Hi everyone. Thanks for reading the first newsletter. This week I have been reading "Stolen Focus" by Johann Hari. The topic of the book is our diminishing ability to focus. The author wants to reduce his time on social media and takes a complete break from the internet, just to come to the conclusion that it is impossible to fight against a system that wants to see you fail (and come back to their social media platform). The book is great and the writing keeps you turning the page. This topic (reducing screentime) has been on top of my mind for a while, which is why this book made such an impression on me. In this newsletter, I will share my main takeaways.
what I have been thinking
I have been trying to detach myself from all the screens I own for a while now. It is pretty difficult, but I'm making progress. I don't recall what exactly triggered this change, but I have a theory. In February of this year, I left my corporate job in IT audit and started working full-time on my podcast and newsletter. The podcast was already going for three years, so the switch wasn't that big. Multiple companies sponsor the podcast and the newsletter also had a couple hundred paying subscribers. These cashflows are enough to make a living and since the contracts with sponsors last for a year, I don't have to worry about next month's finances. The most difficult thing was to cope with the abundance of time. Talk about luxury problems. All of a sudden, I had 32 hours of free-to-decide-what-I-do-with-it time. It was what I always wanted, but I ended up spending most of it on TikTok, Twitter, and Youtube. By the way, I didn't discover these websites when I quit my desk job. I practically lived on these platforms when I worked in corporate. The thing is: it just feels worse to waste your own time than your bosses. Treating time like a commodity is also something I resent, but I will come back to that another time. Spending time on these platforms reduced my ability to focus on one thing for a longer period. Whenever there was a slower scene in a movie, I would grab my phone. I would grab my phone while cooking, working, talking, and eating. What also bothered me was the neurotic opening and closing of random apps. I wasn't even looking at the content, just opening them in some sort of dopamine craving. This feeling was familiar to me since I felt the same thing when I quit smoking. After spending a few months in self-pity, I decided to make some changes to reduce my screen time to improve my focus on things that are worth my time and attention.
make unwanted behavior impossible
Many of you may know Odysseus as the inventor of the Trojan Horse: a smart idea that led to the defeat of the Trojan army by the Greeks. Another interesting story happened when he traveled back home after the Trojan war. Odysseus and his crew had to travel past the island of the Sirens. These creatures, half-woman, and half-bird, sang a beautiful song to lure ships to their island. But instead of a warm welcome, the boatman were greeted with death. The ships would crash on the shallow rocks after which the Sirens would suck the soul out of the bodies of the doomed boatman. Odysseus wanted to hear the song but didn't want to die, which reminds me of the first time I found out about Friday by Rebecca Black. The solution was simple: Odysseus would tie himself to the mast and instruct his crew to fill their ears with wax so that they couldn't hear his pleas. The plan worked perfectly and Odysseus was able to hear the beautiful song without crashing his ship. In other words:
The you that exists in the present – right now – wants to pursue your deeper goals, and wants to be a better person. But you know you’re fallible and likely to crack in the face of temptation. So you bind the future version of you. You narrow your choices. You tie yourself to the mast.
How do we tie ourselves to the mast? The first thing that comes to mind is to just remove all distracting apps or downgrade to some old pre-smartphone-era phone. Change the Wi-Fi password. Tie yourself to the mast, nice and tight. The problem is, you can't. While quitting cold turkey is a common strategy to stop smoking, the truth with the apps on your phone is that you can't completely ban them from your life. I know I can't. I make money on social media, I need e-mail and a calendar and honestly: I love memes, videos, and smart tweets. If you want to know how an addict sounds, re-read the previous sentences. So if stealing grandma's phone isn't going to work, what can we do? When I stopped smoking it helped my addicted brain to take small steps. One thing that helped me is the realization that removing an app is not the same as removing your profile. I removed Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, and Facebook as well as some news applications. When I want to visit these platforms I simply use my laptop. Turns out that visiting LinkedIn once a week is more than enough. Another measure that I implemented is to put my phone on do not disturb mode permanently. I added exceptions for my girlfriend and business partners. Most people can wait until I call them back and app notifications are by definition not important. The result is that I'm not unlocking my phone to see if there is a new notification every 10 minutes, like some salivated dog that is conditioned to get a cookie when the bell rings. Leaving your phone at home when you go for a walk is also a great way to get detached from it. Being disconnected and unreachable made me feel a bit anxious, so I bought an Apple Watch to be able to make calls when needed. Turns out you never need it. Apple Pay is a gamechanger though, I never take my wallet anywhere. It is funny to take a walk and feel your addicted mind crave dopamine. You will tap your pockets multiple times during your walk, only to find that your phone is not there. This will make you feel uneasy, ashamed, and liberated at the same time. In addition to the last tip: leave your phone in another room when you sleep. This tip alone saved me two hours of screen time every day (probably more if I counted insomnia due to the blue light that the screens emit). The only screen that is allowed near my bed is my e-reader. Not having your phone next to your bed is also helpful in the morning, because I don't think is healthy that war, death, and anger is the first thing you see every day.
find your flow
Think of something that you enjoy doing. And by enjoy, I mean really enjoy. You enjoy it so much that you lose track of time. Something that challenges your abilities, but is not so hard that you get anxious. An activity where the outcome is not really important, but the process of getting to that outcome is. This feeling is caused by the flow state. This state of being, named by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, can be described as:
The mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
Don't know about you, but sounds like a place where I want to be. And while turning off your phone puts you on the right path, it is not enough to get you in the flow state. For that, you need two other things. First, you need to work on one thing at a time. People wrongly think that they are able to multitask, but we are not. Multitasking refers to computer science and people are not computers. Second, work for long stretches. Give yourself time to get in the flow. I have to admit, in a world filled with instant distractions, this feels a bit weird. Concentrating on a single task for fifteen minutes sometimes feels like an hour. But believe me, with some practice this will get better. Mostly. There are some flow shortcuts that have helped me a lot. Some activities are not that hard to perform but can bring you into the flow within minutes. The first one is exercising, and the second one is reading.
turn on the meat grinder
My brain is a meat grinder. All the things that I see, hear, and smell are thrown into the grinder. My ideas, struggles, and problems are added to the mix as well, together with all the other impressions that you gather during the day. To process everything, the grinder needs to be turned on. If it isn't turned on, it doesn't process anything. When I don't turn the grinder on I feel like shit. The thing about the grinder is that you can't speed it up. Looking at it doesn't help either. You need to turn it on and wait. I like to take a walk while I'm waiting. During my walk, the grinder will give me nicely packaged ideas and thoughts worth pondering. The grinder even connects different ideas and impressions with each other. I like to think that creativity is not coming up with new ideas, but linking old ones with each other. Making new connections. The only way to do that is to turn on the meat grinder.
Sounds like I got it all figured out right? Well, I don't. This is really hard stuff, especially since there are thousands of smart developers tinkering on the social media platforms to lure me back in. I also understand that some of the tips are not really helpful for everyone and that my situation is quite unique. I still think it is worth a try. Let me know how it goes.
what I have been doing
• I have been reading about Alphafold, the AI from Google's Deepmind that apparently had an enormous breakthrough last week.
• My plants didn't survive the winter. Some of the presumed dead plants actually rose from the dead, which I took as a sign to start caring for them again. I bought some extra green friends to accompany the old ones.
• Knots are magic. If you don't believe me, watch this clip on Twitter.
• When I write or read, I like to listen to instrumental music. This piano-only playlist on Spotify does the trick.
• I read the 6:20 Man by Edward Ashton and I would not recommend it.
I will send this newsletter every Tuesday from now on. See you next week. Don't forget to subscribe. Cheers,