Essays on Technology and Culture

Mindful Tech, Part 4 – Solving The Right Problem

In the previous pieces in this series, I’ve tried to offer solutions and experiments for using technology more mindfully without adding anything new to your technology stack, save for a free app to track your computer usage. I’ve also tried to do the same without demanding you throw away something you thought was a worthwhile investment. The reason is simple: throwing more technology at the problem is sometimes more placebo than panacea—and can often make things worse. Better to make do with what you have already, and learn how to use it better.

We need to solve our problems involving technology at the right level. Is Facebook keeping you from getting your work done, or is your work making you want to check Facebook? I know that when I’m lost and confused as to what is best to spend my time on, that’s when I’m most likely to fall into an Internet K-Hole. Since I don’t know what to do, I’ll do the easiest, most dopamine-boosting thing I know. Before I know it, the tab bar in my browser is a series of ten-pixel wide click targets with no text, and it’s time for me to consider going to bed. I will… Once I read through each damn tab. In fact, I mode switched so I could finish writing this, moving from my Mac at my desk, to my iPad. Here, I can type in slightly more peace, and distractions are slightly harder to get to.

When we look at our technology usage, we need to consider not just what we use and how, but how also why we use them—or don’t use them, depending on what we’re trying to fix. It is the “why” that remains most unexamined, of course. It’s easier to just slap on another technological band-aid, hence the proliferation of Focus Timers, Task Managers, Distraction-Free Writing Environments, Time Tracking Apps, tools to block time-wasting sites, and—yes—reviews, guides, and self-righteous thinkpieces on all of the above.

There’s nothing wrong with having technological solutions for technological problems, when they’re the right solutions… If blocking Facebook between the hours of 8 AM to 6 PM keeps you working on your work, then more power to you. If a Distraction-Free Writing Environment actually helps you bang out that Great American Novel, keep using it. But if these things aren’t helping, don’t assume that another technological band-aid is going to help, especially when you’re putting that band-aid on a papercut, while your temple bleeds into your eye. (Consider this a more gory version of Merlin Mann’s metaphor of the brain tumor patient who is trying to buy a hat.) The papercut really stings, but your bleeding head is going to be a much bigger problem, and much faster.

Step back and ask yourself, is each piece of problem-causing technology you’re using a cause of your stress, or a symptom? Are you actually overwhelmed or distracted by all the shiny lights, buzzing alerts, and endless streams of shiny new content? Or, is it more likely that you’re using the technology as an excuse for something else that’s keeping you from doing what you’re supposed to be doing?

The answers to these, of course, will depend on what you’re doing, and what you’re not doing. If you’re constantly being distracted by a busy box of pinging and buzzing devices every day, then you’ll want to get that part of the technology under control. If you’re clicking through baby pictures on Facebook instead of starting the Henderson Report, I’m willing to bet Facebook isn’t the problem. It’s something deeper, and instead of looking at new software and hardware, you’ll be better served by looking inside yourself and figuring out the real problem.