"If you want control, you have to redesign your own relationship with technology".
If I could point to a single problem that is almost universally shared in the 21st century it is our unhealthy relationship with phones and screens.
Our monkey brains crave novelty and our smartphones offer us what Jake Knapp, the author of "Make Time", calls "Infinity Pools" - programs that offer endless opportunities for novelty which stimulate our brain with dopamine and other feel good neurochemicals.
This addiction is at least tangentially related to a bevy of problems that we see today that either didn't exist in earlier generations or were less severe:
- Attention spans are globally lower compared to before the advent of smartphones (1). This seems to be especially prominent in little kids who, unlike adults who grew up without cell phones, never had the opportunity to develop an attention span.
- Anxiety, depression and suicide has doubled since 2007 among teens who describe themselves as heavy consumers of social media (2).
- Obesity rates have increased dramatically over the past 15 years (3). This is likely due to the fact that we are more likely to be sitting around using screens as our main form of both work and entertainment.
A large part of that, according to the author of Make Time, has to do with the fact that our default "operating system" is such that we let technology control how we spend our time instead of consciously using technology. The fact that we tend, on average, to check our phone an average of 90+ times a day strongly indicates that we are hardly even aware when we are doing it (4). That is the behavior of an addict.
We all intuitively know that we should change the default setting of how we interact with our phones but we can't just rely on willpower to change this habit; that evil little red notification button basically screams "Pay attention to me now"!
The two most important recommendations from this book to change our default setting and reclaim our time and consciousness are:
- Make a single highlighted goal for the day. Have one item that, if accomplished, allows you to mark the day as successful. If you choose the single day's highlight then you can derive immense satisfaction and you can make sure that your energy and attention are devoted to the single most important thing. Most of the things we wind up doing in a given day are not tasks that we consciously choose. By having a highlight you are saying "here is one thing that I consciously choose to accomplish today".
- Delete or hide social media and the internet from your phone. We aren't constantly checking our cell phone to look at Google Maps or Seamless. If you hide the 2-3 most addictive apps you create just enough friction so that you won't reflexively check your phone.
I implemented the second idea immediately and have hidden Instagram and Safari from my front page. I still have Spotify and my library books app but those two apps don't make me constantly reach for my phone in the same way. The difference has been enormous; I normally watch YouTube videos on my commute but since doing this I have been reading more. The fact that I am now writing this blog more routinely indicates that I have more free time and focus to do something I want to do but hadn't consistently accomplished.
Obviously it is too soon to declare this experiment an unqualified success but I am cautiously optimistic that this change in how I deal with my phone will continue to lead to positive 0utcomes.
The first concept though, the idea of making a single item as my highlight I can say has been a game changer right off the bat.
I tend to make lots of lists and most of the time I am lucky if I get half of it accomplished. My feeling had been "better to get half of it done than none of it done" but that is not particularly satisfying of an approach to looking at life. But choosing one thing to do for the day as my highlight has given me a nice satisfying feeling every day since I began to implement this program. My current highlight is usually related to achieving a writing goal - it is the single thing I want to accomplish that I have the most resistance to starting. But by making it the highlight it forces me to say "today will be a success WHEN I get some 15 minutes of writing done".
The nice thing about that goal is that it is simple enough for me to unequivocally say "yes I have accomplished this" or "I have failed to accomplish it". Every day I have had a different highlight but the focus on writing has been much greater even when I don't set my highlight to be writing.
The author of Make Time has a very nice permissive writing style. The ideas are all written in the style of "hey you might want to try this... see if it works for you... change it if you think you can make it better". The "try it on for size" kind of approach is very inviting and makes attempting this not intimidating. Other systems of time management that I have tried have required far too much precision from me to succeed.
I think that there is a bit of padding on some of the other ideas compared to the insane amount of value I got from the two ideas that I have outlined. This makes sense; you can't sell a book just based on 2-3 suggestions. Many of the 100 other ideas are interesting (Knapp seems to have strong opinions on when to drink coffee) but I doubt I will try and implement the other ideas anytime soon. The challenge with having lots of ideas in a book is that you are likely to be overwhelmed with the number of ideas and either never try them or try too many of them and fail.
Despite this small negative I think this book is imminently worth reading. At approximately 300 pages it is fairly short (I finished it in 2-3 days during my forty minutes of daily commute time) and doesn't require a tremendous amount of mentally taxing thought to complete. Everyone could benefit from the act of setting a daily highlight regardless of your level of personal ambition and absolutely everyone with a smart phone would benefit from creating just a little bit of friction to keep us from routinely engaging in the shallow pleasure and time sinks of social media.
If you want to read more about the Make Time process check out the author's website.
If you are interested in the book you can find it here.
- Accelerating dynamics of collective attention. Nature Communications: https://rdcu.be/c1GBr
- Children's hospitals admissions for suicidal thoughts, actions double during past decade: https://publications.aap.org/aapnews/news/8333?autologincheck=redirected
- Percent of adults with obesity: https://usafacts.org/data/topics/people-society/health/health-risk-factors/obesity/
- Americans Check Their Phones 96 Times a Day: https://www.asurion.com/press-releases/americans-check-their-phones-96-times-a-day/