How I (Try to) Stay Productive: A List of Tips

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As I wrote about last week, the internet age has given us countless devices and apps designed to distract. It still is sometimes hard to distinguish where exactly an activity transforms itself from useful, or harmlessly entertaining, to full on distracting. However, what seems clear to me, is that for most people using modern technology, this line is often crossed. Given this, I thought that it might be useful to write about what I do to prevent distraction and increase productivity in my life. 

I remember when I first started realizing that technology was going to be a serious problem for my academic prospects. In middle school, I often would procrastinate writing papers until the middle of the night before they were due. At this time I did not have a computer of my own, so in some sense I thought it a treat that I was able to use the family computer on a weeknight. I would usually end up watching Netflix until my monkey brain finally ceded control sometime in the wee hours of the morning and I began writing. 

Reflecting upon those experiences at the time, I knew it was a problem. I knew it was going to make it more difficult to succeed come high-school, but I didn’t have a ready blue-print to deal with the problem. I was also too confident in my own capacity for self-restraint to seriously ask for help.

Since then, I have gone through numerous strategies to help curtail the negative influence of technology in my life. Today, I rely on a combination of certain habits and certain restrictions on sites. The following are, I believe, the most important features of my current system.

I have a set-up where I keep my computer in the place where I do most of my work. I, with almost no exceptions, keep this laptop there and do not bring it to where I sleep and do much of my reading. I bring my phone with me, but try to keep it apart from where I am sleeping (or at least on the opposite side of the room if I need it for an alarm). I am still working on improving my phone habit, however.

In terms of technical steps to prevent distraction, I found a few important apps and features in iOS 14.3 that are particularly useful. For my computer running Windows 10, I use an app called Cold Turkey to block every website on a list across every browser. It works by forcing you to install the Cold Turkey extension on each of your browsers in order for them to launch. You can then make schedules both for when websites on this list are blocked, and when you are able to edit this list. I have found this to be very effective at preventing me from accessing certain sites (eg. Youtube, Reddit, and News sites) that I would gravitate to when bored and get sucked into. 

On my phone I have a rather draconian system. The first thing I use is the inbuilt Content Restrictions settings in the iPhone settings. Here I only allow access to sites that I have whitelisted. These are Wikipedia, Google, and a handful of others. I have purposefully forgotten the content restrictions passcode so that I would need to reset it with my AppleID to change these settings. 

This doesn’t work by itself for me because this doesn’t prevent you from installing apps that you can use to easily evade the content restrictions. In response I have deleted all apps that are somewhat distracting and purposefully forgotten my AppleID password so it is more difficult to reinstall them. Hopefully, in the future Apple makes it easier to self regulate your usage and harder to bypass your restrictions. I know my complicated setup isn’t for everyone, but you can still use the productivity features offered in iOS in less extreme forms.

Here is a summary of my productivity tips:

Habits and Home Setup Tips

  • Separate your workspace from your sleeping and resting space.
  • Keep your computer in a different room from where you sleep.
  • Charge your phone in a different room (or at least the opposite side of the room) from where you sleep and where you work.
  • When reading, keep devices in a different room or put them where you can’t hear them.
  • Set time in your day when you can’t use the internet, particularly at night

Tech Tips

  • Use Cold Turkey (or Self-Control for Mac) to block sites or apps that you think are distracting on your PC. Or, only allow yourself to use certain apps at specific times.
  • Use Content Restrictions on iOS to either block all non-whitelisted sites, or block specific sites you find distracting.
  • Turn off notifications from apps that you use too much.
  • Delete apps that you can’t stop using or can’t stop from distracting yourself.
  • If you need a draconian measure, forget your passcodes and passwords that allow you to change these settings or download distracting apps.

Most importantly, I’ve found that this is a continuous process. You will not find the perfect setup for yourself immediately. The most important thing is that you don’t give up. Instead, accept incremental progress as you learn more about yourself and your habits.

Good Luck,

Alexander Pasch

My Place in the Education Data

In December, 2019 (which feels like a decade ago), I had just wrapped up my degree in Neuroscience and wanted to see where I stood alongside all the other college graduates of the year. I came up with a set of waffle charts showing the number of graduates in several different categories but decided not to publish them.

Well, I’ve changed my mind. No longer will they sit in a file on my computer. Here is my place in the US Education Data.

First, I wanted to see myself compared with the other 123 UT graduating neuroscience bachelors.

One box = One student (123 students total)

Here I am am next to all US neuroscience bachelors.

One box = One student (~6500 students total)

I can’t fit any longer, but here are UT and US neuroscience bachelors next to the other US bioscience bachelors.

One Box = 100 students (~120,000 students total)

And finally, for the broadest perspective of the bunch, here are all the US bachelors next to other degree recipients (Phd, Ma, certification etc.).

One box = 6581 students (~4 million students total)

And that’s before getting to one billion Americans!

Hope you enjoyed. You can find the code here.

Alexander Pasch

My Prediction for the 2020 Election

Because I’d like to see how in tune I am with the state of my fellow citizens, I am posting a predicted electoral map for the 2020 Presidential Election. Much is this is derived from the polls, but as you can see, I make several calls that don’t strictly follow the polling leader.

My Rationale

  • Consistent polling leads for Biden
  • Improvements in polling methodology from 2016
  • Extremely consistent dissaproval for Trump across his entire presidency
  • Democratic gains in the suburbs in 2018
  • Increased turnout

I think many of the mid-west states that Hillary Clinton lost will return to Joe Biden. In Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, he has consistently led Donald Trump by wider and more consistent margins than Clinton. More importantly, pollsters have learned from 2016, and more heavily weigh the demographic makeup of Trump’s base this time around.

As Nate Silver of 538 has pointed out, polling biases rarely stay constant across elections, and there is reason to think a polling bias might even overweight Trump’s base this time around.

Florida burned Democrats so painfully in 2018 that I believe people discount Biden’s consistent polling lead here. Similarly, North Carolina has had him consistently leading for some time. Arizona has seen an even more robust Biden lead. I call these all for him.

The states I have the most trouble with are Iowa, Ohio, Georgia, and Texas. Georgia and Texas have been trending blue, and while they also burned Democrats in 2018, I believe the blue-trending suburbs and high turnout will be just enough to push them into Biden’s camp. Trump and Biden have been trading leads in Iowa and Ohio so I have the 2018 congressional elections in Iowa portending a Biden victory there, while Ohio barely stays in the Trump column.

Why This Could be Wrong

All of this could be wrong for many reasons, but I think there are a few likely candidates. First, undecided voters could swing to Trump as they did in 2016. This is unlikely to win him the electoral college outright, but could tip several close states in his favor.

Second, there could still easily be a polling bias in favor of Biden. Whether non-college educated white voters turnout for the first time for Trump, or people haven’t been honestly answering pollsters, it is certainly possible Trump outperforms his polls significantly.

Third, the presence of election shenanigans. While the polls have been steady, in many swing states, officials have implemented measures to restrict voting. Most recently, a GOP led effort attempted to throw out around 127,000 votes in Harris county (which is likely to vote for Biden). While this effort was struck down, other litigation will continue, especially in close states. However, if the election comes down to litigation, it’s likely that my prediction will have already been far off the mark.

No matter who you are, I hope this election gives you at least something to value. After all, in 2016, Californians legalized marijuana, and in Stockton, elected their inspiring mayor Michael Tubbs.

Knock On Wood GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

This time I’m knocking on wood,

Alexander Pasch

Mindfulness and the Maze

Imagine you wake up and find yourself in a maze. There are several paths ahead of you. Feeling no rush, you decide to go ahead and explore of it as much as you can. As you wander, you find that each pathway changes the types of thoughts and sensations that appear in your mind. Certain paths activate your vivid imagination. Others bring your life’s embarrassments to mind. You find that certain paths are extremely enjoyable to walk through, activating pleasant memories of someone you love or the ability to live and enjoy the present moment. While you enjoy spending time in these parts of the maze, somehow you always find yourself wandering away. Somehow, you find yourself walking the pathways that activate insecurities, your bodily pains, and all your visceral fears.

But you never stick to any one direction. For there is another trick to the maze. At any point, it can spontaneously transport you into another path without you realizing. One thought is suddenly replaced by another. The sounds of a barking dog by a pain in your hand; or the sight of a tree by the thought of the mysterious nature of the universe itself. Sometimes you realize what just happened. If the thought you were thinking was interesting enough, you can transport back to the location you came from and continue down that path. But all too often, you disappear from it without remembering at all. 

One day you happen across a book in the maze. It contains a dusty map and a user guide. Deciding it’s probably worth reading, you try to get through it. It takes time and attention, but you make progress while wandering about. Many times, you misplace the book in one of the maze’s many turns. However, you always seem to eventually discover it again, determined this time to hold on harder. Determined to figure out the secrets to this world you find yourself in.

The book eventually teaches you how to teleport yourself above the maze to a room with a glass floor overlooking the maze – a bird’s eye view. Here, different pathways appear in view together and you are able to recognize the entrances to several pathways of thought. You can see those pathways dedicated to tactile sensation, pain, and discomfort. Then, there is the blurry jungle of emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and desires; difficult to dissect.

At some point after staring down at the maze, you lose focus and are returned to some pathway in it. But when you remember the book and this new practice you can always teleport back up again. With time, this process becomes seamless.

The book also teaches you another skill. You are able to detect when you are about to be teleported before it happens. You can make a mental note of this without becoming sucked into this new pathway. You feel the entrances to this particular thoughts light up and beckon your approach. But now, the book has taught how you might avoid its call.

If you were stuck in such a maze, life without this book would be chaotic and at times unbearable. But this is similar to the state that people already live in. Your mind is a maze. Some parts you may have mapped, but much, much more of it is a complete mystery. Your unconscious takes you down rabbit holes which feel incredibly important, only then to place your attention somewhere completely different mere seconds later. This constantly occurs in your waking hours, almost always without you being aware of it. This is the normal state of consciousness.

In the maze, the book provides knowledge of how to teleport to the room observing the mind. In real life, mindfulness provides something similar – the opportunity to notice before diving into a train of thought. It allows you the capacity to consent to mind wandering. It creates a new appreciation for the manifestations of mind without being blinded by them. And when negative emotions strike and attempt to bend you to their will, mindfulness allows you an escape room. Here, you can understand the power and majesty of such emotions without being subservient to them. This is a great benefit of mindfulness and something I couldn’t help but notice in my time meditating.