December 5, 2018

Taming Tech to Unleash Ideas

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” ― David Allen Isn’t this a fantastic reminder from David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: the art of stress-free productivity? Like all great wisdom, it is equal parts blindingly obvious and revolutionary. Imagine a world in which your mind was free to engage fully with the people around you, wrestle with problems, and explore creative solutions. Sounds wonderful and, frustratingly, like a far cry from the day-to-day reality for most. It’s ironic because we have more “auxiliary brains” in the form of computers and cell phones available than any generation before, but our minds are full of tasks, reminders, and appointments.

So, how can we turn our personal technology into an ally that frees our minds to have more ideas?

There are a lot of things that you can do, but in my experience, one particular action is a total game changer: disable the notification badges on your phone. Bid a not-so-fond farewell to those little red dots that hover at the corner of an increasing number of apps. I know this sounds like heresy, but hear me out. Badges are theoretically helpful, drawing our attention to announcements, unread messages, software updates, etc. However, their insidious side effect is that each one creates an “open loop” in your mind. Allen defines an open loop as commitments made to yourself or to another person that haven’t yet been fulfilled. And research shows that we waste a lot of energy “[keeping] track of those open loops, and not… as an intelligent, positive motivator, but as a detractor from anything else you need or want to think about, diminishing your capacity to perform.” Every time you look at your home screen, those red dots signal your mind that it has ten or ten-thousand unknown tasks pending and it creates an open loop for each of them. You can see how that quickly that becomes draining! There is a bit of nuance to my no-badge policy: I do have badges for phone calls and voice mail; after all, if someone is calling these days, it’s probably something truly time-sensitive. But I have eliminated them from every other app on my device, including email. The accumulated emails are still there, of course, but I get to engage with them on my terms when I can give them my full attention, and I’m spared from having to carry the weight of them around in my mind while attending to other things. Try it for a week and let me know how it goes!

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