On Dialing Down, Saying “No”, and Making Time

In addition to my own efforts to dial down and re-focus on doing the things which are most important and most enjoyable to me, I’ve come across a handful of other folks doing the same.

Below are a few links and quotes I hope you find useful.

CGP Grey, in his article “Dialing Down”:

“I have less to do. Why do I still feel overwhelmed? Why is it taking me longer to get less done?” I paused and listened and found another kind of background noise in my brain that had been increasing, ever so slowly, since I became self-employed a few years ago. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it ‘The Internet’ but it’s a broader than that: it’s the rise of all the digital vectors of information delivery pointed at me.

As a result, Grey is taking a month off from podcast listening, RSS, YouTube subscriptions, Hacker News, and more.

I love this line:

I firmly believe that boredom is good for brain health, and I’m banishing podcasts for the month from my phone to bring boredom back into my life.

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Tim Ferriss is on a similar “attention vacation”. He is giving up VC investing so he can focus more on writing. Just like with Grey’s article above, it’s encouraging to learn about the “why” behind the choice.

There are a lot of nuggets of wisdom in Ferriss’ article. Such as:

Are you fooling yourself with a plan for moderation?

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool. – Richard P. Feynman

Where in your life are you good at moderation? Where are you an all-or-nothing type? Where do you lack a shut-off switch? It pays to know thyself.


If you’re suffering from a feeling of overwhelm, it might be useful to ask yourself two questions:

  • In the midst of overwhelm, is life not showing me exactly what I should subtract?
  • Am I having a breakdown or a breakthrough?

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Third, is Cal Newport — always the advocate for being intentional about doing work that matters. In Newport’s article, he simply shares about how he spends a few hours per week organizing the rest of his week:

It’s hard work figuring out how to make a productive schedule come together: a goal that requires protecting long stretches of speculative deep thinking while keeping progress alive on long term projects and dispatching the small things fast enough to avoid trouble (but not so fast that the deep stretches fragment).

It’s true that many people approach their days with flexibility, perhaps hunkering down when an immediate deadline looms, but otherwise letting their reactions to input drive the agenda. But I want to emphasize that there’s another group of us who take our time really seriously, and aren’t afraid to spend hours figuring out how best to invest it.

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One last thought on the importance of dialing down. Below is an adapted excerpt from part of Day 37 of The focus Course where we talk about finding boredom and creating margin for thought.

I’ve had an iPhone since the beginning. It’s my favorite gadget of all time. And for the past 8 years this thing has pretty much never been more than an arm’s distance away.

It’s not so easy to be bored anymore. You have to choose to be bored. It used to be that boredom chose you — you were somewhere and you were waiting and there was nothing to do and you were bored. Now, you’re never bored. You can see pictures of some stranger surfing on the other side of the world, or get a live video stream of someone’s hike over Tokyo. This stuff is amazing.

But it means we have to be proactive about our boredom and down time. It means we have to be intentional about creating margin for thought. If 100% of our down time is filled with passive entertainment and bits of information, then when does our mind have a chance to be calm? When do we have a moment to think without needing to think?

As we talked about during Day 5, the little moments of mental down time can do wonders for our long-term ability to create, problem solve, and do great work. Yet, so often we run from boredom at every turn and fill up every spare moment with some sort of pacifier. We need chunks of time where our minds can rest.

In my day, when I’m feeling restless or I find myself bouncing around between inboxes, I just stop and decide that it’s time for a break. I get up and go walk around for a bit. Or I lay down on my couch and listen to what my mind and imagination have to say.

My mind needs space. Your mind needs space, too. This space to think and breath could also be called margin.

In his book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson M.D., describes margin as this:

Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.

Margin is the opposite of overload. If we are overloaded we have no margin. Most people are not quite sure when they pass from margin to overload. Threshold points are not easily measurable and are also different for different people in different circumstances. We don’t want to be under-achievers (heaven forbid!), so we fill our schedules uncritically. Options are as attractive as they are numerous, and we overbook.

Swenson is mostly talking about time-management. However, the idea of margin for our thoughts is prevalent as well — our minds need space to breathe and room to think.

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As I mentioned in yesterday’s article: take ownership of your time and attention. When you do, so much changes for the better.