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.


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.

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?”


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.

Click to access 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.

A 5 Month KonMari Overview

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 someone with ADHD who has trouble being tidy for 2 days and has a load of bad childhood experiences due to being messy, believe me, the prospect of cleaning my room did not excite me. But hey, as JP says, there’s nothing easy about anything worthwhile and if I can’t even clean my damn room, there’s really no hope for me. It’s going to be a Sisyphean effort, I thought, resentfully, with gritted teeth. So being the master procrastinator that I was, I cast about for shortcuts and hacks, and found KonMari. And like most self help books, she promises lasting change (and I’m not saying all of these books are lying. Reading that in every book just makes you a bit cynical, that’s all). Whatever. If there’s some method out there to promises to make tidiness a bit less like pulling teeth, I’m giving it a shot.

The Big Idea

Her basic philosophy goes something like this:

1. We have a lot more than we need and can really stand to get rid of most of our stuff, even if they are unused.

2. To do so, categorize our belongings and sort through them one category at a time. Trust your feelings. Keep only those that you really like (Spark Joy).

3. It’s going to be hard, but it hurts a lot less than we think it’s going to, after it’s done. We won’t miss most of our stuff. Not at all.

4. After you’ve done your merciless culling, it’s time to take whatever’s left and designate a place for each item. With the possible exception of underwear and socks. In the case of these things, just fold them properly in a designated drawer. And each time, after you use an item, try to return it to its proper place.

The above is a very rough summary and I have to admit some parts of it made it sound bad or even unworkable. To remedy that I just direct you to her book. Sorry. I’m awful at this. But if I haven’t put you off the concept entirely, let’s skip to the ending.

Results + A 5 Month Update

So is it all that it’s cracked up to be? Let’s examine this in detail:

Am I still messy? Did it she fulfill her promise that you can do this once and have it be relatively pain free, ever?

This is one of my drawers and it’s been at least this neat for 5 months. I’m not saying this is god-tier neatness, but hey, if someone like me can maintain this, I’m sure you can do even better. So my answer is,

Yes and no. Don’t go around thinking that your troubles are over. That won’t happen. You’ll use your stuff and you won’t always put them back right away. Do you need to regularly put things back? Yes. But is it worthless? Is this a vicious Sisyphean cycle? What’s my take on this, given that I have ADHD, a disorder that’s almost defined by being messy? (Among other things)

A resounding yes. Do it. It’s worth it. It really does help and I can say this because it’s been five months and I used to be a complete basket case when it comes to clean rooms.

It actually does make life easier. For one, you know where everything belongs. But what if you can’t remember? Labeling.

I happen to have removable blackboard films, so I used them liberally.

Take removable tape, or blackboard film pieces as I have and plaster them all over your place. I just put my items directly on top of them; you won’t even see them most of the time. Now, I know exactly where each item belongs and putting them away takes seconds. It’s a mechanical, thoughtless process. Everything has been decided, so I don’t need to stand there stressing about where to put what, and whether that will create more clutter. After I declutter, I already know I will have enough space for everything; the whole process even becomes enjoyable. If nothing else, it’s now fast and painless. I think what bogs us down half the time is precisely because we haven’t decided what’s going to happen in advance, and when we’re on the spot trying to clean, we’re stuck over paralyzed over the best way to go. Having a premade plan that you can trust is seriously underrated. This is like automation in a way. The thinking’s been done. Just do it the same way, every time.

I’m not the world’s neatest person still, but I know that if I ever want my room to be neat and pleasant to spend time in, making it happen is almost as easy as snapping a finger. Cleaning my room no longer induces stress and horror, and as a result, I just… do it. Maintenance is, of course, required. Life is suffering and resting on your laurels is asking for trouble, but for the price of less than 15 minutes a day of putting stuff where they belong, your room can be sparkly.

Ok, but still, how?

Yeah. I get it. I just told you a whole lot but I bet the whole process still sounds very abstract. Fortunately, Kondo gets feedback like that too and she came out with a second book, Spark Joy, that is basically an illustrated how-to manual. It includes discussion of how to decide what to throw away, how to fold clothes such that when you remove something, your whole drawer doesn’t become a mess, how to fold socks so that they feel good as new every time, etc. If you feel good about this method, go ahead and get that book. You don’t need the first book I recommended. In fact, I find Spark Joy to be a way more useful book.

How painful is it, after having gotten rid of so much?

Not at all, actually. Your mileage may vary on this one, but after taking the plunge, I don’t even remember what I got rid of. That’s how much I didn’t need them.

How about her kooky bit about thanking the stuff you throw away?

Look at him. You can’t do this. You savage.

I have no real verdict on that one except, do it if it makes you feel better; it’s not as silly as it seems. I didn’t do it. I don’t believe objects have spirits or feelings. I can see why someone would. One thing I realized during the course of this whole thing is how much guilt we feel vis-a-vis our possessions. Yes, throwing away stuff that really needs to be thrown away, even if we haven’t used them, induces a huge amount of guilt. I’ve had people offer to take things they don’t even need off my hands once they found out I was getting rid of them because there’s something so sinful about letting go of something still useful.

I thought long and hard about why that is. Do we anthropomorphize our objects? I think we do. And when I throw away my stuff, especially if I bought them unthinkingly and they have been left unused for years, I do feel I owe them something. An apology perhaps. Especially if the object I’m getting rid of is a stuffed animal. I actually have this strange feeling that they’re alive somehow, and Kondo gets it. She recommends covering their eyes. That idea still makes me clam up as somebody who is completely defenseless against cute things. So in conclusion, do it if you must. It’s really not as strange as it sounds.

How long did it take? How much effort was it?

I live in a shared flat and only did my room (Kondo advocates against dragging other people along with you unless they’re on the same page as you- I think the same can be said for any self improvement project. Do not evangelize. Sort yourself out, and the world may follow). It took about two weeks to do everything; I didn’t do it everyday. I spared a couple of hours every couple of days, and that’s just my room. She estimates that for a whole house it would be something like six months. I got rid of bags upon bags of stuff.

During the process, my room was occasionally a mess. A real mess. And that’s a downside I just had to live with. But she advocates doing it as fast as possible, whenever you can spare time, and I can see why; you just lose steam if you drag it out. For me, it was relatively easy because I only had to take care of my room. I can’t comment on how it will be for you, but I don’t regret it at all.

In Conclusion

I’m quite enthusiastic about the method and can recommend it with a clear conscience. Am I saying you will get the exact same results, or even have the same emotional experience as I will (make no mistakes, it was quite emotional)? Not at all. Your mileage may vary. But for what its worth, I’m recommending it as something that worked for me and I can say without doubt that it’s changed my life in a very positive way.