TL;DR: “Type as quickly as you can and always carry a pencil.” — Clive Thompson.
When the late Iain Banks talked about the inevitable “where do you get your ideas?” question that authors are dogged by, he said, “we have exactly the same amount of ideas as everybody else – authors are just better at capturing them”.
Getting thoughts out of one’s head and onto something where they can make use of is an essential practice for everyone who works with their mind.
The moment when the idea or insight occurs is where every great inspiration starts where every new novel, screenplay, strategy and scheme either sparks into life or winks out of possible existence as if it had never occurred to anyone.
When it comes to meetings and listening to presentations I currently prefer a notebook over a tablet or laptop for taking notes. Actually, I’ll use a smartphone if it’s more discreet – say on a crowded restaurant table. I’m always careful to make it clear I’m taking notes, however – if people suspect you are attending to email or other things they can find it distracting and even a little stressful.
For focused note-taking, though, nothing beats the reliability and – it turns out – self-editing and précis skills required of physical note-taking.
This video of a short talk by Clive Thompson, a journalist who writes a great deal about how our minds work with machines, confirmed many of my suspicions about why I like note-taking by hand, as well as why when it comes to developing ideas and getting them down in a document, nothing beats the ability to type quickly.
Since watching this I’ve got the pencils and sharpener he talks about finding as a result of his obsessive search for the best example of each. I can confirm that they are fantastic.
This post comprises notes on a work in progress – a drive to reduce tech-based distractions and learn how to use personal technology help me get things done more effectively and with less distraction and stress.
There is only one red dot on my smartphone now. It is to remind me to do things with things coming out of my mind not out of my email inbox. It’s for an app called Drafts, which effectively has become an inbox for my mind.
If you put in the effort to decide when the dots and pop-ups appear, then you can use them to support your goals, not nibble away at your reserves of willpower, attention and time.
That’s why I like the one red dot I’ve introduced back onto my phone.
At first, I thought Drafts would be a distraction – another text app, a sub-genre of productivity software of which I cannot resist trying out new examples. Then, as I tried to minimise the number of apps on my home screen – down to a maximum of four on the menu bar – I discovered its unique strengths.
The default screen when you open Drafts is a blank page. You write down your thoughts, notes, reminders or whatever and you can then send them to the app they are for or leave them there until you’re ready to process them.
This removes a friction in one’s workflow I’d not noticed before – deciding and finding an app to write in, post in or whatever. When you’re getting a thought out of your head and into an app you’re often on the move, or int he middle fo something else. You don’t want to start using an app and slip out of flow or walking and start doing something else – you just need the thought to be captured.
The notes are in an inbox which you can then process later. That’s where the red dot is useful – to remind me I have some notes that need to be sent to where they will be most useful. An email goes out via the email app using the share function or a list of options in Drafts (it will format it straight into the app with the first line becoming the subject line). An idea for a blog post goes into Ulysses Inbox, the draft of an idea into Slack to share with my team, the list of things to remember into Reminders, the sketched agenda points into Trello.
Image: The operations options for Drafts – these can be changed to the apps you use most.
I’ve been trying this out for a week, and it seems to be very useful. My ways of working don’t often stay the same for long – but this one feels like a small leap forward in personal workflow.
Image: A satisfyingly minimal clear home screen and dock.
Maybe we need to stop thinking of change as something that needs to be managed, an awkward event that comes along every few years and upsets everyone who was getting on just nicely as they were.
But how? I wrote some things about this for CMO.com. Part of the answer lies with data that helps people quickly understand, communicate and display the value of their work:
Reframing and offering data that helps our people explain their value and their status within the organisation could act as an antidote to less useful ways of expressing status—presenteeism (“I am here all the time and super busy”) and attachment to a particular job title or role that may not be useful after the next wave of change hits.
In Cal Newport’s Deep Work, he describes how email and other always-on busy-work can act as a replacement for really valuable work in organisations where the value of what someone does is hard to measure or express:
Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner. This mind-set provides another explanation for the popularity of many depth-destroying behaviours. If you send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems like Hall within seconds when someone poses a new question, or if you roam your open office bouncing ideas off all whom you encounter—all of these behaviours make you seem busy in a public manner. If you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviours can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well.?
Could it be that the mystery of the productivity gap – the lag between companies investing in technology and workers’ output increasing – can be explained by email and messaging apps allowing appear-to-be-busy-work while simultaneously tempting us with distractions and ludic loops in social media and games that erode our ability to do the work that would really make us happy and our organisations more successful? Whilst it is too simple to think solely in these terms, there would seem to be a case for further investigation.
With productivity seeming to be an economic and management mystery, perhaps using data to measure value to the individual and the value that the individual creates would help change behaviours. Not to spot where shirking – accidental or otherwise – is happening, but to inspire and reward behaviours that are more useful.
Like newly hatched chicks they chirrup and gawp, those little red dots having a similar cognitive effect on us to a chick’s open beak does for its parents – except we cough up some some attention instead of food.
When we get a new phone (or a new OS upgrade on one) there’s usually some mucking around to get the settings how you like them. Most people turn off the sound alerts for most things – few of us need a whooshing sound to let us know that set an email has indeed left the device, nor do we feel the need to annoy anyone in our vicinity with micro-clicky noises indicating we have successfully hit a key on an on-screen keyboard.
When it comes to turning down the volume of distractions coming out of mobile devices, we are left with some fairly basic, binary functions: you can turn on flight mode or some variation of “do not disturb”. As soon as you decide to be fully online though, it is apparently open season for any of the tens of apps you have installed to interrupt you with such vital news as they have a new feature, update or just – for goodness’ sake – that you haven’t used them in a while.
The author of Your Brain at Work, Dr David Rock, says that the habit of checking mail – and we can infer any other social app or icon on our devices which sees fit to display a red dotted plea for attention – can be so strong that we literally see the signal, open the app, scan the mail and begin responding before we have had a chance to think about it.
So how to avoid the red dots and attention traps of mobile devices? I use three devices on two ecosystems – each loaded with admittedly too many apps, so I’m an extreme case. My first move was to remove apps with red dots and alerts from my home screens altogether – leaving just things for reading or listening to music and podcasts there.
Recently I have gone further – removing the red dots and number of new messages from everything except texts messages and phone calls (the channels of urgency and last resort – either closer friends and colleagues or people who need to get in touch quickly will try these). Nothing gets to call for my attention until I am ready to see what’s going on in the world of that app, network or channel.
Perhaps we need to be more considerate about interrupting ourselves, allowing ourselves to be distracted…
Phone calls in the middle of movies or dinners or meetings are disruptive and – unless there’s some real urgency to them – extremely antisocial. When mobile phones came along it took us a little while to work this out, but soon turning them to silent and generally resisting the temptation to answer them became norms. When it comes to email and social media of various kinds, we may still be working out those social norms and the parameters of acceptability and usefulness.
It’s not just about social situations, though, it’s about the effect of these devices and apps on our ability to think clearly, focus on important things and manage our emotional well-being (constant connectivity can burn you out, raising your allostatic load – the stress hormones in your body).
There’s a useful question we’ve started asking since we started looking at all of this: who responds fastest when the other shouts for attention – you or your phone? Who in that relationship is the servant and who is the master?
I hope we’ll see device manufacturers offering an addition to airplane mode and do not disturb: low distraction mode – a selection of levels to tune in to how open to being interrupted we are. I’ll tell my phone when I want to look at email, Twitter and Facebook updates, thanks.
Meanwhile, although it is a little bit fiddly – you need to delve into too many apps’ settings – I highly recommend modifying your device to be low-distraction – red dot-free, as it were. Give yourself a little more peace, allow yourself to develop the habits that work for you around how you use these amazing connected tools we have suddenly found ourself using.
There’s a metaphor lurking about how a healthy diet of information and communication requires discipline and new habits. Like the past few generations of people in the West who have suddenly had access to literally all-you-can-eat sugar, saturated fat etc., we are having to come to terms with information-rich, distraction saturated, dopamine-firing, fascination on demand.
The result of all this de-distraction-ing of my devices was apparent immediately. They feel calmer, there are fewer triggers for bad habits or giving too much attention to Twitter etc (gorgeous as it is). It helps me to be more purposeful in my use of apps and my mobile device (“purposeful” being one of the three themes of Mobile Mastery we’ve been exploring at Brilliant Noise).
The most important part of this equation for me is mindfulness, combined with a sense of personal responsibility. If things aren’t feeling right, if you’re feeling stressed or anxious when you’re using social media or any technology, you need to acknowledge that and do something about it – take a break, declare email bankruptcy, try growing some new habits and ways of working. The responsibility is with each of us as the user to make sense of the amazing opportunities to learn more, think faster, connect more ideas that the web and mobile devices offer.
Despite having at least four other devices with Kindle apps on them at any given moment at home or work, my reading weapon of choice is the Kindle Paperwhite.
I rip through books on it, lose myself in them fast and deeply. Two reasons: first, there is less pull from the web and apps; second, the little “time left in book” statistic in the bottom-left corner seems to help me focus. The effect of the latter is a little like using the Pomodoro technique – it gives a sense of manageable scale and progress through the text. There may also be that effect some drivers report of their satnav’s estimated time of arrival at a destination – the temptation to beat the computer’s prediction.
For my money, there’s a far more immediate danger to the quality of our in-brain memory: that old op-ed page demon, distraction. If you want to internalize a piece of knowledge, you’ve got to linger over it. You can’t flit back and forth; you have to focus for a reasonable amount of time, with mental peace. But today’s digital environment rarely leaves you any such peace.