A Note of Intention - How I’m Staying More on Task with Digital Devices

Posted on Jan 21, 2019

For most of 2018, I kept a “daily plan bar” in a softcover moleskin notebook. I really enjoyed the discipline of setting out what I planned to do that day and then seeing the reality take shape. It was also great to plan downtime and useful to realize what was feasible in a given day.

I still haphazardly keep a plan bar, but my new job involves mostly sitting at a desk and writing so the need to have reminders of being in this place at that time isn’t as compelling. So I, of course, keep it less.

As I was on a thinking walk last weekend I wondered if some of the aspects that made a daily plan bar so useful could be adapted for another use. Writing a note of what I planned to use a device for. Let me explain.

Getting swallowed by the stream

I frequently have lofty intention for how I’m going to use my smart device (usually my iPad but laptop and phone also apply). These intentions usually center around edifying consumption, mainly reading an ebook, or creating something, for example writing a blog post. Unfortunately, my actions don’t always match those intentions. Before I know it I may find myself crawling through email, getting a “quick” hit of social media or just swiping around pointlessly.

If only there was a way to help my actions match my intentions. Step up to the plate what I learned from Atomic Habits and the daily plan bar.

Pointing and calling

In Atomic Habits, James Clear describes a trick called “pointing and calling”. All you do is point at the thing you notice (the trigger for the habit) say out loud the action you are thinking of taking and the outcome. The reason for this process is to draw attention to the triggers and to help evaluate the outcome. It helps make clear the hidden thoughts you are having.

At first, I thought I should do this with my device. Simply state out loud what I am about to do on the device “I’m going to read” but then I realized that writing these actions down might be of greater value.

In the same way that the daily plan bar showed my intention and then actual course of action, writing down (on a index card/post-it note or in my notebook) would provide a visual reminder of what I wanted to do on this device and I could list how long I intended to do the action for. Once the activity is completed, I could mark what really occurred.

For example, “Plan: read for 30 minutes. Reality: Read for five minutes”

This also provides other benefits. If I find myself with five minutes of downtime and instinctively pick up my iPad, I have to think about what I want to do and then write down “plan: Do nothing really, swipe a bit, scroll, waste time.” Which provides an opportunity to change and stop that bad habit. I can also track my intentions with my device over time.

Making it happen

It’s all well and good thinking that this will happen, but actually carrying through is another thing altogether.

To help me, I’ve stuck a posit note onto my iPad screen. That means I have to remove it if I want to use the device. It’s almost as easy to add my note of intention as to ignore it.

So we’ll see how this little experiment goes.