Jordan Koschei jordan koschei

Productivity

Attention is the Resource We Treat Most Casually

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.

Postscript

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.

Interested in updates? You can sign up for the mailing list here.

Fighting Remote Work Distractions

The two biggest distractions I’ve found when working from home are:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Remote Work Rituals

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.

Read, Write, Communicate

I’ve always preferred to use different devices for production and consumption: I like to use the computer to create things and do work, and my tablet/phone to consume content (read articles, watch Netflix, listen to podcasts, etc).

I don’t like to muddle those two modes — it’s too easy to get sidetracked. If I use the same screen for production and consumption, it’s far too easy to start working and find myself on YouTube, or reading Hacker News.

Recently, I decided to divide up those tasks further. I don’t want to use my phone for consumption anymore, but just for communication. As I wrote previously, I want to embrace boredom, stay aware of my surroundings, and not feel compelled to spend every moment consuming information.

With that in mind, here’s the new division of labor between my devices:

  • Macbook Pro — Writing, design, code, etc. Anything industrial-grade related to work.
  • iPhone — Communication. I removed Tweetbot and Instapaper, and reinstalled Moment to remind me if I’ve spent more than 15 minutes using the phone for anything besides its intended purpose.
  • iPad Pro — Consumption. I’ve got Tweetbot, Reeder, and Instapaper installed (plus the usual video services). If I want to read, I’ll do it here.

It’s working well so far, but it’s only been a few days. Keeping the division sharp between those modes of thinking feels cleaner, somehow, than using every device for every purpose.

Our Task Management Apps Won't Save Us

I’ve always had a hard time finding a task management system that clicks for me. I’ve tried plenty of them — OmniFocus, Things, 2Do, Todoist, good old pen-and-paper. Each of them has pros and cons.

My needs aren’t wildly complex, and I’m not a productivity nerd the way some people are. What I look for in a task manager is simple:

  • Nested projects/tasks, so not everything lives on the same level.
  • The ability to create a checklist without a due date, for tracking things like groceries and my reading list.
  • An aesthetically-pleasing interface.

It’s the third one that’s tripped me up the most. A task manager plays such a prominent role in one’s life — I don’t want to dread opening it up.

Unfortunately, the task managers that have the features I need tend to be ugly, and the task managers that are beautiful tend to lack the features I need.

I was previously using 2Do, which had everything I needed functionally, but it was unattractive and lacking in the UX department. It was also developed by a single person (as far as I could tell), so what happens if the developer gets hit by a bus? Or stops developing new features? It made me antsy.

OmniFocus 2 was ugly as well, and my brief couple of hours with Todoist were a wildly frustrating experience — their recent redesign still looks like it was optimized for a narrower and lower-resolution screen than my MacBook Pro, and adding new projects felt like pulling teeth.

Then, last week, Things 3 was released. My first task manager was Things 2, whose lack of nesting wound up being a dealbreaker, but the trailer for Things 3 was so pretty I decided to try it anyway.

It doesn’t have all the features I need, but it’s so pleasant to use that I decided to try shoehorning my process into its constraints anyway. Then I decided I enjoyed it, so I retooled my process to match Things 3’s proficiencies.

My grocery list is now a single task with a nested checklist. I’ve flattened some of my nested projects, and ditched some things I wasn’t really working on. And, thanks to Headings, some of my lists have actually gotten more organized since losing nested projects.

My reading list in Things 3

My one big frustration is the fact that Things 3 doesn’t support repeating tasks inside of projects, so my weekly “Compile newsletter” task doesn’t fit inside the Random Access Newsletter project. But the developers’ very-responsive Twitter account assures me this is coming soon.

All this brings me to the larger point I’ve been thinking about lately: your task management system can’t save you.

There’s something magical about that New Management App smell. Inputting your information into a new system, deciding you’re going to get your life in order, deciding that this one will actually work, I’ll stick with it this time. Like somehow your enhanced productivity will make everything better. I always feel like Liz Lemon after her trip to the Container Store, saying “I’m going to become wonderful!”

But productivity is just a tool. Efficiency and organization are meaningless unless they serve meaningful goals, and even the goals that feel meaningful don’t guarantee true satisfaction.

It’s easy to get caught up in the endorphin rush of feeling like our lives are under control. But the bigger question remains: Under control for what?

And that’s a question we each have to wrestle with for ourselves.

Marginal Changes That Have Improved my Quality of Life

Here are some marginal changes that have had outsized effects on my quality of life. Maybe some of them will work for you.

  • Light candles. I keep a few different candles around, and look forward to lighting one each morning. It’s amazing the effect that a pleasant scent can have on my mood.
  • Steep some tea. There’s something calming about the process of making tea, and I like the rhythm it gives my day as I finish one cup and start to make another.
  • Learn to love cooking. It’s healthier and more cost-effective than going out or ordering takeout, and the act of cooking is food for the soul. The ritual provides an excellent rhythm for the day, and I always look forward to making dinner in the evening.
  • Drink more water. If I don’t drink enough during the day, I get thirsty overnight. If I wake up thirsty, I feel more sluggish and am less likely to get out of bed right away. If I don’t get out of bed right away, I feel rushed in the morning and off-kilter for the rest of the day. It’s a deadly cycle, and it can all be fixed by drinking more water.
  • Wash the dishes as they happen. I don’t drink enough water if I can’t fill up my Brita filter, and that’s dependent on me having enough room for it in the sink. Also, everything just looks neater (and feels calmer) when I wash the dishes as I use them, rather than batch them and turn dish-washing into a 45-minute marathon.
  • Remove feeds from my phone. I removed email, social media, news from my phone (with the exception of Slack, which I keep on a close notification-leash). Now I’m less distracted by notifications and less inclined to habitually check my phone for new information, and I feel calmer in general.
  • Avoid screens anywhere near bed. I’ve talked about this before. If my phone is near my bed, I’ll check it before I go to sleep, and staring into a blinding beam of pure information is not good for the circadian rhythm. I’ll also check it first thing in the morning, which will put me in a reactive mode for the whole day. Better to keep it plugged in across the room, where it’s reachable in an emergency by far enough away that I can only use it deliberately.
  • Choose hours to be offline. I go screens-off for a while before bed so I can read and settle down without distraction, and I avoid the internet before 8am so I can go through my morning routine wihtout the world intruding.
  • Sit quietly for a few minutes each morning. Just sit there, eyes closed, breathing deeply for a few minutes. This does wonders for increasing my calm, and gives me the sense that I control the events of the day, rather than letting the events of the day control me.

The biggest productivity hack is to care about what you're working on.

I posted this on Twitter the other day:

It’s true, isn’t it? All the to-do lists and schedule optimizations in the world can’t fix a lack of enthusiasm about what you’re working on. And a little bit of enthusiasm has a habit of cutting through all the busyness – you may not have time for the tasks you dread, but if there’s something you’re really looking forward to working on, it’s amazing how quickly you can find space in your schedule.

Whether it’s your day job, a side project, or just an activity you enjoy – I hope you have something that makes you want to leap out of bed in the morning and get to work. If not, don’t be afraid to find it or make it.

Whoops, I just realized that I lapsed into “rah-rah, do what your love” territory. It’s all well and good to say “find a job you love,” but that’s a luxury that not everyone has. There are plenty of people who are trapped by student debt or a tight job market, or who just aren’t sure what kind of work they’ll find satisfying.

As Austin Kleon says, keep your day job.

If you don’t have a job that you deeply care about, I strongly encourage you to find (or start) a side project that gets you out of bed in the morning. Here’s an off-the-cuff list of some possibilities that are free and available to anyone:

  • Start a blog. My favorite thing about the Internet Age is that anyone can publish their thoughts. (That’s probably my least favorite thing, too, but that’s another story.) You have thoughts. Why not start a blog through Wordpress or Medium?
  • Take up cooking. I have found more satisfaction in cooking — real, authentic, not-with-a-microwave cooking — than I would’ve thought possible. There are few things as magical as buying some ingredients, applying heat, and seeing them transform into something completely different. I recommend looking at New York Times Cooking for a well-curated list of recipes for a variety of skill levels.
  • Learn to code. Coding is easier than you think, and it comes with an awesome sense of empowerment – if you can code, you can take your ideas and make them real. Codecademy will teach you for free.
  • Make something. Seriously, anything. Could be digital, could be tangible. Just make something of your own, and share it with the world! Oh, and that little voice in your head saying it won’t be good enough or nobody will be interested? That’s self-doubt. Everyone has it. Just ignore it – it’s not real.

In a world that revels in cynicism, caring is a superpower. Find that thing you care about and embrace it. If you’re not sure what it is, don’t be paralyzed by indecision – keep trying different things until you know.