Just a bunch of things I’ve been doing to be more creative/focused/productive (and to spend less time screaming into the abyss)

August 16, 2017

Photo: Death to the Stock Photo

One of my big goals for the next few months is to recalibrate my relationship with my phone/social media/notifications/etc. Like a lot of people, I spend a lot of time looking at various screens, and while I don’t believe our phones are the root of all evil – like, I’m quite often reading books or consuming things on my phone that are genuinely helpful and good, and every time I see hand-wringing commentary from people fretting about the simpler times before smartphones, my response is some variation of “Get off my dick” — BUT I know that I’ve developed some not-great phone habits in the past year or two, and that’s what I’m aiming to reset right now!

I’ve gotten my media diet to a pretty good place (more on that in a second), but the thing I’m really thinking about right now is notifications and multitasking. I’m very available/easy to reach/responsive, and I worry that all the side conversations I’m having – some of which are absolutely a part of my job and can’t be avoided — are having an effect on my creative output. My thought is that I expend a lot of mental energy on texts, Slacks, etc., and that perhaps this steady drip-drip-drip of words all day leaves me drained, even though I’m actually not really producing anything. So I’d like to cut off as much of that as possible so that I can focus more, and, hopefully, publish more! I also sometimes lose an hour after I get home just scrolling aimlessly through Twitter/Reddit/blogs (…while also texting…) instead of reading books or doing things that truly feed my brain, and while we all need a mental break and some time to zone out, I am trying to be more thoughtful and intentional about when and how I do this.

So! Here’s my current plan/the rules I’ve set for myself for how and when I use my phone and laptop.

1. I don’t really check Twitter or Facebook anymore when I wake up, and I typically don’t respond to new messages first thing anymore either. Instead, I’ve been doing morning pages from The Artist’s Way — three pages, stream of consciousness, by hand, first thing in the morning. Like, first first thing; I write while I’m still in bed, per the author’s strong recommendation of doing it before you’ve had a chance to do anything else. I actually now get up about an hour earlier to do it so I can still get to work at my usual (early!) time, and it’s been going quite well. I’ll probably write more in-depth about morning pages later, but I’m mentioning here because it’s definitely keeping me from checking Twitter/FB/Snapchat as soon as I wake up, and by the time I’m done with morning pages, I find that the urge has kind of passed. (And I’ve also run out of time and need to start getting ready for work.)

2. While I’m getting ready for work (and sometimes also once I’ve started walking to the train), I listen to two podcasts: NPR’s Up First (~8-12 minutes) and NYT’s The Daily (~12-20 minutes). The podcasts ensure that I have the major stories for the day, but unlike when I’m reading the news, it’s impossible to read comments/click other links/get lost in a dumb rabbit hole. I’ll often catch up on Seth Meyers segments from the previous night at this point too, but it really depends on the day. I may spend a few minutes on Twitter or FB at that point, like, as I’m walking out the door, but it’s becoming less likely, and when I do go there, I’m not staying for nearly as long as I used to.

3. One of my big goals at the moment is to stop texting/reading on my phone when I’m walking to and from the train (because it’s just a really bad habit/a stupid way to die). I’ve switched to podcasts/audiobooks instead. This is definitely one where I still struggle, but it’s getting easier and I’m even starting to enjoy it. Getting good bluetooth headphones helped a lot; they make listening while walking way more convenient/pleasant. (Full disclosure: I got them from a PR rep like a year ago.) One challenge is finding podcasts I like (especially because I prefer ones under 30 minutes for these walks), but I’m definitely building out a little list. Also: I’ve been using the Overcast app for podcasts, and I love it! People always complained about the default iPhone podcast app and I didn’t understand why until I switched to Overcast. It’s great.

4. Once I’m at work, my *general* rule is that I don’t read any news or open the Twitter app until after 4pm; this has actually been my rule since January or so, and I cannot recommend it enough. If I do go to Twitter (or to FB) it’s mostly for a specific reason – like to Tweet something or to RT something a coworker sent me. But I’m well aware that the latest news story and all of the responses to it has the power to derail my entire day and it’s just so rarely worth it. If someone sends me something to read during the day, or I see something on Facebook or whatever when I pop in, I almost always Pocket it for later. (I read what’s in Pocket once I’m on the train, or later in the evening at home.) Sometimes I’ll check Twitter midday (like if I step out of the office for an errand, or while I’m in the lunch line) but I’ve been reducing that too. I…don’t miss it.

Now that I’ve stopped reading while walking, I typically don’t read much news until I’m actually on the train heading home, or even until considerably later in the evening. It’s fine. I am surrounded by media people and do not feel like I will miss anything important, or like I’m just opting out of the news entirely. I truly, truly cannot fathom getting breaking news alerts on my phone, or keeping TweetDeck all day. Like, what?! Why would you even WANT to???? Of course, this means at like 6 pm I’m often suddenly in a state of “WAIT WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?” because I’ve just checked Twitter for the first time and everyone is screaming and I’m trying to find the source of the story and then once I do, I’m screaming too, but, well…2017!!!

5. The big, very recent change I made: I completely turned off iMessage on my computer. Up to this point, 99% of the texts I’d get were going to my computer (lol @ the one friend with an Anroid phone). It’s been this way for, like, years, and every time I’d get a text, I’d get a notification, and it would break my focus/I’d respond right away. Basically none of these things were urgent, but I just couldn’t not respond. But I recently realized that Slack/email notifications are distracting enough; I just cannot have non-work notifications coming in too. I also was using iMessage as a distraction…because every time I’d see something funny or cool, I’d iMessage it to all of my friends (and coworkers) and then we’d discuss, and so I was just zooming between tabs — having the same conversation with like four different people at once — and just not working very efficiently. This was probably my the biggest nonessential use of my mental energy up until this month, and while I miss iMessage/texts, and some days it takes a lot of willpower not to open it up to send something funny/interesting, or to avoid checking my phone to see if I have any new messages, it was 100% the right choice to make. I just feel so much better already. I do check my texts/Snapchats/Insta once or twice a day during the day, but I try to do it when I specifically decide to take a break instead of doing it out of habit.

6. Work email is still a problem — if I see I have an unread email, I HAVE to see what it is to clear the notification (something I just need to get over, and I’m trying) — but I’ve never done the Gmail pop-up notifications on my computer, which I think helps a little bit. I probably need to be better about closing my Gmail tab while I’m working, though, or only checking at set times during the day. The thing that’s so stupid is that I’d estimate that like…85% of the emails I get every day are non-essential? I wish I could accurately communicate how many PR pitches I get to my work email, or how fucking annoying they are. I’ve been actively and aggressively setting up filters for each new one I get (mark as read, skip the inbox, file to “pitches,” or just mark as read, skip the inbox, delete) for the past several months; as of right now, the pitches folder where these filtered emails go has 6,837 emails in it. SIX THOUSAND. And this doesn’t include the ones that I’ve set to just delete. And yet I still get about dozen new ones to my inbox each day from people/lists I haven’t filtered yet. Meanwhile, I get maybe one good/useful pitch a month, if that. It’s a huge problem, but one that doesn’t really have a clear solution at the moment.

7. I aggressively curate my Slack channels/Slack notifications so that I’m not getting notifications for everything. This is still a major work in progress — I really do need to be on Slack most of the time, and I honestly just love Slack — so this is one of the areas where I’m still trying to make improvements. But at least it’s, like, actual work (ish).

8. Another new thing I started this month: as soon as I get home, I put my phone away, sit down at my desk, and do a way less intense/time-consuming version of morning pages. It’s kind of a post-work, post-commute brain dump and I have to do this before I can get comfortable with my phone. It’s actually been pretty useful because a) this is prime time to flop down and scroll/text for an hour, and I need something simple/straightforward to do instead, and b) because often get a big burst of creative energy/ideas on my walk home and then never DO anything with them. So writing by hand for 20-30 minutes (the goal is three pages, but in a relatively small journal) is really helping me get over the hump. Once it gets colder outside, I’m excited to add a cup of tea to this part of my day, and to my morning pages!

Also, if this all sounds like a lot of writing, that’s…kind of the point. I want to be writing more. I also don’t think it’s any more writing then I was doing in tiny bits before this…it’s just that it’s more focused and happening all at once, which is actually great.

9. If/when I have actual down time later in the evening, I’m trying to opt for actually-good-for-me activities for at least a little while at night…so things like doing a puzzle, watching a documentary, listening to a podcast, working on a a crossword puzzle, reading, watching segments of Planet Earth on YouTube, working out, doing chores, cooking, writing an email to a friend on my laptop (and ONLY writing an email on my laptop…not, like, also shopping on Amazon and texting), writing to my pen pals, etc. (I keep a list of good things to do in my journal, which is helpful to have handy!) I’m not totally anti-screen/anti-phone (at least not until right before bed); I’m mostly just trying my best to single-task, and to have a plan for what I’m doing vs. just scrolling and tabbing around aimlessly for hours until suddenly it’s bedtime.

When I’m doing these activities, I try really hard to be present and focused and not check my phone, or I only check my phone, like, every 45 minutes — which I know is not super impressive! But I am already able to stretch that time out to be longer as I get more used to it. (I also didn’t check my phone or email or anything else while I was working on this post, so…that’s something!)

10. If/when I do news at night, I try to be super intentional about it; I really like Vox Sentences and WTFJHT, and I may pick up stuff on FB in the evening, but, again, I’m trying to minimize my time there and cut myself off well before bed so I can actually sleep. I have an alarm on my phone that goes off at 10 pm each night to remind me to start winding down, and my phone automatically goes into Night Mode/Do Not Disturb at that point too. Once the clock strikes 10, it’s basically like, journaling/relaxing/melatonin/den time.

Of course, there are always going to be occasional exceptions to these rules (I simply could NOT calm the fuck down after that terrible press conference on Tuesday night), and the plan is totally a work in progress. In the next few months, I want to continue to figure out where to add and where to subtract, and also find ways to create more rituals. (So, say, having a cup of tea while journaling, or lighting a nice candle and putting on Leon Bridges every evenning when I get home, or making a point to read a poem every night before bed.) I also still basically never get up from my desk while I’m working except to go to the bathroom and meetings (though I do stand when my Apple Watch tells me to!!!) and that is…not a great habit. But I feel good about where I’m going with this, and with each new rule or habit that I’ve implemented I just feel…better? Like, each of these things has had a really soothing and sort of healing effect that makes me feel a little more whole and present and like myself.

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