A couple years ago, I was reflecting on my life and realized something weird: for the first time in my life, I was unusually… organized. And not just with my physical world, but with my thoughts, plans & actions.
A Sudden Change
This felt strange. I was never a particularly organized person. I never made my bed, left things out on kitchen counters, forgot dishes in the sink (the most evil action of them all), and let the mail pile up. Heck, if someone wants to contact me, that’s what email is for, right?
All of this chaos was normal for me, and when I thought of who I was, I had kind of accepted this lifestyle. It didn’t seem all that bad. I was doing ok. People care about this stuff too much.
So fast forward to my moment of reflection, and all of the sudden everything was… mind-blowingly different.
I was different.
There was no eureka moment, no being “fed up” with the mess, and no spur of insight. I honestly couldn’t explain what had changed or why it had changed, but I was definitely thinking differently.
Instead of letting messes accumulate, I was defaulting to organization. I simply had the energy to do it, and I would do it. When I had a thought, I’d write it down and internalize it. Wonderfully, I felt like I was starting to truly understand myself as I would write things down, and that feeling created a feedback loop leading to more thoughts, more understanding, etc.
- Recording my thoughts habitually into Evernote
- Journaling every now and then
- Maintaining a to-do list, and crushing it
- Working in sprints (3 hours on, 30 mins off)
- Planning every month, week, and day down to the detail
- And more…
I never had a theory of why I changed, or how, until now.
Was I accidentally training my attention & willpower?
After being recommended the book for the 10th time, I gave in and started to read “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Dan Kahneman. In the book, Dan starts by highlighting numerous psychological studies & their often surprising results.
Some of these studies were later proven false, but to the best of my research the one I’m about to mention has retained validity.
According to Dan & the team of researchers, attention and self-discipline are linked. Some people are naturally better at controlling their attention, and those people rank higher on many aptitude tests including those measuring intelligence. The most jarring thing though, for me, was that they all also tend to exhibit much higher rates of organization.
In subsequent tests, people were told to play video games that required them to continuously build upon their attention & self-discipline. Have you ever played Mario, and because you’re going for all-out speed, you make a silly mistake? Yeah, that’s the opposite of self-discipline in this scenario.
The people who played the game were able to increase their ability to stay focused throughout, and then those improvements actually transferred over to other tasks. Those who played the games, and trained their attention, were able to perform better on the same aptitute tests they took prior to playing the game.
So where does this bring me? Was I playing a ton of games, or something? No.
But I was — to an extremely stupid degree — training my attention on accident. Like a game.
Productivity starts with a slow computer
In my quest to build a startup company with very little money in the bank, I decided I couldn’t afford a shiny, new computer. I had a 2010 Macbook Air, which sounds fine, but the damn thing’s battery was so bad it had to be plugged in at all times. Worse, the CPU would constantly clock down thinking it was going to run out of battery, and everything would move at about ~20% speed every other minute.
Ironically, these were some of the most productive days I ever had.
As I would sit their coding or designing, the actual movements on the screen, such as my cursor, would lag for seconds. I would sit there and wait, see the result, take another action, and then wait again. It was absurd.
When I’d show my friends some piece of code, and they’d see the computer running as god-awfully slow as it was, they would freak out at me and be amazed I was getting anything done.
But again, these were probably the most productive days of my entire life!
As I sat there waiting — praying — for the computer to do it’s job and compute things for me, I’d never hit alt+tab to check Facebook. I literally couldn’t: alt-tabbing would have made it take 30 seconds longer. While my app was compiling and logs were streaming, I’d just sit there staring at the little black box produce text. I remember it feeling very meditative. I didn’t feel the need to multi-task because I simply couldn’t. When the app had finished compiling, I’d quietly – albeit slowly – get back in the productivity game.
Nowadays, my computer runs fast. When my apps are building, you can bet I’m awkwardly attempting to multi-task & open up a new tab in chrome. My habit of appreciating the slow has faded, and honestly, so has much of the feeling of internal organization. I’m genuinely worse at writing down my thoughts habitually, expounding them in detail, and feeling like I know myself (in general). I clean my apartment regularly-ish.
I think I’m going to use this potential new insight to try and go slower again, and just see what that does. As stupid as it sounds, this is going to be way more difficult this time around… since my computer is fast.