With iOS 15 comes the most powerful tool yet to regain control of your space and time. Here are some thoughts on getting a head start with Focus.
One of the best features coming to iOS 15 from the perspective of personal space and mental health is what Apple calls Focus. This will undoubtedly make its way over to the Android camp eventually. Focus takes over from the old Do Not Disturb setting and expands it to offer a really powerful level of customisation that if used well can help us, at once, take back control of our lives from our many devices. For someone like me, who has been calling for renewed focus on our dwindling attention spans, this feature is a boon. While the entire idea is new, here are some thoughts on making great use of Focus to achieve what I like to call a better tech–life balance.
The primary aim of the old Do Not Disturb mode was to turn off notifications either for select apps or across the board, and similarly either for select contacts or for your entire address book. Focus makes this more granular in some key ways:
- Allowed notifications. This is essentially the old DND, carrying the same options where you allow notifications for select people and apps. And for either group you can choose to start with a clean slate.
- Time-sensitive notifications. This is a new class of notifications Apple identifies as being time-sensitive. This could include reminders or calendar events, certain notifications from people that are due for a certain time etc. This overrides the previous option.
- Sharing focus status. An important part of being able to keep focus is to let others know you are trying to keep focus. Apple now offers a mild-mannered way of informing those trying to get in touch with you that you are focussing on something. This ensures you have others’ co-operation without turning them off.
- Screen customisation. Among the biggest updates Focus brings with it are possibilities for Home and Lock Screen customisation. You can set dedicated screens for each focus mode (more on this below) effectively transforming your phone several times over a day and ensuring it remains an eternal positive companion that boosts your productivity and peace of mind all day long.
- Automation. While DND could be turned on at specified times—as can Focus—we now have the added option of allowing Apple’s on-device neural engine to figure out when to turn on or off which mode. Based on our usage, and with increasing accuracy, iOS 15 will deduce over time just when we might need our phone to enter which Focus mode.
- Multiple focus modes. Gone is the sole focus option called DND (although there still is such a mode that retains legacy behaviour). In its stead we are now free to establish whatever focus modes we choose based on our daily lives. The sky is the limit on this one.
Armed with these settings I ventured into the Focus section of settings.app and began to set things up. Admittedly it might take a couple of modifications along the way when you find yourself wishing for quicker access to something but you can always go back and adjust your Focus mode/s accordingly and with considerable ease.
Focus is what you make it
Before we take a look at examples in the form of Focus modes and set-ups I use, it would be worthwhile to understand some of the subtleties of Focus.
The really great thing about Focus is that nothing is set in stone. While Apple offers some Focus modes out of the box and while these are well-made, you can freely override them with your own modes built around your day from scratch. Personally, I have not yet found a need for this but here is how you could do it: by turning off the Sleep Focus mode that Apple offers and setting up your own, independent of Bedtime settings in the Health app, you can use Shortcut automations to turn on Sleep Focus when you tell Siri to turn off your bedroom light via HomeKit. This can be useful if you sleep at slightly different times every day, reading you bedside book for 15 minutes longer or shorter one day than another.
You could make it even more independent by simply telling Siri to do it. Or if you prefer a more old-fashioned button-click approach you can have a Shortcuts icon on your Home Screen that does the job for you (but also remember there is the control centre option). Like all technology it is important that you make Focus work for you.
Drawing others’ co-operation
Another wonderful feature of Focus is the Focus Status option. You can turn it on for as many or as few Focus modes as you like. What this does is politely tell those attempting to get in touch with you that you would rather be left alone right now. To allow for emergencies, they can still choose to override Focus and notify you:
If you keep good company most people will probably understand and let you be at this point, and should anyone override your Focus you will at least know that the communication is probably critical.
Rethink your Home Screens and App Library
One way to think of Focus modes is like an extension of the old DND, Sleep and DND While Driving modes. But a more helpful way of looking at them is as dynamic iterations of your entire device.
For example, before iOS 15 I used to have my fitness apps on my second Home Screen for quick access because I knew I would need them at least a couple of times daily. Now I can slim down my default (non-Focus) Home Screens because I know that as soon as I switch to Fitness Focus (described in detail below) my Home Screen changes and all my fitness apps will be front and centre. Similarly I used to have my sleep monitor app on my Home Screen as well as a shortcut to play select background music while I work. My Home Screen has now slimmed down and tailored further as these have moved to their respective (Sleep and Work) Focus mode Home Screens.
This also makes the App Library so much more useful as any app I do not use frequently can comfortably be relegated to the App Library knowing I can access it from any Focus mode.
Define your own modes
If you read ahead you are bound to find some of my choices in setting up my Focus modes puzzling. For example more people can contact me during my Personal Focus than during my Work Focus; and my work colleagues cannot contact me during my Work Focus. At first glance this makes no sense, but the trick here is to go beyond traditional definitions and use Focus modes in ways that are meaningful to you.
For example, while I am actually at work I do want to be reachable, especially to my colleagues. In fact, while at work my phone will remain in its default (non-Focus) mode. So what then is my Work Focus mode? It would be better termed my ‘Deep Work Focus’ mode, used when I want to work in a zone for an hour or two—whether at home or at my office—without any disturbance. This is why my Work Focus mode is not automated to turn on when reach my workplace through geofencing.
Similarly my Personal Focus mode is to simply reduce how often I reach for my phone while at home, off-work, with family. In other words, I want to remain reachable and those around me understand as much—such as getting a message from someone while I am watching the evening news and responding to it. For when I am spending one-on-one time with my loved ones, playing a game of cards or going out for dinner, I can always turn on DND straight away.
It is at this point that I would consider a couple of other, more granular Focus modes. I do not use them yet or plan to in the near future but I can see the usefulness of a ‘Professional Focus’ mode for when I am physically at work (cutting off social media apps, consumption apps, magazines etc.) or even a ‘One-on-one Focus’ mode for when I want to restrict myself just a little more to be with those in whose presence I am physically, be it family, friends or someone else, such as at events or casual meetings. These are to be figured out over time of course as we ourselves better understand where our existing Focus modes excel or fall short.
The six Focus modes we all need
Apple thoughtfully provides eight possible Focus modes which include special functionality. There is also an option to create generic Focus modes of our own—complete with glyphs and a theme colour—if these eight do not suffice. Generic custom modes are able to accomplish of all of the five capabilities listed above (only because the sixth is not a capability of an individual mode). But for most of us I suspect the eight will do and of them six are essential: Do Not Disturb, Sleep, Driving, Personal, Work and Fitness.
You may recognise the first three of these from iOS 14 or before, so their intent is clear. The rest are really defined by the user and I suggest that is where you start.
Sleep Focus and DND
The Do Not Disturb and Sleep Focus modes should arguably be the strictest and that is how I have set them up.
In Sleep Focus my immediate family can contact me and phones still come through. I do not see phones as a disturbance—although many might disagree with me on that—because nowadays people call at night only when they really need to reach you. Or at least that is the crowd I am with. Most other leave delayed response communication like e-mails and messages, both of which are not allowed during Sleep Focus. The only other apps that are allowed are health- and sleep-related apps, home automation, shortcuts and password managers. These are highly intentional apps and rarely send me notifications.
Further, time-sensitive notifications are not allowed and a single custom Home Screen is shown that has my alarm app, two shortcuts for quickly starting up my sleep monitoring and setting up a sleep timer to switch off my music, the clock app just in case, the sleep widget, the calendar and reminders widgets to prepare myself for the next day during wind down before I go to bed, and the podcast and music widgets for playing either as a sleeping aid.
Sleep Focus comes with the special capability of tying into your sleep set-up in the Health app, which means it can be automated to turn on during your designated sleep time or—as in my case—from wind down, which is 30 min before sleep time.
The primary difference between Sleep and DND is that DND completely shuts me off from everyone and all apps while retaining my default double Home Screen set-up which I have been using for years. And the DND mode, unlike Sleep Focus, is not automated.
Fitness Focus for physical and mental health
While I do not use my phone for Fitness, the great thing about Focus is that it is instantly shared across devices. My Mac and iPad both go into the same focus mode as my iPhone and, more important in this case, so does my Apple Watch. In fact I can turn on Fitness Focus from my Apple Watch because that is all I leave home with when I head out either to play football or for a morning jog.
I allow similar contact options during Fitness as Sleep with the exception of my fitness apps, Nike Run Club and Nike Training Club. Also, my extended family gets to reach me during this time. They do not call me incessantly, so I know I am not opening up myself to disturbance by doing this. Fitness also allows time-sensitive notifications and uses a custom single Home Screen that includes the weather, all my health and fitness apps and the Fitness widget.
Headspace, which I use for meditation, is also front and centre on my home screen. Finally, a large shortcut widget lets me quickly start playing my favourite workout playlist:
Personal and Work Focus
When I am spending time with my family I like to use the Personal Focus mode. It helps me get off my phone without disconnecting with the world. It also lets me use my phone for things that I might need to use it for while I am with my near and dear ones.
While only my immediate family can contact me during my Work Focus, all my favourites can contact me during Personal Focus. Similarly, while serious, work-related apps can notify me during my Work Focus, a larger selection of apps can notify me during Personal focus. Social media apps are blocked off from all Focus modes, including these; and while I consider WhatsApp social media, iMessage remains open because it is not an endless cesspool of nonsense and encourages more intentional communication.
Both allow time-sensitive notifications and both have dedicated Home Screen set-ups. Work Focus has a large Reminders widget stack with access to two work-related lists and the Files widget on one screen, while a large Calendar app stack with two calendar views occupies another screen along with select apps that I use for my work. To reduce the number of pages, document-editing apps are bunched in an ‘Office’ folder referring to either my work or home office. The Mail.app is of course allowed to notify me since I have long had it set to notify me only for VIPs. I also have a shortcut that plays my Jazz playlist directly on my HomePod because I enjoy listening to some smooth jazz while working.
Personal Focus has just one Home Screen with the Weather, Fitness, Music and Podcast widgets and some handy apps like Wallet, Payment apps, Maps, FaceTime etc. which I am likely to use while in the company of loved ones.
Both of these Focus modes dim the Lock Screen and neither is automated.
A new way to use your devices
With Focus syncing across devices, iOS 15 can truly change how we use our phones and computers. Most users I see will fall into one of two camps: those who will continue to ignore Focus like they ignored DND and Sleep the last couple of years; and those who will dive in and make use of Focus to their advantage.
The latter will no doubt feel the effects of Focus as I myself have felt it in under a month of use. With Focus, one flick of a switch completely changes the way I interact with my devices and, more important, the way the world gets to interact with me through my devices. That is technology in its most human self.
Could moving resolutions from the New Year to a more personal date make them more effective?
New Year resolutions fail by the dozen with every pass minute of a new year. Research estimates that 88% of people who set resolutions fail to achieve them. This number, frankly, is smaller than I expected so in some capacity I am impressed by the other 12%. Something more realistic is this: over half the people who resolved either forgot their resolves or forgot to keep track of their resolves. The problem could lie in the complete detachment between the day for setting resolutions and our individual selves.
Today is my birthday so for my annual birthday essay I decided to start a little experiment as a gift for myself. What if I set my resolutions on a day that actually mattered to me personally rather than one that was popular by calendar design? Rather than New Year resolutions then, here are my birthday resolutions:
- Read more books
- Do something towards improving my health and fitness daily
- Be more present and honest to myself
The idea is unlike any other resolution: I will track my progress on these all year long and be accountable to myself come my next birthday. If all goes well my progress this year will be my gift next year.
However, the resolutions in their current format are less than promising from a practical perspective. They are succinct and capture the spirit of what I intend to achieve but if science has taught us anything about resolutions it is that bite-sized goal-setting trumps long term goal declarations—and this is true every single time. It increases the likelihood of realising one’s resolves by a fifth.
Resolution 1: Read more books
I am not dissatisfied with how many books I read these days although the number has reduced from back when I was in school. I would blame the grown-up world but I happen to know many grown-ups who read just fine so the fault lies within.
Currently I read about one book every fortnight. I would like to increase it by a small amount to three books a month. It is important to not hurt my chances of achieving my resolutions by being over-ambitious.
Resolution 2: Daily health and fitness
This is the big one of the three for me personally. The problem with this goal is defining what counts as a health or fitness activity: Will a long walk do? Must it be a morning jog? Can cardio be dropped entirely one day in favour of HIIT? And what about recovery days? This seems like a grey area at best.
The solution lies in slightly redefining my Apple Watch rings. Rather than focus on closing my rings I want to give myself two stages of goals: a minimum and a target. The intention of the minimum would be to allow me to work out to close my rings on any day—including on recovery days—in such a way that working out to my daily minimum requirement closes the rings without pushing me to the limit. This will be 700 calories, 30 exercise minutes and 12 standing hours. The target will be what I really want to accomplish: 1,000 calories, 45 exercise minutes and 12 standing hours.
My Apple Watch will track my minimum and I will keep track of my targets. Over time, ideally, the target should go up reasonably, reaching about 1,250/60/12 around my next birthday.
Resolution 3: Presence and honesty
If the first resolution was about a disparate activity to be done at point in my day or week, and the second resolution was a discrete activity to be integrated at a (more or less) fixed point in my daily schedule, my final resolution is a continuous one which I will need to take care of all the time.
It is not too strenuous or nagging, but it serves the purpose of reminding me of my resolutions frequently. And the reason I picked these two is because I am quite confident of the former which will increase the odds of me achieving the latter. In a year where I expect huge changes in my career this is a meaningful resolve to make.
This is honestly not something I have given a lot of thought to, but it struck me just today, in context, and seems like a really powerful idea. It is at least worth trying with nothing to lose.
I will be tracking all my resolutions and in a year publishing the results in a follow-up essay. Is this a fourth resolution? Not quite; it is a promise made in the open.
Experiencing the charm of the Jeep Life.
About six weeks ago I was welcomed to the Jeep Life. Ever since I started looking for a suitable daily driver six months ago, the Jeep Compass had been one of my top picks (the Škoda Octavia was the other). As someone who owns a vintage-style motorcycle in the Royal Enfield Desert Storm, my draw towards a Jeep just felt natural. Like RE, Jeep embraces its wartime origin; but unlike RE the brand has managed to also embrace modernity. The Compass in a nutshell is that: a capable, luxurious, modern SUV which proudly tows around its war-era heritage.
The new-age Jeep
At first glance, it is hard to associate the Compass with old-style Jeep brand vehicles. In fact Jeep has two distinct styles on the market now: open-top, rugged, extremely off-road capable Wrangler and Gladiator types—which maintain the silhouette of the Willy’s, the original ‘Jeep’ in many people’s minds—and the closed, more luxurious but slightly less off-road capable Cherokee and Renegade types—which are examples of the brand embracing modernity. The Compass falls squarely in the latter category.
The Compass is slightly larger than the Renegade and smaller than the Grand Cherokee while sharing several design cues—and even looking—like the Grand Cherokee, the top tier vehicle in the Jeep brand lineup. While not as off-road capable as the genre pioneer, the Wrangler, the Compass is considerably more off-road capable than almost any other SUV in its class. With off-roading in their DNA, this capability is something Jeep has mastered, with the likes of Land Rover coming in a close second. But the key takeaway for me, after driving about 2,000km over the past six weeks, is that the Compass can take on rugged terrain much more effortlessly than most other vehicles.
A vengeful redesign
Despite its heft, this SUV corners like a champ at high speeds, squarely planted on all four wheels, with hardly any body roll, sitting snugly in its lane on the highway. In the city, the agility of the electronic steering wheel means manoeuvring is buttery smooth does not drain arm strength out of the driver. The vehicle inspires confidence.
It is clear that Jeep put a lot into this vehicle, with its predecessor, the original Jeep Compass, being so horrible that one cannot fault the company for wanting to forget it even existed. Here is Top Gear on the old and forgettable Jeep Compass—
If you’ve got a long memory for failed cars, you’ll know there was once another Jeep Compass in Britain. It looked like a child had styled it, and was horrible to drive, one of the most uncompetitive cars you could have made the mistake of buying. Luckily so few are out there that it won’t besmirch the image of the new one, unless anyone mentions it. Ooops, just did. Anyway, this one has absolutely nothing in common, thereby proving that Chrysler is far healthier in bed with Fiat than it was when in bed with Daimler.
It is perhaps because of Fiat that the interiors and finishing on this SUV feel great. It also feels premium, even by European standards and certainly by American standards, despite the absence of leather on the dashboard—only the seats are leather and the roof lining (including the visor) is made of a plain but classy fabric. But the surprisingly European feel in an American car does not stop there and with good reason: the Compass was in many ways intended to be Jeep’s proper entry into the continent and its sales speak volumes in its favour.
Flexible like a ballerina, built like a tank
There are only two things I recall from my first-ever test drive of the Compass in early 2020: the fact that it is built like a tank, which I noticed as soon as I opened the door, and that driving it brought an uncontrollable grin to my face. Few things can replace a car that cam make you smile every time you drive it.
Coming from a Toyota, Jeep had a high bar: the Japanese are known for the incredible finish in their cars, even if the materials they use are mostly plastics. The Jeep Compass can stand up for itself here, with a mix of hard- and soft-touch plastics mixed with a healthy dose of leather and fabrics. Panels are well-positioned and are not too many in number, nooks and crannies seem to have been given ample attention and quality control in general seems to be great. The icing on the cake is the iconic seven slat Jeep grill on the front.
The build is not the only positive in this SUV physically, though. There are tiny flourishes around the car, primarily made of stitching, that add some accents to the all-white interiors in my top trim Limited Plus model. Additionally, the many Easter eggs Jeep is known for are present in this car too: there is the famous windscreen sticker of a Willy’s; the Loch Ness monster on the rear windscreen; a lizard behind the bonnet; morse code on the dead pedal; several pressed Jeep grill logos in various locations which spell out MP/552, the Jeep project codename for the Compass, and so on.
Buying into an experience
The whole experience of buying a Jeep brand vehicle has gone far beyond buying the actual vehicle. Again like RE, there is an entire community of Jeep owners who go on company-led trails frequently and access is allowed only to Jeep owners. There is all the merchandise, the many add-ons and the groups and invites and the Jeep Life kit that new enrolees to the club get.
All of this feels like entering not just a vehicle but a whole experience, a new way of driving, a new approach to traveling, a new way of stepping forward wherever you choose to go.
One may argue that it has been only a month-and-a-half since I first stepped into my new Jeep but that is a long enough time to get an intuitive feeling about what this vehicle is. The best way I can explain it is to compare it with another American brand: Apple. There is a certain feeling when you buy an Apple product where, unlike others, the newness never wears off; every time you pick up your Mac or iPhone you feel its charm just like you did on day one and you can feel that this will last long without actually having to experience it for an unusually long time. That is precisely how I feel about my new Jeep Compass.
The Compass is a charming, well-built, confidence-inspiring, capable and premium SUV that can hold its own against others in ways that count. It may not, for example, offer the greatest mileage, but what it can offer is not quite something you can count—and to me that matters a whole lot more. Every time I step into my Compass I smile, and every drive is a real pleasure. This SUV is so full of such uncountables that count that Jeep could hardly have made it better. I would buy the Compass all over again if I had to. It’s a Jeep thing.
A book that is somehow twice as impactful when you have actually seen a concentration camp with your own eyes.
There are two things that made my reading of Viktor Frankl’s book different from some others’. First, having read about Frankl I was fully aware of his previous work such as performing forced lobotomies on Jews despite his not being a trained surgeon; his membership with the Fascist ‘Fatherland Front’ organisation; and the fact that Frankl himself was promoted to Capo (a fact he casually fails to mention in this book despite speaking unfavourably of Jewish prisoners who cosied up with the SS to become Capos themselves). Second, having visited a concentration camp, certain concrete structures were embedded in my mind so deeply that this entire book played out on a stage set by those memories, making things ever more effective.
If at this point one wonders whether the legitimacy of Frankl’s book had disappeared in my eyes, that would be a fair question. But no such thing happened: as a reader of fiction, I have learnt not to devalue the lessons a work can teach me even if that story is fictitious. Moreover, Frankl was undoubtedly a survivor of concentration camps—of that there are no doubts—even if his stories cannot in any way be corroborated. Finally, who a man is need not always dilute what a man has to say. All-in-all then there is a lot of meaning to everything in this book that one can pick up on if they are open enough to learn and reasonable enough to place their doubts about the writer himself aside for the time being.
Kaufering, Dachau—not Auschwitz
An honest reading of this book makes it appear that Frankl spent a long time at the dreaded Auschwitz KZ while in fact he spent only four days there. He darts from a description of Auschwitz to prisoner numbers giving readers the impression that he got his prisoner number there as well, but in fact he was never registered at Auschwitz. Frankl’s time was almost entirely spent at the much milder—but nonetheless despicable and shameful—Nazi concentration camp of Dachau, the journey to which he only mentioned in the latter half of his description of his days at the camp.
There are three reasons why I mention this: one, this book has no literary merit whatsoever, which is why its storytelling feels like it was pieced together at random; two, this mild-mannered misrepresentation has been a prime reason for the popular criticism of Frankl’s book by many a scholar as ‘misleading’, which is perhaps true; three, I would like this review to be fair in all sense to a reader and would like to clarify assumptions regarding the reliability of the facts in this book before I get to the good bits. When you read this book, focus on the people and the characters and take historic facts with a pound of salt.
Do that and Man’s search for meaning will easily rank among the best books you have read in a while. Frankl had a professional advantage on his side in that he could understand what he and his comrades were feeling from a more objective standpoint than most. It is such an insight that birthed this book—which was supposedly intended to be published under his prisoner number—as well as the ideas of logotherapy (about which I will not speak much as I am nobody in psychology) that follow the narrative occupying the first two-thirds of this book.
My whole reason for reading this book despite knowing everything about Frankl and his likely Nazi associations is clarified at the start of the foreword by Harold Kushner: ‘Typically, if a book has one passage, one idea with the power to change a person’s life, that alone justifies reading and re-reading it and finding room for it on one’s shelves.’ Speaking of the foreword, another interesting sentence deserves mention: ‘Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.’ I find this timely because of the references made to Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology, the two other main schools of Viennese psychology besides Frankl’s logotherapy.
The book feels like a casual narration, as if Frankl is seated before you, fiddling with his glasses, arms thrown across his chair, holding his words back pensively while he retells you his memories of the war as they come. But what surprised me was how light-hearted this book was. Perhaps the reason for that, as Frankl himself says towards the end of his narrative, is because long after liberation ‘the day comes when all his camp experiences seem to him nothing but a nightmare.’ A nightmare you have gotten so used to that you can now laugh it off.
Dachau had a chimney
A curious observation Frankl makes about Dachau is that there was no building with a chimney there, i.e. no gas chamber. However, I remember quite vividly that there is one—the infamous Baracke X—where there are a handful of crematoriums and one gas chamber with several gas inlets along with fake shower heads to mislead prisoners into thinking they were being led in there for a bath. However, Frankl is right insofar as suggesting that the gas chamber was never actually used, the popular theory being that it served as a training ground for SS officers who would use the chambers for mass homicide in other camps. It Is likely he was not shown this building as a prisoner because the chimney would, as he says, strike fear in their hearts and they would know it was a death camp.
Another fleeting phrase that proved to be incredibly thought-provoking to me comes early on in the book when Frankl says of his time in a concentration camp, ‘This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed)…’ It was quite a shock to actually see it in writing despite knowing it already: disbelievers have always existed. The disbelievers in vaccination and climate change we have today are simply the descendant of the disbelievers in concentration camps of yore. Unintentionally, Frankl’s book gave me hope in realising that the great weights pulling our society down today have always been with us but never quite fully stopped us from rising. A second example of the same sort: ‘Textbooks tell lies!’—an indication that fascists have been fighting textbooks since forever.
The several mentions of how prisoners elevated to the rank of Capo were often harsher on prisoners than the guards themselves brought to mind for some reason the Stanford prison experiment. But this is hardly the only profound look at human relationships in a camp that feel like simply heightened versions of what one feels in everyday life to this day. This simply proves the validity of Frankl’s book today too—it can surpass time.
The three phases
In describing spending life at a camp Frankl talks of three phases prisoners would go through in his opinion: shock and denial upon entering a camp; apathy as one gets used to life in a camp; and depersonalisation upon being liberated from a camp. The main purpose of the narrative deals with understanding these three phases and how understanding the why to life would answer how one could go through these phases without breaking apart. In doing this Frankl invokes Nietzsche directly and Stoicism indirectly (more on this presently).
Despite the importance of all this, my personal favourite portions of this book were those in which Frankl talked of love (referring to his wife whom he would find dead soon after his liberation)—
The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved…
…into the night a violin sang a desperately sad tango, an unusual tune not spoiled by frequent playing. The violin wept and a part of me wept with it, for on that same day someone had a twenty-fourth birthday. That someone lay in another part of the Auschwitz camp, possibly only a few hundred or a thousand yards away, and yet completely out of reach. That someone was my wife.
On a similar vein he talks of how even the tiniest glimpse of beauty, in art or nature, was like light shining in darkness—Et lux in tenebris lucet—citing examples of the beautiful mountains of Salzburg. Concentration camp or not, these are emotions we can all connect with, a further example of how this book can surpass not only time but also space.
Something that did not sit well with me was the feeling that Frankl survived the camp because he knew how to manipulate his way into favour. His own descriptions show he wielded some position—above a common prisoner—and that he was on good terms with the Capos and not necessarily because he served as an assistant to the camp doctor. For instance at one point he says—
I was forced to keep straightening blankets, picking up bits of straw which fell from the bunks, and shouting at the poor devils who tossed in their beds and threatened to upset all my efforts at tidiness and cleanliness. Apathy was particularly increased among the feverish patients, so that they did not react at all unless they were shouted at. Even this failed at times, and then it took tremendous self-control not to strike them.
Now there is a sentence that seems almost Capo-like coming from Frankl himself. However, I will heed to the author’s own words: ‘No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.’
As I turned page after page of this book one thing was strikingly clear to me: Frankl makes grasps at Stoicism over and over and over again. In fact, logotherapy and Stoicism are remarkably common in nature as I will discuss in a moment.
To me, the pinnacle of the narrative in this book is encapsulated in one sentence: ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances’. This echoes precisely the words of the Stoic philosopher and former Roman slave Epictetus: ‘We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.’
The comparison does not end there. Equally remarkable, Frankl continues, ‘And there were choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision,’ talking about life as a series of decisions that would make a difference between you having a hold over your life or being tossed around by circumstance. How can this not bring to mind the beautiful Stoic idea of choice? ‘For you yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice’. Every moment in life is a choice and you are not the circumstances you have been in but the choices you have made.
This is my second tryst with logotherapy. I had previously read briefly the parallels between logotherapy and Stoicism in the excellent book ‘logotherapy in action’ by Joseph B. Fabry, Reuven P. Bulka and William S. Sahakian. In it Sahakian writes—
Logotherapy and stoicism share a number of ideas, for instance the existence of attitudinal values and the nonexistence of purposeless evil … Frankl’s attitudinal value theory is unquestionably stoic in character. When a situation cannot be changed, a person still can alter his attitude toward his problem. This recommendation is paramount both in Stoicism and logotherapy. ‘The essence of good and evil,’ wrote Epictetus, ‘lies in the attitude of the will’. ‘Where we can no longer control our fate and reshape it,’ advises Frankl, ‘we must be able to accept it.’ … Paralleling these stoic ideas of Epictetus, Frankl has written, ‘Whether any circumstances, be they inner or outer ones, have an influence on a given individual or not, and in which direction this influence takes its way—all that depends on the individual’s free choice. The conditions do not determine me but I determine whether I yield to them or brave them.’
There is a lot to unpack in such a comparison and I fear it may take much away from a reader’s own appreciation of Frankl’s book. For this reason and more, I will cut my discussion on logotherapy short and leave you with a sombre reminder that Frankl and so many other survivors of the holocaust give: ‘No one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.’ Put aside Frankl’s own questionable wartime work so you are not robbed of the opportunity to read a wonderful book such as this and pick it up and give it two days—you will not regret it.
Select quotes from this book
- Illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humour. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives.
- An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.
- I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.
- The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.
- If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty.
- To discover that there was any semblance of art in a concentration camp must be surprise enough for an outsider, but he may be even more astonished to hear that one could find a sense of humour there as well.
- No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.
- Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
- Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
- They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning.
- No one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.
- We were not hoping for happiness—it was not that which gave us courage and gave meaning to our suffering, our sacrifices and our dying. And yet we were not prepared for unhappiness.
For productivity and a meaningful life, stop trying to manage your time and start managing your attention.
We are, as Tim Harrera puts it, ‘overstimulated, under-focused navigators of the modern world’. Every which way we look there is a gadget of some kind, some sort of distraction, waiting for us. The old world had distractions too but nothing of the magnitude we find today. With this come two buzzwords: productivity and time management, and they are both hornets’ nests.
The problem with time management
Productivity is generally a reference to getting significant work done. It is about achieving a meaningful number of self-defined accomplishments consistently. And the most popular route to that is time management.
The trouble with time management, though, is that we are severely limited by design: we have 24 hours in a day and, as Adam Grant wrote in the New York Times, ‘focusing on time management just makes us more aware of how many of those hours we waste’. Further, time management can often ironically go against our priorities. In an interview with Roger Dean Duncan for Forbes Maura Thomas says—
Time management teaches us to say ‘no’ more often and ‘do less’. But saying ‘no’ deprives the world of those unique gifts. And because many people ‘have to’ work, the things they say ‘no’ to tend to also be the things that nurture and sustain them: things like hobbies, recreation, family time, and volunteer activities.
So it is settled. Time management can potentially be a waste of time. The real solution, as a series of Times newsletters brought to my attention all through 2019, is attention management.
Attention management, unlike time management, is not corporate speak. It is an approach backed by science and incredible spirit. It is about prioritising the people and work that matter with the understanding that when something really matters it makes little difference how long it actually takes in your day. By managing attention rather than time priorities work their way into the system inherently. ‘Attention management’, says Adam Grant, ‘is the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places and at the right moments.’
The reason time management became as popular as it is today is because it redefined the meaning of productivity in our lives. But it is important to remember, as Dr Grant says, ‘Productivity isn’t a virtue. It’s a means to an end.’ Productivity and time management rely on will power, understating the why will automatically draw your attention to a task and, says Dr Grant, ‘you will be ‘pulled into it by intrinsic motivation’.
Why attention management works
I have previously spoken several times about intentional living. Choosing what we do carefully, no matter what mould it fits into or does not, knowing that every step we take is intentional, goes a long way in improving our quality of life. Little did I know that in describing intentional living I was in a way describing attention management. ‘Attention management allows us to be more proactive than reactive,’ says Ms Thomas. ‘It allows us to live lives of choice rather than reaction and distraction.’
Such choice is key to attention management. Whereas time management lets you allot time slots for whatever tasks come your way and asks you to cull them as they come, in effect making you flail around in the winds of chance, attention management takes a fundamentally reversed approach and asks that you pick your tasks based on what they mean to you and devote your attention to them.
Think in terms of meaning and focus rather than time. Do not focus on when and how quickly you want to finish something, focus instead on why you want to do it. That will justify why a task deserves your attention and time, and if it does deserve all that, you will have no reason not to focus on that task.
The key to managing attention is identifying obstacles. There are two types of obstacles: actual distractions and perceived distractions. The former we are quite familiar with; the latter is less precisely spelt out although we are all probably aware of it.
‘Intrinsic distraction’ as I like to call perceived distraction is a problem that often goes unrecognised. Ms Thomas points out, ‘Even when there is no distraction, we distract ourselves by expecting one.’ This tends to add up quickly and has the effect of unaccomplished tasks demoralising us and making us feel unproductive. Since productivity has been linked so often and so closely with time management, that is often all we look at while we seek a solution, leading to a vicious circle.
There is renewed focus on attention management today thanks to the information age in which we live. Unlike before, when we accessed data as we needed and with specificity (say from books in a public library), we are now surrounded by data that itself beckons us constantly and often even commands us, with no target, motivation, rhyme or reason. The fact that we can get quick answers, no matter how little they may be vetted, prompts us to constantly seek answers. We are addicted to distracting ourselves because of its convenience and reliability.
However, the fact that gadgets are our primary distraction today does not mean we must advocate for an ‘unplugged lifestyle’. Tim Herrera calls this ‘a silly idea that is an impractical solution to a practical problem. Rather, the point is to notice your surroundings, to be mindful of the world you’re navigating, and to give yourself permission to slow down and just … observe.’ Once again, this is about being mindful of what we give our attention to—this is about living intentionally.
The big question that needs to be answered is ‘Why?’. Why should we choose what we pay attention to? Why not pay attention to everything? In understanding this I like to draw attention to the phrase ‘paying attention’. Think of attention as something you keep in your wallet. You pay it out every time you choose something to pay attention to. That means you will soon run out of it and can only rejuvenate it (see below), say, the following day. So choosing what we pay attention to is important for attention management. After all, there is hardly any management needed if a resource is infinite.
The technical term for this is ‘attention residue’. Attempting a tough or disliked task soon after an interesting one can make it harder to finish the disliked task because your capacity to pay attention has drained out. Studies on such ‘contrast effects’ of attention support the classic advice to start with what you dislike or find tough and then set aside tasks you like as a reward for later. While managing attention, always keep track of attention residue.
Cal Newport writes about attention residue in his book ‘Digital minimalism’. Mr Newport is an ardent advocate of quitting social media altogether, and Mr Herrera surprisingly agrees with him despite having called the idea impractical (see above). In any case, this is what Mr Newport says of attention residue:
Every time you switch your attention from one target to another and then back again, there’s a cost. This switching creates an effect that psychologists call attention residue, which can reduce your cognitive capacity for a non-trivial amount of time before it clears. If you constantly make “quick checks” of various devices and inboxes, you essentially keep yourself in a state of persistent attention residue, which is a terrible idea if you’re someone who uses your brain to make a living.
Despite liking his books, such as ‘Deep work’ and ‘Digital minimalism’, I have always disagreed with Mr Newport’s insistence that quitting social media is the only option. It reminds me of the vain attempts many made all through history to oppose change and new technology. Change on a natural level cannot be fought; it can merely be adapted to. Limiting social media use, for example, and cutting down the number of social networks we are active on to no more than a couple is often a more pragmatic approach.
The fact that we can run out of our capacity to pay attention means we must find ways to rejuvenate ourselves and refill our stores of attention. This calls for a balance between our focused and diffuse modes of thinking.
Paying attention means working in our focused mode. It gathers a lot of energy, sets up neural patterns and allows us to accomplish tasks via honest work and efficiency. This can be strengthened in the diffuse mode, where we are not focussing on any specific activity and are instead lost in thought. This includes a casual walk, sleep, exercise and various forms of relaxation. The diffuse mode strengthens the neural patterns set up in our focused mode allowing us to focus better over time. Like life itself, what we need is a balance between the two.
Ms Thomas says, ‘Our challenge is that now in any pause of activity, we immediately pull out our phone, and engaging with e-mail, social media, or other communication tools destroys the opportunity to daydream.’ She calls the diffuse mode ‘in-between moments’. She continues, ‘When we are daydreaming, we’re not actively controlling our thoughts, we aren’t focused on anything in particular, and we don’t have a lot of external stimulus. This is when our minds can wander and “stumble” into connections and insights that are otherwise crowded out.’
Striking this balance can prove to be rejuvenating and enriching to our life both immediately (trust me, I have experienced it) and in the long run.
Achieving this can be easy and fun too and never takes time for itself. Rejuvenate your attention by making small changes in how you live rather than by making it another big task in your day. Rob Walker, the author of ‘The art of noticing’ asks his readers to practise noticing things that they normally would fail to notice: ‘Walk to every corner of [a] building and just see what you see. Off to the doctor? Stay off your phone in the waiting room and … notice the people around you.’ This boosts intentional living and gives your mind pause from the constant onslaught of information it is otherwise subjected to.
The next time you find yourself wondering how you can accomplish things in your day, stop allotting time to everything. Instead ask yourself what really matters to you and choose how you allot your attention. Time will fly like it always does, but at least it will be pleasant this time—and it will be worth it.
Despite being surrounded by modern communication, the slow, arguably impractical, process of writing a letter is a great draw for me.
Snail mail for personal communication is more of a niche interest today than a necessity. It is certainly not as practical as modern-day alternatives and cannot hold a candle to email or internet- and carrier-based messaging services. And this has forced it to become a sort of luxury—of time and money both. Still, the ritualistic practice of writing a letter, sealing it in an envelope, pasting stamps, and dropping it off at a red postbox is a calming, almost theraputic process that I find hard to let go of when I have the opportunity to send someone letters.
Before the ubiquitous gummed envelopes, though, there was the sealing wax. Here is an interesting extract from a December 1893 issue of The New York Times which the paper borrowed from The London Daily News—
In France sealing wax has by no means gone out as a consequence of the introduction of gummed envelopes. According to The Bulletin de la Papeterie, there is even a sort of code or language of sealing wax among fashionable people. White sealing wax is chosen for communications relating to weddings, black for obituaries, violet for expressions of sympathy, chocolate for invitations to dinner, red for business, ruby for engaged lovers’ letters, green for letters from lovers who live in hopes, and brown for refusals of offers of marriage; while blue denotes constance, yellow jealousy, pale green reproaches, and pink is used by young girls and gray between friends.
Leave it to the French to stick to a fashionable old habit after the world has moved on, and to take it to a whole new level with colour codes. The first thing that struck me were the colour codes; having never read about French practices with sealing wax before I was under the assumption that the rules were much simpler: red is the default colour and is also preferred for formal correspondence; black was for mourning; white was for weddings and dinner invitations.
Further, there are seal rules that the Times/LDN article fails to address: the family sigil was used for familial business and personal correspondences; a monogram seal was used for personal or business letters; and mottos and generic decorations (fleurs-de-lis and such) were used for informal, mostly private, correspondences.
All this points to a deep sense of calm in the process of communication. Today most communication takes place faster than it should. Even in case of urgency, the simple act of melting wax and impressing the seal, even if it only took a minute to accomplish, gave a much-needed breather that clicking the ‘Send’ button does not afford.
However, there has rarely been a time when mindless hustling was not central to society: people welcomed the gummed envelope as a replacement to the sealing wax because back then people saw the sealing wax only as a means of sealing an envelope (and quickly identifying types of letters by colour). The gummed envelope solved the sealing issue and did so more efficiently, and the wax was on its way out.
Today we look back at the vintage for reasons people in those times would perhaps never have expected. It shows care and concern and value; it shows a person took time to do this for whomever the letter was addressed. What once was a time consuming chore is now used a symbol of the time and care it demands.
Equally, the sealing wax was once ubiquitous and held no special value. It was routine. In its resurgence in the 21st century, following its demise in the 1800s, the rarity of something that was once as common as a smartphone is today, has made the sealing wax a symbol of elegance, class and care.
Stamptitude was the first name I came across while looking for custom-made stamps. Their dedication, work and pricing made sure I never sought an alternative manufacturer. They worked with me closely to finalise the stamp design and when it was delivered I was impressed with the accuracy of the etching (no doubt a combination of lasers and computers). I soon realised I probably should also have placed an order for their melting spoon.
Almost as soon as the seal arrived I wrote my wife a letter which I then proceeded to seal with my new … well, seal. I quickly realised that not having a proper melting spoon would cause some problems: there was no way to use a candle and get the wax onto the envelope without a mess, and using matches burnt the wax and paper a bit (see picture at the head of this essay) but on second try, having learnt some lessons earlier, I managed to get a fairly good seal (see picture above).
As I write this essay my wife is likely a day or two away from receiving my letter and does not know about the new wax seal headed her way. But she does not read this website, so it should not be a problem: as someone who loves vintage items like I do, she will still be pleasantly surprised.
The stamp and wax are now tucked away in my drawer waiting to come out the next time I write a letter. All this makes me wonder if we are not in a cycle going between some of the old and some of the new, mixing and matching, fusing and developing and improving, some of the old stuff that has not been replaced will return in some new form with some new purpose. (Alas the typewriter has been fully replaced and simply will not return.) Nonetheless, my tryst with the wax seal was memorable and is something I will keep looking forward to. Perhaps not everything that is vintage is gone forever, and that makes me happy.
Examining my lifelong reluctance to lend, let alone give, a book to another soul.
Ever since I first held a book I have had a problem with giving it to someone else. Save two people I cannot recall a single soul to whom I have ever lent a book, let alone given one away. I have no idea why and it puzzles me to this day. Over the years I have developed refusing to lend a book into something of an art form. If the person reading this is someone to whom I have refused to lend a book, you have my sincerest apologies but nothing will change.
It is important to mention, for fear of coming off as miserly, that I have on several occasions bought and gifted books to people. I also recommend books to people all the time. But I have never found it in me to lend one of my own books to anyone who does not live under the same roof as I do.
Happily, I am not alone. As a Goodreads librarian for better or worse I end up spending a small bit of time on the book lovers’ social network every month and on one occasion came across an old discussion on the Book buying addicts anonymous group where people were discussing why they have problems lending their books. The whole thread, despite being a decade old, came up with three points that were also echoed by Guardian readers in 2015 and, as recently as last year, pointed out by a bunch of librarians on Electric Literature:
- Most people do not value books the same way you do, which leads to their not keeping track of it, lending it further (which is appalling), never reading it (as a result of which they never return it), or quite simply losing it.
- People with the habit of annotating on books annotate on borrowed books too, for some weird reason. Further, they may stick things, spill water or something worse, burn or boil or microwave it even. Whatever their approach may be, they often end up ruining the book.
- For better or worse, a book is quite a personal object. It’s spine is to be bent only by you, its pages flipped just so, its bookmark used and not laid open face-down, and it is not to be tossed around, used as a coaster or otherwise handled in a way the owner would not handle it themselves. Think of lending your car to someone who habitually shifts gears without using the clutch.
Not all of these apply to me personally, but they do describe the general reasons why I think I am weary of lending my books. Lending a book is as good as giving it. And I am unwilling to give it. Especially once you read a book you tend to develop a bond with it that makes you reluctant to simply give it up; a second similar book is not the same because that is not the one you read. This is a sentiment many a voracious reader will identify with.
So when a someone comes up to me requesting to borrow a book some common questions that pop up include, ‘Does this person read books?’, ‘Will this person read this book and return it within a reasonable amount of time (read, three months or less)?’, and ‘Am I willing to lose this book in part (vandalism through annotations) or in full?’ It is almost always the last question that makes it impossible to lend books.
The subtle art in question has to do with first expressing to the person how much you love your books but this is of little concern because if you do read a lot of books it probably shows and you need not—perhaps even should not—mention it explicitly. Once people know you well enough they know not to ask. However, if someone does ask the simplest answer is a ‘No’ but there is a fifty-fifty chance the person will follow up with a befuddled ‘But why?’ which is synonymous with ‘Come on, it’s just a book’ which means all the more that you should probably not lend it to them. It also opens up the final and arguably most dreadful scenario: explaining why you cannot lend a book.
Putting aside the fact that you should not have to answer this question except perhaps to those closest to you, the simplest explanation could be that you have already lent the book elsewhere. In my family, on the rare occasion, we circulate a book or two; since this is usually done between people we know are passionate readers lending is perfectly fine. It also means you can use this as an excuse when someone asks you to lend them your book, regardless of whether you have already circulated the book or not. If you cannot sell the tale of circulating within your family, an equivalent ruse will work just as effectively.
The more precarious choice, best left to the bravest among us, is to risk becoming a nuisance and blurt out a set of rules you wish the borrower to obey. If this does not turn them off they are perhaps safe borrowers after all. If it does, your problem is solved at the risk of you appearing conceited or stuck-up.
Should you find yourself in the unenviable position of having already lent a book, you could try to coax them to return it to you by enquiring about their reading progress. This will either prompt them to return it to you realising they will never read it, or, on a positive note, encourage them to read it.
And finally the subtlest of all: promise to give the book in question sometime in the future and keep quiet about it. If they come back and ask you for it you know they probably do want to read the book; if not your book can stay safe on your shelf.
Good luck for those times your friend or colleague may ask to borrow your book—hopefully these approaches will come in handy. Really though, recognise this essay for what it is and take it with a pinch of sugar; but do not take my book.
Downright the best—and possibly only—book you need to learn to break bad habits and build good ones effectively.
I cannot emphasise just how good this book is. This book is really good. The basic premise of Atomic Habits is two-fold: one, that forming and breaking habits is not so much about willpower as it is about our environment and the systems for change that we implement; and two, that the smallest and seemingly most unimportant changes compound over time to give remarkable results. This goes both ways: it builds bad habits if you let it or you can use it to build good ones; and it breaks bad habits too, or, if you do not pay enough attention, lets good ones decay.
James Clear takes a straightforward and practical approach throughout the book with a time-tested formula: anecdote followed by statement followed by research followed by guidelines. This rhythm acts like pentameter throughout the book which is itself divided into five parts corresponding to the four steps of habit-building (or breaking) and one part discussing some advanced tactics that discusses such things as talent and motivation.
One of the reasons I enjoyed this book was its no-nonsense approach. It starts by outlining the process in which our brain looks at habits and patterns with cues, cravings, responses and rewards. This is a pretty familiar idea these days although it is outlined differently at times. Nir Eyal in his book Indistractable talks about this as well; as does the McMaster course on ‘Learning how to learn’, although they use slightly different terms: cue, routine, reward, belief. The underlying idea is pretty similar: if you can manipulate one or more of these for your benefit, you can build and break habits as you like.
While speaking of small steps Mr Clear makes sure to clarify that he is not speaking of minute steps that attempt to drill muscle memory into us or normalise a habit out of nowhere, like flossing just one teeth to start with. Instead he refers to picking the simplest act possible that, when repeated over time, compounds to something meaningful and life-altering. The keyword here is compounding as he explains early on in the book: a daily 1% change amounts to you becoming three-and-a-half times better at that work in a year; a daily 1% deterioration will likewise see you dropping to a perfect zero in a year. Mathematics always clears things up nicely.
Here is an extract (with possibly inaccurate punctuations as I dictated this while I was reading) where the idea of small changes is explained:
We often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter very much in the moment. If you save a little money now you’re still not a millionaire, if you go to the gym three days in a row you’re still out of shape, if you study Mandarin for an hour tonight you still haven’t learnt the language. We make a few changes but the result don’t seem to come quickly, so we slide back into our previous routines… unfortunately the slow pace of transformation also makes it easy to let a bad habit slide. If you eat an unhealthy meal today the scale doesn’t move much, if you work late tonight and ignore your family they will forgive you, if you procrastinate and put your project off till tomorrow there will usually be time to finish it later. A single decision is easy to dismiss. But when we repeat one-percent errors day after day by replicating poor decisions, duplicating tiny mistakes and rationalising poor excuses our small choices compound into toxic results. It’s the accumulation of many missteps, a one-percent decline here and there, that eventually leads to a problem.
As the book proceeds to set up the four ways to deal with habit-building (or -breaking, the two are symmetrical)—namely making cues obvious (or invisible), making cravings attractive (or unattractive), making responding easy (or difficult), and making rewards satisfying (or unsatisfying)—we see Mr Clear addresses why we would want to do this in the first place. When asked this question most of us respond with our end goals, the place where we all want to see ourselves eventually, but this approach in ineffective, he explains, because ‘winners and losers have the same goal’. This was eye-opening to me. But of course: nobody who loses set out to lose; what differentiates people is their approach, or their ‘system’ as the author calls them. He explains this beautifully—
Prevailing wisdom claims that the best way to achieve what we want in life … is to set specific actionable goals … results have very little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed. What’s the difference between systems and goals? … Goals are about the results you want to achieve, systems are about the processes that lead to those results … If you want better results then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead … The purpose of setting goals is to win the game, the purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long term thinking is goalless thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment, it’s about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.
This idea too is touched upon in the McMaster course on ‘Learning how to learn’ that I talked about earlier (take this course if you have not already, you will thank me for it). The process versus the product, the system versus the goal. Defining goals is great because they give us an end point but what gets us there, or anywhere at all, is our process or system.
With this set-up Atomic Habits, much to my pleasure, eschews magnanimous agendas around goals and definitions and motivation and instead attacks the most practical arm of the problem: the system we set up for ourselves and how our environments can enable or weaken our systems.
This is not to say he lays blame on the environment or encourages you to use it as an excuse, rather he details how you can take control of designing your environment for your benefit, rather than living in an environment someone else designed for you—and this does not involve redoing your walls or laying out your home from scratch, so rest easy.
As much as I am tempted to go on I will stop this review here because I hate to spoil such a great book with summaries and pointers. Make time and read this book. This is not one of those self-help books that should really have been a simple essay. The structure and narrative is central to making readers understand the insights contained in it and the basic push the book makes is this: you are stuck in your identity (e.g. I am not a morning person, I am not good at art, this just isn’t for me) which is what makes all your attempts at building and breaking habits fail. Do not make habits tasks; make habits your identity and they will succeed. Of course this is easier said than done, which is why you should read this book; it will make building and breaking habits as easy to do as they are to talk about.
Read this book.
Some thoughts on how we can tame our gadgets and the technology we use everyday to enrich our lives.
The first thought that comes to mind as I sit down to write this essay is Shakespeare’s Taming of the shrew. Whatever your thoughts may be about the misogyny in the play (I am certainly not a fan myself), it helps to think of technology as the Katherina in our lives who needs a bit of taming unto obedience. However, do not be under the impression that I have all the answers here because if the growth and evolution of technology is any indication nobody can claim to have a complete answer. These are thoughts primarily for myself, both as a means of thinking aloud and as an invitation to a discussion, where I consider some simple methods of better controlling the many technologies in our lives and sobering our relationship with them.
Start by acknowledging the problem
Most of us never make it past the first steps and remain at the mercy of our gadgets because we fail to acknowledge that a problem exists. My definition of a problem is rather strict: if you reach for your phone as soon as you get up, while still in bed, for any reason besides turning off your alarm, you have a problem. A milder definition might be this: you have a problem if more than a third of your morning hours before work is spent with your devices1.
Before going any further it is worth defining what we mean by a ‘gadget’. We do not simply mean an electronic gadget: your fancy digital hairdryer or internet-connected toothbrush, for example, are not the sorts of gadgets we are interested in; your television, on the other hand, is. By ‘gadget’ then we mean any device that allows passive consumption of information or multitasking and has no analogue counterpart. This could be your smartphone, laptop, tablet, television, smartwatch etc. It does not include your Kindle because, despite being a tool for passive2 consumption, it has an analogue counterpart in books.
Having a ‘problem’ could be defined, even more broadly, as habitually using your gadgets for over nine hours a day. Although nine might seem like an arbitrary number, the reason I chose it is simple: if you are asleep eight hours a day and are left with 16 waking hours, of which four are spent washing up, cooking, eating, commuting etc., using your gadgets for nine of the remaining 12 hours amounts to three-quarters of your potential work/leisure day spent with your gadgets.
Now we proceed with the assumption that we do have a problem and that we have fully accepted it.
Set up an absolute downtime
It is critical to start with what we feel is the least resistive option while trying to improve our habits: restrict gadget usage roughly around the times you would not normally use your gadgets in the first place. This might seem pointless on the face of it but a little exploration should clear things up nicely.
If you normally sleep at ten and wake up at six—or if you at least want to make that your sleep schedule—set up downtime on your phone to start half-an-hour before and end at the time your awaken i.e. 9:30 pm to 6:00 am. Apple devices have a Screen Time feature that lets you track your phone usage (we will revisit this presently) as do some recent Android devices. On iOS at least you have a downtime option that lets you completely disable apps between preset hours such as 9:30 pm to 6:00 am while whitelisting some apps as ‘Always allowed’.
Pick critical apps like phone, messages, FaceTime or any others that you may need, say, to contact your family a bit late in the night and leave other apps disabled. Disable your e-mail app at any cost. Disable social media apps too. Disable YouTube, Netflix, Apple TV and other such apps. Only keep critical apps enabled via ‘Always allow’ so that your phone is little more than a barebones direct communication device.
Cut down apps
When it comes to an overuse of apps, news aggregators are the biggest culprits. In the guise of being one app that serves all your news-related needs they turn everyone into uncontrolled news junkies. In reality, unless you closely control what sources you get your news from, you are probably getting more noise than signal. One news aggregator is effectively fifty news apps or more. Especially in this day and age it pays to handpick trustworthy news outlets. Pick no more than five news apps, throw them into a folder and call it a day.
Personally, I use two subject-related news apps (physics/science for me), and three national/international news apps. If you are worried about getting a skewed picture, realise that a good news outlet will carry biased opinion pieces but unbiased reportage so the facts should arrive at your desk promptly. If you still harbour doubts, pick a liberal newspaper and a conservative newspaper and one in-between.
If you like to also read magazines, count those as separate apps. But, unlike in the case of news aggregator apps, which might fetch from heavily-skewed free and ‘alternate’ news websites, since most magazines charge subscription fees—as opposed to delivering single articles for free—it pays to get just one newsstand app (my recommendation is Zinio) and enjoy all your magazines on it. This also makes subscription management hassle free. You will still need the magazine’s own app if they do not offer their subscription through an aggregator (trust me, there is always one spoilsport of this sort).
Moving past news aggregators, RSS readers and newsstand apps, think about apps that you use in general. Do you really need the one shiny additional feature an app provides? Or will a stock app do? In the early days of iOS, when the first iPhone was released, there was no App Store; and when the idea of an App Store was created with subsequent iPhones, again during the initial years, Steve Jobs was adamant about rejecting all apps that replicated the behaviour and purpose of any stock app, which mean no calendar apps, no mail apps, no reminder apps etc.
Apple has since relaxed that rule but it is still worth thinking about deeply in our personal lives: will the stock app bundled with my phone serve my purposes or do I need an additional app to do something much more? For instance, do I need a scanner app or will the scanner built into my phone do just fine? But some third-party apps are unique and have no stock alternatives: Instagram, Twitter and other services; chess, two dots and other games; Procreate, Notability and other writing/drawing apps; portfolio management apps, bank apps, calorie counters etc. None of these are exactly replaceable so use them if you find the need, however, keep an eye on your stock apps because sticking with them is often the simplest, most straightforward approach to curbing the number of apps on your phone.
Silence your phone while working
A study by Cary Stothart et. al.3 in the ‘Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human perception and performance’ showed that the act of getting a visual or auditory notification on your phone is just as distracting as acting on said notification. In other words, claiming that you are good to go just because you have developed the discipline of not immediately responding when your phone buzzes or pings or lights up to notify you is wrong. If you notice your phone’s notification, you have as good as picked it up and toyed with it.
The solution to this problem is simple but is something we rarely think about: silence your phone when you expect to be involved in deep work, and then set it face down.
Better yet, the next time an app you install asks you if you want notifications, actually think about it instead of blindly allowing notifications. You do not need notifications from most games; you do not need notifications from social media apps either4; likewise with news apps. For apps you have already installed head to settings and turn off notifications unless having them is critical e.g. for alarm apps or for some apps that backup your data automatically. And for apps that you really need glanceable data from rather than immediate notifications, turn on the option to retain notifications in the notifications sheet while turning off sounds.
The Gmail app is a big culprit in this case, notifying you of every incoming e-mail. The stock mail.app in iOS and macOS is more reasonable: you need to set contacts as VIPs if you want notifications when they e-mail you. All other e-mails arrive silently with the badge updating its count to keep you informed about new e-mails. Eschew the Gmail app—regardless of what security claims Google makes—and stick to the default mail.app on iOS/macOS with an IMAP set-up, especially since the default mail.app simply fetches and never reads your e-mails on a remote server in the middle of nowhere. Not having automatic categorisation is a small price to pay for this5.
The act of switching off notifications for most apps and choosing to keep it on for some is a small step towards taking control of your gadget: you will read the news when you sit down to read it, not when a publisher thinks you should; you will go through your social media notifications on your time, not on someone else’s; and you will know when a notification does arrive that it really is important.
While we are on the subject of e-mails, unsubscribe mercilessly from any newsletters you have signed up for that you no longer find yourself reading (including my own if you see no use for it). All newsletters that are above the board carry an unsubscribe line, usually at the very bottom, in every issue.
Set up ‘Walden zones’
In my review of William Powers’s book Hamlet’s Blackberry I mentioned his proposal of creating ‘Walden zones’ in our homes. This is something I have taken to doing myself, recently. The idea of a Walden zone, inspired by Thoreau’s Walden, is to designate gadget-free areas at home, at least during specific hours; this is meant particularly for the bedroom, at least at night if not all day long. Of course you are free to extend your Walden zone wherever you may please but, like any idea, you may start despising the idea itself if you overdid it.
Start with the bedroom and end there if you must. Make sure none of your gadgets come into your bedroom except as tools or for charging. Minimise the number of devices you charge by your bedside too if you can afford to. Most of us use our phones as alarms with good reason, so our phones get to stay despite being arguably the biggest culprits around. However, your laptop and tablet and, above all, television should have no place in the bedroom.
When you start out this idea may be hard to implement, but there is no need to be hard on yourself for that. Take it one step at a time and try to make things easy by never bringing devices into your bedroom; but if you do bring one in, take note of it consciously and walk out immediately, sit elsewhere and finish your work before you return to your bedroom. As brain scientist Matt Walker explained in his excellent TED talk on sleeping, ‘…your brain will very quickly associate your bedroom with the place of wakefulness, and you need to break that association. So only return to bed when you are sleepy…’
Rein in your tabs
Browsing the web no doubt accounts for a large part of our gadget usage, especially when that gadget is a phone or a laptop or a tablet. Who has not found themselves sitting before fifty tabs that have remained open and unused since a week? Even if your number is not this alarming—and especially if it worse—try to cut down tabs by setting simple rules for yourself. It is true that we are terrible at following our own rules, but there is little else that can reliably handle this problem on our behalf.
I still remember when tabs became a prominent feature in browsers around 2003 with Firebird (now Mozilla Firefox) and Opera taking the lead, with Apple’s Safari leading in the idea of a cookie-suspended Private tab. Although tabs themselves had been invented nearly a decade earlier in InternetWorks, it was not until these mainstream browsers incorporated the feature that people started using heavily. The idea here is that tabs were a ‘feature’ much like air conditioning systems (called ‘weather conditioners’ back then) were advertised as ‘available at an extra cost’ in cars in the 1940s.
People used to pay extra for air conditioning once upon a time but it eventually became so common that not having it is now like missing a wheel entirely. Browser tabs too are just as common now that we simply take them for granted to be a standard feature in any browser.
Rather than use tabs to do something simultaneously—which is why tabs were invented in the first place—we now routinely use tabs to create markers for our own browsing history. As evinced by a quick study by Patrick Dubroy, made about half-a-decade after tabs entered mainstream browsers, people had, on average, about ten browser tabs open at any given time. This was ten years ago and it is not hard to fathom that the numbers today would be several times greater. A poll on OpenSource.com, for instance, now shows most people have 20+ tabs open (no specific higher number is given, unfortunately). For the curious, iOS Safari has a maximum tab limit of 500. You can check how many tabs you have open on your iPhone by long pressing the new tab button; if the number is less than 100 and you have been using your phone for over six months, drop me an e-mail.
The trouble with tabs is that they create an attention divide. However, the reason we have so many tabs open is not a lack of attention span, rather it is due to loss aversion believes Adam Stiles, the inventor of browser tabs (as opposed to tabs in general—they existed in HTML editor programs well before browser tabs). Mr Stiles explains that because whatever is on a tab is hard to find we find it hard to close tabs. That is to say, because we subconsciously consider prominently the effort that it took to find the information we currently have opened on a particular tab, we find it hard to close it; we do not want to lose that information especially since we feel losses more than we do gains.
If you take a step back, though, the problem with too many browser tabs is not entirely new. Before 2003 people had too many bookmarks. Tabs simply fit themselves snugly between open windows and bookmarks acting as containers for web pages not important enough to bookmark but important enough to keep around for just a little while longer. However, too many bookmarks is not a bad thing because bookmarks are mostly out of our sight and not, like tabs, constantly vying for our attention and dividing it. Try to limit the number of browser tabs you use; a quick reference would be that most desktops have screens wide enough to allow for around ten browser tabs to be open before you have to scroll through the tab bar to reach a tab. At that point, restart your browser. This has the added benefit of clearing up temporary space occupied by the browser too, which is usually a good thing.
In case of smartphones, make it a habit to spend five minutes over weekends to go through and clear out all your browser tabs. Much like a physical object you own, if you have not used a browser tab across a few browsing sessions, you can probably do without whatever is on that tab.
Identify problematic tech and useful tech
Not all technology is bad. The problem why most ‘tame your tech’ style arguments fail to bother readers is because they attack technologies left, right and centre without making space for exceptions. As someone who is, both professionally and otherwise, an avid user of technology in one form or another, I am staunchly of the opinion that any technology—whether hardware or software—falls into one of two categories: tools and entertainment, or creation and consumption if you will. Where a technology provides a tool it is an enabler; where it offers entertainment it becomes a distraction.
Of course in either case your methods of using it go a long way to make technology what it is—much like any tool—but we can all agree that the Netflix app and your spreadsheet app are two different classes of technology: one is purely entertainment, often a bit too much; and the other we all wish was more entertaining than it currently is.
In most cases it is not the ‘tool’ category of tech that demand our attention. This is because such technologies are almost always part of an implementation intention. When was the last time you opened Keynote or Numbers or Excel or Powerpoint at random and then started to think of something to do now that you have opened that app? Compare this to YouTube or Instagram—entertainment-type technologies—which are not part of an implementation intention: we usually mindlessly (or sometimes mindfully) open these apps and then think of something to do with them.
Start by identifying and classifying your everyday tech into one of these parts. Knowing what apps and programs you need to pay attention to versus what you can let slip because you obviously use them only when forced to can ease your life and help you tame your technology more efficiently.
Set up Screen Time by type and by verb
Apple introduced Screen Time with iOS 12, which Google quickly followed with a similar feature they called ‘Digital wellbeing’. While most Android devices do not have this feature, all Apple devices do. Furthermore if you own multiple Apple devices, like a Mac and an iPhone, Screen Time can be shared across devices to get a better picture not only of how you use your phone but how you use your gadgets on the whole. As useful as this feature is, its greatest weakness is your greatest weakness: willpower, or simply users being far too tempted by an app causing them to skip Screen Time.
If you have never set up Screen Time, do so. If you have and it does not seem to work for you, here are some points worth considering:
- Screen Time will inevitably come down to how you choose to obey it, so make it your priority: obey whatever Screen Time tells you.
- Use the ten-minute rule: when you find you have exceeded your Screen Time limit, instead of clicking ‘Ignore limit’ take ten minutes away from that app and then reconsider if you want to break your Screen Time limit anyway, then return to the app if you must.
- Understand that Apple cannot possibly block off apps permanently like a stern parent disciplining their child; people would be up in arms claiming Apple is controlling their decisions if the company did this. Instead, Screen Time is about awareness: if you have set an hour of Screen Time for an app or group of apps and you hit the limit, when your device tells you as much, you know how much time you have spent on it. The key is awareness.
- Another idea behind screen time is extraneous steps: by adding a couple of extra steps between you and the app—by adding planned inconvenience—your device tries to deter you from using the app unless you have enough of a reason to go over those extra steps to get to the app.
- Take things a step further by setting up a Screen Time passcode. Make this a unconventional four digit number—that is, make sure it is not your birth year—and keep changing it frequently. That way, you need to pause and think about your Screen Time passcode and the additional inconvenience acts as an even more powerful deterrent.
- The trick to using Screen Time effectively is to bundle apps in a sensible manner, not set it up for just one or few apps. The more the number of apps blocking you off, the harder it is for you to get from app to app without an annoying screen blocking you, which means the more effective your Screen Time blocks become.
Implementing these simple steps has proved effective for me personally. One of my measures of what I gain from this is my reading habit: since I started working with blanket Screen Time (and Downtime, see the first heading in this essay) across all my devices three weeks ago, I have finished reading three books. This used to be my pace before I got a smartphone and I am thrilled to return to it. Of course this is not to lay all blame on my smartphone; much like any new tool we users need some time to strike a proper balance with, I believe we tend to also take time to balance our relationships with our phones6.
When setting up Screen Time cover all apps except your ‘Always allowed’ apps. Divide them up by category and verb. For categories, Apple uses whatever type developers suggest for their apps so what is really a social media app might masquerade as a reading and reference app just because it has some reading component in it e.g. Goodreads classifies itself under ‘Books’. Take your own decision, therefore. Spend fifteen minutes at a stretch if you must because it will be worth it. Think of this as an investment in yourself. As for dividing by verb, think of what you do with the apps rather than what classifies the apps, e.g. reading apps, watching apps, educating apps, and use these along with classified apps, e.g. social media, news, games.
With Screen Time set up suitably, so long as you obey it religiously, you have nothing to worry. Not only does Screen Time coupled with Downtime allow you to take your mind off you tech usage habits—all you need to do is listen when Screen Time tells you you should probably not be using an app—but it also ensures you do not need to enforce more rules upon yourself e.g. the old way to get over FoMo used to be to restrict your news habits to the mornings; now, with Screen Time you can enforce a time limit on yourself while freely glancing at your news apps occasionally through the day (which is better for getting your news fix) while resting assured that you would not be overdoing it (which is great for you personally).
Again, the trick is to have as many apps as possible under Screen Time and Downtime restrictions. When one app stops you, getting past it is easy; when nearly all your apps stop you they act together as a powerful deterrent to prevent you from overusing your gadgets.
Do not be a luddite
Unfortunately the idea of becoming a stark raving minimalist, or even a luddite, is rarely far from any discussion involving controlling our use of technology. This is awkward considering how no other discussion prompts such extreme responses from people. Technology has the potential to be an efficiency booster, a tool that makes our work easy and polished, and an all-round enabler. And like any tool it has the potential to derail us.
While some parts of technology are definitely designed to distract, the tools themselves—the hardware especially—is not, nor is the operating system. The idea of hooking people onto an app is often restricted at just the app-level, which means everything else about technology is in our hands. The good news is that most apps that attempt to hook us are also apps that are not all that functional, apps that add little to our lives, apps that are, in a sense, disposable.
So dispose of what you can, take better decisions when it comes to your notifications, employ Screen Time features strategically and obey them, control your tabs, create Walden zones and take control of the tech in your life instead of letting it decide things for you. Strive to be a responsible user and tame your tech.
By this measure, if you get up at 6 am and leave for work at 8:30 am it would mean the time you spend with your gadgets should be a little over half-an-hour, which is reasonable. ↩︎
A few of my readers will likely be preparing to get up in arms about my calling reading a ‘passive’ activity. I am of the opinion that while some reading constitutes a mentally active task most reading does not; think magazines like Cosmo. ↩︎
For those of you who do not want to read the entire paper, here is a relevant part of the abstract: ‘Although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance. We found that cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupted performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants did not directly interact with a mobile device during the task. The magnitude of observed distraction effects was comparable in magnitude to those seen when users actively used a mobile phone, either for voice calls or text message.’ ↩︎
‘The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,’ according to a former Facebook VP of User Growth, Chamath Palihapitiya. Notifications we receive trigger dopamine release in our brains which makes us feel good. Coupled with the unpredictable nature of notifications (read, feel-good reward systems) this quickly makes phone usage a habit and eventually an addiction. ↩︎
And a relief if you ask me. Gmail’s hopeless categorisation system has no doubt cost many a person lots of time thanks to its very presence. Let us handle our own e-mails. ↩︎
Some of my readers wrote to me wondering if I overstepped the point I made rather loudly in my review of Nir Eyal’s Indistractable (please read the review for context) so here is my explanation: In my review of Mr Eyal’s book I said social media must share the blame for our distractions because it was built with the expression intention of ‘hooking’ us; here I clear our smartphones of the blame (not social media, note the difference) because smartphones were always built as tools to enable us to do better (tool-type technology) and never to ‘hook’ us on anything (entertainment-type technology). ↩︎