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

Jump to the list of tips

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

Book Review: Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Previous week’s post

Some authors are capable of bringing so many disparate ideas to the table that you begin to wonder where the limits of their creativity lie. A few are able to turn the tangle of ideas they introduce into a coherent, compelling synthesis. Yuval Noah Harari has shown in Homo Deus, that he is not only capable of doing this for human history (in his widely appreciated Sapiens), but for the human future as well. Where Homo Deus falters most is perhaps in its repetition. The first two sections do contain several informative strands of thought, but it takes too long to reach the meat of the work: the section concerning the future of humanity. 

Harari’s thesis will certainly be controversial to many readers. He claims that the past has seen the religions of old replaced by the story of humanism: concerned fundamentally with the experiences of human beings themselves. The liberal variety of humanism, which dominated the 20th Century and lives on in democratic societies today, is now under threat by improving technology.

Giving value to individuals makes sense when you need them to fight wars, run factories, and participate in a growing economy. Through artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, advanced machines and enhanced humans will likely be capable of these tasks in the future. This will result in the breakdown of the liberal humanist story. Harari suggests two alternatives: a form of techno-humanism, valuing the experiences of technologically modified humans, or Dataism, valuing the free exchange of information above all else.

Concerned more with convincing than assuaging the reader, Harari relies on analogies from the past and present. He starts by chronicling the shift away from the pre-agricultural human worship of animals. Non-coincidentally, this shift occurred precisely when farmers began to domesticate animals. Suddenly, animals were seen either as a means for human gain or ignored completely. 

Furthermore, rulers were often given divine status precisely to justify the unequal value given to them and provide a structure that society could operate under. When capitalism and mass-mobilization required that men perform additional economic and military duties, they were given more inherent value. When mass-mobilization required these men to leave the factories in World War I, the women who replaced them also gained inherent value in the eyes of society.

These and other examples lead Harari to the conclusion that history describes a web of stories that humans tell one another to justify their actions. These stories are not feeble bits of imagination. The stories we tell ourselves about Jesus, capitalism, science, France, and others, direct the lives of billions of people, altering the world in their wake. For readers of Sapiens, this will be a familiar concept. 

When the peaks of intelligence become uncoupled from regular human beings, the value we give humans will certainly change.

Harari makes it clear that the dominant story of our age, liberal humanism, is under threat. When the peaks of intelligence become uncoupled from regular human beings, the value we give huamans will certainly change. There is certainly evidence that technology will profoundly alter the value structures we now cling to. Liberal humanism, which values every person’s experiences enough to allow them to vote and speak their mind, is likely to change.

The question Harari leads the reader to ponder is what story or value structure will come next? Harari suggests that the likeliest successor is Dataism, or the belief in the value of connecting bits of information. I think this is questionable. Harari does little to convince me that we will be walking away from fundamentally valuing certain conscious experiences themselves. Perhaps this is because this work takes the contemporary materialist line on consciousness (which I will critique in a post next week). Regardless, I think the experiences of the most powerful beings around will likely dictate the value structure society operates under. 

I do accept the likelihood that increasing information flow between people, cyborgs, and machines would usually provide net benefits to society at large. But I think every improvement to society will emphasize the amazing states of consciousness and harmony provided by increased information flow (as Harari in fact emphasizes to defend Dataism). This is different from valuing information flow a priori. The quadrillionaire cyborgs of tomorrow (perhaps a future Elon Musk) will likely not be pleased if increased informational flow leads to their suffering and ultimate destruction.

Whether Dataism pans out or gets panned by its cyborg critics, Homo Deus will certainly expand your conception of what the future will look like and where we’re heading as a civilization. It stands as a creative, albeit lengthy, successor to Sapiens.

-Alexander Pasch

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