Better Living (and Less Anxiety) through Software

It was truly a pleasure to be a guest on Brett Terpstra's podcast Systematic this week. He's had some amazingly interesting folks on the show lately, so I just hope I measure up. We talked about my background in radio and then segued into the topic of anxiety and technology.

Fittingly, I began feeling anxious almost as soon as we finished the Skype call. Not that it wasn't a good conversation, but there was one part where I felt I could have explained myself a lot better. I had been talking about a turning point in my life, when I started my second and last job in public radio.

My first job in radio was writing for a show called The Writer's Almanac, and I was good at it, despite the fact that the show's host was notoriously demanding. In my first three years writing for the show, three producers quit, along with several other writers who either quit or got fired. I was finally the only one left standing, so I became the sole writer and producer, and I persisted for two more years. The day I left, they said I should get a plaque for lasting as long as I did. I thought this constituted evidence of my competence.

And yet, when I moved to a different job on a different radio show, I suddenly felt like the least competent person in the world. This was especially confusing because the new job should have been easier. I was no longer the sole writer and producer of a show, I was just one associate producer within a team. I only had to write bits and pieces of script, do occasional research, write the occasional blog post, answer listener emails, book guests, and help edit audio. None of these jobs was high stakes. It should have been a breeze. But it nearly killed me.

Part of the problem was multitasking. At my previous job, I'd been doing one thing at a time. Write this script. Now write that script. I did most of my work from home in a quiet room. I was allowed to focus.

At my new job, I was always juggling multiple projects: researching the next guest, proofreading the latest script, writing a promo, editing tape. I had always relied on my memory to keep track of my to-do list (I rarely wrote down homework assignments in high school or even studied for tests, and still did well), but my memory completely failed me in this new work environment. I began to worry all the time about whether I had forgotten something. Had I booked that guest for the right time? Had I checked the time zone? Did I fact check that script sufficiently? Should I read it through one more time?

Another problem was the office environment. I worked in a cubicle, with team members all around me. There was little space or time to focus deeply on anything. We were all expected to be on email all the time, injecting our thoughts into one another's brains at will. One of my tasks was to respond to listener email, and every Monday we got a flood of responses to our show, both tremendously positive and viciously negative. And if there had been any factual errors in the show, the listeners would take us to task, and the host would not be happy. I began to dread the weekend, imagining the army of potential attackers amassing and hurling their spears into cyberspace, each blow landing in my inbox on Monday morning.

The result of all this anxiety was that I found it harder and harder to concentrate. I began to make the mistakes I so feared making. Which only made me worry more. I started waking up every night at 3:00 AM, unable to get back to sleep, my mind racing with everything I needed to worry about. Then I started waking up at 2:00 AM. Then 1:00 AM. Then Midnight. If this had continued, I would have started waking up before I went to sleep.

If you have not experienced severe depression or anxiety, you might find it hard to understand is how physical an illness it really is. I did not just feel sick in my head. Every cell in my body felt scraped out and raw. I had no patience for my children. I had no energy to help my wife around the house. Imagine how you feel when you realize something horrible is about to happen: you forgot the essential thing you need for that important meeting, your car is sliding on the ice, or your child is falling head first off the jungle gym in slow motion. Now imagine feeling that kind of dread every waking moment for weeks on end.

That was me at my lowest point. I kept asking myself, "Why can't I do this? This shouldn't be so hard. What's wrong with me?"

In the interview with Brett, I alluded to something I read once that compared depression to a fever (unfortunately, the author was the now-discredited Jonah Lehrer, but I still find the article persuasive). In response to an infection, the body raises its own temperature as a way of killing off the infection. Depression, likewise, raises the frequency of negative "ruminative" thoughts. Psychiatrists have typically seen these kinds of thoughts as part of the problem, but some believe depression may be the body's way of forcing you to focus on what's wrong in your life in order to change it.

Imagine, for instance, a depression triggered by a bitter divorce. The ruminations might take the form of regret (“I should have been a better spouse”), recurring counterfactuals (“What if I hadn’t had my affair?”) and anxiety about the future (“How will the kids deal with it? Can I afford my alimony payments?”). While such thoughts reinforce the depression — that’s why therapists try to stop the ruminative cycle — Andrews and Thomson wondered if they might also help people prepare for bachelorhood or allow people to learn from their mistakes. “I started thinking about how, even if you are depressed for a few months, the depression might be worth it if it helps you better understand social relationships,” Andrews says. “Maybe you realize you need to be less rigid or more loving. Those are insights that can come out of depression, and they can be very valuable.”

Of course, it's important to note that while a fever can help rid your body of germs, it can also kill you. I don't know what might have happened to me if I hadn't talked to a doctor at the time. Medication was definitely part of my recovery. It helped reduce my symptoms so that I could see the root cause of the problem: this was not the right job for me.

So I quit, and took a couple months off before I started my next job. In that time, I realized two things. First, I wanted to learn how to be more organized. Second, I wanted to make time for the kind of deep focus creative work that gave my life real meaning. That was five years ago, and I've managed to accomplish both of those goals, largely with the help of software.

There's been some talk lately about whether software tools actually provide any benefit, and whether software design is solving real problems. But for me, every time I dump my mind into Omnifocus, or add an event to Fantastical, or forward an email with attachments to Evernote, or set a reminder in Due, I feel a little more in control of my life. I can much more easily manage my job as a college writing teacher, juggling multiple projects, multiple classes, lesson planning, grading, committee meetings, department responsibilities, and so on.

Keeping my life more organized also makes it possible to have a clear head when I want to focus on something important. One of my goals after quitting my job was to write a novel, and I finally made time for it. The app Scrivener helped me break the novel down into manageable pieces, and for the first time in my life, writing fiction felt enjoyable rather than fraught. More recently, I was inspired by the power of the app Editorial to start writing this website (and have written almost every post with it).

Of course, there's a danger here. Buying a new notebook and a fancy pen does not make you a writer. Making a to-do list is not an actual accomplishment. Tools are not the end goal, and using a tool, no matter how well-designed, does not make hard work any easier. But the right tool can provide an important cue to help create a habit or build a ritual for doing the actual work.

Software has improved my life by making the work feel more possible, creating virtual spaces where I feel less anxious. And the less anxious I feel, the more I feel capable of doing the work that matters, and the more I feel alive.