This is an aspirational post. There’s a lot written on Medium about ways to live better, be more productive, and live a happier life. This is one of those posts too, but I’m no guru. I don’t always do what I’m about to write here. I just wish I did.
Spend part of every day sans-smartphone
Like everyone else with an iPhone, checking it has become a default behavior. Waiting in line? Check my phone. Taking a piss? Check my phone. Kid playing by herself for a minute? Check my phone.
It’s exhausting when I think about it, and I don’t think it’s healthy. It’s pointless, passive consumption. I’d rather have a default behavior that makes me happy. What did I do before I had a phone tethered to my hip? I probably thought more, or just kept a blank, meditative mind for a few minutes.
I want to remember what it was like to zone out without a screen in front of me.
When I remember to do it, I make it a point to just walk away. I’ll leave the house without my phone. I’ll go running without it. Or just spend some time in my yard with the phone plugged into the wall instead of my hip.
It’s jarring at first. My front left pocket is empty, missing its companion, void of electronic life. I get the “phantom buzz” sometimes when I’m without my phone. I think I feel something, reach my hand down to see if my phone is buzzing, and realize it’s not there.
It’s awkward. On the one hand I’m proud of myself for adhering to this first piece of self-advice. On the other hand I think, wow, this phone is hard-wired into my head. I feel it even when it’s gone.
The result is I now check my phone less when I do have it. I’ll be in line, or taking a piss, or see my kid safely playing by herself. Instead of popping out my phone I’ll intentionally not pop out my phone. I’ll acknowledge the urge and then deflect it. Most of the time I don’t know what to do so I do nothing. Then the moment passes.
The line moves forward, I leave the bathroom, or my daughter has returned her attention to me. I notice in those moments that the little twinge of interruption I used to feel when I was in the middle of deleting those emails or reviewing those tweets doesn’t happen. It’s one less minor annoyance I have to deal with.
In short, it’s not an interruption, and most importantly, my daughter doesn’t see me with a phone in front of my face. At least not that time. Hey, that’s an improvement.
Pro tip: A good way to start is by keeping your phone in another room when you sleep. I charge mine in the kitchen overnight. You’ll find that you don’t need one last check of your phone before you drift off, and you don’t need that hit first thing when you wake up. It’s a much calmer way to start and end your day. It may feel like a self-imposed punishment at first but then it will be liberating. Promise.
Keep a notebook
Ideas come to me at in-opportune times. I tried Evernote, Notes, and even just email drafts to track my thoughts. I found that by relying on my phone I’d get distracted as soon as I unlocked it. There would be notifications, emails, text messages. My phone was clutter when I needed cleanliness.
I also wasn’t able to successfully do brainstorms from scratch on my phone. Again, the clutter would get in the way. I’d lose my inspiration before I got started. On numerous occasions I’d have a thought or just the germ of a thought, open my phone, and within seconds completely forget what I wanted to type into Evernote. My thought got chewed up by notification chaos and was probably lost forever.
I’ve discovered that analog brainstorming is much better. Before I had an iPhone I journaled a lot more. I carried around a pocket-sized Moleskine notebook when I was in grad school. It was perfect. I used it to remember concepts, record homework assignments, to-do lists, and takeaways from conferences and lectures.
I even doodled in them, which was a good habit for me because I draw terribly. Someday I will take a sketching class. Until then, I used to practice drawing still life in my Moleskine. Once I got an iPhone, that all stopped. No more free-flowing notes and no more really bad sketches.
About a year ago I incorporated the Moleskine back into my life. I brought it to work and made it very conspicuous in meetings. Just having it on the table changed the tone of the meeting, especially when I was the boss. And taking notes in it during the meeting… Wow! It had an impact. I found that my colleagues appreciated that they said something that I deemed worthy to write down. And at the end of the meeting, when I would summarize the takeaways back to them, and then jot another point or two down as I went, it again demonstrated that I listened, found the meeting worthwhile, and respected our time together.
In other words, taking physical, analog, pen-to-paper notes demonstrates class, commitment, and credibility about your work that is contagious. I know because I saw a couple other people carrying Moleskines around the office after I started doing it.
I found that outside of the office, for my side projects, it was also helpful. I’d diagram ideas on BART, outline blog posts, and remind myself of things I wanted to get done around the house. There’s still no digital substitute for writing loose thoughts down on paper.
Always have something to read, play, and write
I need structure for my self-improvement. If I don’t, my time gets lost in the daily vortex of work and family. So, I try to have three things going in the background all the time. Three activities I can pick from when I have a moment to focus on myself, completely unrelated to work or family.
When those moments of openness happen, I have to act fast. Having three activities to pick from means I can cater the activity to the environment and the amount of time I have. For example, I do most of my reading in bed at night. It’s best for me to read when I have 30–40 minutes of concentrated quiet. Playing music, on the other hand, can fit in smaller chunks, sometimes while my kids are playing. Often they’ll join me so I get to practice music and play with my kids at the same time. I’m all about finding those win-win scenarios (jogging with a kid in stroller is another good one).
For my three self-improvement activities, I try to have a book, a piece of music, and a blog post in progress all the time. Here’s the breakdown:
Read: I’m at my best when I have a book going. It’s good for conversation, it’s good for mental stimulation, and it’s a great way (for me at least) to fall asleep at night. The singular feature set of the Kindle Paperwhite makes it bedstand-worthy. I don’t get notification overload or urges to check whatever other social media app might exist. No. It’s just for reading, and for that, I love it.
Write: I keep drafts of my blog posts on Medium. My best work is done in multiple sittings, and it takes me a good 30 minutes to get into any sort of writing flow. When I have at least a half hour of relatively quiet free time, I open up my drafts in Medium and pick whichever post sounds the most fun to write at the time. If I finish it, I publish it. If I don’t finish it, then it’ll stay as a draft until next time. I also have an itch to write a book, but I want to master the blog post format first. Medium, again with its singular focus, is my favorite site for writing like this.
Play: I’ve played guitar for 20 years now, and I picked up the piano about a year ago. I need to have a piece of music to work on or I’m just kind of noodling and not actually getting any better. Right now on guitar I’m learning to play some tracks from this Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia album, Live at Keystone. It’s mostly electric but it translates well to acoustic guitar as well. On piano I’m learning easy piano-centric Beatles songs like Hey Jude, Let It Be, and Fool On The Hill.
If I did this all the time I’d be something of a Super Ryan. But even if I’m good about one of them consistently, I just feel all-around better. I hope you will too.