I just got back from the SXSW interactive conference in Austin. I went there to give a talk about fueling sustainable productivity by balancing periods of fully absorbed attention with intermittent renewal.
Peering out into that vast hall, I fear I saw the future: a sea of the digital elite hunched over blinking technologies, tweeting and texting as I talked.
Here's what I later learned some of them were saying, all in 140 characters or less:
- "I'm splitting my attention between @tonyschwartz & tweeting that 2 B gr8 U have to be willing to suffer/practice."
- "Tony Schwartz tells SXSW attendees to go to bed earlier. Tough sell."
- "How can Tony Schwartz stay sane giving a speech on focusing on task at a time while the audience is on their iPads/iPhones at same time?"
I wasn't so worried about my own sanity -- I was only doing one thing at a time, after all -- but I was a little concerned about theirs. We've truly entered a world of nonstop input and output.
So what exactly would it take to seize back control of our lives? We need a series of deliberate practices to counter the powerful forces so accelerating our lives.
Just Say No
Imagine for a moment that you're downsizing from a house to an apartment one-third the size. Everything you have seems necessary until you realize it simply won't fit in your new place.
There's always room for less.
You likely already have too much to do, too much information to absorb and too many choices to make. If so, your challenge is learning to say no far more often -- "no" to more projects, more meetings, more emails, more tweets, more Facebook updates, more purchases, more friends, more "likes" and more fans and followers.
Prioritization isn't just what you want to do; it's increasingly what you ought not do. What can you delegate and eliminate, take off your plate or put on the back burner in each dimension of your life?
If you're going to take on something new, what are you going to stop doing? How are you going to be more ruthlessly selective?
My colleague Scott Belsky refers to this as "curating" your life. Curate comes from the Latin curare, meaning "to care" -- in this case, for yourself. Think of this as a Not To Do list.
Create More Space In Your Brain, And Your Life
Our working memory can't hold much information. The first solution, as David Allen spells out in "Getting Things Done," is to write down everything that's on your mind -- the more often, the better. The less you're thinking about at any given moment, the calmer and more receptive you'll be, and the better you'll be able to manage whatever arises.
We also need to create more space in our days. To make sense of our increasingly complex and demanding world, we need times during the day when we step back, reflect on and metabolize what we've just taken in.
We need less data and more context, less volume and more depth. That can't happen if we're running from one meeting to the next, and emailing, texting and tweeting in every moment in between. Where can you insert purposeful pauses?
Do One Thing At A Time, As Much As Possible
I appreciated having the SXSW audience tweet short bits about my talk to their followers, but while they were tweeting, they were likely missing whatever I said next.
Human beings aren't designed to do two cognitive tasks at the same time (much less three or four). The research is clear that we're far more efficient when we do activities sequentially, rather than simultaneously. We also do higher quality work when we're singly focused, and remember more of anything we're trying to learn.
Revisit And Reevaluate
I've kept a journal most of my adult life. In my 20s and 30s, I filled it with anguished evaluation of my life's ups and downs. Today, thankfully, I use my journal as a place in which to collect ideas when they occur to me.
The real value of doing so, I've discovered, is periodically revisiting what I've written. I do that on plane trips, mostly, because that's the least interrupted time left in my life.
By revisiting ideas, and reevaluating them with a fresh eye, I find the best ones become richer and more layered, and the less good ones naturally fade away. It's a practice that serves as an antidote to instant action, and allows ideas and projects to ripen so I don't act on them before their time.
Take Regular Breaks From Your Technology
The digital devices we all now carry around are stunningly seductive and addictive, providing endless access to instant gratification: tweets and texts, stuff to buy, games to play, apps to add, and constant new information. Our devices are the means by which we get our work done, but they're also a form of digital crack. If they're turned on, you'll almost surely use them and very likely abuse them.
Here's the threshold question: Are there websites you check 10 or 20 or even 30 times a day?
Consider treating yourself like a parent does a child. Ruthlessly limit the time you expose yourself to irresistible temptation. While I'm writing this blog, for example, I have my cell phone and email turned off. At 90 minutes, I'll check back in.
The other move I've decided to make -- and am committed to stick by -- is to leave my laptop and phone in the kitchen when I head up to my bedroom at night. I'm convinced I'm better off reading books than I am Google Analytics, and truly relaxing with my wife rather than aimlessly surfing websites.
Less is more.