Using technology to combat technology overwhelm

I get overwhelmed with technology easily. It’s ironic really, given I spend an awful lot of time staring at a computer screen. If you’re reading this, then you probably do too.

The overwhelm comes from a mix of things. Being an early stage founder and having too many things to get done at any one time. My first company was even an attempt to bring order to the chaos. But it also comes from how computing and software has evolved.

Software has mimicked the advertising industry. It’s all about competing for your attention and maximising the profit. We, as humans, only have a limited amount of attention, and when you have folks who have perfected the art of abusing human nature (i.e., making them addicted through frequent dopamine hits), then we’re fighting a losing battle.

The advent of the smartphone only made matters worse. Instead of having lots of notifications to deal with on your computer, you have them in your pocket too, and in ever increasing numbers.

I’m an advocate of software which automates away the need for self discipline, as opposed to abusing our lack of it. I changed my financial life by automating the most important parts (paying bills, putting money aside for savings and investing). Yet we still largely rely on self discipline to get the important stuff done. We build habit trackers to monitor how we’re performing against the habits we want to create, change and shift. Remembering to use your habit tracker is a habit that requires building in of itself.

Every book that I have read on writing, artistry and creativity can be distilled into a single piece of advice. Show up. Yet showing up is totally dependent on the self discipline to do so, thus is broken should your environment not allow for it.

The amount of things we have to choose on a daily basis is ever increasing, and we’re not buiilt for it. Choice paralysis can be too difficult to overcome. We default to what is easy, and what is already ingrained. I’m considering this because I’m trying to figure out how to solve it, and have a hunch that we already have.

In the 90s and 2000s, Windows programs were renowned for utilising “Wizards” in order to help the user set up the program. They’re step by step questions and instructions you have to answer in order to proceed to the next step. They’re an attempt to guide folks with less technical know-how to make decisions and ensure success.

Wizards are a protocol for success with that program.

What if we utilised this protocol for success with whatever habit you are trying to create? What if your computer could do all the hard work for you, and ensure “first you must do this, before you can do that”.

To take a trivial example and apply this thinking. If showing up is the most important part of any creative endeavour, how might one build a Twitter audience? By tweeting content regularly, and interacting with other users. Your Twitter experience should be tailored to this requirement. Before you can browse, first you must contribute. Once you have contributed, your browsing experience could be limited based on your further contributions in the sense of replying, retweeting, liking. Then, and only then, would the full Twitter experience open up to you.

Self discipline is no longer required.

To consider the downside, is to consider the additional drop off that would occur. We're no longer optimising for the dopamine hit of impressions and engagement. If you had to jump through all these hoops to get to them, would you bother?

That's a positive question.

Reflecting on such an outcome gives a moment to recalibrate priorities. When the friction of jumping through the hoops is too great, it is not of high enough priority.

To extend the example further, we could design routine protocols to ensure you are getting everything you need.

Consider where we are now:

  • Your watch reminds you to stand up and to drink water
  • Your computer shifts into Dark Mode independently of the environment around you
  • Your Sleep Mode comes on at the same time every day, regardless of what you are doing in that instant

Your devices are forcing behaviour upon you as opposed to leading you there. They are contextless and ignore your current state. I can't remember the amount of times I have been in a flow state to have it interrupted by Screen Time.

These reminders and changes should be based on the environment you’re in, the activities you’re currently undertaking, along with what you are trying to achieve.

For me, the morning protocol should not start at 7am everyday. It should start from the moment I wake up. This means my device should not automatically shift into Light Mode and enable notifications until I am ready.

If you’re trying to build a writing habit, your laptop should be a brick, aside from your writing software until you’ve written 500 words. After which, you may need to ensure you’re keeping up with the latest industry news, so you should be prompted to do so after you’ve achieved that goal. The transition from task to task should be considerate to your flow too—if you’re still typing, you should not be prompted. Only when you have run out of gas should the transition occur.

You can see how this develops into entire routines. Sets of serialised activities that can reduce the need for self discipline and help you develop the habits you've been longing to build all this time.

I tweeted recently about my MVP for this. A series of templates for Roam Research. While they work in theory, they fall down the moment I don't center my work around Roam. This happens frequently enough that the experiment has failed.

To counteract this, I'm envisaging a way to ensure Roam opens every time I open my laptop. To ensure it's there, waiting for me as the first thing I see. Roam becomes the visual que to kick off my routines.

I can see this developing into its own application. One to guide me throughout the day, understanding the context in which I'm working, so as to avoid poorly timed interruptions and context switching.

For now, I'll keep going with my Roam based prototype which I've shared the templates for on its project page.

5 mins to read