Why read clickbait over longform journalism? Why use Facebook so much?
Screentime is bad, but the attention economy incentivizes our addiction.
I’m trying to reduce information overload. Here are some methods I’ve used for a while.
Thoughts on benefits, pitfalls, and other ideas? Hit me up at [email protected]. I’ll keep this updated.
The current list:
Body & Mind
- For complete blocking of ambient noise, 3M Peltor industrial earmuffs over in-ear noise-canceling headphones give the most reduction I’ve found in crowded NYC subways (around 40-50 decibels; to the point of being dangerous on the streets).
- Tara Brach’s guided meditations and podcasts are awesome for downtime and self-therapy during the week. Ditto for the Headspace and Waking Up apps, and biofeedback training using the Elite HRV app.
- Running to places to save time (I sweat a lot so buy technical clothing that dries fast).
- Using CitiBike as often as possible (clocked about 1300km in NYC in 2017).
- Training yourself to speak faster to save time in service interactions, like at coffee shops.
- Training in motivational interviewing, active listening, negotiation, and related techniques to improve outcomes and help in crisis situations (good practice: active listening & negotiation techniques when stuck on the phone with big companies).
- Building rituals for socializing: making a lengthy manual espresso at work, cooking, sauna, social dance (swing, forró).
- Sign up for LOT2046 to outsource decisions about clothing and apparel.
- Use Wirecutter as often as possible when buying products.
- Once a year: skim RSS feeds using Feedly, save to Instapaper. I like Longform’s curation service of high quality long-form journalism and essays.
- No TV, and about five movies per year. If I’m forced to watch movies/TV/other media, watch it at 2x (it’s a bit harder to follow at first on these faster speeds; start at 1.5x and work your way up). Ditto for podcasts and lectures: 2x saves a lot of time with little loss in retention.
- Every few months: skimming the top 20 posts of each day on Hacker News using HckrNews. And catching up on the recommendations from longform.org (it feels like a slower-paced, more intellectual news source). Interesting links go to Instapaper. Doing this in batches helps filter useful things from hype cycle fare.
- No news except for the Harper’s Weekly Review delivered to my inbox.
- Some podcasts (currently: Conversations with Tyler [Cowen], The Tim Ferriss Show, the Longform podcast).
- Soylent or Huel as a meal replacement, in those times when I’m about to get some unhealthy fried food because `I don’t have time’ to cook.
- Use Android’s excellent digital wellbeing features such as app timers and wind down.
- Many tricks from ‘This is your brain on mobile’ like no phone notifications and no social media apps. I’ve tried keeping the Chrome app disabled; ideally, I would root my phone and remove it permanently.
- Using a pay-as-you-go phone plan (right now, Google Fi). Paying for data by the megabyte helps prevent overuse.
- Using the kitchen safe to lock the phone during work hours.
- Two devices: a ‘work’ laptop and an ‘email/distraction’ device. This is currently a Macbook Air. The cost-benefit analysis of having two devices is worth it for me: I will happily pay a few hundred dollars for a bad computer on which to use email and gain hours of focused time every week.
- On the work laptop, permanently block Gmail and any distracting sites (using SelfControl with extended block lengths). Currently: only use email after 4:30pm every day.
- Looking at Rescuetime logs periodically and updating my SelfControl blacklist with distracting websites.
- Making all desktop backgrounds pictures of your aged face (through an app). This can add immediacy and help you make better decisions. Or a death countdown timer based on actuarial tables.
- Using countdown apps to keep the number of days to a big deadline visible every day. This can help connect your present self to your future self.
Devices in general
- Leaving all devices at work as often as possible. Then I’m totally disconnected and forced to read, be alone, and take a real break.
- On Facebook, systematically unfollowing everyone in the newsfeed (this took an hour of clicking, but was well worth it). An empty newsfeed is revelatory: if I’m truly interested in someone, I’ll go to their profile page.
- Keeping Twitter, Facebook, etc. blocked for weeks at a time helps build up tolerance to inactivity.
Benefits and pitfalls
When stuck I’m forced to go to lame sites (the interesting ones like Gmail and Hacker News are blocked). I can’t New Tab away from boredom and have to sit with the discomfort.
I’m getting better staying with this existential fear-of-failure crisis of ‘I’m stuck’. Paying attention to the discomfort helps; eventually it dissipates and interesting ideas appear. But this doesn’t happen if I’m constantly checking emails, sites, or phone notifications.
Severely limiting my information intake means I read more and get bored more often. It takes a few days to hear about big news sometimes.
How could information filtering be applied to the physical world? I’d love to see the collections at the Met, MoMA, and other NYC museums, but there is no time. I need a recommendation system for this equivalent to Instapaper or Longform. Museum collections and physical things do not have a ‘save for later’ feature. Adblock for the real world isn’t here yet (c.f. augmented reality circa 2020). Meanwhile, can we mentally train to avoid advertising?
If everyone used these weird hacks, no one would make money online and there would be no one to upvote things on Hacker News or Reddit; no one to ‘like’. These techniques might leave me more (or less) susceptible to filter bubbles, but it’s a fun experiment.
Do let me know about alternative ideas or things to try at [email protected]!
- Stuart Whatley on how smartphones cause anxiety and the psychology of boredom.