De-automate yourself

To be quick, effective and therefore efficient, we have workflow we create ourselves, and we have workflows created by our mind. The latter are a combination of sensory-, audible- and visual memory. For single action tasks we do often, we have keyboard shortcuts. For example: “New File”, “Save As” or – system-wide – “Mute”.

Repeating multiple action tasks creates muscle memory and a kind of brain auto-pilot. When you are actively designing or developing something you find that Command+S, Command+TAB and Command+R gets you from your development program into your browser and refreshes that browser.

Yet these automatisms also have a downside, especially if you’re as easily distracted as I am. Many a time have I found myself bumping into something, losing focus and clicking the Firefox Icon and clicking the “twitter” link in my Bookmarks Toolbar. So what can we do about this? For the past half a year I have been actively trying to find my bad automatisms and tried to selectively de-automate them.

The Time Vortex

To do things quickly, to get boring, repeated, time-wasting actions out of the way, our brain and body creates automatisms. And if you’re easily distracted and you check – for example – your iGoogle a lot, you’ll quickly end up going into your browser and clicking the “iGoogle” Bookmarks Toolbar entry – or even the Home-button, for some. If you use Tweetie, you’ll easily pop that in front of you. If you actively read your three-thousand, one-hundred and forty-one RSS feeds, you’ll have some way to get to them within five-hundred milliseconds.

What does this result in? Wasted time. More loss of concentration and potentially the loss of a great design or development idea you had in the back of your head or on the tip of your tongue. And the worst part of all this? You’ll start going to these websites subconsciously and focus a few minutes later to realize you’re wasting time.

How do we fix this time-suck? The same way we fix getting distracted by our e-mail inboxes. We make sure it’s not in sight, or in our mind. We de-automate.


This is quite simple, if you find a website in your Bookmarks Toolbar that you visit very frequently and flushes your productivity down the drain, move it into a subfolder on the Bookmarks Toolbar or delete the link entirely. I’ve found these two actions to be quite in line with John Maeda‘s first two Laws of Simplicity


About two years back, I used to be an active Digg user. I therefore had a Digg link in my Bookmarks Toolbar. Obviously I would click that link a lot, and eventually I’d be on Digg, to find out minutes later that I was working on the mark-up of a certain client.

Example: Mint

I like traffic data quite a lot. Therefore I had a few links to different Mint web applications on different domains. Eventually I found myself subconsciously clicking these Mint links, just to check up on the status and to go on with work again. Sure this didn’t take away a lot of time, but it did have a large effect on my concentration towards the task I was actually working on.


By deleting the Digg link, I found myself rarely visiting Digg anymore. Apparently it wasn’t that important to me. By moving the Mint link to a subfolder, I find myself checking out the statistics once every two to three days. When activity is higher, or there is reason to expect higher activity, bump it up to the Bookmarks Toolbar, and put it back when things settle down.

The Dock

This works in many situations. Let’s take the dock. You’re an avid user of Twitter and you use Tweetie. Standard practice would be to have a Tweetie icon in your dock, even if the application is not running. Your mind knows exactly where it is and there is a large chance that your brain together with your muscles could be able to launch it only from a glimpse in your peripheral vision. Because your brain knows exactly where the application is. You’re probably seeing where this is going.

You REDUCE and remove the dock icon from it’s fixed location in the dock, and shut down Tweetie every time you’re done. By doing this, the application is not in the expected location and the automatism wears off. Still want it within reach? Why not create an alias on your Desktop or in the sidebar of your Finder window.


Let’s go keyboard only. If you swear by the use of Quicksilver for application launching, you probably have a five-key combo to launch your precious little Tweetie. What to do? Make sure it doesn’t get in Quicksilver’s Catalog. And I know I might ruffle some feathers here, because organization-wise it’s an awful move. But you’ll either have to rename the file (ORGANIZE) or REDUCE it from the location Quicksilver looks for it.

What is this really about?

This post is really about realizing that you are losing concentration, that you are wasting time. Because you’ll probably have a situation that doesn’t look exactly as the ones I have depicted.

As soon as you start removing automated concentration killers and automated time wasters, you will notice you will find out about the next automatism faster, and the one after that even faster. Because there is no stopping to the power of your mind. If you change a situation, your mind will adapt.

Eventually you will reach a situation where you can very quickly or even preemptively dodge those pesky automated neurons, firing you into a time-suck.