“Oh damn, my bad,” I said, bumping into an older man with white puffy hair on my Bucktown sidewalk. The dude looked baffled that I accidentally nudged his shoulder. His mouth was agape as I was staring into my iPhone, looking at my emails, trying to multi-task and get ahead on the day.
Shit, startups are non-stop. How else would I be productive without multitasking? He must know that, right?
He glared and said, “Keep your head up perhaps?”
“I think you are right. My apologies again.”
He scuttled by me and I looked back to my phone.
I still had work to do.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is a professional futurist and has a Ph.D. in the history of science and is a former Microsoft Research fellow and a visiting scholar at Stanford and Oxford. I was reading Brian Johnson’s Optimize notes on his book, The Distraction Addiction and a quote I loved popped out at me:
“We want our technologies to extend our minds and augment our abilities, not break up our minds. Such control is within our reach. Rather than being forced into a state of perpetual distraction, with all the unhappiness and discontent such a state creates, we can approach information technologies in a way that is mindful and nearly effortless and that contributes to our ability to focus, be creative, and be happy. It’s an approach I call contemplative computing.
Self-Improvement Productivity Tip #1: Beat Your Monkey Mind with Meditation or Self-Awareness
When you get to the free throw line in a championship game, you don’t get out your cell phone and check your email.
No, in fact, that is outrageous to even think about, but then why do we treat our moments in startup life any different? Getting into deep work mode means focusing on each shot, each to do list item, and this distraction-free habit means more time to do what you enjoy later.
Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist monk says,
“The monkey mind is crazy: It leaps about and never stays in one place. It is completely restless.”
I had an encounter while traveling in Costa Rica this year. These goddamn monkeys ruined my peace of mind with their incessant chatter and howls, yet here on my couch, I get distracted just like those monkeys. My mind chatters and whatever stimulates me, I go for it. I read it. I check it. I watch it. Instead of doing deep work and staying distraction-free, I let my monkeys eat, howl, and peel their bananas freely.
How do we beat the monkeys?
Meditation and deep breathing. These are the primary tools for teaching your mind to be less monkey, more Buddhist, more efficient, and thus more productive.
“The great computer scientist Donald Knuth gave up e-mail in 1990, declaring that while e-mail is a ‘wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things… my role is to be on the bottom of things,’ to do fundamental research that required ‘long hours of studying and uniterruptible concentration.’” ~ Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
You want to stay on the surface and do shallow work, or do you want to get focused and do deep work? Put the phone away. Most workers have incessant interruptions and this ruins productivity.
RUINS IT, YOU MONKEY!
Maybe try to start your day with monkey-mind-ending meditations (more on this later) and see how much more you get accomplished and then every time you reach for your phone, ask yourself, “Is this the time to grab my phone while I’m trying to hit the game-winning shot, or not?”
Self-Improvement Productivity Tip #2: Tap into Your Vagus Nerve
Before every professional and collegiate basketball game, I would shut my eyes and meditate for 30 minutes. I did this because of the way it helped me play and focus. My anxiety would diminish and my fears would slowly recede.
I felt invincible on the court after doing practicing this meditative breathing for 20 years.
I would breathe deeply, shut my eyes, while feeling the sensations in my body and allowing the thoughts to float. Good or bad, just be the leaf on the river’s surface. Flow with the breath. And with each deep inhale and exhale, I’d ask my muse of expression to surface later in my work.
What I didn’t know was this practice of breathing and calming has a proven science behind it. The vagus nerve is attached to everything and it starts in your brain. Your practice of breath is the body switch that turns off the flight or fight response. Instead of raising your heart rate, you slow it. Instead of raising your panic or fears, you control it.
This happens with the oldest self-awareness practice in the world: meditation.
Yet, the next time you work on your computer, notice how you hold your breath while you work! Bet you do! Email apnea is a real thing (Alex says), so focus on your breath while you work. While you play. While you eat. Before you sleep.
Practice breathing deeply and slowly and Alex says you’ll reap the benefits of a twenty-five-hundred-year-old answer to the twenty-five-year-old problem of digital distraction.
Self-Improvement Productivity Tip #3: How Do We Best Use Technology then?
We humans have always used technology. The axe. The pick. The shovel. The flint. The stone. The wheel. It’s not that tech is the main problem, it is the awareness and contemplation of how we use it, how often we use it, and why we use it.
If we reflect on technology, we must reflect and ask ourselves, how do we use it to help us express the most productive, creative, focused, engaged, and empowered version of ourselves?
We must reflect, record our actual online social distraction usage, and find technology that helps us reach our potential rather than destroy it.
It’s about choosing and using technologies that help you build habits and cognitive abilities that externalize and thus reinforce mental capabilities.” ~ Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
I mean, the hand ax was made 1.8 million years ago, and I still use a good ax for chopping wood today. Do you think Twitter will be around 1.8 million years from now?
Then why do you use it or check it so much?
Self-Improvement Productivity Tip #4: Use Smart Technology Ideas to Better Yourself
As a pro basketball player, I wondered what technology would help me become better and more efficient and productive on the court. I mean, at the end of the day, the better I played, the more I got paid, and the more freedom that would allow me in the future.
Now, I know this has nothing to do with startups or business, but here is a piece of sports technology that helped me get better and reach new levels on the court. Why?
Because it helped me focus, get more reps, and it also tracked my efficiency.
There is habit tracker technology that helps you focus on your self-improvement protocol.
Freedom helps blocks websites and distractions.
Set your clock timer and work without distractions until it goes off (hint: try for 20–30 minutes at first).
Self-Improvement Productivity Tip #5: Self-Awareness in Contemplative Computing
Contemplation, reflection, and fashioning your life for higher levels of focus help you reach your potential. My life as a pro athlete taught me there was very little wiggle room for me not reaching my potential day in and day out. The 1% improvements I made every day grew my championships, MVP trophies, success and to be honest, I wasn’t the most talented player on any of my teams, ever.
So feel optimistic, you can overachieve if you listen and apply:
“Contemplative computing requires experimentation and reflection; it’s important to try new things, see how they affect your extended mind, and change your technologies to help you develop that mind and support your ability to be creative and focused.” ~ Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
One experiment is to write down how many times, or minutes/hours per day you check or follow your monkey mind distractions. By tracking your behaviors, you’ll see how much time you are wasting and how much potential is being untapped.
If you want to think about your life, go for a walk, don’t get on Facebook.
Many of the most famous philosophers talk about what walking does for the mind and productivity. Kierkegaard, the famous existentialist declared, “I have walked myself into my best of thoughts.”
Oh, walk without your iPhone though.
Think about the things you want to do or accomplish in your life, write those down, and then subtract the time you use on social media away from your bucket list items.
Not without self-awareness, it isn’t.
“Contemplative computing isn’t enabled by a technological breakthrough or scientific discovery. You don’t buy it. You do it. It’s based on a blend of new science and philosophy, some very old techniques for managing your attention and mind, and a lot of experience with how people use (or are used by) information technologies. It shows you how your mind and body interact with computers and how your attention and creativity are influenced by technology. It gives you the tools to redesign your relationships with devices and the Internet to make them work better for you. It’s a promise that you can construct a healthier, more balanced relationship with information technology.” ~ Alex Soojung-Kim Pang from The Distraction Addiction
Thanks Alex for your great research, and thanks to Brian Johnson for his excellent notes.