especially us young people tend to handle this quite badly. Without typical distractions and mental stimulus available throughout our days, our mind starts to seek for something to occupy itself resulting in raised anxiety levels and stress. We are today forced to confront our inner selves like never before.
Billions of dollars are invested and brightest specialists are hired each year to engineer new distractions. They fight for every second of our limited attention spans, leading us further astray without us even noticing it.
When shortest breaks require distraction and only the rarest moments, such as taking a shower, offer a refuge from our electronic devices, how are we supposed to work towards our long-term goals? The type of goals that can only be achieved when managing to work in a state of sustained attention? Rarely do great things in life come in a form of neatly packaged gratification to which we are getting more and more accustomed to.
Reading reports and hearing on the radio that the general feeling and wellbeing in our societies during these challenging times is again on decline, constant distractions might truly be the enemy that stands in our way of what we ought to achieve.
At some point I read that South Koreans already pay to live in a hotel-like "prison" to relieve themselves from digital devices. I'm not quite ready to go that far just yet.
Admittedly, a cottage in the middle of nowhere in Finland would be the way to go anyways.
Once upon a time before the pandemic I saw a colleague of mine use his phone as we were picking up lunch, and I couldn't help but ask why was the screen black and white? He told me he does it intentionally to make his handset less attractive, resulting in less tapping around. That struck me as bizarre. How odd, do we really need to resort to such approaches?
So what were some of the smaller changes I did to improve my wellbeing?
Unlike South Koreans with their voluntary confinement, or my friend with his greyscale screen, I started with some less drastic measures. These small changes proved enormously helpful.
First of all, I opened the screen-time function on my phone and looked through apps that sent me most notifications, proceeding to drastically dial them back. Today, most phones have a feature to limit the screen-time of apps, locking you out after a certain amount of time has passed. This function is plain useless for me or my friends whom I've seen to just enter their pin every single time they wanted to do something. What I did instead was that I just plain and simply uninstalled Instagram.
I had contemplated to delete it for a long time and almost did it, but instead always settled to just disable the notifications. When I finally did this, however, two interesting realizations struck me.
First thing was that during the initial couple of weeks without the app I was totally surprised at how little I missed it. It literally had never provided me with anything of value, and I only used it to post an occasional update. Why didn't I uninstall it earlier? There was no feeling of missing out. Wow, this realization echoed a feeling that I had after uninstalling 9GAG many years earlier.
Second, I didn't even notice how those colorful icons on the home-screen invited me to tap on their respective apps as soon as I found myself aimlessly scrolling through my phone. I understood this in a particularly strong way after hiding another app, LinkedIn. Being an important tool for my work, all I did in addition to hiding it from the homescreen was to disable the last types of notifications I ever received from them. Lo' and behold, I now use this application significantly less and it makes a whole world of a difference.
Simple, easy and fast. Your life will be better for it, just try! Exponential returns of joy are expected if you have apps like Tiktok, Clubhouse, Snapchat, or other such platforms installed or bookmarked, that you can easily subject to the same fate and never look back.
So far, I'm mostly talking about my precious free time. But what could be some simple and small things that I could do when I'm working on my projects?
Focus, operate and enjoy the results
I've written about doing an experiment and turning myself into a productivity monster back in 2017, and I've recently re-read the post and carefully re-implemented some of my learnings this year. But then again, it's not about going radical, but rather focusing on some small things that are easy to implement.
Kill the unnecessary Slack and Teams notifications now! Adjust the surprisingly good defaults that Slack provides and make sure none of them, except for the most important notifications, hit your phone after your working hours are over.
Use effective time-blocking techniques like Pomodoro for the less pleasant and repetitive, but still important tasks. This, like many other things, I've also learned from one of my colleagues using it in an effective manner.
Oh, and of course make sure to consider the following crazy important golden rule of life and the universe: don't do anything else while having a one-on-one interaction with someone. Just never do this.
I catch myself with this one sometimes and no matter how small of a signal, it can still tell something to my counterpart. Such mistakes during limited and valuable interactions in these pandemic-ridden times can eat away from our important professional relationships. When having conversations, focus on them fully and wholeheartedly. Multitask when the time is right.
Oh, and try drinking less coffee in the mornings while cutting alcohol in the evenings, but you've heard this a million times before. Additionally, to all of you who have small kids at home, I truly salute your efforts and patience getting through with this!
The most desired skill of the future
What if the most sought after and desired skill of the future will be the ability to best manage our constant distractions and maintain a sustained state of productive focus?
If we can't manage to control our whims, we won't be able to work effectively towards our long-term goals. I guess it's just that simple.
The first step is to stop and observe.
Reflection and brutal honesty with oneself while trying to understand what is happening is critical before driving corrections and adjustments into one's behavior. As our society adjusts to challenges posed by global pandemics, there is a chance for us to walk out of this stronger than before. This is a chance for us to learn more about ourselves than would've otherwise been possible, right?
I'm only trying to think about something positive in these pandemic-ridden times.
Now let's get back to work...
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See you around!