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Defragment your life

Defragment your life

Fragmentation used to be an issue with old hard drives. Files got placed wherever there was a couple bytes of unclaimed space. As a result, reading those files that were scattered all over the disk became increasingly slow over time, impacting the speed of all basic operations. One had to defragment the hard drive to make everything run more smoothly.

Now, our very lives have grown fragmented. How do we defragment that?

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as clicking a button, but there are various things we can do that will limit how scattered our minds become.

Attention

Our ability to direct attention well underlies all experience.

Yet, this foundational ability is under attack—from technology.

Technology fragments our attention. There are always many options presented to us (like apps, menus, notifications...), and the availability of easy choices makes it easy to get side-tracked.

Pick a new wallpaper instead of writing? Sure. Check the news instead of coding? Sure. Check Discord instead of designing? Sure.

It's too easy to transition from an intentional activity to an unintentional one, from focus to distraction. The nigh infinite malleability of bits is a wondrous invention, but this very ability also makes it too easy to change our minds.

In effect, each clickable box on the screen is seducing us to click and make the pain of purposeful pursuit vanish.

With so many easy choices, it's all too easy to not invest attention into a couple meaningful endeavors, but merely daytrade it in exchange for a momentary respite from life.

The first order of business should then be preventing technology from fragmenting our attention further.

Prevent inattentive use of technology

Let's use the computer as a tool, not as an endless void of distractions that dysregulates our dopamine system to the point where anything but clicking and scrolling becomes hard.

The first way is to keep using it, but add back some limits to make the bad choices hard, instead of easy.

Now we go into the weeds and tactics.

Block out distractions

If you have apps like Twitter on your phone (and you don't need them for business), you're making yourself an easy target. Just seeing that icon means you have the option to scroll your life away. Bad idea.

Remove the apps that you're inclined to use only passively.

In the browser, I built one site-blocker myself. I used to access Twitter anywhere—on my phone, my iPad, in the browser—and this proved to be fatal to my creativity. Blocking potentially distracting sites for most of the day was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Being a bit bored for 5 minutes is much better than checking a site for "5 minutes" that become 2 hours of distracted browsing.

Use physical tools

Of course, sometimes it's better to avoid digital tools altogether in favor of using physical objects.

The advantage of physical things over digital things is their singular purpose.

If you have a book, it's a book. It isn't a YouTube player, Twitter app, alarm clock... it's a book. On some level, that's the world our brain is used to. It's less confusing.

Our digital devices shift the burden of determining what they're for onto us. The onus is on us to decide, each day, each hour, each minute, and each second what to do with them. That's an overwhelming and paralyzing scenario if your mind is not clear.

And so, our subconscious mind often directs us down the path of least resistance (and most pleasure). Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, TikTok,... no more decisions, just blissful scrolling.

Going back to the fully analog/single-purpose world is likely not an option though people like billionaire Paul Mitchell can afford to engineer their life to be that way. Mitchell runs his companies through fax machines. Yes, those still exist. Naturally, he has assistants who handle the digital stuff for him.

However, even without billions and assistants, we can go analog to an extent.

Read physical books instead of digital ones. Figure out designs or pseudo code on a whiteboard first. Write the first draft on paper instead of using the laptop (as I did for fragmentation).

Physical tools bring a clarity of purpose rare in the digital world.

Condense communication

Besides work or passive browsing, messaging is another major reason why we use computers. It's fulfilling the human need to communicate.

Yet, messaging is a hyper-technical, asynchronous, context-less way of communicating. Unfortunately, it's as disruptive to focus as it is good at taking advantage of our base impulses. Because we feel obliged to answer the queries of others, messaging is easily justified and so it's a seductive way to start the descent into the always on world.

Yet, many messages are quite trivial and 95% of them can wait for an hour or more.

Instead, I'm in favor of making time for a good conversation. A single visit to a friend, or an hour long video call every month is a far superior way of satisfying the human need to connect with others in a meaningful way.

Less messaging, more conversations.

Lengthen your attention span

Now that our existing attention span is protected from eroding, let's build the capacity to think long-form through 3 simple practices we used to do more, partially forced by our environment and what used to constitute work.

When your mind wanders, do nothing

Just because we can check whether there are new messages or new posts doesn't mean we should.

Brief moments of nothing used to be a natural part of work. You finished mowing a neat row through tall grass with your scythe, and you paused (in large part just to let muscles rest). You stared into the distance, and did not a thing. Those little moments of serenity were precious, and yet so common in days past.

How eager we now are to exchange them for shallow novelty only because of the immediacy with which it's delivered.

How easy it is to forget how utterly irrelevant most of the world is to our own lives.

And so now we need to write about doing nothing as if it were a new thing, because we were tricked to keep up with everything.

Don't fall for it. Do nothing.

Single-task

And here now is another common sense practice that became uncommon with the advent of the computer.

Multi-tasking used to be much harder to do. In the past, when you split logs, you split logs. When you mowed grass, you mowed grass. When you wrote a letter, you wrote a letter.

Sure, that doesn't mean that people didn't get side-tracked. They did. However, they did so much less frequently, and their distractions were finite and also likely relevant to their lives. These last two statements are rarely true for modern distractions.

Yet, the ability to single-task is deeply rooted. It is not lost, though it may be eroded. With a bit of careful attention, we can make the multi-purpose tool that is our computer into a single-purpose tool (even if only for a moment).

Right now, the only app I see on my laptop is my writing editor. Everything else is hidden. That helps me do just this. Write.

On a neurological level, multi-tasking is a myth. Our brain is built to single-task. Multi-tasking is just switching rapidly between two targets in a costly manner.

The practice of retraining our brain to single-task couldn't be simpler: do what you're doing, for as long as you can manage.

Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley tries to do an hour of purposeful single-tasking each day. That's a fine ambition. I aim for at least 30 minutes.

Besides the obvious, there's one more interesting practice that comes to mind.

Entrepreneur Rahul Vohra logs every switch from one task to another. This kind of logging is bound to help him become aware of when he's not single-tasking for longer periods of time. I've done this type of logging a couple times for a couple days, and each time it highlighted just how often I switch from one activity to another.

Single-task as much as you can and perhaps log when you're switching from one task to another.

Meditate

One last tool to defragment attention is, of course, meditation.

Meditation is a good practice for the skill of re-directing attention and not pursuing thoughts just because they appeared in your mind at the moment.

One way to think about it is as learning to pick which thoughts are worth having and learning to let go all the other ones dissolve into the ether from whence they materialized.

I won't go on about it too much. It's useful. More people should do it.

If you've been looking for an excuse to resume your past meditation habit, this sentence is it.

Intention

Attention is the foundation, intentions are the building blocks.

We often start the day with good intentions: work on this, finish that, write that, tidy up,... But then life happens, and depending on our habits and our environment, our actions get hijacked or we stay on track.

Social media, email, or YouTube can become a shredder of intention. The more posts, messages, or videos we see, the less we remember what we originally wanted to do.

Our goal should then be to preserve our own intentions and hold them in our memory long enough to solidify them through action.

Preserve your own intentions

One way or another, we arrived at having some wants and wishes regarding our future. I briefly go into whether those wants and wishes are truly ours below, but supposing they are, how do we enact them?

Ignore everything until you've made progress

If you're not using your time well already, checking social media should be at the bottom of your priority list.

The news and social media have convinced us that we need to be informed 24/7.

No. We need to be informed maybe 1/7 or 0.5/7, and only after we've done what we meant to do at that.

After you wake up, go do something meaningful. It can be productive (like work), it can simply be worthwhile (like meeting a good friend to catch up.)

Until you've done something meaningful, ignore the rest of the world. It might as well not exist.

Who cares which celebrity said what if you haven't felt the joy of making progress in days?

Follow your own intentions before those of others

When you wake up and scroll, you invite the intentions of others to suplant your own.

Like this! Buy this! Follow me!

Stop it. Every post is someone else's intention trying to wiggle its way into your own mind.

Very few posts are created with the intention to more or less selflessly help you accomplish your goals. And even those posts can wait for when you're done with something meaningful (you can probably see the pattern by now).

So, before you let others tell you what to do, let yourself follow your own intentions.

Desires

What underlies intentions? Desires. Desires are the nebulous mists from which intention coalesce.

Yet, sometimes those desires are not our own.

Each photo, each tweet, and each video is a potential new desire.

You see someone on a beach and you think: I want to be on a beach.

Naturally the idea is tolimit your exposure to the engines of desire called social media. This I've covered above already.

Once you don't scroll social media every waking second, what to do with your time?

Reflect on what you seem to want

It can be hard to discern which desire is more or less genuine and which is not. My best advice is to ponder what you seemingly want.

This requires time without external inputs. I've asked myself many times "What do I want?" on long walks through the woods, or sitting in my chair and looking into the garden. (Once again, in the past the simple act of reflection was more common, largely through the unavailability of endless entertainment on tap.)

Reflecting on desires for extended periods of time clarifies which are rooted deeply within us.

Curate your models of desire

When you're reasonably sure a desire is yours, find people who reinforce an existing desire.

In the social media world, this means being mindful about who you follow and whose posts you truly pay attention to.

Discord servers of people gathering around shared interests (like the Soaring Twenties Social Club are also a good way to let a particular set of desires reinforce through interactions with others.

Instead of fragmenting our desires and adding more and more of them with every post we see, reinforce pre-existing desires.

Summary

Attention, intention, desire.

The world is stacked in a way that fragments them, and the responsibility for re-stacking it in our favor is ours.

Use the tools above to defragment your life.