Captain’s Log: ultra-simple tech for self-reflection

For the last few months I’ve been using a remarkably powerful, remarkably simple technique for increasing my effectiveness. It’s called a Captain’s Log.

It’s kind of like a journal, except instead of writing in it reflectively from a historical or archival perspective, the specific purpose of it is to write in it in the heat of the moment, when encountering a feeling of uncertainty or internal conflict. (I realize that the name doesn’t really reflect that distinction, but I don’t care! Perhaps it’s from Invictus: I am the captain of my soul.)

How much better would your days be if every time you felt uncertain or conflicted, you were able to have a quick conversation with a compassionate friend? Would that effect be present even if the friend didn’t really say anything but just nodded as you thought out loud? Well, turns out you can basically do this!

And it turns out that it’s a really valuable tool for practicing undividedness as though saving my head from fire.

Thoughts that might prompt me to use it:

  • “I’m not sure what to do this afternoon…”
  • “I’m feeling kind of flinchy (ie drawn towards absorbing websites)”
  • “I want to go out, but I also want to finish the thing I’m working on”
  • “Maybe it’s time to go to bed? Maybe?”
  • “Where did the last 3 hours go?”
  • “I’m having a bit of trouble focusing but I really want to do some pomodoros!”
  • “Hmm I kind of want to go to this party, but I also want to go to that other thing. Ack!”
  • “I seem to be dissociating…”
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Don’t get distracted and crash

About half a million people are injured each year from motor vehicle accidents involving a distracted driver. (This post isn’t actually about driving—we’re going to use driving as an analogy to understand something else.)

This article cites research to answer a bunch of FAQs about the dangers of talking on the phone while driving. One of these is:

Q: Is talking on the phone more distracting than talking to a passenger?

A: The cognitive workload for the driver is the same, according to Strayer. In his test, conversing with a passenger rated a 2.3 on the 1-to-5 scale; talking on a hand-held phone, a 2.4; and a hands-free phone, a 2.3. However, having another person in the car generally results in safer driving, because there’s often an extra set of eyes on the road. Also, passengers tend to stop talking when the demands of driving increase, Strayer says. “So passenger and cell conversations have different crash risks because the passenger helps out.”

There are a couple things going on here. One of them is that the passenger has more situational awareness: the phone-based conversational partner may not even know their counterpart is on the road, let alone any of the details. The passenger can observe not only the driver but also the state of the car and the surroundings. They may additionally be aware of the intended destination, and so on. The other main thing that’s going on is that the passenger is going the same place as the driver, in the same vehicle, so they have a natural built-in interest to help the drive go well. They have a shared intent, and aligned interests.

Now, if I’m on the phone with you while I’m driving, you (hopefully!) don’t want me to crash, but psychologically it’s very different from when you yourself are (a) at risk and (b) your hindbrain knows it.

So I think that there’s something important going on with both of these pieces: awareness and values.

Other hazards of distraction

If you get distracted while driving, you might get in an accident. If you get distracted while working, or otherwise pursuing some sort of goal, you might waste time and fail to achieve your aims. And as with driving, other people can totally be distracting.

Given that, what can we learn from the driving analogy, that might inform how and with whom we choose to relate?
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Interfacing at the Speed of Thought

There are a lot of interfaces that irk me, not because they’re poorly designed in general, but because they don’t interface well with my brain. In particular, they don’t interface well with the speed of brains. The best interfaces become extensions of your body. You gain the same direct control over them that you have over your fingertips, your eyes, your tongue in forming words.

This essay comes in two parts: (1) why this is an issue and (2) advice on how to make the best of what we’ve got.

Feedback and control systems in the body

One thing that characterizes your control over your body is that it (usually) has very, very good feedback. Probably a bunch of kinds you don’t even realize exists. Consider that your muscles don’t actually know anything about location, but simply exerting a pulling force. If all of the information you had were your senses of sight and touch-against-skin, and the ability to control those pulling forces, it would be really hard to control your body. But fortunately, you also have proprioception, the sense that lets you know where your body is, even if your eyes are shut and nothing is touching. For example, close your eyes and try to bring your finger to about 2cm (an inch) from your nose. It’s trivially easy.

One more example that I love and then I’ll move on. Compensatory eye movements. Focus your gaze at something at least two feet away, then bobble your head around. Tried it? Your brain has sophisticated systems (approximating calculus that most engineering students would struggle with) that move your eyes exactly opposite to your head, so that whatever you’re looking at remains in the center of your gaze and really quite incredibly stable even while you flail your head. This blew my mind when I first realized it.

The result of all of these control systems is that our bodies kind of just do what we tell them to. As I type this, I don’t have to be constantly monitoring whether my arms are exerting enough force to stay levitated above my keyboard. I just will them to be there. It’s beyond easy―it’s effortless.

Now, try willing your phone to call your friend. You’re allowed to communicate your will using your voice, your hands, whatever. Why does it take so many steps, or so much waiting?

» read the rest of this entry »

How did you spend the last hour?

I want to talk about time, and how it’s spent. Almost every time I read about or listen to anyone talk about time management and personal development, they eventually get to TV. They say things like “Want to spend an hour a day learning a new skill? Just drop an hour of television.” or “Watch less television to improve your ability to pay attention.” While I wholeheartedly agree with this advice, I’m unable to apply it because I don’t watch TV.

Tonight, though, while mindlessly surfing the internet, I came across a wonderfully-titled article by Corbett Barr on Expert Enough: The Lost Art of Becoming Good at Things. I wholeheartedly agreed with the content of this article as well, but one sentence jumped out and stabbed me in the self-identity. In discussing how people make excuses for not learning and achieving things by saying they’re too busy, Corbett makes the typical comment “Really? How many hours of TV did you watch this week?” but then he asks:

How much time did you spend mindlessly surfing the Internet?

“Oh.” I said.

I believe that I’ve been excusing myself from learning and achieving things by saying, “Not only am I busy, but I already don’t watch TV!” …and yet… I definitely spend more time wandering the dregs of the internet than I would like.

Because good advice is a waste of your time if it doesn’t change your behaviour, I decided I would change my behaviour. I started using StayFocusd for Chrome several months ago, and it drastically cut the time I spend on sites like Facebook and YouTube. There are, however, more than 360 million sites on the internet, so I can’t block all of the time-wasting sites. Also, exploring is a good thing, so I don’t just want to have a whitelist (besides, I can waste plenty of time on very otherwise-productive sites).

My solution, instead, is just to be more mindful of my time. I’ve set up a script on my computer using Windows’ Scheduled Tasks feature that will bring up the following image fullscreen every hour:

How did you spend the last hour? Do you want to spend the next hour the same way? Yes? Wonderful. No? Stop doing it. Now. Right now.

The Emotional Intelligence of a Smartphone

An image depicting the difficulties I had drawing on my touchscreen. It shows how two horizontal bands were not receiving any kind of input.

This mockup of what drawing was like on my touchscreen shows clearly which parts of the screen don't work.

My phone

I’ve been the owner of an Android phone (HTC Incredible S) for 9 months now, but today I sent it off to get serviced because the touchscreen has been acting up. I first noticed the touchscreen behaving strangely this fall, when horizontal bands of the screen would sometimes be unresponsive. On the right, in a mockup of a drawing app, you can see how poking the screen produced no dots on the band, and so on. This was even more annoying when trying to type, because the bottom band passed right through the home-row (if you can still call it that on a touchscreen) of the keyboard.

Anyway, at first it would just do this for a few minutes every day, but then it started to act up like this consistently. The problems got progressively worse until by mid-January I could never be certain at any given moment that I’d be able to use my phone at all. Furthermore, touch events started happening in the wrong places—I would try to select “Yes” and the screen would select “No”, or taps would become long presses. Sometimes the phone would seem to think I had touched somewhere on the screen when it was sitting a foot away on my desk, and would navigate interfaces on its own.

An iceberg is depicted, with much more mass below the water than above. The top is labelled as IQ and the bottom as EQ.

  I think this is a terrible analogy, because I think EQ is easier to assess on the surface than IQ is. Anyway, I didn't make the image.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence (hereafter EI, though often called EQ like IQ) is a term that is used to describe one’s ability to perceive others’ emotions and response appropriately in social situations. As the image here from Psychology Today illustrates, EQ is ascribed a fair amount of importance. The same concept is also embodied in maxims like “It’s not what you know, but who you know”.

What makes a smartphone smart?

So if we were to map the concept of IQ to technology, it could refer to a number of things, but at the forefront is processing power and efficiency/effectiveness of algorithms. Of additional consideration is the ability to learn new things, which is likely where the concept of a smartphone comes from: in addition to built-in phone features like SMS and alarms, smartphones can play games, interact with social networks, and let us draw, to mention just some of the hundreds of thousands of apps out there.

How, then, would we map EI, or EQ? Emotional intelligence, for a computer or smartphone, or any piece of software, is its interface. A piece of software has good EI if it responds the way you expect it to, and even better EI if it anticipates your needs and makes it easy to accomplish your goals. When our technology does this, we adore it, and when it fails to do so, we abhor it.

Can a phone be rude? What about mean?

However, this feeling of dislike can actually go further than just general annoyance or frustration at an inability to properly perform a task using some interface. I realized this rather profoundly with my defective smartphone when I had been trying in vain for probably five minutes to do something really simple like call someone. I was completely unable to navigate the interface because the screen would constantly press other places or simply refuse to push where I wanted. How do you think I felt? I’m actually going to give you space to guess. Think of an adjective that you would expect to most accurately describe my feelings at that point.

Did you say frustrated? Angry? Disgusted? Resentful? Those are all true, but that’s not exactly right. When I couldn’t use the interface, I felt hurt. It sounds odd, but I had an emotional response in my chest that I’ve recognized as the one I feel when someone is being cruel to me (I was bullied a bit when I was younger). It was probably the second time I had this response that I realized how strange that was. After all, at no point in this process had anyone set out to hurt me. Why did I feel like my phone was being mean to me?

After some reflection, I concluded that how I really felt was misunderstood. I was trying to communicate with my phone, via its touchscreen interface (which was designed for human fingers) and it seemed to be completely misunderstanding my instructions and ignoring them or vehemently disobeying them. I had unwittingly personified my phone to a huge extent, so it really hurt when I felt like it was ignoring me while I was going out of my way to communicate with it (eg. turning the phone to put UI elements in different places so I could access them). This would be like asking someone close to you (smartphones are companions) for help and having them plug their ears, sing, and then do something random that might be slightly related to what you were asking. They’d be taunting you.

Moving forward as a designer

When I couldn’t use the interface, I felt hurt.

I’m a designer, a hacker, and an engineering student, so I make things with interfaces. In fact, I’m quite passionate about user experience (UX) and interface design. While my phone’s flaky touchscreen was obviously not intentional, I believe that what I’ve learned here apply into conscious interface design as well. This kind of revelation is less of a “how” than a “why”. That is, prior to these experiences, I had had no idea that interfaces could cause such an emotional impact.

When my smartphone became stupid, it didn’t lose processing power. It simply lost the ability to communicate with me, and that felt far worse than I could have possibly expected. I’m going to remember this every time I design an interface.

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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