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Tag: tech

Beyond Noticing: Putting Mindfulness into Action

A critical part of mindfulness is paying attention to our experience in the present moment.

In fact, every definition I’ve ever heard of mindfulness includes this element in some form. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

The very first step is recognizing what your present experience is. Paying attention to and noticing whatever we are perceiving, thinking, and feeling in the present moment is a crucial aspect of mindfulness. There’s a risk — particularly as mindfulness becomes more popular in the West — that we will end up merely practicing mindfulness as if that’s all there is and being mindful is the end goal.

Moving Beyond Noticing

Within traditional Buddhism, mindfulness is not the only thing. It is only one part of the overall path. I get the feeling that there is often a misunderstanding as people get introduced to mindfulness: The assumption is that the goal is to simply become more and more mindful…and that’s it.

If you want to address your problems and interactions with technology, start by noticing how you feel and what you’re thinking while you interact with technology. This is important as a first step.

However, this is the beginning and not the end.

Noticing is a necessary but insufficient condition for addressing the problem. If all we do is notice and never turn that noticing into action, then we won’t improve. Noticing has been so focused on in the West because we do so little of it, but we need to be careful not to just stop there. We have to move. We need to go further and come to a greater understanding of everything.

Tap Into Mindfulness

The mindfulness teachings I’ve encountered didn’t specifically address our current relationship with technology. It was also assumed that practicing mindfulness on its own would help people with their relationships.

That may be true, but it may not be the most effective or targeted way to address problems.

Moreover, when I saw people who had developed specific tech-related teachings, they tended to focus on noticing but stopped there. They would teach things like “Look at your email and pay attention to how you feel when you look at it. Make note of your thoughts and emotions. The end.”

I noticed my own frustration with this and felt like I wanted to go beyond just noticing. As a result, I developed the Tap Into Mindfulness exercises based on my combined experience in both traditional mindfulness meditation and martial arts (which you could think of as an applied mindfulness).

In self-defense training, you learn how to pay very close attention to a punch when it’s coming at your face. You learn to become incredibly mindful and still so you can be focused and not wrapped up in fear. It takes a lot of practice to see that punch coming at your face. There is a lot of noticing that you work on. But you don’t stop there. There are all kinds of actions you learn to do in addition to the noticing, and that’s why I’m calling all of this “beyond noticing.”

With all of the problems we seem to be having due to our use of technology — the stress, distraction, and disconnection between people — I felt like we needed to go beyond noticing.

That’s what Tap Into Mindfulness does. It gives people practical ways to develop and practice how to act based on what they’ve noticed in order to become more mindful and less enthralled by technology. It’s all by supplementing mindful noticing with action.

This is the next stage of mindfulness’ development in the West.

The Pros and Cons of Mindfulness Reminders

There are many apps out there that can remind you to meditate or be mindful. You can set them to remind you at a certain time and configure them in all kinds of ways. Some of them ring a bell to remind you to be present, and then it’s up to you to do what you want at that time, such as pause and breathe, stretch, or meditate. Some of them will ring a bell and then actually play a sound to help you in your meditation. Some of them will offer you an inspiring quote or guided meditation.

I’m a big fan of these apps — I’m actually using two of them right now. I suggest you experiment with them and find which ones work best for you. It’s always up to you to experiment, investigate, and pay attention to what feels good to you.

But there’s an interesting paradox here. As I’ve said many times, when your phone or computer pops up a reminder or notification about something, that itself can be distracting, create anxiety, and therefore be counterproductive to your mindfulness. The very apps that are reminding you to be mindful — if they remind you too much, in a wrong way, or at the wrong time — can actually end up creating the problems we’re trying to help to alleviate with mindfulness.

I was at Wisdom 2.0 a couple of years ago in San Francisco and attended the breakout sessions on technology and mindfulness. Some of the people in the group were app developers and one of them talked about a category of app that he called “Nag Apps” — apps that nag you to be mindful. I really like that term because when an app is bothering you to be mindful, it can indeed feel like it is nagging you.

Lately, I’ve been test-driving a new app. I’m not going to say what it is, but it has a very wide range of notifications that can provide reminders during the day. After installing it, I found that it was popping up notifications left and right. “How are you feeling now?” “Check in with your body,” asking me to write a journal note about how I was feeling. The frequent reminders were really frustrating.

That’s an example of the potential downside of using technology too much to be mindful. That’s why we have to be mindful of our use of technology, how we configure it, and how we choose to automate it.

What I like about this app is the settings: I can get complete control over when and how I receive notifications as well as what I am notified about. After some trial and error, I’ve struck a balance that’s good for me. Kudos to the app developers for thinking that through and giving the user the power to configure the app. If it wasn’t customizable, if it just always reminded me when it wanted to, I probably would have stopped using it because any mindfulness benefits would have been counteracted by annoyance with the many reminders.

As users, we also must take responsibility for how we configure our technology and how we choose which technology to use. We must also stay aware over time of whether the apps we’re using remain helpful.

There might be some apps that are beneficial for six months, but then you find that you no longer need the app to remind you anymore. Pay attention to how you actually feel when you’re using these apps. Pause and think: “Is there something about this that I like and something I don’t like? If so, are there any settings here that I can change to make it work more like how I want it to?”

I don’t know if it occurs to a lot of people, but if there aren’t any settings to change, you can contact the app developer to request an improvement. While I’m not saying they will necessarily be responsive, there’s so much competition among apps these days that developers are just craving feedback from their users — it’s one of the things they spend the most time, money, and energy on. If they’re using something like a lean startup methodology, a key aspect of that is staying in touch with their users and keeping in mind what works and doesn’t work for the users.

So if you’re thinking, “There’s no point in contacting an app developer. What are the odds they’re going to make a change for me?” You might be wrong about that. Get in touch with them. And I don’t just mean by posting a review. Send them an email or message them on their website and let them know what you would like changed. You may be surprised.

I’ve even done this for software from my law firm. The vendors I’ve contacted have made changes based on my feedback. When a company gets feedback from one user, they usually assume that for every one user, there are probably a hundred others with the same issue or concern.

Another thing: Contact app developers when you like something too. Don’t wait until you have a problem and only tell them about the negatives. If there’s something that really works well for you, let them know. Or if you found a problem or bug that you want fixed, tell them something that also works really well that you don’t want to change. That’s really helpful for them and may actually make someone’s day. Most businesses — not just app developers — often only hear from customers when they have a complaint. That means they never hear back from customers when things are going really well.

In the end, it’s tough to strike a balance between the benefits of mindfulness reminders and the risks that they will actually frustrate you and impede your mindfulness.

But even if you are not a programmer or software developer, there is a way to take a more proactive stance to influence how the technology you use is developed and deployed for your own benefit, others like you and the technology companies that put a lot of time, energy, money, and other resources into creating apps that will help people be mindful.

Tips for Mindful Task Management: Part 1

Today I’ll provide some pointers for how to apply mindfulness
to getting things done on your to-do list.


  1. Put Your To-Dos or Tasks on Your Calendar

All of us have to-do lists that come in many different forms (on an app, Outlook, or your computer). You might keep a list of your tasks on a device or pad of paper. If you’re like me, you probably have different lists in different places and spend much of your time just managing your to-dos.

One thing I know is that nothing’s wrong with having to-do lists. They can be really helpful to keep track of what needs to be done. However, what’s been found by studying how people use them is that when the items are not put on a calendar, when they’re not prioritized, when they’re not given a due date, people often end up not getting them done when they need to be done. People experience a fair deal of anxiety and stress around managing their to-do list and actually spend way more time than necessary doing so. Sometimes it can seem like one of our major to-dos is managing our to-dos — and that’s just kind of crazy.

The tip here is to actually put your to-dos on your calendar and not just on a free-floating list. The idea may seem bizarre to you, and it may feel like the tip I previously provided to schedule time to check your email. As with that one, I’m not going to suggest that you have to be overly strict about this and always put all your to-dos on a calendar. I’m not going to suggest that you should always expect to stick to the calendar either.

If you do this, though, you may spend less time and experience less stress managing your to-dos, and you may actually get more of your to-dos done in the correct order.

Here’s one way I do it. At the beginning of the week, I normally perform a big review of my to-do lists. I’ll do the same at the end of each day for any to-dos that I didn’t complete that day. Each time I perform a review, I organize my to-dos on the calendar. If I can’t get to it at the end of the day, I do my best to start the next day by reviewing where I stand with my to-dos. Which one scheduled for the day before didn’t get done? What’s really important now in terms of my priorities and reorganizing the to-dos on my calendar?

That’s my method: a big review weekly and a smaller one daily.

Like I said, you can find your own system for getting your to-dos onto your calendar. Here are some of the benefits I found from doing this. The first thing is that if I don’t have my to-dos on a calendar, I end up periodically looking down at my to-do list and spending time as well as mental energy processing it. Think about doing that for one minute each 30 times a day. That’s 30 minutes spent not actually doing something on your list but just going over the same information to decide what to do next. That’s a big waste of time and also a drain of energy because looking at that list is unnecessarily stressful.

By putting tasks on the calendar instead, I’m limiting the time and energy I spend making decisions about what do next. When I look at the calendar or it reminds me of an appointment, I can then immediately jump into action at those times. The decision about what to do has already been made by me the day before. And I thank myself. If it’s Tuesday, I say, “Monday Robert, thank you for taking on the burden of this decision for me because now I can just do these three things that I put on the calendar from 10:00 to 10:15.” I’m able to get started on my tasks much more quickly when I can simply jump into action. I’m much less likely to procrastinate or spin my wheels because the decision has already been made.

For me, that feels very different. It’s another way of dividing my energy. I’m making decisions on my tasks once a day, and I’m just engaging in action the rest of the time.

2. Set Aside Some Time

Another tip I found is that by setting aside some time to decide what I’m going to focus on doing during the day, I can really step back, think about what my overall priorities are for the day, and then give some real thought to which of these tasks fit into my plan for the day. It lets you engage in some higher-level, integrated, holistic type of planning for the day so you’re more likely to pick tasks that fit into the day based on where you’re going to be or what your other activities are. The tasks are also more likely to be accomplished based on what else you’re doing or how much time you have.

It just helps you choose what to do more systematically because you’re taking a step back in a calmer period of time to decide what you’re going to do instead of leaving it for a busier stretch. If instead I decide what to do while moving quickly from one task to another during a busy day, I’m more likely to pick something that’s easy, fun, doesn’t feel too challenging, or is just at the top of the list. Those are not the best considerations to take into account when deciding what to do.

By choosing ahead of time, you can basically be more mindful about what to do and pick what is most important and relevant at a certain time.

Stephen Covey famously talked about this distinction between the important and the urgent and how all of us often instinctively decide to do things that feel urgent in the moment instead of necessary things that are important. As a result, those important things that aren’t urgent often repeatedly fall by the wayside. And then we find that we attend to those important things in a crisis once they become urgent because we haven’t addressed them for a month.

Stepping back and carrying out some planning when you’re not in the mix of daily chaos can help you make decisions: “Oh, there’s this thing that’s important. It may not be urgent, but I know it needs to get done.” Now you’ve immediately set a deadline for it. It needs to get done. “I’m going to put it on my calendar tomorrow.”

3. Allocate Time That’s Needed for Each Task

Another advantage of looking at the scope of your day is the ability to properly allocate the time that’s needed for each task.

When you happen to have free time, you might look at your list and think, “Oh, here’s something that I can do.” You might pick something that needs an hour to do, but you only have 15 minutes. You then spend 15 minutes on a task that requires an hour. You get it partially done, but then you feel frustrated because you didn’t do it at a high quality and will need to pick it up later. That’s not satisfying or efficient, and it creates anxiety.

If you pick an item that really needs an hour when you only have 15 minutes to spare, you may end up spending an hour on it and getting it done, which is great. But now you’ve spent 45 minutes that you didn’t have in your schedule when you should have been doing something else. Therefore, you end up overloading yourself for the day. You may end up working later or having to cancel something else. Planning ahead can be extremely valuable: “You know, I think this task is going to take me 45 minutes. Let me put an hour in my schedule for it.” Or you can say, “You know what, I don’t have an hour in my schedule for this thing. Let me see if I can put it in my schedule for the next day.”

These are examples of ways in which putting your to-dos on your calendar and devoting that separate time to scheduling them can have you engage in that process more mindfully, productively, efficiently, and effectively.

4. The To-Dos That Need to Be Done at a Certain Time

This next bit might seem obvious, but there are certain types of to-dos that either need to be done at a certain time or benefit from it. Sometimes, I need to call someone and know that person is only available during office hours. That task is just sitting on my to-do list and I haven’t scheduled it. The random time when I look at my list and realize I need to call this person may not line up with the appropriate time to perform that task. So I end up saying, “I can’t do it now,” and then the task slips by until a later time. At that point, it’s just left up to chance, which is not a good way of doing things. If it’s 7 p.m. now and this person is gone for the day, I may end up calling them, leaving a message, and we’ll then play phone tag for a while.

If I had spent time the day before considering their availability, I could have put down an appropriate time for that to-do on my calendar and would be more likely to reach that person. It’d be more satisfying and efficient.

You might have many different reasons why certain to-dos need to be done at a certain time. It may boil down to a limited schedule or certain things taking up your physical and mental energy. When you have a physical task, maybe it needs daylight. Maybe some to-dos benefit from being lumped together in a group. If you’ve got a bunch of phone calls to make or emails to send to different people, you can really crank those out if you do them all in a batch of 15 or 30 minutes instead of doing one at at time.

This is just a sampling of the many benefits of scheduling your to-dos. Again, I’m not expecting or suggesting that you should be able to stick to it religiously, but I would suggest that you try it and see if there’s even a 10-20 percent improvement in how you get your to-dos done and how that feels. Ask yourself if that’s worth it, even if it’s not foolproof.

Finally, what should you do about those tasks that don’t get done on a certain day? It’s quite easy. At the end of the day or the next morning, I look at my to-dos from the day before and see which ones haven’t been addressed. I either put them back on my to-do list right away or reschedule them for whenever it’s appropriate. That can be done very quickly on a calendar.

Next week, I’ll share some more tips on this topic.