2016 was certainly an interesting, and in some ways unexpected year (though if you didn’t think Trump had a chance, you should get out more). It being the end of the year, it’s time engage in the traditional American process of New Year’s Resolutions - generally followed by the traditional American process of forgetting about them by February, or March at the latest.
Last year, I set a New Year’s Resolution related to this blog. I resolved to post something - no specific requirements, just something - every week.
Has this resolution been successful? Yes, it has! I posted every Saturday evening in 2016, with the exception of one post that got published Sunday (the SolPad post) because it was time-sensitive and not ready Saturday night - I started it on about Thursday, and it was a long one to write.
Coming into 2017, it’s time to consider something else to add to my life. I want this to be something that will both improve my life, and improve me as a person.
I’ve decided what it is: Radical reduction of distraction.
What? Why? How? Read on!
2016’s Resolution & Results
My 2016 New Year’s Resolution was simple: Post on this blog weekly.
I started this blog in early 2015, when I was on paternity leave, and bored out of my mind. There’s only so much one can do as the father of a newborn, and that left a lot of free time for projects. Why not start a blog about them? I did.
Posting happened as I had projects, and I can’t say there was any real pattern to it. It happened when it happened, or when I’d done something I felt like sharing.
I decided at the start of 2016 that I wanted to post here weekly. Why? Several reasons.
- One of my reasons for starting this blog was to improve my writing skills. Forcing myself to write something weekly seemed a useful way to improve those skills, as compared to writing when I felt like it.
- It forces me to do interesting things. I’m not one who blogs about what I had for dinner (that’s what Facebook is for, and I’ll touch on that later in this post). I want to blog about interesting and useful things - which requires me to do interesting and useful things.
- I’m a perfectionist in many areas. I’ll hack something together for myself and not worry about the details, but if it’s something I intend to blog about, I’ll make a greater effort, understand the topic better, do things more properly, and be more verbose in my writeups. This is useful to me, and is hopefully useful for readers as well.
The result? Success! I posted every week of 2016, and am quite happy with the results. My Solar Shed Summary post has received over 900k page views as of the end of 2016 (of, oh, about 1.3M total page views), front paged Reddit for a while (previously, I’d only front paged Hacker News, which is cool, but not as impressive), and I’ve torn down quite a few different battery packs in the process. I’m happier with my writing now than I am with the cringe-worthy stuff I published last year, and I’ve done plenty of interesting stuff this year - though most of it was related to moving somewhere new, as opposed to simply doing interesting things for the sake of a blog.
2017 Blog Resolution: Research Posts
What can I do in 2017 that will push me as a person? One research post a month.
Posts on my blog have fallen into three major categories: project, teardown/analysis, and research.
Teardown/analysis posts are posts focused more on tearing something apart to see what’s inside, or analyzing a gizmo to find out how it works. This has been mostly battery pack related, though some solar bike lights have shown up as well.
Finally, research posts are posts that are less about something in my hands and that require more research or analysis. EV cobalt requirements. Tesla Model S 12V battery behavior. Embodied energy calculations. Things like that.
Quite honestly, I don’t like writing those as much. They take a lot of work - it’s not just some photos and banging out text. It takes deeply understanding a topic, finding and digging through primary sources, and doing a lot of synthesis and analysis. But, I come out the other side with a deep understanding of a topic and the ability to speak with authority on quite a few areas - because I’ve spent the time to understand the topic, and dive through primary sources.
That’s good for me. So I should do more of that.
2017 Life Resolution: Engineer Less Distraction
Research posts take time. My 2 acres of property takes time. Parenting a child takes time. I only have so much time - and there’s so much to learn, so much to do, and so much to experience! My 2017 “life” resolution is to aggressively reduce distraction in my life so I can be more efficient at doing that which I care about.
Think forward. Do you really expect on your deathbed to be wishing you’d spent more time on Facebook or Twitter? Nobody’s last words are, “If only I’d written better liked tweets in my life!”
We live in the Age of Distraction. It’s possible (and, anymore, quite easy) to spend your entire life distracted - usually in the form of Streams. Facebook and Twitter are two major ones, but Reddit can be pretty bad, news sites are catching on to Streams, and you’ve probably got your own preferred never-ending streams that just don’t help your quality of life much. Get rid of them.
There are a lot of parts to this, many of which I’ve already been implementing as I figure them out. Here’s the overview of what I’m doing, how I’m going about doing it, and why you might want to consider such things.
Phone: Fewer Apps, Less Time
ding-ding-ding. Emergency. EMERGENCY. EMERGENCY! That notification could mean that the world is ending and the President needs your immediate help to save the human race! It’s your personal Bat Signal, in your pocket!
It’s never the Bat Signal, though. It was probably just Facebook, letting you know that someone you sort of barely knew back in high school just updated their status, so would you please click and get lost in Facebook for half an hour?
Or your phone company, informing you that your automatic payment has been processed.
Or a “Free to Play” game, demanding your time, because some crystal countdown timer has expired and you need to go collect your resource. Oh, but, you know, you can spend real money to get that virtual resource…
Or something else similarly not at all important to what you were actually trying to do at that moment in life.
For some people, phone notifications are important - at least some of the time. If you’re oncall at work, they probably matter. For the rest of us, and most definitely for me? They’re not important. They are, however, an incredible distraction.
Ask yourself: When you do get that notification and pull your phone out of the pocket to see if the world is ending - do you check the notification and put your phone back? Or do you then go check your email, see what’s happening on Facebook, check the weather, and manage to totally forget about what you were doing prior to that notification?
I thought so - I have the same problem! It’s worse when you’re interacting with people face to face and it happens to someone. Usually, everyone else pulls their phone out, and the interaction with the people you’re with is over.
Delete that distracting stuff from your phone. If it’s distracting, it goes. For me, one of my “I should check my phone because I’m bored” apps was AdSense. Does it really matter how many pennies I’ve earned today? Nope! Gone. Twitter. Gone. Facebook. Well, never installed because Facebook plays fast and loose with app guidelines and manages to kill battery life. But gone. Eliminate the “useful” apps that encourage you lose half an hour at a time to your phone. ”Free-to-play” games are about the worst thing ever here, because they require triggering addiction in players so people pay up. They are, quite literally, the expert psychology of Las Vegas, in your pocket, every day. Get rid of them.
And then aggressively turn off notifications you don’t care about. Android and iOS both let you remove the privilege of an app to interrupt you at any point - use that power (or change the settings in the app).
Do you really need to know every time an email that’s probably spam shows up? Remove your email notifications and eliminate dozens of pocket pings a day!
Phones have a silence or “do not distract” option. Use it. If you’re meeting someone somewhere, sure. Let them text you. But is your life really better when your evening is a chain of endless notifications? Mine isn’t - and I’m finding ways to make them increasingly notification-free.
The radical step here (which I’ve started doing, and I encourage it) is to put your phone in another room, with notifications silenced. Or, even turn it off. I know. Heresy. All I can say is that you should try it, and expect addiction withdrawal symptoms at first. Persevere. It gets better. The smartphone arrived on June 29, 2007 - that was the day the first iPhone was released (not announced). They haven’t been around for even a decade yet. You really can live without it in the evenings. We have 5500 years of recorded history. Smartphones have been around for less than 10.
But there’s one more thing - I’m trying to learn to navigate by memory and mental maps again. I used to be able to do that, but I’ve mostly lost that ability due to phone GPS, and I don’t like it. I’ve started trying to get places by looking at a map before I leave, and then getting myself there. Do I find the most efficient routes? Probably not. Do I get a chance to explore? Very much yes! It’s hard at first. But it’s a useful skill to relearn, and it’s something I want my daughter to learn as well.
Pocket and Kobo
I read a lot of articles - both from sources I agree with, and from sources I disagree with. I read a lot. Reading articles in a browser is seriously distracting. They link to other things. And there’s Reddit. And my inbox. And, and, and. Ctrl-t. Ctrl-t. Ctrl-t. Never ending. I’ve read the first few scrolls of certain articles half a dozen times, getting distracted each time before I could finish.
This simply isn’t a good use of my time. I want a distraction free environment for reading long articles all the way through. Being able to add linked articles is nice, but I want to add them to a queue, not interrupt myself with them. And I don’t want the ads and “endless scrolling” that far too many “news” (mostly clickbait) sites have added recently.
I’ve found a solution that solves almost all of this for me. I have a Kobo Aura. It supports Pocket. Pocket has a Chrome extension and an iOS “send to” target. And this, woven together, creates something beautiful and distraction free.
If I come across an article I want to read, I scroll quickly, and see how long it is. If the article is short, I’ll just read it. If it’s long? I Pocket it. I can do this from my phone, or from my browsers (I use Chrome, because it’s awesome). Click the extension icon, save it to pocket, close it. I can read it later.
And when I read it? It’s on an e-ink display, with no videos, no ads, and no distractions. I can add other linked articles to my queue, but they don’t interrupt me. Photos are black and white, and I miss “interactive content,” but that’s just fine with me.
I’ve been doing this for a while, and it’s incredible. I can read very, very long articles without interruption - and they sync when the device is connected to wifi, so I can read them entirely offline.
It’s remarkably like reading a newspaper again - just the text!
I fought the e-ink thing for a long time. I picked up my first e-ink reader in 2015 - and I couldn’t be happier with my Kobo. It creates a great, distraction-free environment for reading. And it chews up any format you can think of (as long as said format is DRM-free, which is easy enough to remove from Kindle files). Between this, and Pocket, I can still read the articles I want, on my terms. And I haven’t run into a single auto-playing video on my Kobo yet!
Have you ever gone for a week without actively checking Facebook? Try it sometime! It turns into a needy, clingy ex in your email inbox. ”Hey, I haven’t heard from you in a few days. Are you OK? Hey, check out this link your friend posted!” ”Are you there? Hey, your friends have been posting! You should check it out!” ”Wow, your friend just posted an amazing status! Click here to check it!” ”Did you know there have been 72 status updates, 347 likes, and 68 photos posted since you last checked in? Click here to get lost in Facebook!”
Facebook on your phone will happily send you notifications if you let it, because your eyeballs, on Facebook, are all they care about.
If you don’t get notifications - no problem. They’ll email you. You can’t pick a list of what you want to see, either - you have to wait for an annoying notification email, click “unsubscribe” at the bottom, and unsubscribe from only that type of email. It’s designed to be difficult, because people who aren’t constantly coming back aren’t eyeballs to monetize.
Facebook resembles nothing so much as a solid drug habit. Addictive, ever-present, and always trying you get you to come back for just one more hit. That’s their business model - endless eyeballs.
For 2017, I’m saying “Enough.” I already don’t get notifications because the app isn’t installed. I’m turning off most of the emails as well. My goal is to use Facebook on my terms - not the terms it wishes I’d use. Unfortunately, some people still organize by Facebook, but I can get rid of the bulk of the intrusion into my life.
If you want to reduce the email, try the arrow in the top right -> Settings -> Notifications -> Email -> Edit, and turn the notification level down. Pair that with uninstalling it from your phone, and you can get rid of most of the junk!
Notice that I’m not saying, “Get rid of Facebook.” I’m saying, “Pick your terms for Facebook.” If you want to check it in the evenings, great. Check it in the evenings. If you want to check it once a week - great! Check it once a week. But eliminate its ability to pester you at every hour of the day or night.
“Oh, code’s compiling! I’ll just check Reddit/Facebook/Arstechnica/YouTube/(whatever)!”
Half an hour later. ”Oh. Code’s been done compiling for a while. Huh.”
If you live on a Mac, Self Control is wonderful. It restricts your access to certain websites for a user-chosen period of time. This is good. Focus on what you’re doing, not the distractions.
I’ve been using it and loving it for a while now. It’s a huge distraction reduction for me. If you’re on another OS, I’m sure you can find something similar.
While you’re at it, close your mail client. It’ll wait. Deal with email a few times a day, and watch the distractions disappear.
Actually… Most of the Internet is Silly
As much as it pains to me to say this, the mainstream corners of the internet have become mostly worthless. They’re “all about those clicks, ‘bout those clicks, no content.” Image ads that have a deliberately chopped caption to get you to click. ”You won’t believe number 27!” - in this list of things that are, quite literally, a sentence or two surround by advertising. Every single article is interrupted many times by, and followed by, dozens of ads for other articles, or things, or clickbait captions (reading on the Kobo helps here dramatically).
There’s a ton of great information on the internet, but you find it by searching for specific things - not by browsing aimlessly. And… you know what? An awful lot of the internet is just a big, fat, waste of time these days. I want to spend less time on it, and more time doing things (or in the corners that I find useful, or here, writing long posts).
If you haven’t seen Idiocracy, you’re not missing much, but the huge TV, with tiny stupid content in the middle surrounded by advertising, is a good perspective to have in mind when trying to browse most modern sites - think about it. You’ll laugh. Or cry. Either way.
Finally, I’m going to start reading through some of the shelves of dead-tree edition books I have. Because, why not?
Time is precious. I’ve seen too much of my time slip down rabbit holes that aren’t useful - and I’m done with that.
In 2017, I’m going to continue deliberately setting up my life with a low-distraction environment, and see what happens.