Do you see how few things you actually have to do in order to live a satisfying and reverent life?

Marcus Aurelius via Cal Newport
For most of 2018, I kept a “daily plan bar” in a softcover moleskin notebook. I really enjoyed the discipline of setting out what I planned to do that day and then seeing the reality take shape. It was also great to plan downtime and useful to realize what was feasible in a given day.

I still haphazardly keep a plan bar, but my new job involves mostly sitting at a desk and writing so the need to have reminders of being in this place at that time isn’t as compelling. So I, of course, keep it less.

As I was on a thinking walk last weekend I wondered if some of the aspects that made a daily plan bar so useful could be adapted for another use. Writing a note of what I planned to use a device for. Let me explain.

Getting swallowed by the stream

I frequently have lofty intention for how I’m going to use my smart device (usually my iPad but laptop and phone also apply). These intentions usually center around edifying consumption, mainly reading an ebook, or creating something, for example writing a blog post. Unfortunately, my actions don’t always match those intentions. Before I know it I may find myself crawling through email, getting a “quick” hit of social media or just swiping around pointlessly.

If only there was a way to help my actions match my intentions. Step up to the plate what I learned from Atomic Habits and the daily plan bar.

Pointing and calling

In Atomic Habits, James Clear describes a trick called “pointing and calling”. All you do is point at the thing you notice (the trigger for the habit) say out loud the action you are thinking of taking and the outcome. The reason for this process is to draw attention to the triggers and to help evaluate the outcome. It helps make clear the hidden thoughts you are having.

At first, I thought I should do this with my device. Simply state out loud what I am about to do on the device “I’m going to read” but then I realized that writing these actions down might be of greater value.

In the same way that the daily plan bar showed my intention and then actual course of action, writing down (on a index card/post-it note or in my notebook) would provide a visual reminder of what I wanted to do on this device and I could list how long I intended to do the action for. Once the activity is completed, I could mark what really occurred.

For example, “Plan: read for 30 minutes. Reality: Read for five minutes”

This also provides other benefits. If I find myself with five minutes of downtime and instinctively pick up my iPad, I have to think about what I want to do and then write down “plan: Do nothing really, swipe a bit, scroll, waste time.” Which provides an opportunity to change and stop that bad habit. I can also track my intentions with my device over time.

Making it happen

It’s all well and good thinking that this will happen, but actually carrying through is another thing altogether.

To help me, I’ve stuck a posit note onto my iPad screen. That means I have to remove it if I want to use the device. It’s almost as easy to add my note of intention as to ignore it.

So we’ll see how this little experiment goes.

A couple of days ago I shared my experiment, and thinking behind it, in not listening to podcasts while commuting. I thought I’d share a little update now.

The first day was delightful. I used my notebook and stuck with my goal of not using my phone till I got to work. The return journey was the same.
The second day I forgot my field notes notebook and so used my phone to save an idea. Guess what, I found myself scrolling and using my device after I saved that idea 😞. still, I corrected and went back to reading.
Day three was fine on the way to work, but I ended up listening to a podcast on the way home. In my head it wasn’t against my goal as I was listening while waiting for the train…but I continued listening on the train. So not a great success.
Today is day four and the morning was better. More focused and I didn’t use my phone in the morning. To prevent using my phone on the way home and getting into a podcast bing, I decided to not use my phone once I left the office. That helped set a clear boundary which I stuck to.
Tomorrow is the last day of the experiment. I think I’ll keep it going but perhaps with two evening commutes for podcasts still.

airpods and beats X
I’m a huge podcast fan. It’s one of the core things I use my smartphone for (along with taking photos, sending messages, satellite navigation, and wasting time on social media including youtube) but I’m going to do an experiment this week.

I’m not listening to any podcast while commuting.

As I listened to Jocelyn Glei’s interview of Cal Newport in the hurry slowly podcast, I heard Cal describe a digital detox and how the people who got the most out of it were hoping to do things differently afterward (not just take a break). It made me wonder what it would be like to not use my smartphone for 30 days, what issues would I face.

The thought of not being able to listen to a podcast on my train ride home made me nervous. Which is almost certainly a sign that I should continue along that path.

After my initial discomfort, I realised that there were some great possibilities and options from not listening to any podcasts on my commute.

  • I could read a book
  • I could write (well that’s more difficult when the train is crammed full)
  • I could think and reflect
  • I could plan
  • I could call my family in the UK (yes I could be that guy)

Of course, not listening to podcasts on the train doesn’t mean I won’t listen to any podcasts at all. I can still listen at home, or while walking. But by not listening on the train, I create an even greater buffer before I need to look at my smartphone. I can simply not use it before work.

And so for this week, I’m taking the commute less travelled (by me at least) and eschew podcasts while commuting.