Focus Better with Minimalist Tech

Avoiding the Mall of the Mind

For today I thought we’d get away from the serious and the dark and the thoughtful and talk a little pragmatica. Specifically, in my own attempts to get off the Gravy Hose of social media, I’ve decided to try a few lifehacks to improve focus, and I thought I’d share them.

Gray's Moleskine schedule circa 2010
Weird sense of pride when I look at this…

What you see to the right is an artifact of my early days of Getting Things Done and productivity porn. It’s based loosely on Mike Rohde’s “GSD” moleskine hack, along with having my weeks planned out. Every Monday morning I would sit there with a red pen and a ruler, obsessively counting out the squares as I outlined the week. You can also see some letters across the top of each day: B A L E R T S. Know what those stood for?

Me either. For the life of me, I can’t remember what the acronym was supposed to represent. I do know that the E was for Exercise and the S is for Sit (as in Zazen) and I think the was for Learn…but I can’t be sure. Basically it was a way for me to remind myself to try and do these kinds of things every day. I’d cross them off as they were accomplished, and I’d end the day with something like B A L E R T S . I could then see patterns in my week, and see that I wasn’t getting enough E R T (or whatever) and take steps to remedy that.

Now that I think about it, I believe was for Think and was for Relax.

On the right hand side was a to-do list, with the upper part generated either every morning (or earlier in the week if I knew I had to do something) and later tasks added in as needed. By the end of the week, each task box would have one of three marks in it: a check for a “done” task, an X for a cancelled task, and a straight line with an arrow for a task deferred to the following week. It’s loosely based on Mike Rohde’s PlannerHack and Bill Westerman’s “Getting Sh*t Done” systems, and it worked well for over a year. It’s kind of fun to look at the old books and see what I did back then, who I did it with, and who I still do things with.

Of course, like much of the rest of the world, I eventually moved to my PDA (well, actually I was a PalmPilot user from way back, but this was a return to paper). The advantages of being able to update my calendar, to schedule repeating events, to have alarms automatically configured, that was all wonderful and grand…but there was one thing that came along with the iPhone when I started using it as a planner.

The Gravy Hose.

Focus is Hard in the Food Court

You may have heard of the technique of a “Memory Palace” if you’ve read the Hannibal Lecter mysteries or been a fan of the Sherlock Holmes BBC series. It’s a technique for storing memories, for being able to remember things with focus and clarity.

I have found that when I go to my phone to try and remember things – such as a date or time for an appointment, or a location – I end up in the Mind Mall. That is, like the shopping malls, there are all kinds of shiny things all around that grab my attention. Some of it is useful, some of it is just pretty, some of it just invites me to come and stare at it for a while. I can get lost in the stores like Twitter and Tumblr, looking at all the nifty items on the shelves (an ever-replenishing inventory) or I might just spend some time window-shopping on Amazon or eBay. Unfortunately there’s also a post office in the Mind Mall, and often I’ll end up there looking through the slush pile of junk and old and new mail, trying to sort through and reply to them. Eventually I’ll remember that I only came in to see what time lunch was going to be next Wednesday…but by then it’s too late, I’ve already interrupted my day/flow/etc. Because like most contemporary malls, it is designed so that it’s hard to find your way out.

That didn’t happen with the Moleskine. I would open it up, taking pleasure in the feel of the book, the paper. I would see the familiar strokes of my own handwriting, and be taken back to that calm place of planning earlier in the week. It was an actual sense-memory, and anyone who has put a good pen to fine paper knows what I’m talking about.

So my first thought, when thinking that I needed to get away from the Mall of the Mind and the Gravy Hose (my god, when will the metaphors stop?) I considered going back to the Moleskine planner. However, that implies carrying more stuff. It implies adding new tasks to the week (when drawing out the grid) and it involves purchasing something else during a season that I’d rather be purchasing things for others. Like my daughters & grandsons.

Amish Einstein

I decided instead to go with Plan B – which, I’m fully prepared to admit, may not work. But the fact is that my web development clients demand that I be somewhat accessible by phone and email. I just want to make sure that I’m only using it as needed. It’s much like a combination of the Amish regard of technology and Einstein’s view of complexity: I want the technology, but only as much as I need to use, and I want it to be as simple as possible, but no simpler.

I examined my phone habits and noticed a few patterns. For example, I don’t call people very often, but I do send a lot of texts. I like to tweet, and I would like to tweet more (especially to @luvlifepractice). I also use Maps a lot (especially now that Google has released an iPhone version) and tend to have to check my schedule more now that I’m juggling more family time.

So now, rather than have an iPhone screen full of apps:

An unorganized iPhone
This many icons make it hard to focus on what I’m looking for.

 I have an iPhone screen with only the apps I use the most:

Iphone screen with hokusai background and three icons
What if turning on your phone not only promoted focus, but also peace?

Now, the astute observer will note that down at the bottom there are other screens, which probably hide other apps. Yes, that is true; I haven’t removed all the chaff from the wheat, and there are also some other items (such as the Mercury Browser, Omnifocus, or the WordPress app) that would also want to have handy.

But handy does not have to mean in my face. When I need to check my schedule, I don’t need to have twitter and email and safari also only a tantalizing fingertip away. It’s much the same strategy as dieting coaches will suggest when they talk about planning your grocery shopping and avoiding the aisles with cookies and such.

The Right Tools

I’m not going to go on too much about this, because it has just started (in terms of a lifehack) and who knows, perhaps it won’t work out. But I do need to rave just a bit about Agenda and Drafts.

First, Agenda is simply a beautifully simple and clear calendar application. As much as Apple and Google have their stuff together when it comes to design, looking at a day calendar that looks like this:

Agenda for iPhone
Simple. Elegant. iPhone Agenda.

…is just a pleasure. Simple lines, clear layout, and it hearkens back to the days of the physical calendar (speaking of which, Moleskine desk calendars? AWESOME!). It switches quickly with the swipe of a finger from individual events to daily/weekly/monthly views, with color-coding for calendars and even some one-tap reminders (via SMS or email) to participants for events.

One Text to Rule Them All

Drafts for iPhone
Functional. Simple. Drafts for iPhone

And the last thing I’ll talk about in this far-too-long post about productivity is the other app in my dock: Drafts. This relates to the policy Chris Brogan suggested a while back, of sending things out to social media all day long, but only consuming it in smaller doses. Drafts is just that: a text editor. It opens with a keyboard in which I write something. The fact that it’s in a beautiful font with a soft sepia undertone also helps (remember back to that sensual enjoyment of the Moleskine) but really it’s the speed and convenience. I write something, and then with a touch it asks me where to send it. Is it a text? An email? A tweet? A to-do for OmniFocus? A reminder? Just a touch, and a merry beep later it’s taken care of. With no temptation to read through other messages, other emails, other feeds.

The Gravy Hose has been muzzled.

Now, it’s not a perfect system. I can’t see how to send photos with messages in Drafts, which is crippling to an augmented Grandpa like myself. And I’m still not convinced that there might be more peace of mind with just the pen and paper and notes.

And the Mall of the Mind is still only a screen flick and a touch away.

However, for now, it’s at least a more mindful choice to go into it. It is no longer just a reflex, and by taking away that ease of access it somehow makes it easier to say “no” and stick to task, for just a while longer.

I’ll keep you posted as to how it goes. Meanwhile, any success in tempering your own Gravy Hose? To the comments!

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