Productivity smartphone hack: the untapped power of the present moment


You're busy and want to be more productive, I get it, that's why I'm writing this. Don't make the same mistake I did.

Two productivity tips you probably heard before revolve around multitasking and leveraging downtimes (commute time, while in line at the post office, etc). If you haven't heard about it however, the first one is just a really bad myth: multitasking in the end makes you less productive.

The myth of multitasking

I fee like beating a dead horse, but the truth is a lot of people still believe that multitasking is the key to productivity.

It isn't.

But don't believe some dude on the internet (i.e. me :)), ask people (there's many in fact) that spent years researching this. Three sources you can look at to get you started:

  1. Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, says today's nonstop multitasking actually wastes more time than it saves (NPR interview)
  2. LifeHacker ran a piece on this interviewing Dave Crenshaw, the author of The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done
  3. The American Psychological Association's web site describes how so-called multitasking is neither effective nor efficient. The context switch, though it feels instantaneous, takes time. In fact, up to 40 percent more time than single tasking - especially for complex tasks. (original research paper for the braves)

But it turns out that's not the end of it. You can do more than saying no to multi-tasking.

You can be in the present moment.

Downtimes with a twist: organizing your apps.

So what about the second story, leveraging downtimes? That totally makes sense, but there's a twist.

I own an iPhone and I thought it was the best thing after sliced bread in terms of allowing me to do more when I couldn't be at my desk.

Like every person crazy about productivity I did my best to optimize my workflow and get immediate access to what matters.

Looking to how other people are using their phones it turned out that my setup was following a very common pattern. Here's what my screens looked like (there's a reason why the lock screen is there, it's part of the hack, more below):


Quick Launch

Mail is in the quick launch because I do email the most along with making calls, browsing and listening to music. It's become automatic for me to unlock and hit the second button to check my email.

This is part of the problem.

First screen: where productivity happens

Besides the standard maps, notes etc to get around, Gmail is on the first screen because I have about 9 accounts and while I forward some of them I like to keep others separated.

I organize my work in Trello so that's there along with Evernote as my favorite productivity app.

The bulk of my conversations with teammates or entrepreneurs I mentor (I set aside some time for free mentoring calls to support the community) either happens on Skype if I need voice/video or Slack for chat around projects. I do some hangouts but it's not as common so that's on the second screen.

And then I have Pocket and Feedly to read up on things and stay productive in those downtimes when I've already gone through email (or can't take that anymore)

Second screen: mostly social

Apart from some Apple stuff and my Chinese apps, the second screen is where the bulk of my social bits are, from G+ to Twitter, Quora, etc.

Facebook is on the last screen since I don't personally use it and it's installed just so that my wife can play with it.

Third Screen: everything else

This is where I keep all the apps I access less often, from utilities to more time consuming apps that require longer span of attention.

Productivity and usage patterns

As I mentioned I organized things based on where I do most of my work:

  • email
  • product development/project management
  • talking to people

This is btw borderline ridiculous if you know me from 5 years ago because the only productivity app I ever used was a terminal/shell and Emacs. Weird things happen in life.

My usage pattern is pretty standard: whenever I'm not actively engaged doing something I go to my phone to do one of the following things:

  • check email
  • check Slack to see if anybody needed me
  • check social channels
  • check news

Or so I thought.

The key here is "not actively engaged doing something" and the fact that I believed that to be so. Watching my behavior more closely it turned out however that over the last year of working this way, what started to be a productivity trick became largely a distraction.

I thought I wasn't multitasking because I wasn't doing anything when I opted to check my phone, but the reality is that I'd actually often interrupt what I was doing to check it.

This is backward.

But there's more.

From no multitasking to the present moment

While you might have come to accept that multitasking is bad, you may have called victim of your own mobile workflow.

I think it's fair to say that we've grown into patterns of short attention spans and are in general more distracted. This also includes wandering with your thoughts, imaging future scenarios or revisiting that conversation with your boss or colleague for which you have now a great punchline or rebuttal.

In any of those cases the story is the same: you're not there while life is happening around you.

Having experimented on myself (I've gone through a major life change this year leaving Google and going to live out in the woods) I can testify there is a world of a difference. Literally. Once you learn to be present your experience of the world shoots through the roof. And so does your productivity.

Those random thoughts occupying your mind all the time are effectively micro context switches and if you tally them out throughout a day I'm ready to bet you $1000 they are taking a greater toll on your productivity than most of what you blame to be taking you away from the important stuff you need to get done.

Hacking the present moment with your phone

Mobile devices, at least in my case, are responsible for a lot of that lack of focus so I came up with something to help me (besides giving my phone up, which I'm not ready for).

Here's what my phone looks like now:


There are some major differences as you can probably notice.

Lock screen: use it to reinforce the right behavior

This is hack number one: use your lock screen to nudge you into the right thing. Since my problem was to constantly checking my phone and get distracted I've modified my previous wallpaper to add a message questioning my need to check the phone.

This implies I might be interrupting whatever I was doing to pick up the phone, but over time I'm noticing I'm doing it less and less so it's working. Yay!

Leverage passive barriers and negative wording.

The whole idea of ease of use is that doing something is easier to do and therefore you do it more.

This is great if the object of the action is positive, but the same obviously applies to negative behaviors, which is what was happening with me compulsively checking email.

You can hack this by going the opposite direction and creating what are commonly referred to as passive barriers by making things you want to do less of harder to do.

And that's exactly what I did by putting the apps I was distracted by into a folder and onto the last screen. This seems silly and yet from direct experience it's amazing how these little two extra steps have made me less willing to check email.

This is actually something designers and UX experts pay a lot of attention to and so you should if you're designing a product: customers will have very interesting difficulty thresholds and may not use a feature if it's just a tiny bit harder than they are used to elsewhere or are set in certain habits.

Also notice how I named the folders as "unproductive" and "really unproductive", altho the second is cut. There's a lot of research on the psychology of language that studies how we are affected by words and I'm leveraging some of that here by creating a negative association between certain apps that are opposite to my goal: being productive. This has also contributed to reduce my compulsive distraction moments.

More positive behavior reinforcement

But if I really need to kill time why not doing something useful?

Using the same principle of reinforcing good behaviors, I've moved ibooks to my first screen and started loading it with books and other useful documents.

Similarly, I've moved Ted and Udemy apps to the second screen so that I can enjoy something worthwhile if I can afford watching video. Both apps now support offline mode as well so there's no excuse, just need a bit of planning to download the videos at home.

But my business/life is all about being social and email!

But wait you say, this is the digital age, what are you talking about, my business depends on email and social!

Right, and I never said you shouldn't be engaging on social and deal with email, I depend as much on it as you do, but that doesn't mean it should eat your productivity away by being a constant interruption.

What I'm doing now is that I'm scheduling time for this. By having a time on my calendar (usually after lunch, that's a whole other post on energy management and picking the right task for the right time), I can rest assured that I'll get to it and stop thinking about it.

What's your favorite hack?

Do you have a fav prod hack with or smartphone? This community would love to hear about it, post it in the comments.

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