A step by step guide to breaking your smartphone’s monopoly on your attention

Note: The “Sorting Myself Out” posts is a series exploring and implementing the ideas of Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson on self improvement and living properly.

I gave a bit of thought to whether this belonged under the “Sorting Myself Out” tag and decided that screw it, doing this was so important to my own sorting out that I deem it relevant.

I was going to write a long preamble on why smartphones are addictive and destructive to our cognitive abilities but decided against it; the subject has already been done to death by far better researchers, so I’ll assume you already agree with me and lay out the steps for how I did it. To make a long story short, my concentration has improved by leaps and bounds along with my productivity. I can get around 2-3 hours of deep work in and I have ADHD. Think about that. I have ADHD. I don’t take pills. I can do at least 2 hours of deep work (in the sense of Cal Newport) everyday; according to Newport, even the best of Deep Workers max out at 4 hours.

It’s a tired trope that smartphones can do virtually anything, so as a response many of us have tasked it with everything. Here’s a (partial) list of what my smartphone does:

  • Alarm
  • Yoga
  • YouTube
  • Task manager
  • Phone
  • Email
  • Scanner
  • Photo editing
  • Camera
  • Meditation
  • Planetarium
  • LaTeX compiler
  • Python compiler
  • Timer
  • Internet browsing
  • Gaming
  • E-Book
  • Recipe book
  • Podcast player

I’m sure you can come up with many more. And that, I posit, is the reason smartphone use is so hard to control- it’s impossible to put down and the thought of leaving the house without it makes us break out in a cold sweat. Every time we have a more or less “valid” reason to pick it up, our attention runs the very real possibility of being hijacked by unproductive apps and purposes. We wake up to it, work out to it, cook with it, manage our tasks with it and ultimately go to sleep to it. With that in mind, my suggestions are centered around reducing the number of valid reasons we use our phone.

Step one: Make a list what you currently use your phone for

Smartphones are amazing. There’s no question of that. Also not in much doubt is the fact that most people can’t do without a phone of some kind in modern society; the point of this exercise is to reduce the reasons I use my phone, not handicap myself, so I make sure the list is more or less exhaustive.

Step two: Highlight or underline the functions that cannot be performed without a phone that you absolutely require

Examples would include, trivially, phone. You can’t call people without a phone. E-book? Not so much. For example, my family and significant other would like me to be reachable via WhatsApp at all times and WhatsApp requires a phone, and that is what I would highlight. What I wouldn’t highlight are things like alarm clock, timer and internet browsing (no one needs to do it on a phone; we did just fine before smartphones). Be very strict with what does and doesn’t the cut here because in the next steps, it’s open season on everything that’s left. We want to pare the list down to what we need in a smartphone, and not a step further.

Step three: The Replacing

Most features on smartphones can be replaced by analog alternatives. Here is my personal list of replacements:

  • Google Maps —> Paper maps (how archaic)
  • Task Manager —> Bullet Journal (or any other analog planning system. Check out Getting Things Done)
  • Alarm clock —> Why, alarm clock, of course. 😀
  • Timer —> Kitchen timer or hourglass. I go for hourglasses just for aesthetic reasons and trust me they are everywhere in my house. Everywhere. Get them in several different “modes”. A thirty minute glass is good for the Pomodoro method. One, three and five minutes good for things like brushing teeth or timing eggs and such.
  • E-books —> Print books. Cumbersome, I know. But worth it. I switched to Kindle for a while, but I still got distracted because there are so many books to choose from and I just couldn’t keep from flitting from book to book, so I scrapped the whole idea of digital books.
  • Internet browser —> I just don’t browse on my phone anymore. Computers exist.
  • E-mail —> Also no longer done on phone.

The goal here is to replace anything function that can be conveniently replaced so you will have very few “valid” reasons to pick up your phone. And if using paper maps seems inconvenient to you, consider that you will no longer be tracked everywhere by Google and it’s actually not that hard 😉 The feeling of competence I get from being able to navigate without Google holding my hand is actually kind of great.

Step four: The Culling

First of all, if none of the functions you circled requires a smartphone, cull the entire smartphone and buy one of those euphemistically named “feature phones”. There. You’re done. It’s that simple. Admittedly, very few people are willing to give up the entire smartphone including yours truly. Because I need WhatsApp, a dumb phone absolutely will not do. If you’re not done, then delete every app you don’t need, Even if you can’t replace some apps with analog alternatives, you can probably do without it, e.g. the newsfeed app. Newspapers still exist.

If you want to get rid of the browser or other “system apps”

If you’re on Android, there’s a way to delete your browser (I actually highly recommend this. The whole-internet-at-our-fingertips concept is overrated and, I believe, harmful) or any other app Android deems “system app”. Deleting “system apps” the normal way won’t work and unfortunately most manufacturer-installed bloatware count. Jaw-droppingly, YouTube also falls under this category. Having YouTube on my phone is a drug, I’ve decided. It had to go yesterday. If I couldn’t delete it, I was going to buy a feature phone. This is how much it had to go. You can either root your phone and delete browser and YouTube this way, or you can use a wonderful little tool called “adb”. I used adb to remove YouTube, browser and email client. This method takes a bit of technical know-how and google-fu (“android adb remove app” will work as a search term). Comfort with using command line is recommended.

DO THIS AT YOUR OWN RISK. I REPEAT. DO THIS AT YOUR OWN RISK. I WILL NOT BE RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY BRICKED PHONES BUT WILL ATTEST FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE THAT IT IS PERFECTLY FINE ON MY ZTE PHONE TO DELETE THE BROWSER AND YOUTUBE. ABSOLUTELY EXERCISE CAUTION WHEN DELETING GOOGLE APPS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

If you’re on iOS, I’m out of ideas. The only way you can do this is probably through jailbreaking. Jailbreaking as been a pain in recent years and as a result I no longer try. If you can’t get rid of the browser, I would recommend hiding it. Put it in a folder on the second page where you can’t see it. Personally, since I want to keep my iPhone for gaming reasons, I just got a cheapo Android, removed the browser and YouTube, and made it my main phone. My iPhone sits at home as my game console.

Now when I pick up my phone because I’m bored and want to procrastinate, there is absolutely nothing entertaining to do on it. In all the ways that matter, it’s a wonderful feeling.

Step five: Set hard boundaries with what’s left

Turn off unnecessary notifications, master “Do Not Disturb” and various other settings, decide when you’re going to check e-mail or SnapChat, etc. Be as specific as possible. How many times, for example, should I check e-mail in a day and when? Once you have decided, write it down somewhere you can see it.

One of the ways I developed a hard boundary with my iPhone, whose browser I cannot remove and whose game I still want to play, is through a time-activated safe that cannot be opened through any other means (except perhaps a hammer). The iPhone goes into the safe (I personally use kSafe. Most people use it for cookies, but my phone is a species of cookie, “roughly speaking”) before my bedtime and can only be taken out after a set time in late morning, so I don’t start my day with my smartphone. If you choose to go this route, I highly recommend turning it off before you lock it up, because if anything beeps, or a stray alarm goes off, you will not be able to take it out. By way of example, here is a list of what I still use my smartphone for:

  • Calling
  • WhatsApp
  • Ambient noise apps
  • Camera
  • Work out

That’s it. I have one of the most boring phones around and I think it’s great.

Civilization and Wilderness

I was back in high school, aged at most 18. During that period my family lived on the outskirts of the city near the Outlets and there I was, unusually, walking home at night along a side street flanked by a swamp and an overgrown plot of land marked for development for at least five years. In front of me was a mile from any human settlement and behind me, a half-mile-and-a-turn from the main road. For being not that far from the main road where cacophonous traffic jams reigned eternal, the side street was surprisingly quiet, its silence bolstered by the sound of crickets. I say “unusually”, because my house was so far out from anything remotely populated that I’d just be driven home from wherever I was instead, so how I even ended up walking home is beyond me. But as in most dreams, the coherence of the situation is ultimately not the point.

A taxi driver pulled up next to me and rolled down the window. I kept walking. He didn’t let up.

“Your father called me and asked me to take you home.” He replied.

It should have struck me as peculiar, but I didn’t think about it too hard. In some ways this was just like dad. He was always doing things for me whether or not I had wanted it, and knowing that I was walking home, alone and a mile from home? That just might be what he would do. This habit of dad’s was in equal parts endearing and irritating and in that moment, I wasn’t going to complain. It was dinner time. It was cold. It was wet. I didn’t care that the whole shebang made no sense in a hundred different ways. I had  been an excessively lucky and well-loved child. Nothing truly sinister had ever happened to me. I was eager to get into the car, but something stopped me.

“I’ll call him and ask.” I told the driver, fishing for my phone.

“Here.” Getting out of his car, he offered his phone with the number already dialed and ringing. I took it and he leaned against the car next to me. I turned away from him for privacy. My dad called him, so of course he would have dad’s number, I reassured myself. But wait. Glancing at his phone, I saw that it was the wrong number. I knew both of my dad’s cell numbers backwards. This was neither of them.

“That’s not his number,” I told him, giving back his phone and hitting ‘dial’ on mine. “I’ll use my phone.”

“Sorry. That was stupid.” He fumbled for a bit and offered it. “Here you go.”

I don’t know how I didn’t run for my life right then, but I didn’t. My phone started ringing alongside his. With a bit more hesitation I took his phone back. I looked down. It was a different number from before, all right. Just not my dad’s. Worse, my dad was not picking up. My suspicions were confirmed. Of course my dad didn’t call this cab. How would he know where I was in the first place for the driver to be able to find me? I didn’t have the faintest memory of communicating with him beforehand. The jig was up. I had seen through it. If so, why had the driver played along? He could have kidnapped me whenever he wanted, as it now seemed clear he wanted to do; so why this game? How twisted was this man? The jig was up, and the only variable left was whether he knew that I knew it. If I could play dumb there was one-in-a-million chance I could gain an advantage. While I weighed my options, both phones continued to ring. He was humming. The crickets were chirping. The sky darkened even further and the moon disappeared.

Can I run for it? I looked down the side street to my house which stretched into pitch black. One mile in one direction, at least half a mile in another. At this hour, there wouldn’t be any pedestrians who could help me on the main road. And frankly, having seen my share of the bystander effect in action, I wasn’t sure anyone would help me. I ran an eight-and-a-half minute mile- not bad by any means, but not good enough to outrun a car. I didn’t stand a chance. As I was psychologically coming apart, he stopped humming. I couldn’t hear crickets anymore. The silence, aside from the ringing that now sounded demonic, chilled me to the bone.

If I had distrusted him from the beginning and ran for it, what would’ve been different about my current predicament? Nothing. It was the two of us alone in the dark and there was nothing I could have done to make a difference. Our proximity to civilization, the very proximity that made me think I was safe, was surprisingly meaningless. I was in the wilderness. I was the game and he was the predator toying with his prey. Sick images flooded into my mind. What was he going to do? Kill me? Rape me? Sell me into slavery? Panic bubbled in my throat.

I cobbled together a plan even though I couldn’t shake the feeling he knew that I knew. I would pretend to call my dad again, but this time call the cops and threaten him with it. What were the cops going to do? I was here and they were wherever they were. I was just far enough from human settlement that if I screamed no one would hear me. I was screwed. In a split second I had crossed the faint line from perfectly fine to screwed beyond belief. My past life was over even as I stood there, severed from the present moment by an unseen chasm as wide as any canyon. I was just prey without any past and not much of a future. Chances are I will never see my parents again, never go back to my much-despised high school or attend the college I had fought so hard to enter. I was physically outgunned and tactically outplayed in every conceivable way. This plan had a fat chance of working, but I had to take it. I had to read his face. I had to know what he was up to. With a creeping dread, I turned to look at him as if in slow motion.

I never got to see his face. Like so many nightmares, this one ended prematurely. Unlike most, it ended in a particularly strange place: nothing had happened yet. But from experience, I knew that my nightmares tend to end right before the most terrifying event; what are the chances that this one is an exception? What did his face look like that my dream had to end right there? Here am I, an hour after waking up, still wondering.

Logos: Writing as a defense against chaos

Note: The “Sorting Myself Out” posts is a series exploring and implementing the ideas of Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson on self improvement and living properly.

As a follow up to my last post regarding logos, here is another facet of words as a means of creation of order from chaos.

“Words, words, words.” – Hamlet

This is hopefully a short(er) post. What’s the difference between writing things down and merely using words to think? Well, memory is fallible and limited, and abstract thoughts are hard to hold in your head and even harder to work with. I would often read a proof, understand it once, and forget it the next second. I’ve also experienced those dreaded “thought loops” wherein I try to solve a problem, make some progress in my thinking, neglect to write it down, only to have the exact same thoughts again. That’s not very useful if we want to think about a problem beyond skimming the surface.

Writing serves as an external RAM. Research shows that the number of bits of information we can hold in our working memory is pretty low (7 plus or minus 2 is the standard refrain), but life is often more complex than that. You can write down very complicated things, go to sleep, come back and build on them. This way, not only can you remember your thoughts, you can also see the broader structure of your arguments. Stuck on a proof or an essay? Put pen to paper. Don’t worry about doing it right or how it looks; just write things that come to mind. Liberally use circles, arrows and exclamation marks. I know some people call this “brainstorming” or a “mind mapping”, but a lot of those people also tend to complicate the whole process with all sorts of techniques and rules (you can imagine how I feel about Cornell Notes, but I digress). As I see it, I’m just pouring my brain onto paper and modifying as the need arises. I don’t try to make it resemble a map. Sometimes it is, but it can turn out to have any or no format at all. If you’re at zero, your tendency is to be stuck at zero. If you’ve written things that are even tangentially related, you’re infinitely far from zero. Often, an essay just writes itself. Momentum is serious business. Write something down, and order will emerge from chaos.

Writing has some next level anxiety-reducing, dragon-slaying and chaos-banishing properties. I can’t explain it. I would go so far as to call it magical, but then again, maybe it’s no accident that logos is such an important aspect of creation. As some of you know, I want to get my Master’s degree in a couple of months. Over the past month or so, I lost some sleep catastrophizing over how insurmountable the whole thing appeared to me. On one sleepless night, enough was enough and I sketched out a quick flowchart of all the things that must happen along with a bunch of remarks. First of all, turns out there are 12 very well defined steps to my degree. Secondly, my anxiety evaporated. Just like that. Once I wrote it down it was immediately clear, and I just went about doing it. It happened so fast I kick myself for not having done this months ago.

And lastly, it’s just convenient. How long does it take me to pack for a long trip? Half an hour. How? I just write down my packing list. Every trip is different for sure, but not so different that I need a new list every trip. With this list, packing is just mechanical. Realistically, how long would it take for someone to knock off items on a page-long checklist? Not very. Before I had this list, every night before a long trip, I would mill about. Pack some things here, change my mind there. Get distracted and go on the internet (thanks ADHD). Ruminate about what I really need on the trip. It can take hours if I let it. This is one of the ways to stop thinking and start doing. Think once, use forever.

So without further ado, here are some of the things I write down aside from to-dos, plans, assignments, etc:

Progress bars. Jordan Peterson says, compare yourself to who you were yesterday. How do I know who I was yesterday? I can write it down. The one on top is a progress bar for my record for uninterrupted concentration. Pretty pitiful, I know, but I have increased it by about 10 minutes and that’s a huge win! If you want to never doubt whether or not your efforts are working, track it. It’s also great for self confidence. One does not just obtain self confidence without competence, as Dr. Peterson put it. But this way, you can track your victories as they happen, and when you have bad days, you never have spiral into an abyss of hopelessness. Evidence of your competence is written in ink and nothing can take that way from you. It’s a visceral reminder that the pain and futility you feel are temporary. Find some way to quantify it. For instance, this is how I quantify how much work I get done, not by number of chapters read, but by number of (hyper focused) hours worked:

As Cal Newport would say, things that get tracked, get done. The trick is not track how much you manage to accomplish but the measures you can control, like hours worked. After all, it’s hard to control how many thesis chapters you write in a week- that takes however long it takes and attempting to control that could lead to despair and self doubt. Keep score and struggle to keep the streak going. And here’s one that will make your life easier:

A checklist of things I need everyday so I never leave the house and have to go back. The weird thing is I almost never refer to it. Not long after I wrote it down, it was burned into my brain. It might be due to one of the benefits of handwriting, but I would say that since I’m very partial to handwriting. I think it’s underrated, anyway. Next, useful information I might need to reference:

A someday list, whether it’s entertainment, or learning martial arts, etc. Anything you can’t do now for some reason. I write it down so I won’t have to remember, and the next time I’m stuck for something to watch or read, I consult this list. Next time when I finish a major project, I immediately embark on another one. If I get over the idea entirely, no problem; I just cross it off. But at least having written it down, I can stop trying to remember it.

I would also recommend, as David Allen (Getting Things Done) suggests, keeping an inbox for tasks that come to your mind but you can’t immediately do or schedule. Personally, I give it a page in my notebook, and if it fills up, I start an “Inbox II” and note the page number in my table of contents. It gets rid of a ton of stress because you can stop thinking about the task. And the next time you make a schedule, you can fit it in. I would review the inbox nightly or weekly, however. An inbox that builds up is no good.

A vision of my personal heaven (so I never, ever forget- come to think of it, a vision of my personal hell might be in order):

To wrap in all up, I keep them in a single notebook that I take everywhere. It’s become my external brain and a roadmap for when I need to be reminded of my purpose. Hey, if I don’t know what to do, somebody (past me, actually) has a plan that is aimed at my highest good- all I have to do is act according to it. That’s quite comforting.

If you’re concerned about how long writing takes, that really depends on you. If all you’re using it for is task management and self management, 15 minutes a day is plenty. I do it at the end of my workday to prepare my mind for relaxing in the evening. That way, all my tasks are recorded. No more worrying about my thesis; it’s all been taken care of and planned for. All play, all the time from 6 PM onwards. If you’re someone like me who uses writing to think, then it doesn’t take additional time; you were going to use that time to think anyway. This might come as a surprise to many, but when used as an utility (like my journal above), writing doesn’t take that long. When used as an outlet, however, time flies when you write: you enter into a state of flow wherein the sense of meaning and purpose you experience is comparable to listening to a good symphony. So hopefully I made a good case for it: if you’re not writing much, try it! 🙂

Recommended Reading

If you’re interested in the ideas I mentioned above, check out:

  1. “12 Rules for Life” by Jordan Peterson (no surprise here)
  2. “Deep Work” by Cal Newport
  3. “Getting Things Done” by David Allen

And I highly recommend checking them out. There’s no way I’m doing them justice here, and knowing more about them helps implementation immensely.

Well. That ended up being quite long.

Logos: Making a schedule you can keep

Note: The “Sorting Myself Out” posts is a series exploring and implementing the ideas of Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson on self improvement and living properly.

It always struck me how much Dr. Peterson discusses words and their power to introduce order to chaos and having watched the video above, I gave a earnest shot to negotiating with myself. It used to be that I would break out an empty schedule, look at all the work I have to do and try to fit them all into the next day as best I can. Anything left, I would put on the day after that, then the day after that, etc. I would visualize myself at the end of that week having done all that and predictably I’d have a huge grin on my face. And to apply Dr. Peterson’s advice, after a hard day of doing math, I said, I would reward myself: by reading a certain very hard (but great) book. That is something I really, really want to do! I negotiated, I thought. Wrong. I end up feeling a bit resentful, a bit put upon and certainly dissatisfied even I do manage that schedule. And most of the time I don’t.

Your Nonverbal Self

Studies on patients whose connection between their left and right brains was severed revealed that there is another personality within us, one that is nonverbal. The voice in your head is your left brain, most likely. And when that link is cut, then the two can act more or less independently. That’s when it gets very weird:

Standing in the supermarket aisle, Vicki would look at an item on the shelf and know that she wanted to place it in her trolley — but she couldn’t. “I’d reach with my right for the thing I wanted, but the left would come in and they’d kind of fight,” she says. “Almost like repelling magnets.” (Source)

By the way, her left hand is controlled by her right (nonverbal) brain. It’s interesting that Vicki identifies with her right hand- AKA her left brain. She thinks that what her left brain what’s is what she wants and more strikingly, she didn’t even know that part of her didn’t want it until her left hand started fighting her right. Her right brain, it turns out, can’t tell her anything. Is is that true of us too? Do we also identify with our left brain? It turns out, there’s at least one other you in there, and it’s not entirely clear that your verbal, chatty brain, let’s say, is any more powerful than the other you! And it’s sort of scary. This other personality has a huge influence over you, no doubt. But you can’t begin to articulate what it wants or what it’s like as a person.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe the bicameral mind theory doesn’t entirely explain why we can’t “control ourselves”. However what this makes clear is that our conscious mind is far from the only part of us that has thoughts and desires and many times we literally don’t know what we want until we act it out. For instance, I spent most of my time thinking that what I really want is good grades. When I binge on mobile games, that’s an aberration. That’s not the real me. That’s BS, of course. You are what you do most of the time, and if I play that much video games, I do want to play. Since my verbal brain is the only part of me I can really “hear”, thus I sit down to make my schedule I only write down what it wants. In hindsight it’s obvious why my well-intentioned schedules never work out.

Mindfulness and Self Talk

Now that we know there’s at least one other “us” and they can’t talk, how do we know what they want? Meditation is all the rage nowadays, whose benefits are supported by a host of studies. So naturally I tried it. I won’t say I’m an expert- far from it. But the central theme to meditation seems to be: pay attention to what’s happening right now, in all parts of our mind and body. Secondly, use words. Put names to things. If you feel something, try to identify it; don’t let yourself just wordlessly feel it. If you feel angry, tell yourself “I feel anger right now. I’m pissed and resentful, and here’s why, and this is what I can do about it” This is admittedly nontrivial; there’s a reason many try and quit meditation in frustration. But I posit if we want to know what our nonverbal selves want, it’s worth exploring. And this is where logos comes in: we can use our conscious mind to give a voice to the parts of us that are voiceless.

All of us know what it’s like to feel a compulsion, say, eat an unhealthy snack then realize after the fact (with some horror) that we did it. Clearly, a part of us wanted that and that part bypassed our conscious mind all together, which is why our inner voices never said, hm, a candy bar would be nice. If we can be more mindful overall, then we’d feel the compulsion and our consciousness can then identify it. “Hunger. I want to eat a candy bar.” Then we’d know a part of us wanted a candy bar. Then we can negotiate: “I know you want a candy bar, but we just had one this morning. What about tomorrow? Want an apple instead?”

Hindsight

Another way we can know is hindsight. Look at all the times you act “out of character”. What do you do? When you’re not on task, not doing what your verbal mind wants, what are you doing? What are some of the things you tell yourself don’t want to do but do anyway? Maybe I just enjoy stupid games no matter what my vanity wants me to think. Maybe I’m not as intellectual or ascetic as I thought, and maybe I should stop judging myself for it. This is how I found out I genuinely want to play that game. I play it a lot, in hindsight, and now I catch myself wanting to play it before the compulsion leads me to pick up my phone.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately I’m not saying we should listen to our nonverbal self and always let it have its way. But I’m saying, at least listen to it. Find out what it wants, put it in words and work with it properly, otherwise it’s going to get what it wants one way or the other, and the way it happens might not be to our liking. If what it wants is not totally evil or unethical, even if it goes against your self image (e.g. I’m an intellectual, therefore I’m going to spend all my time reading books instead of playing Candy Crush), then consider appeasing it in a mindful manner- at least some of the time.

Finally, I put together a short meditative worksheet to find out what we might really want, whatever that means. I just see it as a self guided meditation, really, but hopefully it offers some clarity. I write my desired vices on this sheet, and use these as my rewards to motivate myself. The PDF contains two identical pages because I prefer to print two A5 sized copies of it on one A4 page.

https://nofile.io/f/O7Nv42x7D71/Rewards.pdf

A Secular Case for Faith for Agnostics and Atheists

Note: The “Sorting Myself Out” posts is a series exploring and implementing the ideas of Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson on self improvement and living properly.
Have you met my friend Sisyphus? I heard he’s in hell.

The Big Question(s)

How can I get the confidence to act? If I make sacrifices, how do I know any of it is going to pay off? Is self improvement possible? These are different ways of asking the same question. We want to make sure our suffering will pay off. And I thought a lot about this question of “how do I know…”, and the only answer I can see is, you can’t, and if you sit on your ass and wait for an answer, your time might have already passed by the time it comes, if it comes, and believing that it even will is a weird sort of faith. So what now. What are we to do, realizing that there’s no reward promised, that there might not be a light at the end of the tunnel? Positive thinking? If you’re a skeptical person, saying “I will succeed” in front of a mirror doesn’t make it so and even when I tried that, I couldn’t believe it for a second. I’m a cynic and an agnostic, if you can’t already tell. Not everyone will succeed and a lot of them have tried positive thinking. Or making a schedule. Or any self help trick you can think of. They didn’t make it, and we don’t know why.

Sometimes you find a theory to fit the facts. Why did this person fail? He was unlucky? He didn’t try hard? Was he unlucky because he didn’t try hard, or did he not try hard from being demoralized by his lack of luck? Just because you manage to wrangle a theory into the container of circumstantial evidence, doesn’t mean it’s true and whatever your theory is, you can find real people to fit that. On the flip side, looking at people like Steve Jobs, who did, admittedly, work very hard, but had some undeniably lucky breaks, that’s also a mystery. And everybody has an opinion on why somebody succeeded or failed, and implicitly, an opinion about whether or not working hard works. And forgive my crudeness, but opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one. So in my humble opinion, we are doomed to ignorance, and no amount of looking around can lead us to an indisputable conclusion.

The Evidence

Case Study 1: Hard work doesn’t pay off

I know a lot of people who would say it isn’t possible and live like that’s true. A friend of mine found out I wake up at at dawn, and I tell him of my workouts and increased productivity during those wee hours of the morning. “Yeah,” he says. “You’re valiant alright. I did that for a time. You’ll see eventually. It’s unsustainable.” Ok fine. There’s no reason for me to doubt that the guy made an earnest effort. But I also know how he lives. He’s quite unhealthy, sleeps past midnight until late morning or early afternoon on weekends, doesn’t exercise, cannot retire anytime soon and at his age (much older than me), doesn’t know what he wants and in any case even if he did, doubts he can get it. We’re very similar, and it makes me nervous to be around him sometimes because I can’t help seeing my future self in him and at this point in his life, he seems to have given up on the whole notion that he can, well, live properly.

Anything he himself admits he probably should do: join a gym, quit sugary drinks, work harder, save for retirement instead of spending his discretionary money, marry his girlfriend, etc. he has a hundred reasons as to why he can’t or shouldn’t. And it’s easy to point fingers and say, HAH. That’s why he failed! He’s a quitter and I bet he was always a quitter! Maybe. But that’s presumptuous. How do you know? How do you know he hasn’t tried his damnest, only to fall flat on his face every time and is now too demoralized to lift another finger? Self change is impossible, for most of us anyway. This is what this evidence says, because I mean, is he even that unusual? Who doesn’t know someone who fits his profile?

Case Study 2: Hard work does pay off, but you’re going to pay through nose for it

My mother. Only because I know her well. So let’s talk about the most impressive person I have the inside scoop on. The short version is, she grew up in a dirt poor family in a dirt poor country, and her parents, looking back, definitely suffered from a small army of untreated psychological disorders. I lived with my grandmother for a time. She’s a bit messed up, and that’s probably mild compared to what my mom experienced. Tl;dr, Mom had it hard. Dysfunctional parents. Poverty. Depression. ADHD. Mood disorders. Crippling debt. Raised me alone for most of my early childhood (dad worked elsewhere). And worst of all, her emotional regulation was nonexistent and couldn’t afford therapy. My dad nearly divorced her over it. But you don’t need the gory details. Suffice to say she went from being a volatile, bankrupt trainwreck of a person to someone successful in all the ways you can think of. Hell, she’s even happy and even tempered.

If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith?

Matthew 6:30

If I didn’t know her that well I wouldn’t have believed it myself. She must have had some hack. We’ve all heard of people like that and if you’re like me, you instinctively think, well, they have something I don’t. Sure, they worked very hard, but they have luck. Or grit. Or money. Or providence. Substitute anything you like, as long as you can’t have it. But I was there. I saw it. There was no hack. She suffered for discipline everyday, without fail, and most days she saw zero or negative progress. Because of this she screamed. Wept. Raged against the heavens (not being dramatic. She really did). She had an unstable personality and a real affinity for nihilism. Some of the things that came out of her mouth when she was like that will make most people wince. But she sacrificed for twenty years like a woman possessed, and then she prevailed, dropping many jaws. Twenty years. I haven’t been alive for much longer than that.

The Conclusion

If you’re like me, you’ve done this. You look around your world and try to figure out why some people you know succeed, and some fail. All that is, of course, limited by what you can observe about them and what they will tell you, but you nevertheless try to form a universal theory based on what evidence you manage to gather. So what’s the result of this little exercise? To me, it’s inconclusive. And look, if you can repeat affirmations and it really works, do it. If you can make yourself believe, don’t stop. But I can’t be the only who laughs cynically in my head no matter how much I tell myself nice things in front of a mirror, so the following is for people like me. TBH, there are a lot of people like my friend and lot fewer people like my mother, and even if you can make it, it’s a decades-long slog as far as she was concerned. It’s pretty bleak. She didn’t know she was going to succeed, and people who knew her didn’t believe it. Maybe she’s just got “it”, whatever that means. If “it” exists and Steve Jobs had “it”, he didn’t know it at 20. He can make up a story post hoc all he wants. He could well say, “yeah, looking back, everything in my life proves I was destined to found the world’s most valuable company.” Proves nothing. Ultimately, you’re an individual. No matter how other people’s lives pan out, it says nothing about you, only your possible fates.

Most people read 4 books a year. The mean is pulled up by avid readers, to a paltry 12. CEO’s read on average 60 books a year and they’re much busier than you. How do I know this? Well, statistics. Also, my mom’s a CEO and that was how hard she worked; she worked even harder to win that position, like 10-13 hour days with Saturdays. Past tense intentional. She’s turned into a veritable human supercomputer by now, works way less all the while presiding over her company’s tenfold expansion. I’m really mystified, but anyway. Try reading more if you’re into climbing the corporate dominance hierarchy. If you walk like a CEO and quack like a CEO, are you a CEO? Not necessarily. But if I gather the people who work out everyday, read a lot, work a lot and wake up early (none of these things are easy), will I get an overrepresentation of CEOs, concert pianists, top athletes and intellectual juggernauts at Harvard? Or hell, even just averagely successful folks you wish you could be? What if you think, “I don’t know one way or the other, but I’m going to study successful people and do what they do and it’s probably going to work”? Because if nothing else, research shows that your self belief is basically a self fulfilling prophecy. That one, you don’t even need to have faith in; it’s borne out by data. There’s no guarantee that if you sacrifice like them you will be them, but if you do everything you can to end up in the same statistical category as them, you just might. And if you’re going to assume something, and you’re definitely going to assume something (I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t have an assholeopinion on this), assume that. That’s some kind of faith.

“Noted author and speaker Jim Rohn once said, ‘We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.’ Throughout your life, you can make a choice as to how you suffer.”

– Peter Hollins, “The Science of Self-Discipline”

Jordan Peterson (and all the intellectual titans who inspire him) exhorts us to aim for our highest good with the right sacrifices, because there isn’t anything else to do. What’s the alternative? Wallow in our resentment of the pain of living? Sure. That’s easy- in the moment. Because it means we can stay still for a little longer and avoid our demons for another day. But is it easier in the long run? If you had faith and sacrificed and failed, well, you failed. If you didn’t sacrifice, you failed. If you’d tried, as my SO would say, “at least you have a story for the bar.” Great. You’re marginally more interesting! That’s better than having no story at all. That few months of blood, sweat and tears you suffered to no avail? Probably not enough. Do more. Another month. A year. Five years. Twenty years. After you have sacrificed enough, only then will you know. And I’m not sure you can ever say you’ve sacrifice enough to reach your personal heaven; how do you know? You can’t. Life is suffering, folks, we all have to bear a load whether we like it or not, and it’s named “hard work” or “regret”.


PS: There is some scientific consensus to back up this faith as Peterson will gladly point out. I wrote with minimal reference to scientific evidence because when you’re in the trenches, you don’t have time to think about science; on a certain level it feels irrelevant to us. And it’s a happy consensus; happy and challenging, because being conscientious is not easy, and having high IQ is certainly not easy because you’re born with what you’re born with, but both these factors are somewhat within your control. Sleep well, eat healthy, exercise, don’t drink too much or do drugs; those are things you can do to maintain your IQ at your personal maximum. Conscientiousness is also trainable; for that, read “The Science of Self Discipline” by Peter Hollins.
PPS: If you want to know more on what successful people have in common, read Cal Newport or Covey. All of Newport’s books if you can manage it. If you’re a student, read “How to be a Straight A Student”. He’s interviewed loads of star students and they do very similar things.

Bullet Journal: An ADHD Introduction

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Why should you care?

You have a bunch of tasks/appointments/ideas in your life/mind (what’s the difference really? They all just end up being thoughts and stressors that float around your brain keeping you from focusing!). You would like to get them organized and even better, be able to temporarily forget about most of them so you can do one thing at a time. See the thing is, unless you know you can refer back to them later, have a place to dump them and process them so they’re still around, your mind will keep trying to remind you about them everywhere you go.

Say you have to do laundry in the afternoon. You wake up? Alright, gotta remember laundry. In a lecture? “… I’m bored. OH LAUNDRY. DON’T FORGET.” On the bus? “What station is- LAUNDRY!” If you relate to this, then I think you’re like the rest of us. If you don’t, well, teach me your secrets. Point is, unless you have a place for stuff like that you won’t feel confident that you’ll actually get to it, and if you don’t feel confident, your brain will nag you. So then you make to-do lists. If you’ve ever tried to get organized, that’s probably the first thing you make. And if that’s enough for you, then you’re on a waaaaay ahead of me and should probably be productivity-blogging for us laymen. If you’re here, it’s probably not everything you hoped it would be. This post is all about the system that claims to, and actually does a decent job at solving this exact problem.

If you’re wondering why I’m putting the cart before the horse and writing this first before you even know what it is, it’s because, that part’s complicated. But this part is simple. And enticing.

What is it?

There’s no better introduction than the creator’s very own, really. So I present to you, his YouTube video: 

And secondly, his website.

I know we have ADHD, so I’ll also do a short summary, to see if I can’t entice you into watching the video:

  • It’s a system to dump all your brain stuff. To-do’s, ideas, movies, schedules, etc.
  • It uses an easy shorthand, called “bullets” to signify what they are. Is it: A task? Random thought? Idea? Movie you want to watch? Appointment?
  • You have monthly and daily logs, where you dump all the relevant info and tasks you might want to associate with the day. Tasks, notes to self, reminders, whatever.
  • You also have a future log where you dump all your appointments.
  • That’s it! Then you can migrate, schedule or delete your tasks as you see fit.

Really, if you’re still interested after this list, please do check out the website. Ryder explains much better than I ever could.

Why this system?

That’s the million dollar question and I’ll summarize it thusly:

  • It’s cheap and easy to implement. I know there are very fancy journals out there, but to use it to achieve your goals, all you need is a notebook and a pen. It’s also simple and customizable.
  • I swear by it. I wouldn’t recommend it if I don’t. I’ve been using it for almost two years now, which is more than I can say for any productivity system I’ve ever used. And if you have ADHD, sticking by a system is probably not your strong suit.
  • It combines a lot of insights from other noted systems such as GTD and many experts (such as the esteemed Cal Newport) I admire use something to this effect.
  • I will go so far as to claim there’s science behind this method. Perhaps I will summarize the relevant results and studies in a separate post if there’s interest.

What are the drawbacks?

No system is perfect, so here are my difficulties with it:

  • As ADHD people, we struggle with routine. Using this system daily or nearly daily, then reviewing on a regular basis, say, a weekly or monthly basis, is crucial to getting the most out of it.
  • If you miss days, it will be obvious. The pages will obviously be blank. Your last entry will be a couple of days ago. It can be demoralizing. And if your ADHD experience is like mine, your whole life was sort of demoralizing at many points. This makes us want to give up. I will make a separate post addressing being demoralized.
  • Depending on the size of your journal, it can be hard to keep with you at all times. But if you use it heavily, it contains a lot of information you might want at your fingertips, such as your daily schedule or task list or brain dump. After all, I just advertised this method as a way to empty our brains so it can be used most efficiently, so it’s sort of a bummer if it’s not there when we need to brain dump. And believe me, I was very tempted to make scatological jokes, but I refrained. Be grateful.

How do I get started without needing to think?

Notebook: Leuchtturm1917 Dotted or the one closest to you

Pen: Any pen you don’t hate.

Fountain Pen (if that’s your thing): Lamy Safari.

Instructions:

1. Turn on Ryder’s video

2. Pen. To paper. Now.

3. A MIRACLE HAPPENS. YOUR LIFE IS PERFECT. UNICORNS FART RAINBOWS.

(I’m kidding about the miracle. You know that, right?) GOGOGOGOGO. Life is short. Time flies. Memento mori.

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You know what this says? Ya gonna to die one day. Mark my words. It might happen to me, but it’ll definitely happen to you.

Summary/Verdict

Should you still use the system now that you know the drawbacks? If you ask me, the answer is emphatically YES. For people whose medication is only moderately or slightly helpful, having a productivity system you trust can be your lifeline to sanity and escape from constant low grade anxiety. And as to the drawbacks I mentioned, I do not believe that any other productivity system is free from those problems as long as the user has ADHD, and even if the user is neurotypical. Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and all. And it really is outrageous. Come to think of it, has anyone ever told you life is hard? No? Well, then you learned it from me. 😀

Bad Days Happen, and That’s Okay: Part 1

We all have those days. We wake up late and having done that, realize that all our plans are shot. That run at 9 AM? Not going to happen, because it’s now 2 PM. And not only that, we instinctively know that everything that’s supposed to happen after 2 PM is now shot as well, To distract ourselves, we fire up YouTube. We manage to become engrossed and our troubles are temporarily forgotten. Then 10 PM rolls around and we haven’t had dinner. Holy shi*t. HOLY SH*T!! WHY DOES THIS ALWAYS HAPPEN TO ME? Now we’re freaking out from a combination of guilt and probably not having eaten anything all day, and because we’re freaking out and hating ourselves, we’re way too agitated to go to bed. Finally, after roundly freaking out for two hours, we go to McD’s for a quick dinner, surf the web some more, then finally get to sleep at 4 AM. Maybe tomorrow will be better, but considering how today ended, probably not gonna happen. The cycle continues.

Despite this, I posit that we really can salvage what’s left of our day, in spite of how badly it has gone thus far, and that the problem should be tackled both philosophically and pragmatically. In this post, I’m going to tackle the philosophical aspects of salvaging bad days. A lot of these ideas are taken from books I’ve read; I’ll cite them at the end if you want to find out more.

Mindsets for Salvaging Bad Days

You Are Not Your Emotions

Imagine you can read someone’s emotional states. Let’s call him Bob. And your only job is to identify his emotions as they emerge.

”Bob is agitated.”

”Bob is afraid.”

”Bob is pensive.”

”Bob is joyful.”

Rmemeber, you’re just a mind reader. You’re not to act on this knowledge; just name the phenomena as though you’re a scientist. And the cool thing is, you can be Bob, observing Bob! Humans are one of the only animals (maybe the only; don’t quote me) capable of something called metacognition, or thinking about thinking. It’s miraculous the way you calm down after you merely observe yourself. Meditation teacher Jeff Warren has a convenient acronym about exactly how to carry this out:

Recognize your emotions as they happen. “Bob feels angry.”

Accept your feelings. Don’t try to push them away or intensify them. Let them happen to you.

Investigate your feelings. What’s it like? Do you feel it in your body? If so, where and how?

Non-identification: Recognize that your feelings are not you and refrain from judging yourself for feeling- or not feeling something.

In short, RAIN.

One of the dangers of identifying and judging ourselves for our emotions is we enter a vicious cycle. Remember a time when you can’t sleep. Or you’re in pain. “It’s 3 AM. Tomorrow’s going to be awful. I knew it. I tried to sleep so early too! What’s wrong with me? ARGH! Great. Now I’m so stressed, I’m definitely not going to fall asleep in the next hour. Why do I always do this?” This is you using your metacognition for evil. You use your awareness of your emotions to insult yourself and rile yourself up even more. Ok. Maybe not evil. But at least it’s no good. Here’s why not judge your emotions:

“Trying to control the emotional self willingly by manipulative attempts is like trying to choose a number on a thrown die or pushing back the water of the Kamo river upstream. Certainly we end up aggravating our agony and feeling unbearable pain because of our failure in manipulating the emotions.”

– Shoma Morita, M.D. (Found in “The Art of Taking Action” by Gregg Krech)

In other words, you have zero control over your emotions. They’re not your fault. It makes no sense to judge yourself. They’re a force of nature. They happen to you. So how about this? When things go wrong, RAIN. Then RAIN some more, until you’re in this trance-like state of calm. Then you can wake up and get productive again.

Embrace Discomfort. Accept Pain.

The idea that half your day is gone, and that you’re probably somewhat at fault is painful. I know. But don’t let that get to you. Don’t try to escape pain or negative emotions. Don’t go on YouTube. Don’t give up. Feel the pain and do it anyway. This is not just for when times are hard, like today. This is for everyday. But especially for today, here’s a tip. You’re in pain. Let yourself be in pain. Do nothing. Do not pick up your phone or your computer. And don’t ask why bad things happen to good people. That’s none of your business for now. Maybe when you’re feeling scholarly. Simply sit and feel the pain. It goes away faster than you think, if you don’t judge it. Then when the pain has passed, read your schedule and pick up where appropriate.

I like to read. I read voraciously, especially on subjects such as philosophy and self help. A common theme I come across can be summarized thus: Life is suffering. There’s no escape from suffering. Embrace discomfort and face suffering with courage. This is not just a Zen Buddhist mantra; this idea is found in books with titles ranging from “The Science of Self Discipline” to “Deep Work” to “Meditations” (by Marcus Aurelius).

Discipline is never easy. At best, it’s like wearing wet socks over a long period of time. You know it’s unpleasant and you don’t prefer it, but you’re so used to it that you don’t necessarily mind so long as it doesn’t get much worse.

– Peter Hollins, “The Science of Self Discipline”

Yes, discipline is worth having. Pain is worth overcoming. Just don’t expect it to be cakewalk.

We’re Always Going To Have Bad Days

I think this serves as a compelling argument for why we should accept pain: It’s always coming. Now, I’m sure I’ve read a lot of philosophy to this effect, that life is suffering and so forth, but the following way of phrasing things is (probably) uniquely mine. It occurred to me after I had one particular bad day and was complaining on some ADHD chatroom: Bad days are always going to happen. Looking back at my own life, I realized that bad days happen quite regularly, almost like clockwork. I can be sure that once a week, I’m going to have a bad day; it used to be once every three days, but I got it down to once a week. That realization made me laugh out loud. I found it quite absurd how upset I’ve gotten every time it happened. Think about it. Film my life. Put it on fast forward. Add a laugh track and watch the same pattern repeat over and over and over ad nauseam. Something unexpected happens. I have a bad day. I get upset. I rage. I rant. I shake my fist at the heavens, sometimes literally. I don’t get any sleep. The next day is bad. Then the next. Then I get better for a few days. Ad infinitem. Come on. Laugh with me. It’s so predictable! It’s funny! It’s tragic! It’s a tragicomedy!

No matter how perfect our system, how disciplined we get, there’s no way we can prevent them from happening from time to time. Reducing their frequency? Doable. Eliminating them? Hah. As ADHDers we’re not the only one with bad days. Everyone has them. Bad days are a force of nature; they happen to everyone, and they’re going to happen again, mark my words. To everyone. Maybe it happens more often to us, but the principle remains the same. Are we going to have a breakdown over something that is definitely going to happen? If I’m the oracle at Delphi and I tell you that once a week, some random stranger will punch you in the face, how upset are you going to get, really, when it happens? Ok. You might be upset for the first couple of times. But since you know it’s going to happen, the more sensible thing is probably to grit your teeth and think: “Great. Here’s the weekly punch. Crap. This hurts. Well, that’s over. Moving on.”

So when we have bad days, it’s not necessary to think: I’m having a bad day. I failed. Okay. Maybe you did. But who doesn’t fail from time to time? Or maybe you didn’t even fail. Maybe you ate something bad, and subsequently you feel queasy, which makes everyone’s ADHD worse. Maybe having a bad day is a statistical certainty and given enough time, it will happen. It’s our weekly punch in the face. It’s not evidence that no effort you make is working, or that you’re not becoming more productive overall due to your efforts. There’s no reason to take this personally. Does this set back your plans some? Sure. Do earthquakes set back your plans as well? Definitely. So treat it like an earthquake. Not your fault, but you’re still responsible for salvaging what you have left and making the best for it.

Recommended Reading

Here are the books explicitly quoted this post:

”The Art of Taking Action” by Gregg Krech

”The Science of Self Discipline” by Peter Hollins- this is one of my clear favorites. If you read nothing else, read this!

”Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics” by Dan Harris (and Jeff Warren)

As for all the books that inspired the ideas in this post, well, there are too many.

In Part 2 we’ll discuss tricks to short circuit the downward spiral caused by our bad days.