Observations and advice on navigating the ever-changing digital landscape.

How Are You So Organized?

Antidotes for Distraction in the Digital Age

Reading Time: 6 minutes

If you’ve ever seen my immaculately clean desk at work, or my meticulously organized apartment, the first thing you’ll likely say is, “Whoa. How are you so organized?” If you somehow made your way into my digital home, you’d likely be asking the same question.

Clean Space, Clear Mind?

There is something to be said about how organized someone’s living and working spaces are, and how that can often be a manifestation of their psyche. In fact, a Princeton University study found that the more clutter in your field of vision, the more you’re going to find yourself getting distracted. Most people think that organization is about freedom from the burden of superficial excess, but it’s actually about inner freedom (liberation of the mind).

Photo by Norbert Levajsics

This borderline obsessive level of organizational discipline is not some gimmick though — it’s the way I’ve learned to cope with my ADHD, and a subsequent brain that is maladapted for the domestic, sedentary, delayed-gratification knowledge-worker-life I now live.

But if you’ve never struggled with tending your metaphorical digital or analog gardens, you’re probably wondering how this relates to you. So let’s reframe the question from earlier: How do we free up our brains to focus on what’s important? How do we prevent technology companies from exploiting our visceral impulses and derailing us from our pursuit of real value and meaning in life?

“I had always thought my ADHD made me different from others [but in reality] my condition simply forced me to address something early on that has since become a common malady of the digital age: a lack of self-awareness.

In the most connected time in history, we’re quickly losing touch with ourselves. Overwhelmed by a never-ending flood of information, we’re left feeling overstimulated yet restless, overworked yet discontented, tuned in yet burned out.” Ryder Carroll, The Bullet Journal Method

My belief is that through self-awareness and an understanding of how our (lizard) brains operate, we begin to uncover how technology can work both for and against us. And armed with that knowledge and perspective, we can put systems and processes in place to keep us on track with what’s truly important to us.

Hunter vs. Farmer: A Short Background on ADHD

Explaining the ADHD Brain, Attitude Mag

The prefrontal cortex is one of the more evolved areas of our brains — it governs the more-uniquely human cognitive functions (like predicting outcomes, or making short and long term decisions). If the brain was a series of roads, and attention, behavior, judgment, and emotional responses were all cars on it, then the prefrontal cortex would be the intersection which all of these vehicles drive through. For the neurotypical brain, all of these cars abide by traffic lights and stop signs. For people with ADHD, there are no traffic lights, or stop signs.

During hunter-gatherer times my brain would have been well suited for “an ever-changing environment where the dangers were as unpredictable as our next meal” Richard A. Friedman, A Natural Fix for ADHD. In this modern era, in order to remain a functional, semi-successful member of society I have had to come up with a series of “mental hacks” to circumvent a brain that is only interested in novelty and short-term gratification.

“You see, ADHD is obsessive, and we don’t get to choose what we’re obsessed with. It’s not a conscious decision and it’s not based on our personality. It’s whatever our brains want right this second.” Gekk, ADHD - A Lifelong Struggle

In reality, having a brain like this has just forced me to confront earlier what others are experiencing now with exploitative, extractive technology.

How Certain Technology Exploits Our Base Instincts

Attention is now the world’s most valuable resource. During most of man’s current epoch, big business was concerned with exploitation of natural resources (oil, natural gas, rare earth minerals). But with the advent and maturation of the internet, they discovered that extraction of our attention was exponentially more valuable to them.

Under the guise of “connecting the world” or “organizing the world’s information”, certain misguided megalomaniacs have morphed their platforms and technologies to leverage our deeply embedded survival instincts against us. They prey on our need for approval (to be accepted by our tribe) with their “like” counters. Their intermittent reward systems have turned our phones into slot machines. Their algorithm-driven feeds calculate that the invoking of negative emotions (anger, jealousy) keeps users more engaged, so they show us more and more upsetting content with no regard for psychological or societal consequences.

So, while I can’t call up Zuck and try to talk some sense into him, or email Jeff and ask him how many small businesses he’s going to trample before he decides to call a quits. I can give you some tips and tricks that have worked for me, and together we can take the power back.

Lights at the End of the Tunnel

Here are a few practical tips for common productivity problems that I’ve learned over the years.

Struggling with procrastination?

Commit to doing something for 15 minutes: If at the end of those 15 minutes, you’ve had enough - that’s fine. The key is getting over that initial hurdle.

Struggling with self-control or staying on track?

Create a sense of urgency and accountability: Use a pomodoro timer. I recommend Be Focused for digital folks, and a Time Timer for those who prefer analog.

Or have software automate the blocking of distracting websites for you: RescueTime offers FocusTime in their premium subscription, Self-Control, and Intention (for Chrome) are both free alternatives.

Turn off all notifications except from people. Visit Settings > Notifications and turn off all notifications, banners, and badges, except from appsMessaging apps like WhatsApp, FB Messenger, Signal, Telegram, WeChat etc. where real people want your attention.Take Control, Center for Human Technology

Mindlessly scrolling through social media, or watching Youtube videos?

Create some “consumption hurdles”: delete social media apps off of your phone, and just use the browser version. Adding some friction to the experience will make it harder to get hooked. Removing these apps also means less distracting, petty notifications.

Setup ScreenTime on your phone and put limits on whole categories of apps, or add custom limits to specific apps/websites For example, I set a 30 minute daily limit of YouTube.

The Ivy Lee Method

Struggling with prioritizing? Too many things on your plate?

Create some constraints: use the Ivy Lee Method. Which says: at the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow (no more than six), in order of their true importance. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the next one. Repeat. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.

Struggling with time management? Or planning how long things will take?

Create some structure: time block your calendar. “Time blocking is the practice of the practice of planning out every moment of your day in advance, and dedicating specific time ‘blocks’ for certain tasks and responsibilities.” Jory MacKay, Time Blocking 101

Struggling with burnout?

Create some boundaries by taking breaks: Aware puts a timer in your menu bar showing how long you’ve been using your computer uninterrupted without a break.

The Pomodoro system calls for a long-break after completing four 25-minute sessions.

Struggling with keeping track of everything you need to do? Trying to keep too much in your head?

Develop a single “capture” system that you trust: Try out the various “input-capture and processing” systems (BASB/PARA, GTD, Bujo) and find out what works best for you. If you’re just starting off, the value of having a single system (that you trust, and will consistently prune/organize) is that you will know where to look for things in the future when you need to find them.

My “inbox” (or ubiquitous quick capture system) involves a mixture of dumping thoughts, tasks, notes into Drafts or Field Notes, that then get processed and transferred to Roam Research.

Reduce cognitive load: (ie. the amount of things we need to remember) Offload minutiae to digital systems. Both Next Meeting, and Fantastical will display your next meeting in your menu bar.

Struggling with digital clutter?

Use Bartender to clean up your menu bar, and Divvy to maximize your screen real estate.

Most importantly: take care yourself

Make sure to slot in recovery time on your calendar.

Remember that stress and anxiety are evolutionary protection mechanisms.

Be compassionate to yourself (and your brain). Be mindful that “the negativity bias is a survival mechanism [that looks] for all the possible dangers (predators) and possible negative outcomes - and protects us from them”.

Exercise! Find an outlet for that (negative) energy. When your body is in fight or flight mode, don’t try to suppress it.

Practice mindfulness: I use Sam Harris’ Waking Up app on a daily basis. Calm and Headspace are also good alternatives.

“What helps is to fully feel [a] feeling. In the body. Understand the stories that it generates in the mind. And to be able to hold all of that with some measure of kindness, or at least willingness to be present with it. And then it can move through us. The Fake News of Your Own Mind

How Are You So Organized? - July 7, 2020 - Justin Mather