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The Simple Safety Pin: An Analog Automation Powerhouse


Here is my call to you today: Automate. Automate. Automate.


Here’s the catch, you’re only going to use analog technology, like safety pins and file cabinets.


Huh?


One of the best ways to get more productive is to make things happen automatically. I’m not talking about using a computer to do your job. If a computer can do your job, time to learn a new skill. We’ll all need to do this multiple times in our lives anyway, but no need to accelerate it.


I’m talking about making the important things happen “automatically.” As in, they happen without your conscious effort or expenditure of willpower.


You can think of your day, your life, and the choices and actions within it, as parallel branches in an electrical circuit. We’ll stick with resistors for now because I have no clue how to make this analogy work for more complicated components (yet). Actions that have a high resistance value will draw less current (energy and attention), and actions with a low resistance value will draw more current. I’m pretty sure I’m remembering V=IR correctly…


If you can increase the resistance in an unproductive habit, like checking email when you want to be doing deep work, you’ll decrease the current flowing on that branch. If you can interrupt it all together, you create an open circuit (infinite resistance), and no current flows and no energy is wasted on that unimportant action.


Lately I’ve been playing with simple ways to increase the resistance in the circuits for unproductive behaviors, and decrease the resistance in a parallel circuit for good behavior. When I do this, my current flows naturally to the things that will do me good.

Put the bananas on the dining table and the candy in the back of the top shelf in the cabinet behind all the tea. Or just leave the candy at the grocery store, that creates a very large resistance.


At the end of the night when the internet turns off, I put my laptop in the file cabinet so that first thing in the morning my desk is clear save for my notebook and planner. High resistance value in the branch for “open the laptop and waste time.” Low resistance value in the branch for “open the journal and do my gratitude practice.”


Let’s get to that safety pin now, I’m sure you’re wondering about it. The screen time app tells me that so far today I’ve picked up my phone 13 times. It’s 3pm so I’m actually really freakin’ proud of that. But some days are harder than others, and the anxiety is worse than usual. On those days, I put my phone in the thigh pocket of my Carhartt’s (this is the only reasonable pocket to put a modern phone in if I’m being truthful) and then I safety pin the pocket closed.


Sounds a bit weird and extreme, but let me explain.


Checking your phone is like placing a jumper cable across a high value resistor in your circuit. It gives another path for your energy to flow and avoid the resistor or stressful task. The safety pin is like cutting that jumper and making it an open circuit. When you go to reach for your phone (an unconscious habit) it’ll get interrupted by this pesky little safety pin, and you’ll remember that right now you want to be focused on finalizing that schematic.


When your brain is experiencing a real or perceived stressor, it unconsciously finds some other (lower resistance) behavior that will delay the experience of stress for a while. If it can trick you into doing this forever, you never have to experience the discomfort of whatever it is you’re avoiding. This is a clever strategy that your biology uses to protect you from harm and the wasting of calories.


It’s called procrastination.


It’s just that it works too well sometimes, and we actually NEED to experience the stressor, the discomfort. Because if we don’t experience it we’ll never finish our work. If we never experience discomfort as engineers, we’re not trying anything new, and by extension we’re not adding any value. This can go too far, and it does, but no stress gets in the way of progress just as too much stress does.


Great ways to increase resistance for unproductive habits that I’ve written about previously include blocking websites during specific time windows using Freedom, blocking rabbit holes using Adblock Plus, and putting things far away, or as we used to say in bike shops, “put the tubes in the back.”


This is a classic retail trick. If you have to walk past all the awesome stuff on your way to getting the essential stuff, you’re more likely to buy something you weren’t planning to. So put the unproductive things way at the back of the store behind all the productive ones.


On the flip side, the main way to decrease resistance for productive habits is to make them more visible, easier to access. Put the journal on top of your phone at night. Put the healthy food at the front of the fridge. Put your running shoes where they’ll block the front door. Put the floss in front of the toothbrush. Put an event in your calendar with a link to the document you need to work on. Make tomato-timer.com your home page.


A simple principle to summarize all this would be “make good things easy and bad things hard.” Because we all run out of willpower on a regular basis. You get to define good and bad here, but you don’t get to define easy and hard.


So I sold my crotch rocket and bought an adventure touring (grandpa) bike. The adventure touring bike can still wheelie easily enough to get me arrested… but it’s not as tempting.


All these tools to increase the resistance of unproductive paths and decrease the resistance of productive ones will allow you to make more progress on the important things and spend less time on mindless junk. Leaving you energy to, I don’t know, learn a new skill for when a robot takes over your job.

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