Playdough: thoughts on a social dilemma

Attention is not only scarce, it’s malleable.

What we see is informed by our belief systems. What are belief systems made out of? Information. The information we feed our brains everyday shapes our habits, beliefs, and decisions. But if we don’t understand from where and from whom we’re getting the information that informs our everyday choices, then we end up with habits, beliefs, and decisions molded out of playdough. Worse, we don’t even get to pick what color of playdough to use.

You bear a great responsibility if you’re creating anything that feeds off attention. The responsibility of choosing to either make something that improves your audience’s lives for the better, or replaces their bedrock of values with quicksand.

The Social Dilemma is a terrible* movie, and so I highly recommend you watch it. All the better if you’ve been skimming these words because they’re not as interesting as what’s happening on Facebook.

*I have a definition of terrible which I’ve yet to share on the blog. In short: terrible means challenging, well-researched, urgent, usually without a happy ending.

My checking problem

I have a checking problem.

I’m checking to see if the numbers have gone up.

I’m checking to see if anyone’s left a comment.

I’m checking to see if anyone’s shared my work.

And I’m checking to see if all my links lead to the right pages.

All this checking is like looking up at the sky to see if it’s still blue (or orange, if you live in Los Angeles).

Why am I doing this? Because we’re rewarded for checking. Not by our peers, but by our brains. When someone leaves us a nice comment or a red heart, our brains reward us with a dose of good feelings.

Relax. The sky’s still blue, your pages still work, your art is out there and people are going to see it.

Make your art, put it in the world, and forget about it until tomorrow. And if you have a serious case of checking (I call it “doom checking”), make time in your calendar for deliberate checking. Don’t make it too long, because then you won’t have enough time to do your work. Just long enough so that you can check all the important boxes.

23 minutes

It takes 23 minutes to refocus after being distracted.

By default, opening a new tab in Google Chrome shows you a distraction page – a list of 10 of the websites you visit the most. That’s 10 ways to lose 23 minutes.

Enter Momentum. It’s my favorite productivity app of all time. If you liked Essentialism by Greg McKeown, this is the app for you.

Momentum replaces the default new tab screen with a greeting, a gorgeous photograph, an inspirational quote, a to-do list, and a clock. That’s it. That’s all it takes to have those 23 minutes of focus back.


It’s simple. The photographs are stunning. The layout is perfect. The entire app embodies a ‘less is more’ design choice that helps users circumvent any possibility of losing focus while working online.

And it works. It works because the developers understood that one of the best ways to avoid distraction is to never see that which can distract you. You can’t eat 12 Oreos if there’s no box of Oreos around.

My only complaint is that the photographs are so stunning that I catch myself staring at a fjord for 23 minutes.

Rituals: Adjust to Fit

Before I sat down to write this post, I changed out of the clothes that I wore to sleep. I put on a button-up shirt, pants, socks, put my coffee on the left side of my keyboard, and put on Ludovico Einaudi.

Embedded in my ritual is a message. It’s a message that says that it’s time to do good work.

Rituals create boundaries between activities. I can’t get into flow if I’m near the objects that remind me of sleep. I can’t sleep if I’m near the objects that remind me of work.

Of course, rituals and standards will vary. Your standard and my standard are different. What works for you won’t work for me. But it might. So we borrow. We borrow and adjust to fit our temperament, size, climate, skill, interest, hobby, economy.

Adjusting to fit is necessary. The alternative is to superimpose somebody else’s routine onto ours. And all that does is lead to burnout.

I can’t wake up at 4:00 in the morning everyday, and you can’t handle the sheer intensity of the coffee that I drink.


Episode six of the podcast is up. It’s about flow. Click here to listen.

Wabi Sabi and Essentialism – Two Approaches to Quality

Everything and everybody is calling out for our attention. Respond to this email, take this job offering, apply to this college, read this book instead of that one, start a blog; no, don’t start a blog, don’t make another podcast, don’t get a regular job because freelancing is in vogue.

We no longer listen with our ears. We listen with our attention. And our attention is tone-deaf because of the incessant noise of everything and everybody demanding it. What and who should we listen to?

Ourselves. Our voice. The voice that we know best. The voice that’s drowned out by all the other voices.

Okay –  but how? How can we tell which demands for our attention – inner and outer – are worth ignoring? And when doing our work, how can we know what to keep and what to discard? How can we know what we’re trying to say? How can we know what our message really is?

Authors Beth Kempton and Greg McKeown know how.

In Wabi-Sabi, Beth Kempton approaches these questions from a more spiritual and poetic perspective, tying in stories from her life in Japan with rich observations on what it means to live a life of ‘imperfect imperfection.’ Her book reminds me how important it is to be okay with imperfections, especially when it comes to personal branding. (Emphasis should always be placed on the word ‘personal’) Though, the personal brings the imperfections – but that’s exactly what makes your work standout.

In Essentialism, Greg McKeown approaches these questions from the world of business and productivity. Essentialism is a framework that challenges us to be okay with cutting out the fluff from our work, to say no to many of the demands for our atrention.

Essentialism is a timeless book. No matter what project I start, I face the same problems as the last project: what should I keep, what should I discard? Should I make this? Who should I connect with? What if I’m not good enough? Why am I hindering my progress by ruminating on these questions?

These two books taught me that ‘enough’ is something I get to decide.

Have you read these books? Drop a comment. I’d love to hear from you.