Essays on Technology and Culture

On My Second Brain

I consider my iPhone to be my second brain. Some would even argue its my first brain, but let’s not go into that. My iPhone remembers phone numbers, my calendar, and the items on my to-do list, but this is nothing new. Increasingly, I’ve taken to using it to remind me to eat better, to go to bed and wake up at a reasonable hour, and make sure I get enough sleep. It tracks every step I take to make sure I get some exercise during a twelve-hour work day spent mostly with my butt in a chair. It reminds me when my bills are due, and thanks to Siri, all I have to do is ask and it reminds me of anything on my mind I’ll need to remember later. My iPhone is, in many ways, the superego I lack. It’s my Skinner Box, offering myriad forms of behavioral reinforcement techniques.

How is an iPhone like a Skinner Box? The phone gives me a cue, offers an action, and then I get a reward. Let me start at the end and mention that the rewards are often intangible. I track my walking and my food intake, but the reward for that isn’t another food pellet—it’s quantifying calories burned and consumed. It’s knowing I hit a goal, and it’s taking my belt in another notch when I get dressed in the morning. It’s the pile of completed to-do items and finished things I’ve made. Compared to that, who needs food pellets?

Let’s use weight loss as an example. At 9:00 every morning, my iPhone buzzes to remind me to tell the Lose It! app what I ate for breakfast, that is if I haven’t told it already. At 1:00 and 6:00 the same thing happens for lunch and dinner. Lose It! tracks what I eat, it’s calorie content, my exercise, and my weight. It reinforces good eating habits—that bag of Peanut M&Ms looks good, but that’s 250 calories I could spend on something better, or not spend at all. Another example is the Motion-X Sleep app which, yes, monitors sleep, but is also an excellent pedometer. I work a desk job, and when the app notes I’ve spent an hour at my desk without moving around, it cues me to get up and take a walk, tracking my steps and estimating how many calories I’ve burned based on my height and weight. These sorts of apps are proven to work, too, if you follow through.

I also get prodded to get things done. Recently I bit the damn bullet and finally switched to OmniFocus from Things. Two features were the impetus to switch: Siri integration and geofencing. Siri makes getting things into my trusted system as easy as pushing a button and speaking. Really. Siri reminders appear in my OmniFocus inbox automatically, and iOS 6 is only going to make the integration more powerful. The other feature is geofencing, which allows me to be reminded of various tasks wherever I go. One simple application is the humble grocery list. If I create a context for my local supermarket, OmniFocus can detect when I’m there and ping me with the list of stuff I need to pick up. It works the other way too. When I walk out of my building, OmniFocus buzzes with reminders of any errands I need to run. The power here is almost limitless, especially since contexts don’t even need to be linked to a specific place, but can search for any sort of location type, post offices for example, when you have an action in that context.

The iPhone even helps with the actual doing of things. There’s a whole holy host of apps for creating content, but also apps to help just manage the time it takes to do the work. For tasks that I dread but have to get done, there’s Phocus which allows me to set up an hour of Merlin Mann’s 10+2*5 Productivity Hack with enforced work and recreation periods. Other timer apps like Due keep me aware of anything I’m waiting for, be it laundry or a power nap—though Siri has taken over a lot of my single-use timer needs. And let us not forget the simple Pomodoro Timer.

This system isn’t perfect though. One thing I’d simply love is a The Now Habit-esque time tracker/procrastination journal. I’m sure I could repurpose another app for this, maybe one of the kajillion time tracking for invoicing apps, but one dedicated to just giving me a buzz every thirty minutes to log what I am doing right then would be terribly handy. As it stands, I do have the Fathm app which allows me to track how I spend my time but it’s fiddly, not automated, and a bit buggy. Sure is pretty though.

Of course, the biggest problem in the system is the human element. Namely, me, and my grumpy, change-resistant lizard brain. All the alerts and dings and sirens are useless if I decide to simply ignore them. Call it “alert fatigue.” I noticed it happening to me when the daily reminder I’d set to nudge me off to bed in Due hadn’t gone off in a few days. This was because I had ignored an alarm to go to bed without acknowledging it in the app. I had taken to simply dismissing the notification and going about my business for another hour or so before crawling into bed.

To avoid this, I’m spending time thinking about where and when I need my alerts. Is it enough to have a buzz when I get home, or should it pop up at a specific time? Is this task so time and context sensitive that it even deserves an alert? Clearly my phone buzzing at 11 PM to remind me to sleep is a bit much. There is a balance to strike, and a well timed or well placed iPhone alert works far better than tying a string on your finger. Why did I tie the string to my finger? To remember something, but now I don’t remember what I was supposed to remember. If I’d fed what I was trying to remember into OmniFocus, it would be there for me to find.

It all comes down to mindfulness, and the subtle distinction that I control my second brain, it does not control me. An iPhone, Lose It!, OmniFocus, and other apps are ways to build and break habits, but not an end to themselves—and the trick to habits is to try and change them one at a time. In fact, you can only do one thing at a time, period, but that’s something for another essay entirely. My second brain, my iPhone, is no substitute for mindfulness, but it is an aid to it. That’s the best part of it—these apps take my iPhone from being a shiny device I can use to browse the web, listen to music, and take phone calls and make it a way to actually change the way my mind works.

B. F. Skinner would be proud.