Why You Are Always Running Out Of Time

January 17, 2015 - 5 minute read -

I’ve been working on this post a while because each time I come back to it I have learned something new that loosely relates to the topic I was writing about. It’s only now in retrospect that I’ve realized my thoughts are kind of scattered. This post is less about a single topic as it is a central theme: habits, productivity, and focus.


I wrote an earlier blog post on behaviours that make certain apps addictive that was drawn from my point of view as an observer. Later on I wrote about good habits I’ve made throughout the year. I didn’t realize at the time that the same kind of psychological processes that go into forming habits are the same as the techniques businesses use to make their apps addictive. I came to this conclusion after reading a book on the topic titled Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.

I started reading the book because I wanted to increase engagement on my side project RapPad but the book is actually a lot more about human psychology than it is about making apps. It’s a fascinating read because the techniques described in the book can be applied to forming any kind of habit.

This is where I began to feel uneasy. The book is filled with scientifically-backed techniques to forming habits, akin to the same techniques you’d find in a self-help book on achieving your goals.

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. You already knew that organizations are good at manipulating human psychology to sell you more products or services. They’ve been doing it since you saw that Axe commercial where the guy gets all the girls by spraying deodorant on himself. What’s amazing is that it doesn’t really matter - educated people know they are targets of psychological manipulation, yet they are still vulnerable to those ploys because they play out on a subconcious level.

So in a world where organizations have gotten savy at making you want to use their apps, how do you filter out things that are truly a waste of time and things that aren’t. Well first you have to make a concious effort to recognize the habits you have and where they came from.

Painkillers and Vitamins

“Is a business making painkillers or vitamins?”

It’s an analogy that investors use to determine what kind of product or service a company is offering. The concept in a nutshell is that people want immediate solutions to their problems and a painkiller offers that. On the other hand, taking a multi-vitamin is more of a “feel-good” because the results are not immediate and sometimes never become apparent. Multi-vitamins solve a problem that you didn’t know you had despite being increasingly prevalent.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to use a vitamin. The problem is that more vitamins are getting increasingly addictive. Ask yourself which products you use that fall under the vitamin category and which ones fall under painkillers. Then understand how much time you spend on each category.

Why is it easier to form bad habits than good ones?

The habit forming process essentially has three components. A trigger, an action, and variable reward. The trigger is what makes you think of doing something. The action is what you do. The variable reward is what you get (sometimes this is simplified as just reward - but the variable part ends up being very important because the intrigue of not knowing exactly what you’ll get ends up making you more likely to do it).

Software can be designed to control every aspect of the habit cycle. For example, the action can be as simple as clicking a button on your mobile phone - the simpler it is, the more likely you’ll do that action. The variable reward could be the number of likes or comments you get after posting, which gives you a dose of the chemicals that your brain thrives on. Hence, you’ll want to do that action again. The process repeats and repeats until you find yourself Instagram-ing your breakfast every morning.

Forming a habit to work out every morning requires much more of a commitment. The action component demands more willpower, and for a lot of people the short-term rewards of reduced stress, and a generally better mood don’t outweigh the costs of performing the action. Most people focus on the long-term rewards of working out anyway. Then they give up before those rewards are ever realized.

So now what?

I mostly wanted to talk about the realization I had that companies have evolved to using psychological techniques to make mobile apps habit forming (ie. addictive). I talked about the problem so it seems necessary to talk about a solution. Unfortunately I haven’t quite figured it out yet, since I’m still a victim to a lot of this shit. But I’m working on it. And some insight that has helped me along the way is outlined below.

Life mana

I like to imagine that everyday you wake up with a certain amount of “life mana” which is reflected in your enthusiasm, patience, willpower, effort, motivation, etc. Everything you do exhausts this life mana and by the end of the day you should be depleted of it (and go to sleep to recharge).

Therefore you want to spend your life mana on the most important things and in the most effective way.

The fewer decisions you make per day, the better.

Making a decision requires a certain amount of life mana. The more decisions you make, the less life mana you have for other things. This is known as decision fatigue and it’s a real thing. It’s the rationale behind why successful people wear the same thing everyday.

Understand the cost of context switching

Smart people know about the cost of context switching. Research has shown that multi tasking is almost always less productive than focusing on a single task a time. The reason is because each time you switch focus to another task (IE. context switch), it takes time for you to calibrate to the mental processes required for that task.

Today the cost of context switching it increasing thanks to our mobile phones. Each notification you get tends to derail your thought process. For this reason I’ve been trying to bulk process things. Set a designated time to go through email, answer inessential messages, or run a bunch of mindless errands.