I’m returning to (virtual) Recurse Center next week to help boost my self-accountability during my time away from work. As preparation, I decided to do a little planning session and revisit the current state of my brain hygiene arsenal.
(If you do not have severe distractibility issues, then this post will probably seem pointlessly fussy and overkill to you, but I assure you it’s all quite critical for me.)
Favorite computer-side approaches
A roundup of favorite tools which I still find indispensably useful for curbing my rampant distractibility.
As described in my 2017 article on wielding user unengagement to counter the UX that Big Tech has spent billions of dollars fine-tuning to trigger your primal evolutionary addiction circuits:
- no push notifications for anything except 1:1 direct messages/calls from actual contacts (ok, also my tea timer)
- greyscaling my phone, as well as any websites that tend to be timesinks for me
- Leechblock, a website blocker extension that lets you cut yourself off with self-configured warning timers rather than abruptly, so it’s actually effective at training your brain out of addiction mode
- Facebook News Feed Eradicator, which replaces your newsfeed with inspirational quotes about how time is your most precious resource, et cetera
- pen and pocket-sized notes (I usually use sticky notes)
- old-school wristwatch
As described in my 2020 article on tidying your digital life:
- maintaining a separate trash email address for any purchases or online interactions that I do not actively consent to receiving newsletters from
As described in my 2021 blog post on running Distractibility Accountability, a brain hygiene support group for distractible programmers:
- blue light filters to prevent my devices from scamming my circadian rhythm into staying up later; f.lux for desktop and night shift settings for mobile
- OneTab for nuking my unforgivably large browser sessions into locally saved lists of links that I can safely retrieve if I ever actually need any of them, which I rarely do
- Obsidian, my favorite local-first KMS (knowledge management system) for textual note-taking and brainstorming
Although I mostly quit Notion after switching to Obsidian, I do miss Notion’s excellent kanban board interface, which is more intuitive than Jira and fantastic for granular task tracking. I’m going to try moving just my task tracking back to Notion, while being careful not to get sidetracked by all the deliciously compulsive meta-organization potential I know it offers.
Breakfast is a critical prerequisite for my higher brain function, and Recurse Center starts at 8am my time, which means my days will go significantly better if I stock up on mindless breakfast food I can shovel into my face with ill-coordinated limbs.
Did some grocery planning for easy shovelable foods and things that can be assembled with minimum effort the night before, like overnight oats or potatoes.
In general, my cooking is already extremely optimized for convenience and speed, but breakfast is in a special category of hell where I really need to scarf it ASAP without the benefit of a brain capable of doing more than opening jars, pressing microwave buttons, and mumbling incoherently.
Sunlight and regular outdoors time are also necessary for my mental health. My e-notebook makes it a lot easier for me to bike to a nearby park to read research papers without wrestling with a printer, so that’s something I plan to try.
I always found my brain feeling much clearer and my executive function sharper whenever I remembered to stick to the half-hour end-of-day routine I came up with last time.
1. Check in
- check email (only during this timebox, and not compulsively during the day)
- think about my day and write a quick checkin summary
- read and respond to other people’s checkins (only during this timebox, and not compulsively during the day)
2. Set intentions
- sketch out starting goals & direction for the next day
- write out next day’s scheduled commitments on paper (otherwise I usually forget them)
3. Tidy up
- OneTab to clear out my browser
- tidy up my virtual workspace
- tidy up my physical workspace
Midway through my last Recurse batch, my fellow distractioneers and I observed that so many exciting projects and infinite rabbitholes were getting posted in Recurse chat at all times that if we stayed tapped in to Recurse chat during the day, we would inevitably spend all our time reading about fun random distractions instead of working toward our learning goals.
It worked out well when I devoted the core hours to my goals, and restricted my chat-catchup time to a limited timebox every day.
Scoping projects with intention
RC’s internal wiki contains a useful article full of suggestions on choosing and scoping projects to challenge oneself, which I reviewed and ran my project ideas through.
My new Recurse project scoping procedure:
- Why: my learning goals for this project
- What features will help me with these goals?
- What NOT: tempting pathways that I’m choosing not to go down for now
- How: initial tasks & chunks of work
- When is it “done”?
My rainy day project list is perpetually crammed with hundreds of ideas, which is very dangerous and a great way to get nothing done. As a starting point, I selected 1 interesting cross-functional project that I want to do mostly for learning purposes and scoped it down tightly into an MVP.
Giving talks to deepen my understanding
During my last batch, I gave a lot of non-programming lightning talks, since I have written so many zines and articles that large bodies of niche information are very well organized in my head and tumble out naturally on command.
I have no regrets. However, as fun as this was, it reduced my bandwidth for giving programming-centric lightning talks, which are also fun, good for specifically leveraging my time at Recurse, and a great learning experience. Whenever I give a talk on a project I’ve done, I inevitably lock in my technical understanding better, learn 2x more about it, and notice all sorts of opportunities for improvement that wouldn’t have been so clear otherwise.
This batch, I vow to give more programming talks than non-programming talks. 😤
Project writeups to deepen my understanding
Like talks, project writeups also accelerate my deep understanding of work I’ve done, and expose many possibilities for refinement and improvement. I plan to blog regularly during my batch. (Unlike staying focused, blogging comes naturally to me.)
And now, I shall copiously profess my love for my e-notebook ✨
One of my most important anti-distraction tactics, of course, is avoiding internet-browsing devices as much as possible (which is challenging for a programmer) and hand writing on paper (or something functionally equivalent to it) whenever a computer is not strictly necessary.
I finally splurged on an e-notebook, and although I acknowledge that the cost is not justifiable to everyone, it is life-changing for me as a computer worker who also:
- handwrites on paper daily
- reads a lot
- regularly carries around heavy textbooks
- regularly reads & annotates papers/articles
- is highly distractible
- loves being outside
(I went with reMarkable2 for its ergonomics, even though Supernote definitely has the more impressive annotation featureset and customer service. I deliberately avoided more fully featured e-tablets like Boox’s because an app store or internet browser would defeat the point for me.)
While traveling recently, I was able to do quite a lot with this lovely little 14oz device that I wouldn’t normally be able to do without an entire office setup.
- digitally crammed several large textbooks and many papers/articles into said 14oz device and carried it in a small backpack
- digitally wrote in a custom lab notebook template I had made (on my laptop) in Illustrator, thereby negating my usual need for a printer and binder/stapler
- did scratch work directly into an e-textbook instead of juggling it with a scratch work notebook (FYI, Supernote has much better features for this)
- did nontrivial amounts of studying and learning outside! in the sunlight! while disconnected from the abyss of the internet!
I’m much happier whenever I can get outside, and the device already saves me nearly as many regrettable brain-fugue hours per week as quitting social media did.
Brain hygiene > superficial velocity
Though typing has a much faster velocity than handwriting in terms of wpm, it can be slower for me in practice because I tend to compulsively prematurely micro-edit sentences 10 times, or look up a link I’m going to cite and then fall down a multi-hour rabbithole of reading related articles. It’s like the urban planning common knowledge about how cars feel fast to their drivers even if they’re just clogging up the street by spending half an hour circling around for parking.
I’ve always been a heavy paper user, but something about an e-notebook makes it even easier to write drafts. The first week I got my e-notebook, I sat down and dumped a complete 30-page draft out of my brain for 11 hours straight without once stopping to get distracted by the usual culprits. It was almost like not having ADHD.
Fancy that: a world where distractibility isn’t a major issue. Too bad I work in computers.