Siri Shortcuts 1: Outsourcing Self Control / by Will Ringland

Technology is amazing. I can spend hours reading news about panda bears and kittens and sloths and dissolve into an endless stream of continuous scrolling. Great! Yes?

I mean, maybe. Like it’s not inherently bad but we are certainly encouraged to do less than good things with our time. And I have not been, historically, the best at keeping myself away from the less good things.

I don’t want to bury the lead so understand that this whole post is all about outsourcing my self-control. it is the next logical step in my evolution towards easy productivity, one influenced by my desire to remove as many decisions from my life as possible.

This method of self-management started many years ago when I decided I choosing clothes to wear every day was more taxing than I really wanted to deal with. And Steve Jobs entere(img)d my life with his sartorial minimalism and the the iPhone in 2007, both of which were revelatory for me.

Fewer decisions means more willpower available at any given time. More willpower means more focus. More focus means more useful work1

So, logically, it totally looks like this: ‘Fewer decisions> willpower> focus> iPhone’

Totally flows. Yes? Yes.

Shortcuts

IOS 12 introduced Siri Shortcuts2,an automation tool that Apple and developers can hook into their applications to allow function-level workflow linking on iOS. Where macOS has Automator (and other scripting languages), that’s what Shortcuts is to iOS. At a single tap, I can run myriad things all linked together by Shortcuts.

And with that, I have completely re-engineered how my phone works.

Before iOS 12

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Folks that have been following me for a while recognize the above. Every few months, I would rework my app structure to better organize things I wanted to access and those I didn’t want so much. The above is roughly where my phone has been for about the last year.

The majority of easy-to-access, stuff-I-wanted-to-use3was super close to my right thumb and very few things had badges.

At work, I have similar structures in place where distractions- Facebook, Instagram, Feedly, and similar - are locked down behind a few layers of protection4. I also run Manic Time, a time tracker that watches the active window and allows me to categorize each of those active apps. The idea here is that I can see where I’m spending my time and adjust if it is dissatisfactory. It’s beyond “am I spending too much time on FB (I hate FB)” and more “how much time am I spending reading and writing email”.

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Yellow = administrative. Grey/Black = QA. Red = management The “usage” line second from time is active/inactive computer time (red means meetings here, pretty much).

IOS 12 has allowed me to build a structure similar to Manic Time in that I can lock down or track my app usage even beyond additional features in iOS 125.

So this is what I did this weekend.

Now my phone looks like this.

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Each row and color is meaningful and feeds into my own time tracking and self managing process. Generally, the stuff closet to my right thumb is stuff I want to do more and have quicker access to. Each row of icons falls into this descending pattern.

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I spend most of my time in OmniFocus so that is the bottom right. Messages is a necessity of life6 As is email7. The hardest to reach icons are the things I don’t want or need to do less. Making them harder to hit makes it easier to avoid. It’s just adding a little extra friction. Each color equates to, like my Manic Time reports, categories of activity I wish to understand.

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Red = distraction. Things like Instagram, Facebook, Amazon, or Safari that I don’t want to use as much.

Blue= audio. These are quick ways to run certain playlists whichI use to help focus on certain tasks. These are more “utility” but wanted them to be visually distinct.

Grey = utility. Weather, Settings, Home automation, and Calendar stuff. Tings I use daily for specific tasks.

Purple = productivity. Things I want to do more of or feeds hobbies, work, or other goal-oriented activities. Reading, thinking, writing, and a special “focus mode” button I’ll write about later.

But why so plain?

A majority of what I have here was possible through other applications like Workflow or LauncherCenter Pro using x-url schemes. But x-url schemes just don’t make enough sense to me for that to have been effective. IN the 3 years I’ve been using Workflow, I only made 3 workflows that used x-url schemes to do anything more than cursory “launch this specific thing in an integrated app”.

Also, I couldn’t enter an ASCII space character for the title!NOW I CAN! Suck it, app names!

What the shit does all this mean?

My machinations are legion here so I’m not going to go through all of them right now. I’m going to write more about what each, specific icon does so you can get an idea of what I’m doing. So this is going to be the short version.

(Some) Things I want to write about in the near future:

  1. Why the categories and colors
  2. The template I use to store time tracking data and wrap all the Shortcut applets
  3. How I limit access in a less aggressive manner than Screen Time does

Reducing distraction

My relationship with my devices is complicated. My phone is a necessity to stay connected to the world. If I could chuck it, I would, but I love my friends and my wife. So, I keep it around. Otherwise, i’s hard to do much productive stuff on it. I don’t really care for even simpler thing,m like reading, because of the form factor. I find myself spending hours on the infinite scrolling of Twitter and Tumblr if I don’t protect against it.

And, as noted before, willpower - the thing you need to resist the allure of never ending, gluttonous rage-fest that is Twitter10 or Facebook. Even pared back as much as I have them, I still get served up useless but engaging anger-fodder by all those fancy algorithms.

Outsourcing control of those things means I have to think about it less. So lets look more closely at what I’m doing for that, in particular.

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From left to right:

  • Distraction shortcut
  • Spending shortcut
  • Safari/lookup shortcut
  • Money shortcut11

Containing a wandering brain

The Shortcut that lives behind the Distraction icon does the following:

  1. Ask me if I really want to be distracted
  2. If yes, how would I like it?
  3. Sets a timer to inter up me 5 minutes later

Here’s what happens if I say yes:

So I go to the app, but you can see on the last screen that a timer is running. So I can get my distraction fix and know that something will break the possibility of a trance caused by all that dopamine.

Here’s what happens if I choose to read

I offer myself a chance to do something more useful. I still set the timer because, as a distraction, I still don’t want necessarily lose a bunch of time to it. Especially if I’m in the office.

Here’s what happens if I say no:

It’s cheesy, but IU found that pleasing fireworks GIF specifically for this. I may add more later but think if it as a little reinforcement to doing the “right” thing.

What does it look like?

The Shortcut looks like this and interested folks can download it [from here directly][2].

This is why I say it’s similar to LaunchCenter Pro which can do similar. But it couldn’t branch as well nor integrate with the system as seamlessly. For example, if the target application didn’t have a registered URL scheme with Apple, you couldn’t launch that app. Apple can expose core Springboard launching functions and skip the URL scheme concept entirely.

What it gets me

It’s a little brutal but it works with my brain. A few nudges can help me do other things than stare at Instagram but, ultimately, I’m not going to beat myself up for spending time online. Escape can be helpful and therapeutic. I just don’t want it to get out of hand.

I mean, after a week with SCreen Time, I average about 36 minutes on social apps a day. It doesn’t track stuff I do on my workstation but it isn’t all bad. Technology is technology. Advancement is generally good but with new good things come new traps for our still mostly monkey brains. Social media feels good.

But for me, they don’t feel as good as writing a nice 1700 word essay about productivity.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Not necessarily about “work” at my hobby job, but it is. More that I want more focus in anything I’m trying to accomplish. See Wrestling With Franklin, Bunny Rope, Paper Warren, that book I wrote, running, or other.

  2. For the Initiated, we all know that the Workflow app was actually the precursor. Apple bought Workflow last year and, lucky us, we are living in the Best Realirty where all the stuff in Workflow is integrated deep into the operating system in a way a 3rd party developer could never otherwise do. I mean, x-url schemes really weren’t getting much better than they are.. and that wasn’t so great.

  3. This is a rare instance where I had a game in easy reach. Once I played through Monument Valley, it went into the Distraction folder before being deleted entirely a few weeks later.

  4. Chrome extension - Simple Blocker - and no saved passwords. My FB password is.... 32 characters long. To access FB on my work machine, I have to click through the extension and then log in with that random jumble of alpha characters.

  5. See Screen Time, Apple’s “digital well-being” features.

  6. Alyska sends me cute pictures of our cats most days!

  7. Booooo. I really dislike email on my phone so I leave it there as a way to triage stuff so that I have less junk too deal with when I get back to my office.

  8. Audio being a little odd insofar as it is more a fool to help me focus rather than something specific I’m tracking. More later.

  9. Seriously, why can’t I turn off the app names? I know what the icons mean. LET ME REDUCE CLUTTER!!!!

  10. Or even the friggin’ news....

  11. This is more for the color consistency. Looking at my finances is generally useful but I’ve definitely been a problem at work when I lose time looking through my 401k statements, bank statements, and other investment things. I worry about money more than is helpful. More on that layer.
    Maybe.