How to save yourself from technology suicide
How suicide rates in 1960s Britain can help us reclaim our attention from antagonistic algorithms
Welcome entrepreneurs. I’m so glad you’re here.
Big week this week in my world — we just released the new website for Inside Out Leadership! If you decide to check it out, I’d love your thoughts. I’m particularly stoked about the logo (below), and will be ordering some swag for giveaways. Let me know if you’re interested.
It’s also 60 degrees in Michigan today, so I’m scheduling this post in the middle of a workday, after which I’m heading out to the golf course. I feel some guilt in saying that (after all shouldn’t I be hustling somehow? I can’t possibly have done enough today, it’s only noon) but I shouldn’t. For those of us who are fortunate enough to have the flexibility, we are past time to normalize having fun between 9-5 M-F. Work is no longer confined to that window, so fun shouldn’t be confined to evenings and weekends. We get one amazing, precious life, and it’s on us, not society, how we carve it up.
Speaking of our one life, let’s talk this week about an amazing little device that can cost us a lot of it.
How to save yourself from technology suicide
There is a decades-old war for your attention.
On one side, hundreds of thousands of highly educated professionals collaborate with the world's smartest algorithms, leveraging cutting edge scientific research, both physiological and psychological, to capture your attention. This side is infallible and indefatigable, knows you better than you know yourself, and gets more effective every day.
On the other side, trees and the sunrise, your mom and your kids, and the feel of a breeze on your skin or a snowflake on your tongue. The smell of juniper, rosemary, or vanilla. The taste of raspberries. On this side is life, unoptimized, unstreamlined, real. The rest of your life, the part not spent behind a screen.
There's a war for your attention, and it's not a fair fight.
“My experience is what I agree to attend to.” -- William James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol.1 (1890)
In other words, where you choose to put your attention determines your life.
Our phones are arguably the most amazing invention in the history of society, and we would be in much worse shape without them. But the wondrous invention comes with a steep cost, measured not in dollars but in the degree to which it intermediates us from our lives.
A quick story: For my thirtieth birthday I went to summer camp. Upon arriving, two people in hazmat suits confiscated our technology, thus liberating us for 72 glorious, redwood-scented hours. Even after having our tech returned to us, on the bus ride to the airport I didn’t check my phone once.
Then I got off the bus and felt sick to my stomach. Drones of people, heads down looking at their phones as they somehow navigated the halls of SFO. It was everyone. I sat at a table to get breakfast and looked around. In five minutes only one person met my eye, and just for a moment before returning to his game or doomscrolling or whatever.
This is not abnormal. Try it out. Leave your phone at home when you go out once, and watch how people use theirs. It's gross. But it's also the inevitable result of standing in the middle of a warzone without a plan.
Most people use their phones (willfully?) blindly, not realizing that their phone is a hivemind of the most intelligent people in the world with the same agenda as cocaine. The hivemind wants to hook you. You're not swiping right on an inert machine -- you're opening your head to hordes of Stanford grads who've dedicated their lives to controlling your attention.
"But this is overkill," you say. "I shouldn't have to think so hard about using my phone."
I hear you, but your phone is thinking hard about using you. If you want more sunrises in your life, more sensations of grass against your back as you swap stories with a friend, intentionally developing defenses against your phone is, to my mind, the only rational thing to do.
So what's the strategy?
I’m no expert at not using my phone; being on the Internet is a key part of my job working with entrepreneurs. But I do approach the topic intentionally. I am committed to choosing intentionally where I place my attention — how I spend my life — so I manage my phone usage to a sort of Goldilocks zone by making things slightly harder on myself.
In his book Talking To Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell analyzed suicide trends in Britain in the '50s and '60s, around the time when Sylvia Plath asphyxiated herself in 1962 by sticking her head in a gassy oven. Turns out that lots of people were sticking their heads in ovens around then (44% of total suicides), because the gas that fueled those ovens was so damn effective at suffocating people. Suicide was as easy as turning a knob in the kitchen, so a ton of people did it.
Then one day, Gladwell recounts, when the powers that be changed the gas that fueled people's stoves, the suicide rate plummeted. Not only suicide by asphyxiation, but across the board. Turns out that making suicide slightly more difficult lead to a broad decrease in attempts. The same was true with bridge-jumping. "Richard Seiden’s follow up of 515 people who had been stopped from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge between 1937 and 1978 found only 25 had gone on to kill themselves by other means," says Gladwell.
That's my strategy around using my phone.
By making it ever-so-slightly more difficult to use, I've found that I spend dramatically less time on my phone. For me, this correlates with a sharp increase in sunrises seen, lego forts built with my kids, and overall life satisfaction. You might choose to spend your life differently, but the point is by introducing more friction into your phone experience you increase the likelihood that you get to choose, rather than your phone.
Sweet! So how do we make using phones harder without it being awful?
Making using your phone just a wee bit harder is actually pretty easy. Here's what I've done, in progressively-more-extreme order:
Turn off all push notifications. All of them. Yep, even email. The purpose of these notifications is to produce anxiety and to give you a sense of obligation (trust me, I've been in the product planning meetings). If you do nothing else after this article except remove all those red dots from your icons, you'll notice a difference in the way you feel.
Turn off the color on your phone. I got this idea from a guy who decided to go on a 75-day meditation retreat just before the pandemic started (lol). He said that he'd turned off his phone's color during the retreat, and when he turned it back on after spending 75 days in the woods, the colors on it seemed bizarre and unnatural. Which is because the Stanford (and Harvard) grads have designed strategies to increase the rate at which you use your phone. On an iPhone you can turn off your color by going to Settings / Accessibility / Display & Text Size / Color Filters.
Download and set up One Sec. This brilliant little app uses your phone's Shortcuts function to interrupt you every time you try to open your social media apps. The result being that you can get to Twitter as normal, but beforehand you have to take a deep breath. In, and then out. And then when you're done it asks you if you still want to use Twitter. Turns out that 85% of the time I tap the Twitter icon, breathing reminds me that I'd rather talk to someone.
Delete your social apps. I did this for 3 years and it 100% killed my social media habit. I could still use social media if I needed to — if Laura posted a pic of our son on Facebook for example — but it was such a pain in the ass that I almost never did. For most people this is probably overkill (I've since scaled back my defenses to only the first three things on this list myself), but I dare you to try it for a week. Think of it like a detox. Then see how you feel when you first reinstall them, and tell me that social media isn't physiologically addictive.
The defenses above make it just hard enough. They allow me to stay engaged online without getting too frustrated, but are enough of a pain in the ass that I've found myself leaving my phone on the counter for hours at a time.
I choose the object of my attention consciously more often than not, which, given the amount of money and brainpower spent trying to capture that attention, I consider a big win. I wish the same for you.
Some more options
I haven't used these (yet?), but they also sound effective:
Forest -- Whenever you want to stay focused, plant a virtual tree. Your tree will grow while you don't look at your phone. Leaving the Forest app halfway will cause your tree to die.
Moment -- Comprehensive phone-detox training with virtual coaching for extreme cases.
(HT: Nanya S, Mindy Zhang, Joel Christiansen, Art Lapinsch, Yishi Zuo, Grant Nice, Oliver Palmer, Sonnie Bailey, and Compound for editing!)
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Who is Ryan Vaughn?
I’m an executive coach for startup founders, a role in which I get to help high-performing founders expand into extraordinary leaders. I’m a 3x Founder/CEO who’s raised $20m+ in VC and built a market-changing company, as well as two other companies that taught me things. I’m an avid writer, meditator, reader, athlete, father, husband, amateur physicist, student of leadership, and adventurer. I’m also none of those things. But I am glad that you’re here. If that’s not enough, here’s a more detailed bio.
FIVE THINGS I READ THIS WEEK
One: Fleeing the cold on a bike and in a Sprinter van (CrazyGuyOnABike.com)
I reached out to a friend and former investor of mine to share some good news, and his OOO informed me that he was on a bike, and would be for the next “(undetermined) months.” He included the link below (I was particularly interested in the “why” section halfway down the page).
Consider this man, riding his bike across the country to fulfill a childhood dream. And then consider your own dreams, and ask yourself: if not now, during the last stages of a global pandemic, then when?
Two: Practical philosophy reading list (Ryan Holiday)
Author of “The Obstacle is the Way” and creator of The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday is a philosophical bard for our times. He helps a who’s who list of professional athletes & entrepreneurs to adapt ancient philosophy to their modern lives. He was also kind enough to put together a list of the most practical books on philosophy that influenced his thinking. I’ve read only about half of these, but they’re gems.
Three: What are NFTs and why will they change the world (Esquire)
So many people in my life right now are trying to figure out how to interact with NFTs (non-fungible tokens). I’m working with an angel fund who is targeting this market, so I’ve had the opportunity to justify learning a ton about them. I’ve transitioned from confused to excited the more I’ve learned. Here’s an article as a primer if you’re still confused.
TL/DR: Yes, a digital NFT artwork by an artist named Beeple can be worth $69m on auction at Christie’s, third highest record for any living artist for the same reasons.
Four: Support outside CLG (Conscious Leadership Group)
One of my favorite things is when the author of a really great book, or a really great thinker, cites their sources. The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership is such a book, and the authors were kind enough to cite some additional sources for those of us on the journey interested in going deeper.
Five: Stockton’s basic income experiment pays off (The Atlantic)
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is coming, and we needn’t resist it. I know many of us are scared this will make recipients lazy, drug addled good for nothings, but it turns out the opposite is true. Researchers at U-of-Tennessee and Penn have been experimenting with UBI in Stockton, CA, and the results are more optimistic than even I expected.
I hope that you found something interesting in this week’s newsletter. Now please allow me to invite you to turn off your screen and take a walk outside. A 20-minute walk can change your whole day.
Thanks for reading,
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