How to avoid being controlled by your digital tools

Drown out the noise and focus on the work.
Drown out the noise and focus on the work.
Image: REUTERS/Toru Hanai
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In 2013, I founded a software startup called Publet. Almost immediately, my co-founder made it clear that my project management style was veering toward disaster. I made project requests by email. I would periodically call to “check in.” Meetings were scheduled without a clear agenda. We didn’t clearly document work goals. We were, in his eyes, a mess.

My co-founder asked (ok, demanded) that it stop. Everything became part of a process. We started documenting everything about the product in a task-management tool (Trello, then Jira). Internal email was forbidden. Status calls were banished. Updates moved online for anyone to see. Every kind of information had a clear, accessible place where it was passed between people without much effort. The face-to-face time we did have together centered on solving (well-documented) problems. Even after returning to journalism—famous for overflowing notebooks and inboxes—I stuck with a system and never looked back.

As our workplace has gone virtual, we’ve been given digital tools to order this new world. Yet these are not like our old ones. Hammers or scalpels lack the power to intrude on your thought process several times every minute. The elaborate to-do systems peddled by productivity gurus are often more crutch than aid; a good tool is one that demands as little as possible, a gear that enables your life to turn a bit smoother, and disappears whenever it’s not needed for the task at hand. A good system is the simplest one to get your work done, not the specific software you use to do it.

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Tools of our tools

Digital tools have come to resemble the modern economy: obsessed with your attention. That makes them as likely to devour your time as preserve it. When British economist John Maynard Keynes envisioned the future in 1930, he predicted an idyllic 15-hour workweek for laborers freed by the rise of automation. “We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich today,” Keynes wrote in the essay “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren” (pdf), “only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines.”

We know how this has gone. Today, the average workweek in the US has risen—from 38 hours in 1950 to 44 hours today. Among white-collar workers with the most disposable income, a 70-hour week is not unusual.

Simply making a task more efficient doesn’t mean we spend less time with it, as historians have noted with home appliances. Households in 1924 spent about 52 hours a week on domestic chores. Fifty years later, by the 1970s—after the arrival of the vacuum, dishwasher, washing machine, and other time-saving devices—households were spending 55 hours per week. Why? “The dramatic rise in the standards of cleanliness and childcare,” according to historians at the University of Houston.

Today, we’re still trying to grasp the nature of digital work. The dissolution of the work week and always-on culture means this plethora of tools may not make our lives better, says Jennifer Gibbs, a professor of organizational communication and technologies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It was once assumed that working online was somehow deficient and it was inherently disconnecting sitting behind the computer screen,” she told Quartz before the pandemic. “Now the conversation has shifted. Rather than try to help remote workers connect, we’re seeing a lot of effort to disconnect. There is a cognitive and emotional cost of connectivity.”

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How to make digital tools work for you

Many workers have this sense that organized digital spaces make it easier to be productive, but that’s not always the case. Merlin Mann, the productivity guru who popularized “inbox zero,” tried to counter his own mid-2000s information overload with deliberately elaborate processes to improve his work life. It didn’t help, according to a profile of Mann in The New Yorker. “It felt like I was allowing myself to be tossed around by a menacing Rube Goldberg device of my own design,” Mann wrote in 2008. “…Some days, I thought I might be losing my mind.” By 2011, he had abandoned his productivity website 43 Folders in favor of a life geared at cultivating creativity first. The kiss of death? Tools of baroque complexity and incessant notifications. Therein lies madness.

🎧 For more intel on digital tools, listen to the Quartz Obsession podcast episode on Google docs. Or subscribe via: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | Stitcher.

Five years after setting it up for the first time, I still use a (much simplified) version of my old task-management system, essentially a to-do list organized according to kanban, a method that supermarkets use to keep shelves stocked. My weekly goals flow from my monthly goals, and a few big aspirations keep things in perspective as I try to pick what’s next. This and other guiding principles—more than any one workplace tool—help me stay organized and on track.  

The tips outlined below are derived from years of testing and refining what works for me, and stripping everything that does. Treat it as a departure point for whatever works for you. But remember, the simpler the better.

Engineer your environment to prioritize things that matter. A lot of digital tools succumb to an ‘‘ideology of openness,” says Gibbs. “What we’re seeing [in the scientific literature] with these new collaboration tools is that there may be excessive openness, a little too public.”

Take email. It’s like uncorking a fire hose in your living room. As soon as the inbox appears,  stress, worry, and endless tasks overwhelm your brain (or at least mine). To counter this, I hide my inbox (new emails only appear if I click to reveal the box, but I can still search emails). The few times I do deliberately check email during the day, I archive and respond to them immediately, or “star” them for later. This keeps my inbox clear (most of the time), and saves the important emails for a time when I can focus on them. I also automatically send infinite feeds such as news streams via Feedly, Twitter, or newsletters to a special inbox folder I can check only when I want to. All of this allows me to scan through hundreds of stories, flag important ones, and then look away.

Focus, focus, focus. I try to get very clear on the things most worth doing by dividing my daily work into two buckets: things my brain can handle without much contemplation, and things that require deep thinking. The first bucket contains all the tasks I’d like to square away quickly, and I’ll try to knock them out after a few sprints of harder work, or when I’m fading at the end of the day. Finding a tool (or process) to manage the first bucket without much thinking (triaging email, scanning news stories, checking off administrative tasks) can be a huge help.

When it comes to deep work, the key is giving myself permission to focus on a single task. Without knowing it, my brain is scanning the digital horizon all the time, panicking at the barrage of messages I may be missing. Instead, I actively say, “It’s ok to do one thing.” I’ll pause notifications on my devices (including Slack), tee up information I need to reference, and devote myself to the task: writing a story, researching a new pitch, or reporting out an idea.

Simplify, simplify, simplify. A principle in science called Occam’s Razor posits the simplest explanation to fit the facts is probably right. The same goes for tools. The simplest tool for the job is probably the right one. For most people, pen and paper will do just fine. It may not do everything, but it doesn’t have to. As soon as you’re spending more time on process than product, you’re probably wasting time. I’ve narrowed mine down to Evernote (for ongoing lists and topics) and Trello for story ideas that need to be project managed. If you can’t control the tools necessary to do your job, focus on making the best choices with the ones you can.

Make it transparent. The funny thing about working on teams is that the same techniques work when you’re toiling alone. When I ran a company, I needed to ensure everyone on my team could see what tasks we prioritized that week, and how we would solve them. Even though I’m no longer managing a team, I benefit from the same transparency into my thinking, potential stories, and progress. I take notes that have a simple but powerful organization: easily searchable (see this tagging system), and following the same syntax (all text files with interviews start with a date and include the full name so I locate them quickly). For this, I use Evernote, but a simple word document or spreadsheet could do.

Turn off your tools. Time is one of the most valuable things you possess. Why would you let Silicon Valley engineers take it away so freely? Away statuses and notification controls are the modern worker’s best friend. Batch time to carve out space for deep work, and then re-enter the world of notifications and alerts after a few work sprints. I use away messages, inbox pauses, and notification delays on every device when I need them. It’s hard, sometimes impossible to erect barriers against regular intrusions. But we can usually do far more than we are. Reclaim the idea of “do not disturb.” And then switch back into distracted mode when you need to catch up on all those alerts.

Do your own thing. There’s nothing magical about this list (or any other). Everyone will find their own method of balancing productivity and creativity. Resist adopting a system as a religion. Experiment until you find what works for you. I used to try to force everything I did into a tool or process. But I’ve let that go. If you’re constantly struggling against your system, your system isn’t working.

And if you’re establishing a system for a team to use, make sure the culture matches. “The whole connection between the right culture and the right tool is what drives better communication and collaboration,”  says Peter Cardon, a communications professor at the University of Southern California’s business school. “I hear so many times when people put in a new collaboration tool, and no one uses them, or uses them for two weeks and then it’s a wasteland. It almost always happens because people don’t think about the culture that has to be there.”

Above all, remember one thing: No matter how much you optimize or organize, the act or the tools are not the point. Use the time you save to live your analog life. As a former colleague (and recovering “lifehacker”) John Pavlus once wrote,  sometimes “barely any organization at all”  is exactly the right amount.

“Maybe all the time I spend looking for better ways to do things is keeping me from, well, doing things,” he wrote in a 2010 essay annoucing his escape from the digital  productivity addiction. “It’s simply easier than asking some bigger, harder, more important questions about where your time and attention go.”