Avoiding Procrastination with Adam Conover

Digital Citizen

We delve into the intricate balance between productivity, technology, and digital culture with our special guest, Adam Conover. Explore how modern tech influences our work habits, the impact of personal knowledge management apps, and the complexities of email management in our daily lives.

Episode Notes

Discover insights into the profound effects of internet usage on social life, the challenges of maintaining productivity amidst technological advancements, and the evolving dynamics of fan engagement across different media platforms. Join us as we navigate the nuances of digital habits and their implications on personal and professional spheres.

▶️ Guest Interview - Adam Conover

🗣️ Discussion Points

  • Productivity apps and technological tools aim to streamline our workflows and enhance efficiency. However, there’s an underlying risk of becoming overly reliant on these tools, potentially leading to a counterproductive cycle of planning without execution. This segment challenges listeners to consider how their tech use affects their actual output.
  • The digital age has fundamentally altered our social habits and cultural dynamics. This discussion delves into the impact of digital habits on personal relationships and mental health, questioning whether our online personas and activities are enriching our lives or detracting from genuine human interaction.
  • Personal knowledge management apps like Obsidian and Roam Research have gained popularity as tools for organizing thoughts and enhancing productivity. However, this segment probes into whether these apps truly contribute to productivity or merely serve as sophisticated distractions. The conversation sheds light on the broader question of what productivity really means in the context of information overload.
  • Email is a part of everyday life, but it can be difficult to manage. This part of the episode explores various strategies for email management and discusses the broader implications of these practices, such as whether our quest for a clean inbox actually advances our productivity or merely feeds into a cycle of constant task management.
  • The platform chosen to engage with an audience significantly shapes the nature of that interaction. Different mediums, from Twitter to Patreon, influence the dynamics between creators and their followers. By examining the phrase “the medium is the message,” this segment invites listeners to reflect on how the constraints of each platform impact communication and, by extension, the creator-audience relationship.
  • Internet culture reflects and amplifies broader societal issues, including inequality, racism, and online violence. Explore how digital spaces both mirror and exacerbate real-world social dynamics, prompting a critical examination of our collective online behavior and the responsibilities of digital platforms in shaping public discourse.

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Ricardo Signes: Welcome back to the Digital Citizen Podcast. I’m Ricardo Signes from Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy digital citizens everywhere. Here with me is my colleague, Haley Hnatuk. Haley, for people who missed our bonus Philly Tech Week episode from last season, can you tell them a little about who you are?

Haley Hnatuk: Hi, everyone. I’m Haley Hnatuk, Fastmail Senior Podcast Producer and Marketing Specialist. I’ve been behind the scenes for the past two seasons and I’m excited to be Digital Citizen’s co-host for season three. We have a bunch of exciting guests lined up for this season. But, Rik, can you tell the listeners who you’ll be talking with today?

Ricardo Signes: We’re happy to be back with Adam Conover today, who is a comedian and labor organizer. We’ll be chatting about productivity and how he thinks about it. We’ll talk about what he does to focus when working and we’ll talk about what it’s like to be a celebrity in a world where the internet is always on, looming in the background.

Haley Hnatuk: So I know that Adam is going to talk to you a little bit about how he uses email. And obviously, we work at Fastmail, which is an email company. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about how you use email, Rik.

Ricardo Signes: Sure. I use email in two ways. And the one is boring, but I’m going to mention it because I think it bears mentioning, which is I actually email people. And I say, “How’s it going, here’s what’s happening in my life,” and have this communication back and forth. And I mention it because all the time I get a response like, “Oh, wow, you never hear from people like this anymore.” And we have like a long detailed conversation, which makes me very happy. But I mean, that’s 1% of the emails I get in a day, and probably less. The other is, it’s my to-do list. So like some other weirdos, it’s my Inbox Zero target, right? My stuff goes in there and I try to get it down to nothing, because anything sitting in there has to get done. I’m at 26 right now, which is not bad for for an afternoon. The key thing about that for me is, you don’t want to have lots of inboxes, lots of lists that you’re constantly checking every day. So I spent a little bit of time, a little bit of programming time mostly, trying to funnel all of my other to-do lists into my email. So like if some other system wants me to do something cool, cool, cool. A program notices that, puts an email in my mailbox, and that’s what I do. So my email is— is really my boss for how to get through my day. What about you?

Haley Hnatuk: Yeah, I mean, I think the first reason that you brought up is such an undervalued reason. I think, you know, it’s so important to reach out to people. And it’s so easy to not do that type of work in your personal life. So I find that I will often on my calendar set little notifications to myself, and it reminds me to actually send that email, or text message or, you know, ask somebody if they want to hop on a FaceTime to keep those connections. Otherwise, I use my email much like you. I’m an Inbox Zero person, so anything that I have in my inbox is already partially triaged by my labels rules. And then once I open it, I take it from there, and I do the thing that I have to get done.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah.

Haley Hnatuk: And the communication that I need to urgently or non-urgently respond to.

Ricardo Signes: At the end of every episode for the rest of the season, I’ll give you some takeaways, things that you can actually do to be a better digital citizen. And you can also find those at our website at fastmail.com/digitalcitizen.

Ricardo Signes: I think a lot about how people spend their time online. And when it comes to getting things done, I also think a lot about the balance between productivity and goofing off. What’s your relationship with productivity online?

Adam Conover: I’m not sure that I do have a lot of balance. Getting started as a comedian, it’s a very self-directed job. You just have to put your nose to the grindstone and, like, go to as many open mics as you can. Spend as much time practicing and— and working on your craft. I spent my twenties and most of my thirties doing that. And, so, often I have a lot of difficulty now winding down at the end of that. Certainly, I think it can be hard to step away from the internet. When I finally do, I realize, oh yes, as much as it feels like all of my work and all of my social life is on the internet, that’s actually not true and I need to go out and do things in meatspace in order to have experiences and — and bring them back and that in fact, that is still where real life happens. I hate to say it.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah, yeah.

Adam Conover: Yeah, it’s always a moving target for me.

Ricardo Signes: Is it just a — a wonderful surprise when you allow that to happen, or do you take pains to make sure it happens in your life?

Adam Conover: One of the things I love about doing standup comedy and that I loved about it, I grew up with the internet and I was addicted it and technology. But to do stand-up comedy, the first thing you have to do is leave your house. Get out and go to the open mic and do stand-up comedy in front of other people. And that’s really the main thing you have to do is do that over and over again. I know people who are professional Twitch streamers and their job is to sit in a chair in front of their computer for 8 to 10 hours a day. And that sounds like hell.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah.

Adam Conover: I love being on the internet. But I don’t want to — I’m glad that’s not where my appointment is.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah. It’s, I mean I’m not — As you know, as someone who works with computer programming, a lot of my job is also sitting in front of the screen for eight hours a day, and that means separating myself from that one I want to do something else or changing context is really difficult. In your stand-up, I know you’ve been doing a bit talking about being a person with ADD and the internet and how that affects your engagement with it. How — how does that play out for you?

Adam Conover: Yeah. The internet is just crystallized ADD, right? Anytime that you’re doing something or thinking about anything and a different thought comes to you, you can go pursue it. I’ve got two windows here in Safari, each of which has 30 tabs open. It was just because on a whim in the middle of reading an article, I was like, I wonder if anybody’s been talking about me on Reddit lately. And then I go to Reddit and I search my own name. I’m an inveterate name searcher. Or I go, oh, what happened to that guy who I knew in college? I go look him up on Instagram or whatever. And so, I just have a trail of me doing that over and over again. It’s a hard thing to manage.

Adam Conover: I try to give myself space away from that by going and working with a notebook. I have a very old copy of the app Freedom, which still works, which turns off the internet on my computer for a period of time. It’s very funny. It’s this app called Freedom became popular almost 10 years ago and it hard blocks the internet on your Mac, also on other platforms. And the only way, for a period of time, the only way to turn it back on is to fully restart the computer.

Ricardo Signes: What else do you use to help focus, what other tools or strategies?

Adam Conover: It’s just a constant struggle every day. I have read, spent plenty of time in the sort of productivity minds with getting things done and I remember reading Merlin Mann’s blog, 43 Folders, 10 years ago and I got the Things app and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I recently, there’s this fad for apps like Roam Research and Obsidian that, like, manage, dump everything into this app but manage all your shit. They’re all a way of wasting more time.

Adam Conover: Like fundamentally, as I’m reading them or tinkering with them, “Am I just procrastinating? I’m not really getting anything done.” In fact, I conclude at the end of all of them, yeah, they are — these are all a waste of time. All that you can do is do the thing. That’s the only choice in front of you, is to do it or to not do it right now. At the end of the day, all those other things are just ways of not doing the thing still. Nothing makes it easier. No matter how good your to-do list is, at the end of the day, you’re still staring at the top thing going, “I don’t want to do that.” It’s hard to do.

Ricardo Signes: Absolutely.

Adam Conover: And you just have to figure it out.

Ricardo Signes: There are all these different strategies for being productive. For example, you might start with the “Getting Things Done” method. And you end up with an in-tray and do your reviews and it’s great. And later, you’re kind of bored of it, so you move on to whatever comes next. A bullet journal, right? And you keep thinking that you’re zeroing in on total self-control, but that’s an illusion. There not some perfect solution that you’re ever going to reach.

Adam Conover: It doesn’t work. There was a great New Yorker article a couple of years ago that pointed out that most apps have been solved, right? Like for email, right, I’m talking to you, fine folks at Fastmail, right? I signed up for Fastmail a couple of years ago. Great. Works great. Never need to tinker with my email set up. Calendar, I got my calendar app. But with to-do list apps in particular or organization apps, people are always like, “Did you hear about the new app? This is the one that’s going to solve. No, the old thing doesn’t work. You got to try the new app, man.” The fact that there is no stable solution for this is evidence that the entire product category is flawed. There is no single solution to-do lists. The sort of archetype stable professional person who uses email probably does it the same way, right? They probably do some version of Inbox Zero as best they can. There’s a method and there’s an app and there’s a way to do it. To-do lists are just everyone is chaos all the time because there isn’t actually a solution to this problem. It’s a false dream that we’re chasing. You cannot actually break down what needs to be done into some sort of itemized list that will make everything simple. Life does not work that way.

Ricardo Signes: Do you think this inability to break down tasks and to easily achievable lists is what stops up from sticking to any given productivity solution for the long run?

Adam Conover: If it didn’t work for you, it’s because you didn’t stick to it. You did something wrong. So I’ve been using the to-do list app Things for over 10 years and I think it’s a very nice app, but I don’t use it “right”, and I’ve accepted I will never use it “right”. I just put stuff in the Today app, in the Today List. I never do the thing where I’ve got it on the Anytime list and I move it to today when I decide what I want to do today. I never do that. I just, like, use it as sort of a weird note-taking thing and I’ve accepted it’s going to be a mess. But if you read these getting things done type things or whatever you are constantly feeling, if the system doesn’t work for you, oh, it’s because you didn’t live up to it. You didn’t do your weekly review promptly at 9:00 AM on Friday. Therefore, the whole system fell apart or whatever. Guess what? If you do all that shit, you’re never going to have time for your work. If you wake up and you do your 9 A.M. weekly review, you do your daily review, you take notes on what you do all day, you make sure you review all your notes, you categorize all your to-do list items by priority. Another good example of this is the fad I mentioned Obsidian and Roam Research, and these are what are called personal knowledge management apps and it’s this sort of become a fetish among a certain, like, breed of tech person, which I am susceptible to. The idea is it’s a note-taking app where you categorize everything and use backlinks and interconnect all your notes such that your notes will simply start cohering into intelligible thought. And people literally say after, if you do this well enough, you won’t need to write anything. Your writing will just evolve out of your note-taking process.

Ricardo Signes: How does that work out?

Adam Conover: And so the idea — exactly. The idea is to create this, like, perfectly curated garden of notes that is going to be constantly growing. And, like, for a little while as a comedian I’m like, okay, I have funny ideas. I need to write them down. I need to save them somewhere. I need to, like, remember them, et cetera. It had some appeal. But at the end of the day, it’s you writing a joke is just you sitting there and writing a joke that fits the joke that you need to write on that moment. And no amount of preparatory work going back through your notes is going to do that for you. No amount of, like, note-taking is going to make that moment easier. That moment is hard no matter what. Like, you can’t — It’s a bizarre fantasy to think this is going to happen.

Like, when you are, and even when you are just trying to write a Substack post, it starts with you saying, “What do I want to say today?” Not, “What are all the notes I’ve kept for the last 10 years on the various articles I’ve been randomly reading?” No, you need to have a moment of creation. And so there’s — it’s started to look like a real sickness to me of our quest to constantly optimize the problem of focusing and creativity out of existence. It’s just a problem that you always have to confront every day and sometimes you’re going to suck at it and sometimes you’re going to do a great job. And guess what? That’s life. Enjoy it.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah. Yes. The phrase I use a lot in the office is this is just pushing our vegetables around the plate, right? All the time that you can spend gardening your list of tasks, gardening your ideas and polishing the word on the note about the thing you want to do, you’re not eating anything. The vegetables are just getting cold.

Adam Conover: How much pre-work can you do? This is all-

Ricardo Signes: I can do a lot.

Adam Conover: Yeah, you can do it forever. But one day, the work must begin and we just don’t want to do that part. So it’s like similar to in film or television, there’s a lot of people who they want to write a screenplay, they want to make a movie. And they’re like, “Well, I have to get everything. I got to get all my ducks in a row. I got to read all the books. I got to outline, I got to do this, I got to,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Actually, what you need to do is open a document and start typing in it, and then you need to rent a camera. That’s the work. There’s this sort of like obsession with, well, if I get all the pre-work right, then I will never have to actually do it. Unfortunately, you will, and you should start doing it today.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah, that’s the perennial advice, right? Just write something. Just get to it.

Adam Conover: What I tell people in standup is they say, “How do I get started doing standup?” And I say, “Do it.” That’s the answer. Go to an open mic and stand on stage. The amount of time that you, and this is specific to standup, but I think it applies other things, the amount of time that you spend in your bedroom rehearsing your five minutes into a mirror is wasted. None of that time matters at all. In fact, the amount of pre-writing that you do doesn’t matter that much. All that matters is you in front of the audience trying to, of course you need to write. But you will learn so much more if you go do standup comedy five times. Get up, tell a joke, see how it works, learn from that and do it again. You will learn 10,000 times more than you will reading about standup comedy. Sitting in your room, writing something down, listening to a podcast about standup comedy, all those sorts of… to do it, is to do it, is to do it, is to do it. And at some point, we all must begin.

Ricardo Signes: So when we talk about productivity and tools, my day job is extreme email nerd, right? And I have to ask, you said you do email. You said Inbox Zero. What you’ve been talking about makes it sound to me like your strategy is open the inbox, respond to every single email, move on with the day. That’s tough.

Adam Conover: It is tough. In my act right now, I do a big chunk on email. And yes, I try to take an Inbox Zero strategy, which is I try to process everything. Like, I’ve been out all day and I’m literally looking at, I’ve got 21 unread messages and a bunch of read messages I need to reply to. And the first thing I need to do is go bang, delete, archive, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And yeah, I try to take the approach of if you can do it in less than five minutes, reply to it, do it right then. Of course, not every single email is, can I do that with, because there’s the emails where you have to make a decision about the email before you reply to it. That one always sticks around a little while longer or you need to go ask someone else for information before you can reply to the email. But yes, I am a believer in archiving and keeping the Inbox Zero and keeping the slate clean. And I try to remember a very good piece of advice is to get the to-do list item out of your inbox and onto a to-do list because that way you can clear the inbox out. Now, however, this whole attitude that I take is somewhat toxic. I read a wonderful book and interviewed the author, and the name is Oliver Burkeman. The book is called Four Thousand Weeks. And one of the things he says is, you need to stop clearing the decks in this book. This is an anti-productivity book. I literally, up until I read this book, would spend almost all day, “I need to clear the decks, I got to get all these emails out before I can start writing.” And his advice is stop trying to do that because you will never be done clearing the decks. There will always be more deck to clear. You cannot get everything done. You will never be able to.

Adam Conover: So you just need to decide what is important to you and do you want to spend your life replying to emails, or do you want to spend your life writing the thing that you really want to write or playing with your kids or whatever it is? And so that’s given me a little bit more peace with the emails where I’m like, it’ll be fine tomorrow. I need to like write something right now.

Ricardo Signes: We see all kinds of different email usage, even inside the office, and I try not to tell people the moral judgment I’m passing on them. But when I see somebody with 11,000 emails in their inbox, I need to take a break.

Adam Conover: This is part of my act, because I go through the audience and we talk about how many emails people have. I, like, make the audience show me their phone, see who has the largest number of emails. I think the largest we ever had at a show was like 250,000.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah.

Adam Conover: Pretty heavy. Now, some people on Android, their Gmail just says 99+. And that’s smart for Google to do that because it removes the shame from people. But honestly, I think they should be shamed and I prefer having the really big weird number. But yeah, I do a whole — I do a whole bunch of material about, like, how your friends are always like, “How could you?”, like, “How do you sleep at night with 100,000 unread emails?” And how us Inbox Zero people are furious with those people because we’re always saying to them, “I sent you an email. Why didn’t you get my email?” And they’re just like, “I don’t know, I don’t feel like reading the emails.”

Ricardo Signes: It sounds like it’s tough because when you talk about this anti-productivity book and the idea of “don’t spend your time clearing the decks, do the important thing”, you’re getting stuck with this tough decision, right, of like I’ve got these emails and some of them are probably important, but they have piled up and I do have to pick the most important things. It feels to me like the answer’s going to be “get over it”. If you got to figure out how to prioritize these things, that’s just a tough problem and you got to deal with it. There’s no trick.

Adam Conover: So first of all, some people just say, I just reply to the important ones and let all the rest go by. I prefer to delete them. It makes me feel better. So the easy ones are the ones that delete. The hard things are where someone emails you and says, “I want something from you, will you give it to me?” And you have to decide, am I even going to read this? Am I even going to spend time on it? And that’s tough. The busier I get, the easier that gets because there just stuff comes in where I’m like, you don’t get my time. Like, I can’t — I don’t have the time for you. I don’t have the time to reply and tell you no. You know what I mean? The sort of email where somebody sends, they send you an email and say, “Do you want to meet for coffee so I can pick your brain?” I don’t reply to that email. That’s not an email. You’ve sent me an email that I cannot reply to because the answer is always no, because I don’t have time to do you a favor of allowing you to pick my brain about your general career aspirations of being a comedian or a screenwriter, whatever. Best of luck in your journey, right? but I don’t have time to contribute to all the people who want to do that. I also am not going to take my time to write you an email to tell you no to the request because that would make you feel bad and it would be a waste of my time writing it and your time reading it. So the best thing to do is leave you on read. And so I’ve gotten more comfortable with just being like, you don’t hear back from me. People need to get comfortable with that. I think people need to be more comfortable with the polite, no reply. It is often more polite to leave someone on read and not reply to them at all than it would be to say no. And a lot of people aren’t comfortable with that. They need to get comfortable with it.

Ricardo Signes: And that no invites another reply.

Adam Conover: Exactly. And once I did say no to a guy and he got so mad. And I was like, I should have just been like, “I don’t check my emails. I’m one of those 200,000 email people.” And this is the problem. This is the problem with being like me and being an Inbox Zero person, is it cultivates in people a belief that you will always reply to them, if you always do reply, right? “Oh, yeah, Adam always gets back to me right away.” I have other friends though who are very important, productive people. They get a lot done. I have a lot of respect for them, but I know that they are email, no repliers. If I email or text this person, they might never get back to me because they’ve got this. And guess what? I just understand that about them. And I’m like, yeah, I guess he was busy. I don’t know. And isn’t that a better life to live, to be someone who everyone doesn’t expect you to reply to? That’s a good thing to cultivate. Yeah, that guy, he’s not flaky, he just doesn’t always reply to the emails. So that’s something I’m trying to bring in more into my life, a little bit more cultivated chaos.

Ricardo Signes: So you’re getting all these emails from people who are interested in you and your career. I feel like this has got to have a bigger impact on “how you can internet” than “just you get a bunch of emails”. Am I making that up? What does it mean in this world where the internet is always there, it’s always hanging out, looking over your shoulder and you’re just trying to live your damn life?

Adam Conover: We’re all on it all the time. Look, the internet is because I now have a certain amount of, well-known… I’m a well-known person. You have to use it a little bit differently than other people, but I also have a lot of privilege on it that is similar to in real life. In real life, occasionally I get things for free that other people don’t. On the internet, occasionally I get things for free if I post something, it’ll go further than other people will. But I also don’t feel that I get to post the things that a lot of people get to, you know? There are a lot of people who are just like, “I didn’t like the Star Wars movie.” And I don’t get to do that because I have too big of a platform and maybe I know someone who works on the Star Wars movie, or maybe it starts a whole argument that I don’t want to deal with. So I have to be a little bit more of a public figure in that situation. I can’t just tweet, “Feeling depressed today,” you know, like a lot of people do because a lot of people just are tweeting or posting under the assumption that no one’s going to read what they post. And in my case, people will, and that makes you be a little bit different. I have a lot of internet privacy hygiene that I use, my own little setup that helps keeps things a little bit sane.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah, I know you have a Patreon.

Adam Conover: I do have a Patreon.

Ricardo Signes: It’s Patreon.com/AdamConover, I believe.

Adam Conover: Thank you for the plug.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah. There’s lots of other channels that celebrities use to talk to the public. There’s Twitter [now X, formerly Twitter] and Instagram and Discord. I guess there’s Threads now. Does the choice of the medium you’re using to engage with fans, does that affect the way that you form a relationship with them? Is there a better or a different choice you can make to get a bit different relationship with people?

Adam Conover: Oh yeah. I mean the medium is the message, right? Marshall McLuhan. It’s fundamental. You post on Twitter and you have to post in the form of a tweet and the form of the tweet Influences both how people take it and how they respond to it. Patreon, one of the reasons I wanted to create it was I wanted a sort of little world for me and my fans that was a little bit smaller and, you know, a smaller place to post. I don’t use it this way so much, but I know a lot of cartoonists who just I’m friendly with. And they use Patreon specifically in this way where they used to post comics on like their blog or their live journal 10 years ago or a Tumblr, and now people don’t use those sites. And also, it doesn’t really feel great to post those things on Instagram. Like, maybe they’re a little bit personal. They’re really just a little bit, oh, I like keeping a little diary for the people who really give a shit. And so they put that on Patreon. They have a Patreon with $1, a $2 donation, just like the tiniest little gate to the content. And then people can read it and they know that their content is only going to be seen by people who actually want to see it, right? That’s happened to me a bunch of times where it, like, just ended up in the wrong bubble. This seems to happen more on Instagram than on any other network. That never happens to me on TikTok somehow. But yeah, I mean it — it completely changes the relationship. Absolutely.

Ricardo Signes: The open internet, it’s a messed up place, right? Because everybody is in the same room, and you don’t know who’s in the same part of the room as you right now. Having a closed community lets you know in theory the people who came into this are here because they want to have a positive interaction, because they feel one particular way.

Adam Conover: And the problem with that is why the open internet is dying and closing up. There’s a number of ways to describe the open internet, and there’s a number of ways in which it’s dying, open standards and the end of the web and that sort of thing. But specifically, a platform like Twitter, which is completely flat and everybody is on it at all times and everybody’s conversation is exposed to everyone else at all times, breeds a lot of bad behaviors or bad outcomes that we don’t like.

Adam Conover: And so after 10 years of it, people are starting to create and flee to smaller platforms. You know, if you look at Discord, if you look at the more algorithmic ones like TikTok, which really, like, puts you in a bubble. Or if you just look at the rise of group threads. Some group threads are massive now just people chatting about — People used to go on Twitter to just be like, “Oh, what’s going on with the Mets?” But now I’m on a New York Mets group text, right? And that’s where I post that. Whether that’s Signal or WhatsApp or iMessage, that’s like frankly, the dominant form of social media right now is the group text, in my opinion. I think it’s because of the problem with the open web like that. I don’t think the open web is bad, I just think it leads to, and the way it’s been implemented has led to this problem and we’re seeing a slow backlash against it.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah, we don’t have a society that’s been built to scale at that rate, and we’ve ramped up our scaling real fast in the last few decades.

Adam Conover: If I were to say to you, “Hey, here’s an idea. What if everything that you said, anyone in the world could hear it at any time and they could reply to you at any time, right? Would this be a good communication system or a bad communication system?” I think you would say it would be bad, right? And that’s the problem with Twitter.

Ricardo Signes: We had a sci-fi author on the podcast last season, Alex Beckett, who wrote a book in which everything you say ever is transcribed and searchable online, and this is a cure to social ills. It’s because you’re perfectly accountable. I still don’t know what I think about it. It was a heck of a take.

Adam Conover: I don’t think — I don’t think accountability leads to, like, peace and stability. One of the problems right now is that we currently have too much information about what everybody has said and what everybody is thinking. And we cannot take it all together and go, “Oh, look at what this person has said in the fullness of time.” People cherry-pick and they use it to generate conspiracy theories and they take it in bad faith. And so that just sounds like a lot of grist for like attacking people, to me. It doesn’t sound like a cure for any kind of social ill.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah, absolutely. That’s exactly the place I ended up thinking the most about that. But it gets to this question of what can we do with the culture of the internet that is so big, so interconnected and so difficult? You can’t just fix it. And when we talk about digital citizenship on the podcast, we usually are talking about these questions of what are the things that we can do to take responsibility for our own wellbeing and for the wellbeing of other people we interact with to make a more healthy culture? What would you want people to do to make the internet a better place?

Adam Conover: At the end of the day, you only have control over a very small sphere, whether that’s in real life or the internet is a form of real life. A lot of people have this realization eventually that the best you can do is create a space that reflects the world as you wish it to be, and guard that space. Make it safe, make it good, and welcoming for other people. Have it represent your values. You can do that on the internet. That’s part of having a Patreon. We’ve even got a very nice little Discord community on my Patreon. We do a little book club, we discuss the podcast. That’s about it, it’s a nice space.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah.

Adam Conover: I don’t — ****I don’t overdo it. I’m not like my life’s mission to create a nice Discord community, but you know, it’s a nice little thing, right? I do that with my own Twitter feed. My own Twitter feed is just about stuff I care about and I just — things I promote and opinions I have, and I’m not like getting real messy with it, you know what I mean? Versus, for instance, some people spend all day quote tweeting other people who say things they don’t like. Right? Why are you doing that? What is the point of, “Hey, this person said something I don’t like. Let me tell everybody else about it”? Let me spread the bad thing as far as I can. And you can look at people’s Twitter feeds and see that they do nothing all day, but retweet people who they don’t like. Even if it’s coming from a real place of trauma and concern, you are spreading that around all day every day. Why not focus on the way that you want the world to be and create that on a daily basis? So whether that means creating a little community or just being that way on the internet or doing that in real life, finding the piece of the world in your town or your community that you’re going to make better.

Adam Conover: Apart from that, there’s no solution to making the internet a nice place. You say, how do we solve the internet? We’re not going to, man. It’s not going to happen. Because you know what else also sucks? Human society. So until we solve the problem of humanity, inequality, starvation, racism, violence, all the things that we all hate all the time, my expectations aren’t that high for us making the internet a nice place, too. Guess what? It’s planet earth. It’s chaos out there. People are killing each other, people are screaming at each other. You ever drive with someone who, like, is really obsessed with bad drivers? They’re like, “Agh! How could they drive that way? How could they do that?” I’m like, “Guess what? guess what? Bad drivers are always going to exist. What do you want to happen? You want to wave a magic wand and suddenly there’s no bad drivers. No, welcome to planet Earth, right?”

Adam Conover: We build systems. We have stop signs, we have stop lights, we have traffic enforcement to try to mitigate the effects of those bad drivers. We can control our own car. That’s all we can do. You’re better off not stressing out about it that much and just trying to, like, create a zone of safety in your own area. To the extent that, I don’t know, I’m a little bit bored with, we’re all on these networks all the time. We’re all on Twitter, we’re all on Instagram, we’re all on TikTok, we’re all on email, and we’re all also constantly complaining about how much we hate them. Eventually, I think we all have to go, you know what? There’s a reason we’re still here because we need it, we like it on some level and we have to use it, and we can try to break up Facebook, break up the tech monopolies, put regulations in place about political advertising, you know, all those sorts of things, right? Those are all things that we should do. At the same time, find some techniques that allow you to use it in a way that gives you a little bit of peace and doesn’t have you constantly pulling your hair out, because you seem to agree you need to use it. So, maybe just find a way to stop wasting all of your time wishing it was better. You know what I mean?

Ricardo Signes: Yes. Being that person feels like you’re going to the same result as the person who, quote, tweets bad takes all day. Just spending all your time being angry.

Adam Conover: Yeah. I’m not saying we shouldn’t advocate, but it’s like why are we expecting perfection from anything humans created? Everything sucks all the time. We’re all doing our best. You can do your best tomorrow. That’s what your life’s going to be like until the day you die. That’s my general philosophy about life.

Ricardo Signes: I hope you enjoyed the interview.

Haley Hnatuk: I always do. So Rik, what have you ended up changing about your own online habits since you started doing the show?

Ricardo Signes: I started something that I needed to restart. In a very early episode, we talked to BJ Fogg about behavior design, and that led me to think what I really wanted to do was every time I unlocked my phone, I’d just say to myself, “I’m unlocking my phone to do this thing.” And then I would do that thing and then I’d lock my phone and I’d feel really good about it. And that was great. And somewhere along the way, I stopped doing that. But I know that I would never say, “I’m going to unlock my phone to scroll through Instagram for two hours.” And if I have to say what I’m doing, it’s a lot better. So I want to bring that back in my life.

Haley Hnatuk: Yeah, that’s definitely hard. I definitely fall victim of opening my phone to just Google something really fast like, “Where’s this location?” And then I’ve opened Instagram and I’ve been scrolling on it for like 20 minutes. And I still haven’t even remembered that I was going to check Google Maps to find out the location of the thing that I was looking for. So I think having that intentionality definitely is a good goal to have. But yeah, what were your key takeaways of the conversation that you had with Adam today?

Ricardo Signes: First, the same productivity strategy doesn’t work for everybody. You need a strategy that works for you. And if it works, you are not doing it wrong. Do the things that get your work done, that get your activities completed. And on that front, just do the thing, right? This is Adam’s advice. Stop clearing the decks. How much pre-work can you really benefit from? This is me saying I need to stop planning at some point so I can actually do the thing. There’s always going to be more email to read. There’s always going to be more polish that you can put on the plan of what you’re going to do but at some point you got to carry it out. Next, you have to be comfortable with the choices that you make about what to do or not do. If you spend all your time agonizing over what to do next, you never do anything next. Find what it is that you want to do, make that decision, high-five yourself, and get to it. And finally, create the environment that you want to be in. There’s always going to be bad stuff going on somewhere around you. And you can’t close your eyes to every part of it but you also can’t flip your life upside down stressing out about every bad thing in your environment. You have to say there are things that matter to you that you’re going to act on, you’re going to focus on. It’s what matters to you, do that. Focus on the things, not the stuff, not the objects, not the detritus.

Haley Hnatuk: We really hope that you can take these actionable steps towards being a better digital citizen.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah, and we’ll see you again in two weeks for more conversations with a new guest.

Ricardo Signes: Thanks for listening to Digital Citizen. Digital Citizen is produced by Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy, digital citizens everywhere. Our show is produced by Haley Hnatuk. Special thanks to the incredible team of people behind Fastmail. Digital Citizen is hosted by me, Ricardo Signes. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast player, and for a free one-month trial of Fastmail, you can go to fastmail.com/podcast. And for more episodes, transcripts, and my takeaways, you can go to digitalcitizenshow.com.