How I stopped wasting my life and got it back. You too can.
I am a morning person and I wake up around 5 - 5.30 AM every day. Within minutes, I switch on wifi and connect to it from my smartphone. Bam! There are tons of notifications and email. I sincerely check each one of them. I reply to those pressing emails and slack channels. Mostly social media walls are my news feeds. Each post is varied and ‘feels’ to be very important. I read it one by one. There are those posts that will take to many other posts through their inlinks. I follow each one of them. After sometime, fatigue sets in and thought processing slows down. At this point, I take a break and set out to do some physical activity. I religiously save rest of the articles to my Pocket reading list presuming that I will read it when I am free. As the day progresses, now and then some nicely written post catch my eye and I am on it. Then something pressing comes up and I leave it either having read a fair bit or full of it, but without forming any actual thoughts on it.
This is a typical life of anyone in the age of smartphone. Click. Click. More clicks. But all for nothing.
Though we consume a tons of information, do we really sit back and think about it? The time we spend to concentrate on a topic, think and reflect upon it over a fixed amount of time is non existent. It has really been a long time since I sat back and let my thoughts form on an amazing blog post that I read a while ago. What I read a while ago is lost for ever. Nothing gained in terms of knowledge or skill. It has been reduced to a zero sum game and is a greatest trick that the devil ever played. Death of thinking.
Who is to be blamed? Each one of us. Why do we do this? Fear of missing out. We don’t want to miss out on that thing which might get us the lucky break. It might give an idea for a startup that we have been waiting for. It might make us look like a fool when we are not aware of a happening thing during a chat with a group of people.
At any given point, We all know what we can know and what we want to know. It is just that we have to apply from what we already know. We don’t allot time to process that. We consume and consume, but forget to produce and reduce ourselves to facts junkie. I am afraid where we will end up, if we just consume and consume but not produce. Probably in an asylum.
After some pondering, I started to do some experiments to get my life back on track.
Experiment #1 — Control how the days starts.
As soon as I wake up, I stopped peeking into my smartphone and never switch on wi-fi. Instead, I take a stroll outside my building and start jogging. Then I meditate for a while. Still no smartphone in my hand. Then I read some newspapers and a book. Now I take my smartphone for my allotted 10 minutes time. Then I get back to life, do some errands and proceed to office. After reaching office, I start replying to those pressing emails and slack channels.
Throughout this first experiment, I had a nagging feeling to get hold of my smartphone and connect to internet. Some times I resisted and at times I gave in. Initially, it was frustrating to let go. But gradually, it felt ok and thus became the new normal.
Experiment #2 — Avoid clicks while and after reading something
My second experiment was to avoid clicks after click. I read the same amazing blog post, step back now and then to process the information. After reading, I form my own thoughts and thereby ideas. Sometimes I might agree with the point of view but think further to have my own well formed ideas on that topic. At times, I disagree but with solid and rational counter points.
Experiment #3 — A file to note down little sparks
My third experiment was to maintain a spark file. I borrowed it from here. Often, while reading a blog post, talking to a colleague, taking bath or driving to office, there are barely formed little spark of an idea. Give it a minute, it is long gone from your limits of mind. It is like a developers eternal search for a reason for that line of code that they wrote a month ago. I decided to note down all such little sparks and revisit it often. When you revisit, some ideas might be laughable. But few ideas might connect and become something concrete. But very few ideas might take the air from the room and leave us completely silent, like Jony Ive said in his famous tribute to Steve Jobs. This blog post is result of one such idea.
Experiment #4 — Avoid distractions and practise 30 minutes burst mode
I love to do multitasking and in fact, I boast about it all the time. But for quite sometime, I realized that there was a serious dip in my productivity. I was frustrated and felt really bad.
I would be writing some code. Then I will be reading something from my pocket reading list and writing down an idea in my spark file. I would start playing a song. Suddenly, I will realize that I had digressed from writing code. At times, I will not remember what I was doing at the first place.
I confused distractions with multitasking. I decided to switch gears and started to work in bursts. I will work for 25 minutes straight with just the task in hand. Then take a break for 5 minutes. Then another 30 minutes burst. Every two hours, I take 10–15 minutes break and I go for a walk.This way I was able to maintain the momentum and enjoy optimal productivity.
During such bursts, there will be distractions that you can’t control. There will be meetings or one of those 100 other reasons. It is perfectly normal. Instead of trying to control it, just go with the flow and try to get back to 30 minutes burst as early as possible.
Experiment #5 — It’s OK to be bored. It’s the last privilege of a free mind.
Recently I visited my hometown which is a sleepy little town located in the southern coast of Tamil Nadu. I was not able to connect to internet for three days. Initially, it was difficult to comprehend. Back here where I migrated to make a living, I am connected to high speed internet every second of a day. I was bored throughout my stay there.
Likewise, occasionally we will feel bored. There will be nothing to do. We will be either crouching in sofa or curling up on the bed. For many years, I felt ashamed to be in such a state. I often found ways to keep myself occupied. I wanted to be productive every second of the day. I wanted to be engaged with one activity or the other. I was very frustrated if I wasted even a minute in a day.
Then I read this and was blown away. To sum it up, it says “Boredom is not a problem to be solved. It’s the last privilege of a free mind. Lean in to boredom, not your smart phone screen. You’ll learn more about yourself and the world around you than you think. You know the best antidote to boredom? Think.”
I decided not to keep myself engaged all the time. It is ok to be bored. Instead, I started to think when bored. I made peace with myself that it is going to take time to be successful. It is ok to take things slow. Everything in life can’t be a fast moving highway.
Experiment #6 — Practise no internet day.
Once I got back home from my hometown, I was thinking how it’d be if I practised the same, that is, No internet for a whole day. This day, I will strictly have it for myself. I can do whatever I want, except connect to internet or use any digital device. I will not pick up my smartphone or laptop unless there is an emergency. The frequency of no internet day can be per week or per month based on your comfort level.
In west, there are many attempts to do exactly this. They call it Internet Sabbath.
Experiment #7 — Practise silence every day.
Silence. These days, there is absolutely no possibility for it. I made sure that I practise silence for at least 15 minutes in a day. During this time, I usually meditate. You can go to a nearby park. The bottomline is that you can pick your own tool for practising silence. I am very early in the process. So I can’t comment with authority. But it sure has brought in much needed clarity and peace.
These are the experiments that I have done lately to prevent death of thoughts and get things back in control. My productivity has improved and there is inner calmness. All my experiments might not be possible to do at a stretch. You can identify a problem that you want to overcome and pick a corresponding experiment. Do that experiment and try to make it as a habit. If you want some help in creating habits, then follow the seinfeld strategy. In due course, after finding what works for you, you can create a variant of an experiment. I look forward to hear from you what worked and what didn’t work.