The Right App Can Fix Your Psychological Flaws
Digital tools can address your professional shortcomings, either by compensating for deficits or by actually retraining your brain
This piece is part of a week-long series on how to battle distraction, co-edited by Nir Eyal, the author of the new book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
We spend a lot of time worrying about how technology makes us less effective thinkers and managers, whether it’s because we’ve shortened our attention spans or turned into terse, 280-character communicators. But the right tools can also address your professional shortcomings, either by compensating for deficits or by actually retraining your brain. It’s just a matter of being honest about your limitations — and then choosing the right tools to address the problem. Here are some of the most common professional weaknesses, and the tech tools that can help you address them.
If you find yourself drifting away during crucial meetings or conversations, it’s time to retrain your attention span and build your ability to focus. Start by adjusting your day-to-day work environment: If you allow your workday to be continually interrupted by email notifications, incoming tweets, or phone calls, you’re chipping away at your ability to concentrate on a single task for an extended period of time. Experiment with setting your phone and computer to “do not disturb” for at least a couple of hours every day, and consider using a distraction blocker like Freedom (which lets you block specific apps and websites) to reinforce your self-control.
To really strengthen your attention span, however, it’s helpful to adopt some form of meditation or mindfulness practice. Research has shown that meditation improves our ability to focus, so even if it doesn’t appeal to you as a spiritual practice or form of self-care, consider embracing meditation as a way of improving your professional performance. Apps like Insight Timer and Headspace [disclosure: I have written for the Headspace blog] offer guided meditations that make it easy to get started. You can even find walking meditations or meditations designed for short breaks at your desk.
If the idea of meditation appeals to you… someday, then you may be one of the many professionals who have a procrastination problem. Procrastination can stem from many different sources, so it’s worth doing some self-reflection to figure out whether you put off work due to fear of failure, prioritize short-term gratification over long-term effort, or simply avoid certain kinds of unpleasant tasks.
For those who struggle with task avoidance, it can be helpful to do short task sprints, sometimes called “pomodoros:” It’s easier to work for 20 or 30 minutes on a specific task if you know you can then take a break. Pomodoro timers like pomodoro.cc or PomoDoneApp can help you get started.
For those who struggle with task avoidance, it can be helpful to do short task sprints, sometimes called “pomodoros.”
If your procrastination stems from a need for immediate gratification, consider using a gamified task-management app that will give your brain a little endorphin rush every time you complete a task. Habitica is a web-based task manager that gives you points and virtual prizes when you complete a task or sustain a habit; Carrot is an iOS app that cheers you on when you complete your tasks, and abuses you (humorously) when you drop the ball.
Sometimes procrastination results from a lack of decisiveness — but indecisiveness can undermine your professional credibility in other ways, too, especially if it costs you the confidence of your colleagues, manager, or direct reports.
AirFocus is a web-based tool that offers a range of predefined templates designed to help you think through how to prioritize the different tasks on your plate — it even integrates with platforms like Asana and Trello — think of it as training wheels for decisiveness. You may also find it helpful to simply reduce the number of decisions on your plate by deferring to recommendation engines or sites: Yelp and Eater tells me where to eat, the Wirecutter tells me which electronics and housewares to buy, and Setapp has eliminated all the time I used to spend evaluating software by just giving me a one-stop subscription to prevetted applications. And for simple choices, try using Alexa, Siri, or Google Assistant to flip a coin or roll a die: Just say something like “Alexa, flip a coin,” and let her decide between two low-stakes options.
Lack of creativity
Businesses and managers value creativity and innovation, but if you’re an inside-the-box thinker, it may take conscious effort to boost your creative brainpower. Mind mapping, a technique for diagramming ideas or information as a tree or flowchart, can be a great way of expanding your thinking or seeing new options: I use mind mapping apps like Popplet, MindNode, and Mindmeister to think through business problems, writing projects, or my own professional priorities.
Mind mapping, a technique for diagramming ideas or information as a tree or flowchart, can be a great way of expanding your thinking or seeing new options.
If you’re a visual thinker, a digital note-taking tool like Inkflow can get your juices flowing by reengaging the right side of your brain. And if you’re simply trying to get out of a rut with your slide decks, documents, or reports, try Creative Market: Its marketplace of templates and design assets has given me the confidence and tools to be more visually adventurous in my reports and presentations.
With so much on our plates, it can be hard to follow through on all our commitments — but nothing undermines professional credibility like leaving projects unfinished or failing to deliver what you’ve promised. If you’re inconsistent about delivering on your commitments, try using a kanban app or a customer relationship management tool (CRM) to visualize your progress.
Kanban apps — like Trello, or the kanban board tool in Asana — visualize your tasks in columns. As you get underway on your various commitments, you move them from the “to do” column over to “in progress” and eventually, to “completed.” I’m not really a visual thinker, so I do better with the spreadsheet-like interface I get with a CRM tool like Streak, which integrates with Gmail. CRMs were originally designed for sales teams that need to keep track of prospective customers as they move through a sales pipeline, but you can use them for just about any multistage project: Simply relabel the CRM fields to reflect the different stages of your process.
Of course, poor follow-through can also stem from a habit of overcommitting. If you habitually take on more than you can actually deliver, consider adopting tools that will prompt you to think twice before saying yes to new requests. My favorite strategy is to set up multiple email signatures that contain prewritten messages declining the requests I receive most often; if someone asks to pick my brain or schedule a pointless meeting — it only takes me one click to send a polite message telling them I won’t be able to get together.
Sometimes the problem isn’t that you’re doing too little — it’s that you’re doing too much! If you feel like you’re heading toward burnout (or divorce) because of the long hours you’re logging at the office, technology can help bring your workaholism under control.
The most crucial professional habit to develop is the habit of self-improvement — namely, taking a regular, candid look at where you’re falling short so that you can set goals for improving your performance and addressing your limitations.
Start by noticing where you’re spending all those office hours: Applications like Timing or RescueTime can tell you how much time you’re spending on different websites, applications, or tasks, so you can recalibrate your workday habits and reclaim any wasted or ill-used time. Once you’ve determined how much time you actually need to spend at work or online, commit to specific hours when you won’t check email or Slack, and then use tech to support that commitment: Apps like Shutter, Cold Turkey, or Moment can shut off your access to work, online communications, or your entire device, so that you actually unplug and relax.
Building the self-improvement habit
Whatever your professional limitations, the odds are good that there are apps, web services, or gadgets that can help. The most crucial professional habit to develop is the habit of self-improvement — namely, taking a regular, candid look at where you’re falling short so that you can set goals for improving your performance and addressing your limitations. Once you recognize that tech tools can be an asset to that self-improvement process, you can develop a regular practice of seeking out the apps and devices that will support you in achieving your professional performance goals.