Control Technology, Not The Other Way Around

This post is part of a larger attempt to share my personal “systems” that help me organize my life. By sharing my system, I hope to get feedback and inspire others to share as well.

The past few weeks have been an awakening for many with respect to technology usage. Facebook has perhaps never been more in the critical eye of the consumer, with #DeleteFacebook campaigns reaching even Elon Muskand the WhatsApp co-founder. Let’s take this opportunity to observe and intentionally redesign our internet usage.

“Technology is hijacking our minds and society.” — Tristan Harris, Center for Humane Technology

As I’ve discussed previously, we need to think about how technology can stop manipulating users’ attention. Instead, how can tech promote meaningful interactions and “time well spent,” a phrase coined by Tristan Harris’s Center for Humane Technology. Personally, it doesn’t seem like the solution is deletion or abandonment of technology, but healthy and mindful tech engagement.

Here are six of my approaches to intentional technology usage.

Iconography via The Noun Project. Gregor Cresnar, Bin Hur, Alexandr Cherkinsky, Ivan Garbev, Theo K, GR

1) Put an end to the infinite feed

Infinite feeds are generally good for companies but bad for users. I try to end my infinite feeds as much as possible, and stay away from using technology that incentivizes endless scrolling. You can read more about my finite news system here.

On desktop, I block my news feed using the News Feed Eradicator Chrome Extension. On mobile, I log in to on my mobile browser (I don’t get the app, since I don’t want to be logging in *too* much). Another alternative for iOS users is Feedless, which blocks endless feeds in the mobile Safari browser.

Endless feed models never truly “end” — you can spend all of your breaks constantly getting more information. Finite feed models will eventually run out of content, forcing you to find a new thing to do after you’re done consuming information.

While curating information consumption does require overhead cost, that extra curation will help you focus on knowing the things you care about, instead of how many selfies Kim Kardashian took this morning.

2) Automate Finances

Try out a “set it and forget it” approach to your personal finances. Set up automatic recurring payments, and stop gambling your money away on bitcoin and penny stocks. Although bitcoin has gotten an incredible amount of hype, it’s still a risky investment and not suitable for most financial systems. You can read about my full financial system in more detail.

3) Organize your apps using Nudge principles

Richard Thaler is a recent recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics and author of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. In his book, he describes “choice architecture” as a way to structure your environment to incentivize desired decisions. For example, putting vegetables at eye-level and desserts out of sight can encourage healthy eating.

Why not use the same principle to apps on your home screen? My iPhone home screen looks like this:

I intentionally “hide” some of the common distracting apps (Snapchat, Facebook, etc.) behind a “Once a day” group. This not only reminds me not to use the applications too frequently, but it also adds extra friction to opening the application, since it’s two taps away instead of the usual one tap. You can learn more about my complete iPhone organization here.

4) No badges, no notifications

I really believe in the Slow Web Movement, which is all about empowering you as the user to choose when to interact with the web, as opposed to the other way around. Therefore, I disable badging and notifications for most of my apps (you can do this in the Settings app).

Badges are those little red circles with numbers in them that appear in the top right corner of an iOS app.

5) Build healthy habits for idle time

During an idle moment, most people’s first instinct is to pull out their phone and check notifications. As Charles Duhigg mentions in his book The Power of Habit, there’s a classic feedback loop driving this action:

The cue is idle time, the routine is checking your phone, and the reward is the chance you might get one more “like” on that profile photo you posted last week. One key to breaking this cycle is replacing the routine — instead of checking your phone when you’re bored, what if you do some simple calisthenic exercises, or call a friend? I personally try to read a physical book instead of my phone when I have free time, or I’ll go straight to my Kindle app.

6) Track your tech usage

It’s always important to be mindful and thoughtful about your tech usage. That’s why there are several awesome tools that help to monitor your usage. A few of the most popular include RescueTimeMoment, and Checky.

It doesn’t even have to be an app! Just make sure to schedule some regular reflection time.

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