Life without apps and other musings on productivity

by Sunita

It is no secret that I have a love-hate relationship with smartphones and always-connected technology. I developed and regularly teach a course on the politics of privacy in the digital age, and every year there is something new to add to the syllabus. Last year it was the Internet of Things (which continues to grow in importance). This year it’s backdoors for national security agencies, with the current Apple-FBI legal battle illustrating the larger problem. Although it’s impossible to use online resources and not sell your soul to one of the Big 5, I try to minimize my digital trail and encrypt communications where I can.

An aside: there is a story making the rounds about a USA Today reporter who supposedly had his email “hacked” (sniffed, actually, but everything is called hacking nowadays) when he was using inflight wifi. Aside from the fact that the guy who “hacked” his email was sitting right behind him (so he may have snooped the old-fashioned way, over his shoulder), this reporter was working on the Apple-FBI story using unencrypted email on an open wifi network. People, do not do this. Use a VPN if you use open wifi connections a lot, and for heaven’s sake, use email that comes with https at a minimum. Why a USA Today reporter is still using is beyond me. But I digress.

A couple of years ago I switched from a high-end smartphone to a feature phone, in part to understand the online opportunities for people who don’t have high-speed mobile broadband or can’t afford fancy smartphones, and in part to control my social media habit. I eventually went back to a smartphone, but I’ve regularly switched it out for a feature phone. (A feature phone is a phone which has data access for email and browsing, but doesn’t have the range of apps and mobile access that iOS, Android, and even WindowsPhone provide). Not only is life more peaceful, because your notifications go way, way down, but feature phones tend to be smaller and easier to carry around.

One result of my feature phone use is that I use very few apps, and I really don’t miss them. Aside from Twitter I’m not on any social media, I never played games much (Free Cell and Sudoku are about it in terms of video or phone games), and while I love to take photographs, I don’t get the allure of Instagram.

What do I miss by not having apps? Distractions, obviously, of the not-good but also the good kind. I can’t listen to Audible audiobooks through my phone, I have to carry my iPod Nano. I can’t pull out a book and read it. But I can listen to music. I can read newspaper websites. And the data are so compressed that I don’t have to use wifi because I don’t eat up much bandwith at all. I don’t know if having a minimalist phone makes me more productive, but it does give my brain the down time that we all supposedly need for recharging.

I’ve seen a bunch of posts recently about planners and planning apps, as well as productivity apps more generally, and while it’s interesting to see plannermania moving through various online communities, not enough of them talk about how individual a successful planning and productivity routine needs to be in order to work. If someone has used a particular system for years, then you can usually be confident they’ve found something that works for them, but unless you are like them both psychologically and in terms of your needs, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. For example, Google Calendar is great if the vast majority of your activities are in one time zone, or at most two. If you regularly need to coordinate across more than two, you have to take extra steps to make sure your 4pm appointment in San Francisco is actually at 4pm, and the auto-sync, connected aspects of electronic calendars may not work correctly for you.

I loved my old Palm calendar system, but iCal and Gcal have never worked well for me. I don’t think I’ve missed an appointment because the calendars screwed up the time zone, but I’ve come close. From what I can tell they have fixed some of those issues but not all of them. And besides, I find writing down appointments helps me remember them better.

I don’t have a lot of productivity tips, to be honest. I have no idea whether what works for me would work for other people. I don’t really have life goals, aside from getting through the day and not being a huge pain in the ass to other people. Over the years I’ve realized that I do better by focusing on process rather than outcomes. Sure, there are things I want to achieve, but they happen because I work on them regularly, not because I have “goal” in big flashing lights over my desk, like those old Stairmasters that tell you “you have attained your goal” at the end of a workout.

I guess I have two productivity-related tips that might work for other people. For goals that require repeating certain activities and behaviors, like C25K, losing weight, writing a book, etc., what works best for me is to make it a practice. Not necessarily a daily practice, but a regular practice. Morning pages are a daily practice, because every day that I don’t do a brain dump is a less satisfying day. But I can’t run every day, my joints won’t let me. So that’s a several times a week practice. A certain kind of academic writing is something I’m trying to make an almost-daily practice. At least right now, I don’t seem to be able to do it every day, but I’m trying to do it most days.

The other productivity-related exercise I’ve been doing every day is time logging. I think I talked about it before, but it’s worth repeating. Write down how you spend your time. It’s the best way to figure out where the day goes. You may be busier than you think, in which case you are wrongly beating yourself up over not getting enough done. On the other hand, you may be frittering time away in things you don’t find all satisfying, and when you see that on the page, it can be very helpful.

If you like routines, think of daily or near-daily practices as routines. If the idea of a routine makes you feel tied down, think of practices as a way to get to where you want to go. You can’t get there from here without spending regular time on it.