Just a reminder that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a rap about The West Wing for the excellent podcast The West Wing Weekly and it’s well worth your time.
All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.Blaise Pascal, likely before compulsively checking Twitter
For knowledge workers — designers, programmers, writers, analysts, and desk jockeys of all kinds — our minds are our greatest asset. We get paid for our ability to turn our brains towards a problem, ruminate on an answer, and produce a solution. It’s how we create value.
Our attention is our most valuable resource, yet it’s the one we treat most casually.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but tell me if this sounds familiar:
I think long and hard before spending money. I hate to waste food or drink. I cringe at the thought of leaving a light on unused. And yet I’ll sink an hour into browsing TechCrunch or Hacker News and barely realize it.
Media Diets & Mental Junk Food
When it comes to our bodies, we understand intuitively that diet is important. “You are what you eat,” after all. Fruits and veggies in, your body gets stronger. Twizzlers and Twinkies, not so much.
We’re less attuned to the way our media diet affects our minds. We may know on some level that an hour of browsing Reddit isn’t the same as an hour spent reading a good book, but that doesn’t stop us from making the easier choice. The short bursts of Twitter are more enticing than the slow burn of literature; the driving beat and nursery-rhyme melodies of Katy Perry are more fun than the impenetrable riches of anything classical. Pull-to-refresh provides a stronger dopamine hit than ponder-and-fathom.
It’s irrational, isn’t it? If our livelihood is based on our ability to focus our attention, then we should flee from anything that weakens our attention span and flock towards anything that strengthens it. As the “knowledge economy” grows, we should see a whole army of voracious readers and dedicated meditators. Instead, we have a world of quick cuts and hot takes. It takes an addiction to make us act so irrationally against our own self-interest.
Junk food short-circuits our genetic predisposition towards sugar and fat to make us crave it more than any fruits or vegetables. Similarly, the mental foods that are bad for us short-circuit our cravings for information. We may know that John McPhee is better for us than The Bachelor, but that doesn’t mean we won’t pick The Bachelor every time.
(Maybe it isn’t The Bachelor for you; maybe it’s something else. Or maybe you have better self-control than I do and this isn’t a problem for you at all. Anyway, isn’t Demi the worst this season?)
Saving Our Attention
The mind is a clearinghouse for information. Information goes in, is processed by a set of particular filters and biases and mental models, and comes out as knowledge.
That’s what we should be preserving at all costs — our minds’ ability to focus well.
It seems like everyone in tech circles is talking about this. Daily meditation, tech sabbaths, internet detox retreats, focus-boosting apps… they’re everywhere. They feel a little like putting a Band-Aid on a broken bone. But, in the absence of a better solution (or the willpower to ditch Twitter and Reddit), they’ll have to do.
I’m admittedly terrible at following my own advice, but here are some resources I’ve found that have helped boost my attention, or at least mitigate my distractedness:
- 📙 Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. A book by the guys who wrote Sprint about techniques they’ve found to focus better and remember more of their days.
- 📘 The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It’s a few years old, but this book by Nicholas Carr explores how our brains rewire around the media we spend time with. The more time we spend with quick, shallow information (like Twitter and Reddit), the less capable we are of consuming deep information (like books). Scary.
- 📙 Amusing Ourselves to Death. This classic by Neil Postman was written before the era of the internet, but its discussion of the effects of television on our brains feels as timely as ever.
- ⏰ Focus. A macOS app that disables distracting websites and apps for as long as you specify, with no take-backs.
- 🔗 Liberate for iOS. Same idea as Focus, but for iOS. It blocks websites only (no apps), and unfortunately can be disabled, but still helpful.
I like the idea of meditation, in the sense of sitting quietly and thinking deeply for a stretch of time. If we hold that deliberate practice is the single most effective way to get great at anything, than it makes sense that the best way to increase your focus and attention is to practice being focused and attentive.
I don’t like the pseudo-spirituality of apps like Headspace and Calm (yes, even the apps that claim not to have a spiritual bent seem to have a spiritual bent, whether they themselves realize it or not). I like the idea of having a meditation timer with soothing sounds and a bell to tell me when my time is up, but I’d rather have an app dedicated to that purpose than use a timer buried in a more fully-featured meditation app.
Since I haven’t been able to find anything like that yet, I’m building my own. It’s called Interlude, it’s an unguided meditation timer, and it’s my first solo iOS app. I’ve had a chance to do some work in Swift while working on Dwell, and this seems like a good way to flex my engineering muscles and create something of my own.
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Design is a form of hospitality.
Done well, design should be welcoming. It should invite users into the world it creates, making them feel at home. This is true for websites, apps, books, posters, album covers — you name it.
Most design is about reducing friction: reducing the friction to find information, to connect with friends, to share your thoughts, to consume more content. Reducing friction is a form of hospitality.
Not all design is meant to reduce friction, of course. If you’re designing an interface for a missile defense system, you probably want to increase the friction around hitting the big red button. Making people feel comfortable — giving them appropriate guardrails that reduce the fear of making mistakes — is a form of hospitality.
Making users feel like they know what they’re doing is a form of hospitality.
Giving users a pleasant place to spend their time is a form of hospitality.
Making tasks easier so users can get back to their real lives — their homes and hobbies and families — is a form of hospitality.
Creating mechanisms that deliberately addict your users is not hospitable.
Luring your users into behaviors for the sole purpose of generating data that you sell to third parties is not hospitable.
Transparently providing a service and charging for it is hospitable.
This is why hotels are hospitable in a way that casinos are not.
Let’s seek to design hotels, not casinos.
The two biggest distractions I’ve found when working from home are:
- Housework. There’s always laundry to fold, dishes to wash, tables to tidy. It’s a great way to procrastinate without feeling like you’re procrastinating.
- The Internet. Yes, it’s distracting anywhere. But without anyone walking by or looking over your shoulder, it’s that much worse.
Here are some ways to combat distractions. Many of these have worked for me, and some come recommended from others:
- Put your phone out of site. Out of sight, out of mind.
- Use an Internet blocker. Focus is a good one. You can set a certain amount of time, and it’ll block distracting websites and apps.
- Schedule a time for housework. Give yourself a set amount of time and you’ll be shocked how quickly you can clean.
- Get a change of scenery. If one environment isn’t working for you, decamp to a coffee shop or similar.
- Get up and move around to reset. Move around a little, make some tea or coffee, and stretch your legs before coming back to work. Sometimes that’s the reset that helps.
- Turn on one song, album, or playlist on repeat. It works! Pro tip: try it with thank u, next by Ariana Grande.
Having been a Christian for years, I own several Bibles. I appreciate that this is a luxury uncommon in the history of the faith; for a long time, it was rare to own a single Bible, and for longer than that it was rare to access to Scripture aside from hearing it read aloud. And there are still places on earth where owning a Bible can get you thrown in jail or worse.Read More →
Wake up. Shower. Eat breakfast.
Go upstairs: home office. Turn on computer. Wait for computer to boot up.
Go downstairs to kitchen. Start electric tea kettle. Fill up bottle of water.
Tea kettle taking too long. Check phone. Browse Twitter.
Tea kettle done! Pour water into mug, add teabag, add honey. Take tea and water upstairs.
Computer on. Open up email. Delete unimportant messages. Triage the rest.
Check in on communities — Dribbble, AIGA Upstate Slack, HV Tech Slack, friend Slack. Check Twitter.
Light candle — candle helps with focus. Turn on lava lamp acquired during wife’s cousins’ white elephant gift exchange. Candle and lamp essential pre-work rituals.
Open Basecamp. Wait for Basecamp to load.
Hands are dry — too much winter. Go downstairs, apply hand lotion. Go upstairs to office.
Click over to Basecamp notifications. Too impatient — hand lotion now on trackpad. Wipe off trackpad.
Check Basecamp notifications, figure out what happened at work since last check-in. Lots happened; work is one time zone behind, has whole extra hour in afternoon.
Open up Things. Look at personal items. Be realistic; move unpleasant tasks to tomorrow. Check work items. Move today’s tasks to Today view.
Start on first task.
False start — check Twitter. Check news sites. Check Hacker News.
Take two. Start on first task. Nope — Basecamp notification. Check Basecamp, say good morning to coworkers, return to task.
Encounter slight resistance in task. Pick up phone and check Twitter. Check news. Nothing changed in last ten minutes. Desk is messy; tidy up desk.
Remember to turn on Focus. Block distracting websites. Put phone on shelf out of sight. Ready to start for real.
Just kidding. Dog barks. Take out dog to go potty. Try not to be frustrated.
Come back inside. Walk upstairs, get situated. Try to remember first task.
Wait — computer desktop disorganized. Reorganize computer desktop. Keep going — reorganize Dropbox. Now all files have tags.
Drank too much tea. Go downstairs, go to bathroom.
Hands dry again after walking dog and washing hands. Re-moisturize.
Walk upstairs. Press button to put standing desk in standing position.
Never mind — too sluggish to stand. Lower standing desk back to sitting position, re-situate chair.
Remember first task. Don’t want to feel unaccomplished at end of day. Don’t want to let down self, company, coworkers. Time to get busy.
Take inventory. Candle lit, websites blocked, phone hidden, dog tended, email closed, hands moisturized.
Start work for real.