A while ago, J and I noticed we’d lie in bed, fiddling with our phones for 30, 40, 45 minutes, an hour, many, most mornings, every morning. Sometimes our fiddling was productive, clearing emails, writing lists, researching some topic or other – but most of the time, it wasn’t.

And it’s easy to justify it to yourself if it’s AngelList, or LinkedIn: you’re keeping up with career options. Hacker News is obviously of great professional concern to a software engineer. Twitter keeps you wired into the zeitgeist. And, as for Facebook, what could be more important than friends and family?

The point, of course, is that I’m fickle and distractible and the only thing that can salvage my mornings, whittle and form them out of the chaos, is to leave the matter out of my hands entirely. Leave motivation and bandwidth in the hands of a /system/, and make delivery an inevitability – or at least a reliable expectation – rather than something subject to whimsy and caprice.

So we built a system, and we call it “book hour”. Every morning, we read, at least, a few pages of a dead-trees paper book. Before touching our phone.

A glimpse of analog before our days become digital.

You can turn off your alarm. If somebody calls you, you’re allowed to answer. And it’s flexible: if you both agree on an exemption – early start, late start, got to catch a flight, etc. – then it’s allowed.

But it turns out that we rarely need an exemption, because beginning your day with a few pages of a book is actually a really nice thing to do.

So, incentives:

Carrot: you end up reading more, and, in a relaxed and controlled manner, gradually phase into your day.

Stick: If you touch your phone before reading a few pages, £10 goes in a savings pot in our joint bank account. When the pot reaches some amount, we take ourselves out for dinner.

This is good because it serves the psychological function of an incentive without any great real-terms material loss (we’d probably spend the money on eating out anyway.) It hurts without hurting.

It’s effective, and I urge you to try it out if you too are looking for an easy and fun way to cut down on screen-time.

It’s also, I think, illustrative of a more general approach to productivity, good work, and human happiness:

Build systems that minimise friction, and, where appropriate, align your incentives with your interests.

Research is chaotic, but it’s okay, because we can build routines which encourage regular, structured work and limit the possibility of procrastination.

Memory is chaotic, but it’s okay, because we can use spaced-repetition to minimise friction and make long-term memory a choice. (As for incentives: how about an Anki hour?)

The shape and structure of data is chaotic, but it’s okay, because we can work with statically typed languages and write unit tests, both of which have all kinds of good upstream effects.

The world is chaotic, but it’s okay, because systems help tame it.