For a very long time, I tried to become “more productive.” What does that even mean? It’s a vague phrase but I think we’ve all come to understand implicitly that being “more productive” requires wasting less time on social media, YouTube videos, pointless games, and mindless web surfing.
This is so interesting because being “more productive” isn’t implicitly about automating rote tasks or “outsourcing”/delegating tasks better suited to others. Although those things can be a large part of increasing productivity, that’s not what most people mean or understand when saying or hearing that phrase. Being more productive has become about eliminating distractions.
Taking a look at this handy-dandy Focus Funnel, Elimination is at the top and it’s the largest part of the funnel. I think the reason it’s the largest and at the top is because the majority of what consumes our time should not be consuming our time. Eliminating bad internet/screen-related habits is just Step One.
And it’s arguably the most important. The Eliminate portion of the funnel, is like half of the whole thing. If we can do Step One, then we’ve won half the battle.
Back when I was in school, there were a lot of things I tried when I wanted to be more productive. I tried Moment and Freedom and Pocket Points and StayFocusd and iOS Screen Time limits. I tried keeping my computer and phone out of my bedroom. I (very briefly) tried keeping my phone in gray-scale. I tried deleting apps (which I usually just re-downloaded). Nothing ever worked for me. I was never able to become productive like I wanted. It was really really hard.
It’s been almost 6 months since I dropped out and recently, I’ve been spending a lot less time on my phone. And a big chunk of the time I do spend is used for reading eBooks from the public library app, Libby. I have my phone in gray-scale and I keep it that way because I prefer it now. I got rid of a lot of apps on my phone- even the “useful” apps like mobile banking and email- because I would compulsively check those, constantly swiping down during every spare second like a slot machine. I even got rid of Safari. OK, so technically Safari and Mail are just hidden, but still (although I do un-hide them from time to time).
So why has eliminating these distractions become so effortless this time around? I think, at least for me, it’s easy when the goal isn’t “productive.” I didn’t do all this to try and finish my homework faster or obtaining more professional accomplishments. Ironically, the relative ease of cutting back on my screen time stemmed indirectly from the recommended reading list on the wiki page of Reddit’s NoSurf community. It was on this list that I found Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
The title grabbed me because social interaction is something that’s always intrigued me, probably because I kinda suck at it. I’ve never had as many friends as most people, but I always wanted to be “popular” in grade school. My crushes never liked me back, but I always wanted a boyfriend. And I’ve always secretly wanted to be a bit of a “social climber.” I mean, if Megan Markle can do it… I want the opportunity toexperience a more rarefied social circle. And I want to have the option of flipping effortlessly between socialite and just your basic average girl. (Yes that was a Kim Possible reference. I’m not sorry.) I think there is much freedom in such versatility.
Additionally, I’ve never been good at the social media game. I was not very attractive as a young girl and although (in my opinion) I’ve had my glow up and I could play well in the social media game, I don’t really want to. I know I would find it exhausting. I’m already a perfectionist as it is so getting just the right photo in just the right lighting seems tiresome. It’s impossible to use social media and not compare ourselves to others. No matter how loudly we declare “I don’t give a fuck what other people think,” no matter how un-bothered we like to seem, no matter how badass we think we are, it is impossible. And I know how self-destructive it is to compare ourselves to others.
So the idea implied by the title of Sherry’s book- the idea that social media was not just distracting us, wasting our time, and keeping us addicted, but also that it was also affecting the quality of our intimate relationships- intrigued me. This was really the first person who showed me that it’s not about being productive. I immediately saw value in learning more about this because I think I instinctively knew that when we use technologies like social media, we are being fed empty social calories. In Sherry’s words, this empty connection is not the same as meaningful conversation. And people want to have conversation, not just connection.
This shifted the goalpost for me because authentic social relationships IMO, are a basic human need. I know according to Maslow, they’re classed as a psychological need but in terms of evolution, our ancestors needed to have solid relationships with the tribe so that their basic, physical needs could be met. To be cut off from the tribe would be to undermine those basic physical needs at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid and that would mean impending death. If anyone feels as though they’re going to die soon, they will panic. I think this may explain the rise in anxiety among people, especially young people. Shallow connections won’t cut it because our ancestors didn’t fight off sabertooths for and share food with people they didn’t have a real relationship with.
Perhaps I found it so much easier to let go of distracting technologies this time around because Sherry allowed my mind to unconsciously realize that these technologies are an existential threat to my existence. When the goal is to improve my quality of life (and quality of relationships), it’s easy. There are specific areas of our brains dedicated solely to social interaction and relationships and when we aren’t doing anything cognitively demanding, these areas are “on” by default (The Shallows, Nicholas Carr). I don’t think we have any primal motivations for writing essays or going over reports. There are just too many jumps and slippery slopes between Excel spreadsheets and dying required to light a fire under our brains. On the other hand, being starved of social relationships has been ingrained in our minds to be equal to actually starving.
Most people’s motivation for quitting social media or spending less time on their phone is so that they can be more productive and focus on their work, whether they work for themselves or someone else. This isn’t a bad thing and it’s certainly a step in the right direction but there’s a whole lot more to life than work and worry. And honestly, trying to be more productive for the sake of being productive never worked for me.
When I say it’s not about being productive, the “it” I’m referring to is life. When people look back on their lives when their time here is up, they don’t regale with stories about how productive or busy they were. They’re usually not even thinking about their jobs or careers, even if they loved their work. Looking back at their lives, people think about their family and friends and the good times they spent together. If we spend our times with family and friends constantly on our phones, what will we have to look back on except an empty existence?