James McBryan
Jan 6 · 9 min read

It’s 2019, and I’ve been on technology for more than 25 years! I love it, but wow, I feel like it’s reached a saturation point in my life where I need to restore balance.

Basically, my 2019 goal is to feel focused and present, and I think anyone can see that technology does not easily help with that.

However, I’m not going to go back in the dark ages and throw my devices out the window. My livelihood depends on social interaction and productivity, so as a result, I’m constantly hacking my life in how I use technology effectively. I am testing out ideas, iterating on them, and building off of them.

Out in the eastern sierras of California, thinking about all the things to make 2019.. EPIC!

Below is a list of all the tech hacks I have currently implemented in my life. Some may sound ridiculous to you, some useful, but if you are into this as much as I am, feel free to borrow, question, and definitely share your own if you have some, I want to hear them!

Making it hard to surf

“Surfing the web” can be endless, where new information and entertainment are just one click away: news, Reddit, social media, YouTube, and whatever else pops up! I find myself “deep diving” when I really don’t care. I forget what I initially aimed to do with my phone or computer, and I lose track of time. And it’s not my fault. Companies are putting access to this endless information everywhere. They are on the browser, a swipe away on the mobile phone, embedded in calendars, in the sidebars on social media, etc! They are intentionally distracting us to get us “hooked” (and as a self-proclaimed “wanna-be growth hacker” myself, I’ve studied how to do this too!). Trust me, it’s a thing. Below are some hacks that I’ve used to stop surfing:

Uninstalled the browser on my mobile phone (new)

This actually REALLY increased my quality of life recently. Yes, I can’t browse on my phone, and it nags me near daily, but being able to look up stuff has become as distracting as notifications. The mobile browser enabled me to satisfy curiosity at any point and enabled me access to apps I uninstalled, like Facebook and news. If I really need something now, I use a computer, download a specific app for the company, or just delay it for later. Since this one is new, I’m still a little bit on the fence, but I know that in emergencies, if I really need to browse, I can download it again via mobile data and install it, use it, and then uninstall it.

Time limit endless apps on my mobile phone (new)

The interesting thing about getting rid of 1 endless app is that I just go to another. When I got rid of Facebook, I went to news. When I got rid of news, I went to YouTube. The truth is I need to zone out on something sometimes. I’ve tried time limiting apps before but the apps never worked. But now, both Apple and Android have created amazing apps that are baked into the operating systems that work really well. The Android official one I use is called “Digital Wellbeing” and I personally time limit YouTube and Instagram to 15 min a day. The amazing thing is, once I know there is a time limit, my behavior has completely changed. I’ve started to ration my usage of those apps throughout the day so I can use them if I really need to use them, and any time left over, I reward myself at the end of the day if I want.

Disable all “news” injections (1 year old)

I’ve been using this hack for about a year now, and as a result, I feel like I really don’t know what’s happening in the news as much. But again, it hasn’t decreased my quality of life! Instead I am looking at more local newspapers, browse magazines, listen to podcasts and deep dive on specific topics I’m interested in. However, getting away from news is tough because companies have realized humans are addicted to news! It seems helpful, but really it’s just their gateway interaction to get you distracted into their system. Here’s what I’ve done so far to undo this as much as possible:

  • Installed a Chrome Extension to prevent Facebook from showing news
  • Disabled news on Chrome browser when opening a new tab
  • Disabled “Google Now” on my phone
  • Installed a “launcher” to redo the UI of the phone to get rid of even more news references
  • Intentionally disable all news injections on anything else

Logging out of endless websites (1 year old)

Yah, especially Facebook. I have the browser forget my password so I literally have to type in my really difficult password. I love this one because it allows my brain to kick in to say “Hey, you don’t need to do this”.

Blocking websites on my computer (2 years old)

I need the browser on my computer, so I can’t uninstall that. However, I do block websites that take nearly 5 steps to undo if I need to use them.

Uninstalled any endless mobile apps that I just don’t really need at my fingertips (3 years old)

No news and no Facebook!

Pulling information instead of getting pushed information

In computer speak, pulling information is when you optionally access it (like logging into your email on your computer), while pushing data is when a company pushes it on you (like notifications on your phone). Basically, the more data that is pushed to me, the more distracted I get. Here’s what I’ve done to limit the amount of information pushed to me:

Limiting chat to desktop (new)

Chatting on my mobile phone always makes my phone go off like crazy, and it’s usually happening when I’m working, driving, trying to relax, or being present with friends. It puts me in a weird position to respond, and my responses are just half-assed. I remember back in 1995, chatting was only possible via AOL and ICQ, and it was different because we were all confined to a desktop computer, where we became annoyed when someone didn’t write “brb” when they didn’t respond for more than 15 sec. I realize that is not possible anymore, and chatting is now mobile and on the go, but I do prefer the “good ol days” of desktop chatting or talking over the phone. Thankfully chatting isn’t happening over text messages as much for me and instead is happening more over apps like messenger and google chat. So as a result, I’ve uninstalled chat apps on my mobile phone, and access only it via a browser, when I want to and am present. I’ve definitely missed out on being up to date with what’s happening with my family and other chats for like 6–12 hours, but so far it’s been fine and has absolutely helped my focus and helped refocus on more quality conversation skills.

Unsynced my email on my phone (new)

I already do zero-inbox and unsubscribe from nearly all email newsletters, so that means I get hardly any emails and the ones I get are super relevant. But even though they come in every so often, I really don’t need to be notified of them on the go. I have left the app enabled on my phone, but have just unsynced it and removed all short cuts. So I literally have to manually pull Gmail to send me new emails. Honestly, this last month, I’ve only used my Gmail app to search through email history to pull up a friend’s address and plane tickets, but nothing else really.

Facebook events without logging in (3 years old)

So opposite to this category, I actually want to get pushed events instead of pulling them, and it works better for me. Basically, Facebook wants me to log in for EVERYTHING, and I don’t want to login to Facebook all the time, but I hate missing events. So, I exported my Facebook event calendar so it auto imports into my Google Calendar so I don’t have to log in to see what’s going on. All my events are synced up in my Google Calendar.

Never missing a message

Our asynchronous communication channels are just so saturated these days! Email and chat can sometimes have more irrelevant messages than relevant ones. The Noise to Signal ratio is bad. The solution for me for almost 10 years now is Zero-inboxing. I view my inboxes like my mailbox at home, I check it daily, I process and sort it, and leave it empty for the mailman to fill it up the next day. However, even that can not be enough, so I’ve acquired the following hacks to help myself out:

Zero-inboxing my text messages (new)

I hate missing messages, or even worse, not responding to them when someone is waiting for a response. With android messages, it’s super easy to archive messages without deleting them. I don’t know why I just found out about this recently, but I’ve been really digging it!

Snoozing my zero-inbox messages that I can’t get to right now (1 year old)

Sometimes doing a zero-inbox is hard because there are emails or text messages I just can’t close out yet, and then they just hang around forever, or I need to transfer them to some todo list. But Gmail has been experimenting a ton with snoozing, and it’s so easy to do on their browser and mobile app now. Basically, if there’s an email I can’t respond to right now, I just snooze so it comes back in a day or a week or whenever.

Create my own filters (3 years old)

Gmail allows me to create my own filters based off of patterns really easily. It takes a little time to master, but after 15 min experimenting, its pretty simple. If there are accounting messages I don’t want to unsubscribe from or newsletters that I can’t unsubscribe from, I just filter them into their own labels and skip the inbox!

Disable Gmail Auto Categorization (4 years old)

Email systems, like Gmail, have been categorizing emails into Promos, Newsletters, Travel, etc. They are basically trying to create a built-in solution to make email more useful because they understand that us humans aren’t likely to do it ourselves. The problem is they are not always right and there have been multiple occasions where I missed something because I didn’t check them or they miscategorized my buckets. So, I’ve disabled them! Combined with the unsubscribing from emails and creating my own filters, I really don’t need their auto categorizations.

Unsubscribe from all emails (8 years)

Companies use emails to push their own agenda, and hopefully, it’s valuable, but it usually is not. I’ve been unsubscribing at every moment and can proudly say I don’t get many emails in my inbox at all. Maybe like 0–3 each day in my personal email. If the company doesn’t respect my unsubscribe request, which totally happens, I auto filter them with my email filters, super easy to do.

Zero-Inbox (10 years)

I zero-inbox my text messages and 4 email inboxes, but I really wish all asynchronous messaging systems (like FB Messenger or Instagram Chat or Google Chat) had zero-inbox built in by default.

Connecting when I want to connect

Having my phone on me all the time seems to be the cause of most of my problems, but again, I like the enhancements it gives life. Below are the simple hacks that have helped me access tech when I want to access it.

Charging the phone not in my bedroom (2 years old)

This is the most life-changing one which has directly increased my quality of life significantly. I don’t go to sleep with it. I don’t wake up with it. I do simpler things now, like reading a book, writing in a journal, or just falling asleep and waking up.

Do not Disturb ( 4 years old)

I disable notifications in the early morning and late evenings. I just don’t need to interact with people on my phone at that time. And of course, there are people who can break the do not disturb, but they are limited to close family and over a phone call only.

So about being present and focused…

All these hacks are building up to support my desired approached to life, which is restoring the balance of being present and focused. But even with all these technology hacks, the hacks alone won’t balance for me, they just will help with the distractions. So here’s my new time frame-work of life that I’m really excited about this year:

3-time units per day of only doing 1 thing.

Basically, the morning, the afternoon, and the evening. Food and fitness separate them, but each time unit has an opportunity to have a focus time of 3–4 hours. These units can be filled in with:

  • Project: Work related, club work, new business ideas, house projects, writing projects, new skills
  • Maintenance: Emails, cleaning, recovery
  • Social: Date nights, extended family time, friend hangouts, social groups, networking

My issue in 2018, is that too much time was spent on the maintenance category. When that happens, I feel like I’m floating and bobbing with life, instead of steering and directing it. In the tech world, we call it thrashing. My hope is to only have 1 maintenance units max per day, so the other 2 at minimum bring me the joy I’m looking for.

So that’s the plan for a more prosperous 2019! Better relationships, quality work, and a sharper focus!

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