A day full of outrage

A day full of outrage

I’ve blogged a lot about distractions and thinking lately. One thing I’ve noticed is just how distracted we are in our world today. You know what I’m talking about, the constant buzzing from our smartphones. I’ve also talked about how to deal with that. That part of it is on us. But today I want to turn our attention to the root cause of this.

Sure, in some regard, your phone is what you make of it. You can ignore notifications to some extent, and you can do things to reduce them. But that is definitely not the default mode. I was turned onto this idea when I first heard Tristan Harris. He appeared on a podcast with Sam Harris (no relation).

Here’s his core idea. While we say technology is neutral, the reality is that the applications we install on our phones manipulate us. They trick us to open them. They trick us to spend more time on them. I was vaguely aware of this, but hadn’t heard it phrased in a way that the ideas became concrete.


 

The Concept

Behind every app is a team of people working to keep your attention. Experiments are run to find new ways to keep your attention. Decisions are made to grab your eyeballs. These decisions typically optimize for one thing, time on screen.

Working in software engineering gives a unique view into this. We can see these decisions. But here’s the thing, I’ve never considered these malicious. And I’m fairly certain the developers behind obvious offenders like Facebook and Snapchat are also not making malicious decisions. But when you’re measured on a metric, you tend to optimize for it.

Let’s take a concrete, but unrelated example. Code coverage can be a great metric for assessing unit tests on a project. It gives us insight into how well our unit tests are written. But it can easily be gamed. This is the outcome you’ll get once that metric is used to measure an individual’s performance. If you do this, you’ll end up with unit tests that cover every line of code, but don’t actually test for correctness. You’ve optimized for the metric.

Obviously it wasn’t malicious, just the natural outcome of weighting the metric too highly. This is exactly the situation we find ourselves in now. Attention and time on screen are weighted way too heavily in our apps. As a result, we optimize for it.

So how is that done? Notifications are one example. With a notification, an app grabs your attention and pulls you in. That’s step one. Now the goal is to keep you there. Tristan references something he calls a “variable scheduled reward”. This is the number of tweets you might have waiting for you in Twitter. This rewards you for entering the app, training you to check back in. The never ending feeds keep you engaged in the app way longer than you meant to be.

Is this how you want to spend your time? Probably not, you likely didn’t even mean to. This is unfortunate, because it means you didn’t intend to do this.

How about those feeds? Have you ever considered what gets put into those feeds? Let’s consider the algorithm behind those. We know that Facebook has removed its human curators, and it is conceivable other companies have as well.

Since the algorithm is going to maximize clicks and shares, it is going to end up favoring articles with a heavy emotional response. We can see this already in the fake news phenomenon.

Imagine the different responses that the feeds might give you. Things that cause outrage are likely to be shared. Will they benefit you? Likely not, but they’ll get clicks and shares. How about jealousy? See where this can go? Next thing you know, your feeds are all outrage.

How to spend our time the way we want

So let’s start with our own lives. How can we improve that? I don’t want to dig too deeply into this, as I already did with my distractions blog. But I do want to introduce a couple new ideas.

We work in sprints for our jobs, what if we worked in sprints for our individual tasks? That’s exactly what the Pomodoro technique is. The concept is to spend 25 minutes at a time on a single task. Don’t let interruptions stop you, just focus on that one task. In fact, I recommend tracking your interruptions. After those 25 minutes, take a five minute break. This is the key. You have a stop point, which allows you to focus singularly for those 25 minutes.

How do you know you’re spending your own time well? If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. If you’re on iOS, I recommend checking out Moment. This app allows you to use battery screenshots on the iPhone to track your usage of apps throughout the week. Then, at the end of the week, gives you a summary of which apps you spent time in and how long. You can then rate those apps as time well spent or not.

This really digs into the core of Tristan’s ideas. The manipulation techniques that our apps are using could be used for good, if their values aligned with ours. Its important to know which apps you actually want to be spending time in.

Improving the industry

Unfortunately, I’m not very hopeful for change in this area. The incentives are all currently misaligned, which will prevent this from really changing. Even if we make efforts on an individual level, the metrics for screen time and attention will force products to move towards  maximizing time on screen.

So what has to change? The advertising model certainly doesn’t help. The correlation between time in app and ad clicks is a big influencer into this metric. But it goes deeper. Companies on subscription models are essentially forced to maximize screen time as well. Netflix has found that losing screen time can result in lost subscriptions.

The big players here are the gatekeepers. Apple and Google, the owners of the app store, control which apps are surfaced. I don’t think top grossing or most popular are metrics that are benefiting users. I’m not sure what the answer here is, without asking the user too many questions. I don’t like the idea of rating your time in an app, so I’m sort of at a loss here.

Even though I’m not hopeful for making a large change via personal efforts without a system change, I still think it is worth the effort. As devs, we should speak up when we recognize less than ethical choices in apps. We should question if we’re serving our users in ways that they want. Are they really communicating positively with their clicks? What other metrics can we use to determine time well spent.

Next steps

The biggest first step is awareness. You’re less likely to fall prey to the manipulative tricks of these apps if you’re aware of it. Maybe you’d even be ok with some of these tricks if they align with your own goals. We also need to admit to ourselves that we’re all susceptible to these tricks. Everyone likes to think we’re not susceptible, but we are.

I wonder if we can start sending a message by prioritizing our time for ourselves. Perhaps if we are not falling prey to the manipulation, it will stop working. Maybe then we can realign the incentive system for the industry.

Once we can prioritize our own time, we can start to think about how to change the industry. Only then we can change the metrics.

If you liked this post, please like or share it on your social media platform of choice. I’d also love to hear your feedback. If you have time, drop a comment below.

The distracting world of software development

The distracting world of software development

On a typical work day, I get interrupted from what I’m working on about 9000 times, or about once every three seconds. At this point I’m a pro at getting interrupted.

Now, obviously, this is hyperbole, but the point is valid. As developers, there are a lot of different pulls on our attention. Of course this isn’t unique to developers. But as tech companies move to open floor plans, the need to be able to focus, despite those distractions, is growing.

I’ve focused a lot lately on the idea of mindfulness while coding, but it is easy to see how distractions can prevent that. Any interruption can snap you out of your focus, and suddenly you’re rabbit-holing down a path you never intended.

Preventing Distractions

Ideally, we can remove our distractions. I’ll touch on a number of ways I personally attempt to remove distractions from my work.

External Distractions

The first type of distraction we’ll need to deal with is external. This is interruptions coming at you from outside your control.

My number one way to attempt to block these interruptions is probably everyone’s most common. Headphones. You simply have to get yourself a decent pair of headphones as a developer. This is crucial even if you don’t listen to music! Other than drowning out background noise, headphones provide an immediate visual cue that you are in monk mode. They say, “Now is development time”.

Of course, they don’t always work. Not only will some people not respect the headphones, sometimes people just consider their thing the priority. Hopefully, your office provides you some side rooms. At my office, these are called “JITs”. Anyone can grab these rooms at any point and just work. If your office doesn’t provide these, I recommend getting cozy at Starbucks.

These strategies can help reduce the interruptions caused by drive-bys, but Slack and other applications can be just as annoying. I have two main strategies for dealing with these.

Number one, block off your calendar. Put time on your calendar for dedicated tasks. If you need to write that new feature, put a spot on your calendar specifically to work on that. This does two things. One, it prevents others from scheduling time there, and notifies them you are busy. You can also put up auto replies and go away on slack if that helps. But two, it sets aside mental space for you to work on that task.

Two, turn off notifications. This has a bigger effect than you might realize. I actually do this in most of my life, but at least temporarily disabling notifications on your laptop can be a big deal while trying to focus. Slack, especially, has a tendency to be distracting. On mac, use do not disturb mode.

Internal Distractions

For me, this is the harder one. Narrowing your focus to just the task at hand. I have multiple tricks I do to this end. In fact, turning off almost all notifications, which I mentioned previously, on both my phone and laptop all the time is something I do to help this.

Not everyone is willing to take that plunge though, so that’s where focus apps come in. There are a variety of these out there, but here is one: focus booster. These apps work by blocking access to a variety of typically distracting sites. Facebook, reddit, twitter, these sites aim to keep you locked in them. As a result, they are addicting, and sometimes we need help to stay off them. These apps help with that.

This next tip will probably be met with some resistance, but hear me out. Switch to a single monitor setup. Using one monitor keeps you focused on the one thing you’re working on. If you can’t do that, use two, but position one directly in front of you. I’ve seen many developers position the second monitor vertically, this also helps delineate which monitor is your focus. But nothing beats a single monitor for this.

To enhance the single monitor lifestyle, use full screen apps. This keeps you in the app your working on. Get good at alt-tabbing (on windows) or switching desktops (on mac). This has been one of the best hacks for my productivity. Not only does it make the app easier to use, it keeps you constrained in the app. No more checking Facebook on the side.

Dealing with distractions

As we all know, not all distractions can be prevented. Sometimes we just have to deal with them. This is where things get difficult. We may have to break social norms. We may have to attempt to dislodge the status quo.

The biggest single thing you can do is learn to say no. Often, when coworkers come to you with a request, it can be hard to turn them away. But when you’re really focusing, this can be the best way. Take a note of it, and move on (I mean a literal note). Follow up when you’re not focusing. Or don’t, because the likelihood is that it isn’t a priority for you.

This can be hard. We want to help others. But you have to know your boundaries. Deliberately setting those boundaries can go a long way to know when its ok to let yourself help someone.Those boundaries can also enable us. Use those boundaries to set expectations with others. Tell them your boundaries, and they will respect it. This can help remove the awkwardness of the no all together, you never even get to that stage.

Finally, mindfulness (you knew I’d come around to it eventually) can help us realize these moments. Oftentimes, when these interruptions come up, we react without even thinking about it. If we can slow down, and take the time to see what is happening, we’ll be better for it. Mindfulness can be the key that enables you to say “no”.

How do you remove distractions?

These are some of my techniques, but I’d love to here yours. For me, this is a constant learning process, and really no two people are the same. Some techniques work with some people, some with others. If you’d like to share, drop a note in the comments!