Are my systems turning me into a robot?
There are two dueling forces within me that seem to be locked in a never-ending battle. On the one hand, I love simplicity and minimalism. I love using default settings and apps, simplifying my needs, and generally reducing the number of requirements I need to be productive and happy. On the other hand, I love using highly specific software that has features beyond the basics. For the tools I use everyday, I love finding the best and then customizing them to my exact specifications and I love using technology to create systems and processes that help me offload the need to remember to do thing. These opposing forces ebb and flow within me and you can usually tell my current status by just taking a peek at the software I’m using (and since I’m writing this in Bear instead of Notes my expansive/non-minimal aspect must be winning right now).
I recently found myself reflecting on all the systems and processes I had created to get myself to do the “right things” at the “right time.” As a huge proponent of the Getting Things Done (GTD) personal productivity approach, I’m very good at offloading my tasks into an external system. Every thought that starts with, “I should do…” is regularly captured in a piece of software and a decision is made about what to do about it on a very regular cadence.
Even beyond my robust GTD system, I enlist technology for several other jobs in my life. I use an automatically recurring checklist in the morning and in the evening to help me get through my morning and evening routines successfully. Every day at the same time 5–7 reminders pop up on my devices to encourage me to do things like, “Read for a bit,” “Journal,” and “Meditate.”
Finally, I’m also using technology to track several different categories of data about myself, both physical and mental. I track sleep and physical activity with my smart watch, subjective experience with Exist.io, computer usage with Moment and Rescue Time, and finances with Mint, just to name a few.
All of these external systems I created for myself are designed to help me focus my attention and effort where it is most needed. At least, that was the theory… but what if I’m actually harming myself instead?
What if my GTD system is making me capture and make decisions on the inessential at the expense of what I really needed to be doing? Would I be more likely to work on what really matters, the truly essential, if I didn’t have a system that tracked all my work and instead I had to make decisions based on my gut?
Are my automatic morning and evening checklists offloading the responsibility to notice how my routine is making me feel in favor of just mindlessly checking items off a list? Do I really need a piece of technology to tell me to take the actions I know make up routines that are important to me?
Is my quantified self habit causing me to take certain actions not because of how they make me feel but because they move certain numbers up or down? Shouldn’t I be doing things because I like the way they make me feel and not because they make my graphs prettier at the end of the year?
In a nutshell, am I outsourcing my intuition by using processes and technology to take care of large aspects of my life?
Would I be a more sensitive, calm, and responsive person if I stopped relying on these systems and instead tried to get in touch with my own thoughts, feelings, and sensations? The more I dug into what an experiment to test this might look like the more nervous I got, which told me I was probably on the right path.
Ultimately, I decided to commit to 30 days where I removed as many of these sources of information, tracking, and outside support. I would revert back to a place where I didn’t have any kind of technology telling me what I should be doing or feeling with the hope that it would re-awaken what I was calling my intuition — my ability to notice how I’m feeling in the moment and make decisions or take action based on that information.
I won’t bore you with the day-by-day play-by-play, but some of the things I ended up doing included:
Stopped tracking my sleep
Stopped filling out my weekly personal metrics spreadsheet with things like steps, sleep duration, number of workouts, journal entries, and meditation duration.
Stopped weighing myself daily
Didn’t use an app to track workouts or meditation sessions
Didn’t use automatically recurring checklists in the morning or evening
Turned off as many notifications as possible
Importantly, there were a few things I didn’t do (although I definitely thought about it):
Doing those two things felt too unsafe to try right now so I excluded them from the experiment.
The one thing that always bothered me about being a PhD student was this expectation that we were supposed to always know how our experiment would turn out. I’m not sure anybody ever explicitly said that, but the message was still there. By the time you had reviewed all the literature and prepared the methods and done pilots and worked through every possible contingency, running the experiment was just a matter of getting the data you needed to write up your findings (and if you disagree with that please point me to where all the “failed” experiments are being published… nobody moves forward in the academic world with failed experiments).
That was definitely not how I approached this experiment. It was truly an experiment in every sense of the word. I didn’t know what the results would be. On the one hand I was hoping that maybe this would unlock some kind of blissful, free, and responsive state of mind that would liberate me from all my systems and keep me much more rooted in the moment. That would have been an interesting and exciting result of this experiment. On the other hand, I had a sneaking suspicion that there was a reason I felt drawn to things like GTD and recurring checklists and quantified self. That removing these important aspects of how I make sense of the world would make me feel like I was adrift with nothing to latch onto.
The real results were somewhat more mixed.
I think I started to see some glimpses of my intuition coming back. I definitely became more aware of my body and my mind by creating more space. On the positive side, removing nearly all notifications was something that created a noticeable improvement in my state of mind. I felt like I could have longer thoughts that had the freedom to roam and grow. In a notification heavy world those thoughts would often be cut off before they could become something interesting.
By the end, though, I decided to revert to my previous systems and habits almost completely. I learned that these systems I’ve created for myself give my brain and energy positive direction. Without them, I would start ruminating or obsessing over things that would just end up making me feel bad.
I also learned that without my systems that prompt me to take positive action, to do the things I know I should be doing, I mostly end up not doing any of those things at all. I worked out very little over the course of this experiment. I meditated very little over the course of this experiment. I wrote very little over the course of this experiment. I know that I feel better when I do all three of these things regularly. For whatever reason, when I removed all external structure I didn’t keep doing these things that I know are positive for me.
Does this mean that I’ve been tricking myself and that I’d actually be happier if I stopped doing them? If I can’t do them without collecting data about them or being reminded by a technological system does that mean I shouldn’t be doing these activities? I wrestled with this for awhile because for a significant amount of time I thought this might be the case. Was I doing my habits for the wrong reasons?
Ultimately, I decided that it’s better to do the right things for the “wrong” reasons than it is to not do them at all.
I’m happier when I’m working out, meditating, and writing regularly and if there are tools, systems, or processes that help move me in that direction then I should embrace them with open arms. It was actually extremely eye-opening to realize that what really matters is simply doing these activities and that it doesn’t matter what it requires to get my ass on a cushion, my feet in a gym, or my fingers on a keyboard. The real battle begins when I close my eyes and start breathing, lifting those weights, or moving my fingers; I don’t need to make it harder than it has to be. If a recurring checklist makes it easier to meditate, great. If being able to track my workout data over time makes me more likely to go lift weights, awesome. If keeping track of how many times I write in my journal every week makes it more likely that I’ll sit down and write, excellent.
I admire the folks who don’t need systems to get themselves to do the things they know they need to do. What this experiment showed me, though, is that I’m not one of those people. And instead of feeling badly about that, I’m going to lean into this realization and continue building the external systems that help me be the best version of myself — completely guilt free.
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