Your Tech Environment
We're gonna move on now to what is my absolutely favorite part of this course and that is what we call our tech environment. The one that is most dominant in our lives today and your tech environment basically consists of your equipment, the software and apps that you use and the information that you consume. Email, newsletters, websites that you visit, podcasts that you listen to, some of which we will come back because of the person who asked the question about toleration. So when it comes to creative work you have basically what are the two essential traits for high-value creative output and that's the ability to focus on something for an extended period of time and the ability to remain present while we're working. And given all of the things that are competing for our attention, this is much easier said than done. So how do we actually deal with this? Well, before we get to the how, we need to understand why. So nearly every source of distraction has one culprit and that is what i...
s known as dopamine. If you've ever woken up in the morning and checked email, and found that you check email all day long because you start checking it in the morning, you've experienced the effects of dopamine. So the way dopamine works basically is it uses what's known as variable rewards. Basically your email functions like a slot machine. You go in, sometimes there might be something good in there. A lot of times there's nothing in there. Sometimes it might be something bad. But the fact that you never know what you're gonna get, much like Forrest Gump says about a box of chocolates keeps you coming back for more and if, you've probably witnessed this with Facebook. You go back and you check to see is, like why am I notified? It's not a coincidence that they've built notifications and likes and comments into the design of the product. The product is designed to very much be addictive and it's designed to keep you coming back for more, to keep you checking constantly, and as a result you experience anxiety, you experience stress, you're distracted and effectively what happens is you cut off the flow of creativity. You actually inhibit your creative work. So how do we do this? Well we deal with this by building an environment that is conducive to creativity and conducive to focus. So let's talk a little bit about how to eliminate sources of distraction which is one of our biggest issues in the world today. So the biggest distraction of course is our cellphone. And you know, if you go to a website like Medium you'll find tons of articles about productivity hacks and dealing with distractions, many of which I myself have written but the one hack that nobody ever talks about, the simplest hack of all when it comes to your phone which is the biggest source of distraction is to leave it out of the room. It's amazing how much more productive you can be just by leaving your phone out of the room for one hour. You will be blown away by the gains you make for just an hour away from this thing because unless you're the President of the United States who apparently has his phone with him constantly, World War Three is not gonna start in your inbox. There's really nothing potentially catastrophic that's gonna happen if you don't have your phone for an hour. Really, I think there are very few exceptions to this. If you're a parent, maybe but Cal Newport is a new parent and I think he would tend to agree with me on this. We tend to overestimate the importance of whatever it is that is on the phone. So, we talked earlier about willpower and how we depend on willpower to try to make decisions. Well part of building an environment is eliminating the need for willpower by using tools like distraction blockers because you're no longer saying, okay you know I'm gonna make this decision to focus. If you set up the environment in such a way that giving into distraction is not an option then you no longer are gonna be able to, you'll be able to resist the temptation because it's not even gonna be a possibility. So I use a tool called Rescue Time which I absolutely love. I think it's one of the best products out there for this purpose. It's amazing because it allows you to set goals so if you have a goal for example to write for two hours a day it will actually allow you to track how much time you spend in your writing software every day. If you have a goal to spend less than half an hour a day on email or communications, it will allow you to do that. And it basically gives you a breakdown. You can actually see the metrics every week. It gives you what's called a productivity pulse and you're able to see where you're at every single day. Some days I look at it and I'm horrified by my productivity pulse. I wonder how I'm getting below a 60 thinking, I'm killing it today. And then I look and I say, wow okay well wait a minute. I'm actually spending a lot of time on Facebook. What happens by using a tool like this is that you start to develop awareness and the copy writer Dan Kennedy says that measurement across all disciplines improves performance. It's not a coincidence that athletes track statistics. There's a reason for that, because what they track allows them to measure it and as a result, they're able to improve that number. One of the biggest sources of distraction in the world that we live in today of course is Facebook. I think that every one of us can agree. If you spend time on Facebook you know this. How many of you have had a day where you get on Facebook, you didn't intend to get on Facebook, you click on some link and an hour later you're wondering why you're still here and what you're actually doing here. Anybody have that experience here? Yeah, and then you think to yourself, did I actually learn anything? Did I actually do anything? Well it turns out that there's a tool called the Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator which I'm surprised that Mark Zuckerberg hasn't shut this down because it basically prevents you from clicking on ads. It literally gets rid of your newsfeed so that if you wanna update your status or if you wanna look at anything, it all has to be a deliberate choice. One of my friends said, "Don't you think that's kind of obnoxious "and self-absorbed if you're only there "to promote your own work?" And I said, "Well look, who isn't there "to promote their own work?" Everybody is sharing links whereas now, I have to go and deliberately seek out the things that I wanna see as opposed to just seeing what's in my feed. So now everything that I actually go and look at on Facebook is a deliberate choice. If I wanna see something that a friend has posted, I have to actually go and look at their feed on purpose as opposed to whatever just shows up in the feed. I think this is probably one of my favorite tools for eliminating distraction and that is to work analog instead of digital. It seems really strange to be talking about your tech environment and to encourage you to work analog instead of digital and I do this for a couple of reasons. I primarily write by hand first, I don't use devices for the first couple of hours of the day. When you work analog instead of working digital, it forces you to slow down. It forces a very different kind of thinking. It turns out, even when we're reading books you end up reading very differently when you read physical books because what happens when we're looking at screens whether it's on ebook, whether it's on a iPad, is that we tend to scan and we tend not to read and I noticed this after several years of reading on a Kindle I went back to reading physical books and my writing and my reading changed dramatically. My retention went up. Turns out that Charles Duhigg in one of his most recent books, he did a study where they had college students who took notes by hand and those who took notes by computer. Those took notes by computer were able to capture way more information, those who took notes by hand captured less information but were able to retain more of it, and were actually able to think about that information and analyze it and make real use of it. Yeah, so I wanna turn over to you guys for questions on this specific section. You know, what are your challenges with distractions at the moment? How do you feel about doing things analog and I'm curious about your own Facebook experience.
So I've never been on Facebook. The one time I went to sign up for it because I heard you know, for your business and connecting, I got all of these notifications just trying to sign up and I said do you know what? This is, I'm not gonna do it. So I'm glad that I don't because there's enough distractions just with emails and lists. I had a question, sort of a technical question, how do you get your work from, if you write it out by hand, how do you get it?
Okay so this is a really good question. This is something that I still struggle with because my handwriting is barely legible. It's amazing, I look at it and it's like wow. How am I gonna transfer this? So part of it is making your handwriting legible enough that you can get from there to that. So I start with about three pages on a notebook and then I move to a computer. So it's not that I don't use a computer at all because it would be impossible to write a book using nothing but hand. But the main reason, like I said, I do this by hand is to make the first part of my day much more relaxing and therapeutic because I think that if you overload yourself with information to start the day, it's just, it's kind of like waking up in the morning and smoking a cigarette and having a beer and wondering why the rest of your day is such a disaster. So I think that it's, part of it is really you know, deciding at what point you wanna transfer it over. There are tools that allow you to do things like snap it and use optical character recognition. Evernote I believe has that capability. The only problem with OCR right now is that it doesn't translate the words into type that you can modify, you just have pictures and you can search it. So I don't tend to like using that process. I literally will look at it and say okay you know, what am I gonna transfer over? It might be two or three sentences. Sometimes I can get all of it out but I think it really is about making a deliberate choice to write in a way that's legible and then transferring it over.
I do a lot of writing and sitting in bed writing in a paper journal and I find that I, my brain works differently when I write by hand and I start off writing you know, like morning pages, Julia Cameron morning pages and it's you know, most of it's crap but then I'll end up writing drafts of blog posts and then I type those in and you know, edit and change things and like I said, I just like, my brain works differently when I write long hand and it flows differently and then you know, I'll just type it into the computer. So I find it to be a really useful practice to work analog in that way. What I find challenging with this eliminating distractions is the idea of leaving my phone completely out of the room because for me I read novels on my Kindle app and I have a really hard time sleeping and so I can lie on my side and read, it helps me fall asleep but then the problem is, I have my phone in bed and I haven't figured out a solution to this because if I read, and I like reading paper books, but if I read a paper book then I have to have a light on. And so I don't, I haven't figured out a solution to that. And I this set up.
My solution for that was actually a Kindle Paperwhite. The basic version of the Kindle that literally didn't have anything on it other than the capability to read books and it had enough light on it that you could actually light it up and it's small enough that you could get away with that. As opposed to Kindle Fire which is colored and has all of the things that an iPad has. Even an iPad I found was really bad and the challenge with that is that turns out that using devices before bed is incredibly disruptive to your sleep because of the blue light that devices emit and that causes a lot of problems for a lot of people. Usually the next day, and this stuff adds up. And for me in particular it's very challenging because of the fact that sleep deprivation tends to aggravate depression and when you're dealing with a phone in bed, that just totally kills your sleep. I see it every time. I'm not immune to it, I have fallen asleep with my laptop in bed when I wanna watch movies sometimes and like I don't wanna sit on the couch. That means that I'd have to sit up. I wanna lie down so I can pass out while I'm watching the movie.
So I do, you know, do that occasionally but I think that you really have to be mindful about how you're using technology. Particularly when it comes to sleep. So I think the Kindle Paperwhite is a really good solution for that. But as far as writing by hand goes, I think that, the thing that happens when we're using a screen for example and when we're typing, we can often type way faster than we're even thinking and so as a result you end up with a lot of nonsense and not that 90% of what I write isn't nonsense but the thing is that if you can get yourself to slow down, it forces you to think and it forces you to really analyze your work before you put it and commit it to the page. And that's why it's so powerful to actually work analog instead of digital. I think in my mind when people like Ryan Holiday who has had a really prolific writing career talks about using physical books as his primary reading method, even his way of documenting the things he reads is done entirely analog. He uses what he calls the note card system and we can find a link to that and we'll include it in the chat. You can find it on Medium if you just do a Google search for note card system Ryan Holiday but he learned this note card system from Robert Green whose books are written like historical masterpieces and he literally goes through every single book that he reads, after he underlines and highlights things and goes back two weeks later and he creates a notebook, a physical note card of everything that he wants to remember and he has boxes and boxes of these note cards and it turns out one of those note cards was responsible for the creation of his book, The Obstacle is the Way, that ended up selling 300,000 copies but at the time he had no idea and he created that note card four years before the book was written.
I have a question, I also love the Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator and it has completely transformed my relationship to Facebook on my computer. I rarely use Facebook on my computer at all except for a few groups that I'm in. However, there's no newsfeed eradicator on mobile is there.
There's not a newsfeed eradicator on mobile. So a couple ways to deal with this on mobile. First is don't use the Facebook app. That's actually one of the ones. I haven't had the Facebook app on my phone in a really long time. I have Messenger and I only have Messenger on the phone when I'm traveling. So that's one way to deal with it. The other interesting thing you can do is you can actually disable Safari on your smartphone. So that you can't even access the browser. Jake Knapp who was a designer at Google, he was on Google Ventures' design team, he was that, he worked for Google Ventures and he wrote a book called Sprint but he also had a piece on Medium about making your smartphone into a dumbphone and it was really interesting. One of my friends say, he said, you we've made such advances in technology at this point that we have to go out of our way to make our technology less effective in order for it to facilitate what we need. But he had it set up in such a way that there literally was nothing on his phone and there's an entire article where he wrote about. How he basically disabled Safari, he got rid of all the icons on the screen. So we're talking about tech environment, we're gonna talk a little bit about how to deliberately design a tech environment but one thing, often the easier something is to access the more likely you are to access it right? So if you take all the icons for the things that you're likely to, you'd be distracted by and you nest them two or three screens deep on your phone, you're gonna be much less likely to give in to those distractions. So that's one other way to deal with it. But yeah, unfortunately there is not a newsfeed eradicator for the smartphone, I wish there was. So let's talk briefly about how to deliberately design your tech environment. So, I wanna talk about a couple of different things. So we were talking earlier about tolerations like spam or like subscriptions. If you were to do an honest assessment of all the things that you are subscribed to I think what you would find is that most of them, either are not adding value to your life or you don't actually open them or look at them. You just delete them constantly. I know this because I have a ton of them in my own inbox that are causing me a lot of these same problems. So yes, absolutely this is actually a form of toleration but you'd be amazed at what would happen if you actually unsubscribed from a lot of it. You can use a tool like unroll.me which will roll up all of your subscriptions into one thing and if you want to access them, the other is literally mark everything as spam. I think that we overestimate the importance of what we think we're gonna miss out on just because we're not subscribed to all these things and if you actually look at it, most of what's coming through is just notifications and promotions and other stuff. In my mind really, I think you have to limit it. So the other thing I would say is you wanna cut toxic ties and what do I mean by that? So, this is kind of a ridiculous analogy but if somebody decided to urinate in your front yard you probably would call the police. But for some reason when it comes to the internet, when it comes to social media we're incredibly tolerant of really, really obnoxious behavior in our digital environment and there's no reason for that. I have a friend named Michael Gebben and I call him the soup-nazi of nice guys. He's the nicest person you'll ever meet. I don't think I've ever seen a picture of him smiling. Actually you know, he did post a picture once of him not smiling. I said, wow, I have always wondered what you look like when you're not smiling and his default rule for Facebook or any of his digital world is zero tolerance for any negativity. And, as a result, he's got this very peaceful environment. I think it's really easy to get into pointless conversations and arguments with people on the internet. None of which add any value to your life and so my default rule is cut toxic ties and they could be people that you're no longer friends with. People that you've had a falling out with. There's no reason to have people that you are not close to or have bad blood with as friends in your digital environment. It just doesn't make any sense. The other thing that I would say is, kind of like unsubscribing is to choose a handful of podcasts, newsletters and blogs. We'll talk a bit more about what I call deliberate consumption later in the day but limit it to a handful because if you're literally subscribed to 100 podcasts and 100 newsletter, you're effectively not getting the value out of, you're getting a minimal amount of value from all of them as opposed to a maximum amount of value from just a handful of them. So you look at my podcast feed, ironically despite being a creator of one I actually don't listen to many podcasts. I have maybe four or five that I tune into every now and then. Newsletters the same thing, and I read maybe two or three blogs. I try to limit the amount of information. If you were to basically consume excessive amounts of food you would barely be able to move at a certain point and it's kind of the same with information. If you consume an excessive amount of information you're gonna have a very hard time thinking and hearing the sound of your own voice. My default rule is actually really simple and that's to treat the information that you consume like the food that you put into your body.
I think you're absolutely right about that too. And I also think there's something to take into consideration which goes back to what you were saying about the Marie Condo book around the person that you wanna become because there are podcasts and newsletters that we read diligently because we're learning something and it's really applicable to what you're doing and then you move on, but you don't it go.
Right, so then that's how the clutter continues because you move on to the next thing and you're still getting it. So going through and doing like an audit of that is like a really open.
Yeah, absolutely and this is another interesting thing that I found at a certain point which is really surprising, is that there are a lot of bloggers and a lot of online marketers who actually will post their income reports online and I found at a certain point sometimes that reading about other people's success actually makes you feel worse about yourself and actually inhibits your own ability to go and do those things 'cause you've spent all this time consuming information about things that other people are doing that give you this false sense of productivity, that you're accomplishing something. I think Chris Bailey who I'll refer to later in the conversation calls a lot of this productivity porn. But I found that when I stopped doing that, one I felt better about myself and ironically my income went up when I stopped reading other people's income reports. So yeah, it is a delicate balancing act and you're right there's a point at which you have to let go of that information. So me getting rid of all the books that were about social media marketing was a perfect example of exactly what you're talking about because I thought, this is no longer relevant to who I wanna become.