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Device Divorce – Love Your Work, Episode 233
When it came time for me to choose a college, I had no idea what I was doing. For reasons I still can’t explain, I chose to go to The University of Nebraska at Kearney. At least until I recognized my mistake.
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Kearney is a town in the middle of Nebraska. I grew up in Omaha, a city on the east edge of Nebraska. You may laugh, thinking, What’s the difference? It’s a flyover state. But to most of my classmates, I was a “city slicker.”
So, I regularly made the drive. Two and a half hours down I-80. Two and a half hours at eighty-miles-an-hour, with a steady stream of semi trucks passing by.
Each time a truck passed, the powerful winds blowing across the plains of the oxymoronically-named Platte River Valley would disappear. Those winds, blocked by the massive eighteen-wheeler, once it passed, would then reappear with more force than ever, sending my little Honda Accord swerving.
I couldn’t swerve too far. My tires were firmly embedded in grooves. Grooves like wagon tracks on the Oregon Trail I-80 follows. Grooves pressed into the concrete by the tires of those heavy semi trucks.
I made this drive — often over a mixture of ice and snow and gravel and salt — to leave a city. A city with plenty of educational options, and arrive in a cow town where one of the main forms of entertainment for my classmates — and I’m not exaggerating here — was hunting raccoons.
Path dependency: Your future depends on it
One time, I missed the exit for Kearney. This was especially frustrating, because I-80 exists mostly for big trucks to drive through Nebraska. It’s not so much for the sparse scattering of people living in Nebraska to get from point A to point B. Which means, there aren’t a lot of exits.
So, if you missed the exit for Kearney, that added a bunch of time onto the end of what was already a long trip. You had to drive another twelve miles past your destination, get off the interstate and turn around and get back on the interstate and drive back another twelve miles. So we’re talking an extra twenty minutes tacked onto a two-and-a-half-hour drive, if you missed that exit.
It was the kind of mistake that you only made once. And it was a good lesson in path dependency. The concept of path dependency states that once you go down one path, it’s difficult or impossible to go down another path. You’ve passed the fork in the road.
Our lives are full of path dependencies. If you eat a bunch of donuts in the afternoon, you won’t have room for a healthy dinner. If you go to one party, you can’t go to another. A single moment can be the difference between dying young, or living another fifty years. Matters of life and death are the ultimate path dependency.
In other words, path dependency is really, really important. It’s important to making decisions, and it’s important to designing your behavior.
One area of life where path dependency has a big impact is with the devices that we use. Take your mobile phone, for example. Think of your mobile phone as like I-80, running through central Nebraska. Once you get on the interstate, once you touch your phone, at what exit will you get off?
There’s Facebook Parkway, or there’s Kindle Boulevard. There’s Meditation Timer Square, or there’s Twitter Plaza. There’s Instagram Alley, or there’s Scrivener Circle.
Like any interstate, once you get off at an exit, it takes some time to get back on the road. If you miss an exit, or take the wrong exit, it will take you a little longer to get where you’re going.
You can get to the same place through multiple paths
There are often multiple ways to get to your destination. I remember one time, I drove home from college on an old highway, instead of the interstate. This seemed outrageously adventurous at the time. The highway is slower, it’s more narrow, it cuts through towns. Part of me wondered if I’d ever make it home.
Yet, it turned out to be a nice drive. It took longer to get home, but not much longer. And I didn’t have to deal with so many eighteen-wheelers. It was probably a safer drive.
This ties into the grippy and slippy tools I was talking about on episode 230. Sometimes speed isn’t the most important thing. Less time isn’t always more better.
Choosing the right road to take is important for designing your behavior, so you can do more of what matters to you and less of what doesn’t matter to you. But once you’re on that road, path dependency also matters a lot.
You don’t want to take the wrong exit. If you want to go down Scrivener Circle and get some writing done, it’s a problem if you accidentally pull into Instagram Alley. If you’re trying to settle in for the night to read a book on Kindle Boulevard, it’s a problem if you take a detour on Facebook Parkway. And God forbid, if you mean to go to Meditation Timer Square, you instead end up in Twitter Plaza.
Introducing the Device Divorce: Stop taking the wrong turn on your devices
This is why I’m a big advocate of divorce. No, not divorcing from a marriage (though, if you need a divorce, get one). I mean divorcing your devices. A “Device Divorce.”
When a marriage goes through divorce, you split up. You split up your possessions, you split up your assets, you divide custody amongst your children. You split up the paths. You say, “That path I was going down, I don’t want to go down that path anymore.”
A Device Divorce is where you split up your devices. The activities you do with your devices, the paths you can go down once you’re on a device, you split them up.
Let’s say you have a computer, a tablet, and a smartphone. Each of these devices can do a lot of things. Just like you can get to one destination through many different roads, you can do one thing with each of these three devices.
You can check email with your laptop, your tablet, or your smartphone. You can use social media with your laptop, your tablet, or your smartphone. You can write a book on your laptop, your tablet, and yes, even your smartphone.
But, should you? Should you use each device you own to do every little thing each device can do?
Fortunately, most of us don’t evenly distribute all of our activities amongst all of our devices, anyway. If we’re going to write a book, we’ll do it on our laptop. If we’re going to make a call, we’ll do it on our smartphone. If we’re going to watch a movie, we’ll do it on our tablet.
But, even though we don’t evenly distribute all of our activities amongst all of our devices, we still do a little of everything on all of our devices. Maybe we do most of our social media on our phone, but we also do a lot of social media on our laptop. Maybe we do most of our email on our computer, but we also do email on our tablet.
The problem with this is, it exposes us to path dependency, gone rogue. If we take a wrong turn, we end up on the wrong road. Once we’re on the wrong road, it takes that much longer to get where we’re trying to go.
Think of it this way: You can do a lot of things with a toothbrush. You can scrub your teeth with a toothbrush. You can also scrub your toilet with a toothbrush. But would you scrub your teeth and your toilet with the same brush? No!
So why use the same device to do two things that are completely at odds with one another? Why surf the web with the same device you use to write? Why chat with your friends on the same device you use to meditate?
You need to split up. You need a Device Divorce. You need to make it easy to get to the places you want to go, and hard take a wrong turn to the places you don’t want to go.
A simple exercise to begin your Device Divorce
To begin a Device Divorce, try this exercise: Draw three columns on a piece of paper. At the top of each of the respective three columns, write laptop, tablet, and smartphone. Now, in the respective column, write down the activities that you primarily do on each of these devices.
Do you see any contradictions? If you go down one path to do one of these things, will that take you farther and farther from another path to do another thing?
Will it break your focus? Will it dampen your momentum? Will it alter your mental state to go down Instagram Alley instead of Scrivener Circle?
If so, you aren’t using your devices, your devices are using you.
Next, make a decision. Decide what activities you will do on each of the three devices. But, just as important, decide which activities you will not do on each of these three devices.
My personal device arsenal
Me, I do most of my writing on my iPad, with an external keyboard. I do not do email on my iPad. I do not do messaging on my iPad.
I try to do as much email as I can on my iPhone. But, I don’t have Twitter or Facebook installed on my iPhone. I’d be taking wrong turns, left and right.
My laptop, I simply try to limit its usage as much as possible. My laptop is a “slippy” tool. Too many side roads and detours.
Your Device Divorce doesn’t have to stop at your primary electronic devices. According to a poll I did on Twitter, three out of four of you already have an extra tablet or smartphone just lying around.
These old devices often can’t run the latest software (thank you, planned obsolescence). But just because a device can’t do everything, doesn’t mean it can’t do something.
I have an extra iPad. It’s so old, I can’t even run most apps on it. But, I use this old iPad for listening to a relaxation recording by former guest Andrew Johnson, I use it for reading on the web, and I use it for reading PDF articles.
I have a friend who has an old iPod Touch. When he works out, he listens to music, and writes down his progress on the iPod Touch. But he knows he won’t get interrupted by a message or a phone call, and he won’t be tempted by social media.
Love Your Work listener Adam Thomas told me he has a “study nook” in his apartment. In his study nook, he keeps an old laptop. He uses an app called Freedom to block any distracting websites on that laptop. The laptop is only for reading research.
Fortunately, product designers are starting to create devices with specialized functions. I recently got a dedicated Kindle, just for reading books. Our former Love Your Work sponsor, Offgrid Mindfulness, has made an awesome meditation timer/alarm clock.
Interestingly, you have to go back in time to get one of the best limited-function devices. There have been some attempts to create dedicated word processors, but they still have too many functions and are too expensive for my tastes. I still love my old portable word processor, the AlphaSmart. It was originally intended as a cheap way for schools to teach typing, and it’s unfortunately discontinued, so you have to buy them used.
Get creative with your Device Divorce. Look at what functions are important to you, what detours you want to avoid, and what devices you have. Be intentional about what your devices do and don’t do. You’ll have deeper focus, and do more of what matters, and less of what doesn’t matter.
Image: Six Species, Paul Klee
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