Sean’s lively conversation with Digital Wellness Coach Sini Ninkovic centers on enjoying the beauty of life without constantly depending on our smartphones.
Early on, Sini learned the role of adaptability to a new environment when his family fled Former Yugoslavia and found refuge in Austria. Later, he would earn an MBA at Haas School of Business and work with BMW, Lucid Motors, and Apple. He teaches how one can adapt to technology without being dictated by their devices in his book Untethered.
In this episode, Sini promotes being a responsible tech user by intentionally reframing habits to overcome distractions.
On choosing Haas for his MBA
[00:02:53] I really wanted to be in Silicon Valley and experience the culture there. I always had this passion for future technologies and how they can enhance our lives. As a young kid, I was just fascinated by what we were doing out in Silicon Valley, and that fascination just kept on going. As I was working on electric cars, it became pretty clear to me that the core business of cars was endangered to be taken over by Silicon Valley. I decided that I really wanted to be part of that movement, whatever was happening on the west coast. And so, I decided to apply to Haas. I was so welcomed by the people there I immediately had this feeling of home. And so, it was pretty clear to me that I made the right choice being there.
How do you have a healthy relationship with your digital devices?
[00:18:48] in my book, the first step is focused on awareness. The second is focused very much on yourself. And then the last part is focused on changing the device.
Over time, we’re capable of developing a healthy relationship with most humans. It takes some years in many cases to get there. And I think we’re in a similar situation right now with the smartphone. During the past decade, many of us had a pretty toxic relationship with our smartphones, kind of codependent. But in any toxic or codependent relationship, there is a breaking point. I think we are at that breaking point where a lot of people are gaining awareness of what’s going on. We have the awareness now. The second step is working on ourselves to get to a stage where we can have a healthy relationship with a digital device. That’s why the core of my book focuses on that self-development. And then the third part is very focused on the tools. What can you do to your smartphone to make it a better partner?
- Berkeley Haas
- Untethered: Overcome Distraction, Build Healthy Digital Habits, and Use Tech to Create a Life You Love
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
Sean Li: Welcome to the OneHaas alumni podcast. I’m your host, Sean Li. And today we’re joined by Sini Ninkovic. He is a full-time MBA class of 2015, and he is most recently an author. But before we dive into your book and all that good stuff, I really want to hear about your background a little bit. Clearly, you’re not born in the US so I want to hear where you’re from.
Sini Ninkovic: Yeah, so I was born in former Yugoslavia back then in Sarajevo. And it’s quite fascinating because my background is kind of, it’s haunting me right now in a way where what we’re seeing in Afghanistan and the pictures that are coming our way is very similar to how I escaped war with my family in ‘92. I’m sure you’ve seen one of these pictures of a US cargo airplane filled with people. That is exactly how I left Yugoslavia in ‘92 with my mom and my sister.
Sean: How old were you?
Sini: I was six years old. So I remember a lot of the pictures, but I don’t remember my emotions, which is probably better in situations like this. And then yeah, grew up in Austria, spent about 18 years or so living in Innsbruck, Austria. Then after college, I actually did a master’s in behavioral economics there and had a chance to work on future technologies.
And the most successful future technology back then was electric cars. So I worked for BMW and their electric car program. I worked on Di3 and Di8, which were like their first full electric vehicles that came out in 2013. And that’s where I left the program. Once they came out and I joined Haas just a month after these vehicles launched. Haas was just a super incredible experience for most of us. But after Haas, I continued working on electric cars. I joined Lucid Motors and I led the product marketing. I was with Lucid for about two years and they just went public a few weeks ago. So that’s been a really incredible experience to be part of that.
Sean: Did you come to the US because of Haas or had you come to the US before Haas?
Sini: I visited the US once before Haas, but I came to the US because of Haas.
Sean: Wow. How did you come to pick Haas? You know, typically I talked to a bunch of Haas alum who were part of the end the program back when we had the joint Columbia, you know, Berkeley, Columbia, and the Executive MBA program. And one of the benefits they were saying was being part of that specific program was that you got the name recognition of Haas being a west coast school, being much more associated and recognized in Asia, and then also with Columbia in New York school, which is much more recognizable of a brand name with Europe. And so I’m curious, how did you pick Haas when you were all the way in Austria?
Sini: I really wanted to be in Silicon Valley and experience the culture there. I always had this passion about future technologies and how they can enhance our lives. That started very early on. And for example, at the age of 12, I started building my own computers at home. I was deeply involved with gaming culture, very, very early on with the online multiplayer culture. And so it was always just like building computers and really excited about the newest technologies that were coming out. And so as a young kid, I was just fascinated by what we were doing out in Silicon Valley.
And so that fascination just kept on going, kept them going. And as I was working on electric cars, it became pretty clear to me that with Tesla kind of starting to come up around 2012, 2013, I felt even electric cars, like the core business of cars that Germany was such a front runner was kind of endangered to be taken over by Silicon Valley.
And so at that stage, it was 2012. I decided that I really wanted to be part of that movement, whatever was happening out in the west coast and so I decided to apply to Haas. And I remember the first time that I came there around February, I think it was the new students’ welcome week. Might have been March or April, not quite sure, 2013. I came through campus and I saw those huge trees and the beautiful gardens, and I was just so stunned by the campus and was so welcomed by the people there. I immediately had this feeling of home. And so it was pretty clear to me that I made the right choice being there.
Sean: That’s awesome. So what did you do after Lucid Motors?
Sini: Yeah, in 2017, I had a chance to join Apple as a manager for new product introductions. So that was super exciting for me because as I said, I had such a fascination with technology, and what better company than Apple to learn how to launch new products in. And so I spent two and a half years working there as a program manager for new product introductions. I worked mostly on Macs and that was a really fascinating experience because I was able to use a lot of the experiences I gained with cars because Macs are, you know, they’re bigger products and they’re more complex products in terms of how many parts come together.
So there was a lot of similarities actually between the German car industry. And when I started working at Apple and hardware, which was surprising to me. And then end of 2019, there were a couple of experiences that just made it obvious to me that the past decade of technological development has led to an unusual relationship that we have, especially with our smartphones. Two specific experiences made the super obvious to me. One was I was actually on the flight from Germany back to San Francisco. And I’m sure you had this experience before. I pulled out my phone on the plane and I started scrolling. I wanted to find an app that I could use that I could open that would still function without the internet. And obviously like 99% of apps are pretty much useless without the internet, but I caught myself scrolling for like five minutes and trying to figure out what I can do with this phone. And I had this moment of awareness where I just asked myself, what am I doing here? It is so strange that I’m spending five minutes with this phone, knowing that I have no internet, knowing that there’s nothing to do, but I was still scrolling around trying to find something to do. And then I looked right and there was this mid-thirties guy and he had probably a similar experience. Cause I saw him open the United app, an app that you would otherwise probably never open, but it’s one of those apps that is online on a United flight.
And so he opened it up and he just started clicking around and started reading random articles on the United app. And clearly, he was just trying to waste time as well. He was trying to use his phone, which we are also accustomed to, but also doing things that don’t really matter neither for the present moment nor for the future. And then I look to the left and there was this, I would guess around a 60-year-old woman, she had her big iPad and she was also scrolling left and right, swiping around. She opened Google docs and she had an old file downloaded. So she opened that file and she started reading it and she read for about five to seven minutes and then she put down her iPad.
And that experience just made it so obvious to me that we’re all trying to find escape with our devices, even in moments when we know that there’s nothing we should be doing there, there’s nothing we can be doing. And so that was one of those experiences.
Sean: This is a great segue into your book. It’s titled Untethered, which the moment I saw that title, I loved it because one of my favorite books is by Michael Singer. I’m sure you’ve read it, Untethered Soul. And as I was reading the advanced copy of your book, I was thinking, this is like the untethered mind, the untethered awareness. Right?
And I remember reading your foreword, the preface, and it’s something that I’ve been feeling myself lately. And I feel like this kind of stuff, with anything in life, with any type of new technology or new products or new offerings that develops new habits. And then there’s this lack of awareness period. And then there is an awareness period. And then there’s an adjustment period.
And what you had just mentioned is something I talk, I think rather frequently about on the podcast with some of our guests who are into this space, especially around mental health and awareness in how not only has digital technology advance in the ways it did, but the way advertising has changed as well from that traditional model of TV to it’s an extension of TV days called the attention economy where everything is free, but the cost is your attention.
And it’s designed to get as much of your attention as possible. And it’s insidious. Anyway, about your book. I’ve read parts of it. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what led you to write this book? You shared a little bit about the airport experience, but what really led you to write this book?
Sini: There are many experiences that are described in this book. There isn’t one single one that is the thing that made me write this. But I felt for myself that for about 20 years, I was struggling with letting go of technology. When I knew it wasn’t serving me any longer. Whether that was back then with computer games and online player games, or now with my smartphone, there are too many moments in too many days where I experienced that I’m using these phones or these devices without a clear purpose. And that’s kind of the overarching theme that I think a lot of us are experiencing the awareness. There, the awareness wasn’t really lacking in the past few years, we all know what we’re doing. It comes to, are we using the right tools to overcome it? And do we have enough willpower or are we supporting the willpower with the right tools? Right.
And I think that’s where my book actually comes in the idea of how do we support awareness and create awareness in moments where we might be lacking awareness. And then also the biggest part of the book is obviously talking about everyday tools that we can use to bring out awareness into device usage. Not only bring the awareness into it but also create our environment in ways that support the tech users that we want.
Sean: I was taking a class at Haas last spring, right before I graduated called becoming superhuman. It’s a class on productivity. And obviously, the first tip is to untether. I don’t know if you ever talked to the professors that teach the class.
Sini: No. Or haven’t heard of the class yet.
Sean: You should definitely talk to them and share your book because they have this digital cleanse kind of worksheet for people. And I think your book can be a great compliment to that class as well. But what really struck me was, you know, how you started the book. If you don’t mind me sharing, just going to read a passage here: “For the first time in my career, I was struggling to do my job. Well. I started to feel purposeless and depressed.” I’m jumping to another part where it says ” …objectively, there was nothing wrong. I was earning good money. I had friends that I liked, my relationship was great.” And that’s the sentiment that I always see my friends in and catch myself like, how can we not be grateful and thankful? Right. We have at least us as Haas, alumni, can’t speak for everybody, but we have such amazing circumstances and privileges. And it’s like, what is there to be so upset about? But it is this lack of purpose. It is feeling not in control of what you do on the day-to-day and why you do it. I think that hit really a core note for me. It was just a reminder when I read that, can you speak a little bit to that?
Sini: Yeah, absolutely. I think what we’re all noticing is this continuous increase of complexity around the globe, whether that is on an individual basis, meaning our individual jobs of becoming more and more complex to do well, or it’s on a global scale where they’re new technologies creating new industries. We can talk about AI. We can talk about cryptocurrencies there’s spaces on this planet that I have very little awareness of or knowledge about. And that complexity is scary just recently, as you know, Elon Musk introduced a robot that looks like a human in scary ways but is the thing that we saw in iRobot about like 10 years ago, this world is becoming scary because complexity is increasing so fast that our human minds can’t actually follow what’s going on while I was doing my job decently well, while I was decently happy with my earnings, and generally I wasn’t doing bad in life.
There was this lack of control in a world that was becoming more and more complex and especially interesting for us MBAs because what we’re taught as MBAs is we’re taught rationality. We’re trying to dissect problems to really figure out what’s going on. Or in strategy classes, we get taught that if we collect all the information, we can dissect the core of the issue and then lay out new strategies for the future.
And while I think that is still feasible in a lot of areas, complexity makes that less likely over time, the more complex the world gets, the less likely we are able to think through the entire complexity, all the problems that might arise, the risks become harder to calculate risks. And so I think as we’re moving forward, the idea of being able to control your surroundings is one that is getting challenged, right? What the skill of the future might be is flexibility. Adaptability, being able to change yourself depending on what the environment froze at you.
Sean: Yeah. I think that’s what I meant earlier by how insidious the attention economy has become in that it robs us of any kind of space or time to think to process this complexity. Instead, when we see this complexity, we just dodge it and we just go on our phones. I’m really glad to use the word device because I thought I had conquered my digital habits. Right. I had deleted Instagram. I had added blockers to Facebook. I’d done all this stuff. I just removed all the apps I had gone as far. You know, when Apple released a new feature where they had all your apps, it was like an automatic library. I just removed all the apps from my own screens. And then if I need to go to an app, I had to be intentional about all right, what is the app that I want to use?
And go to that versus I noticed, with my wife and with other people, you open your phone, there’s a habit of click to whatever app you use the most. Right. For her, it was like Instagram. It’s like, she always going to go do something else, but open it up and boom goes Instagram. And I did all that. But recently I noticed the drug for me, the device, for me, it was actually my computer. I am not digitally clean on my computer. And I come to do something. One thing let’s say, search for something or buy something on Amazon. And then 20 minutes later, I’m like, checking my emails. I hadn’t bought anything yet. I didn’t do what I came to the computer to do. And I’m just all over the place. And I’m sitting here, like, what was I supposed to do? Why am I sitting here right now? And I guess to that point, what is your advice around that?
Sini: Yeah. It’s funny that you mentioned it because when I talked to Tristan Harris, I think it was 2019. So Tristan Harris is the guy behind the Social Dilemma, which I think brought awareness to this topic on a really global scale at this stage. He mentioned to me that his biggest problem was an Instagram of Facebook. His brick. His problem was the mail app. Gmail probably. I don’t know which mail app he’s using, but he says he’s obsessed with email.
And so at that moment I knew, well, email can be on our computer. It can be on a smartphone, but I also knew that the poison is different for all of us. For me, it’s YouTube. I know YouTube is very problematic video content, in general, is problematic for me, but it’s different for everybody. And so at this stage, I knew, okay, it’s not the devices.
It’s also not specific apps. We all react differently to stimuli. And based on that stimuli, we will use these apps and devices differently. Right? So I think that’s really important to recognize it’s not just our smartphone. I think our smartphone is interesting for me because it’s so unique among all devices because it’s literally in our pocket for 14 hours every single day. We have never had a relationship like this with any tool, with any technological device, we don’t have a relationship like that with our romantic partners. We don’t carry it around for 14 hours every day. Right?
So it’s a very unique relationship that we developed with that device. So that’s why I try to focus on the smartphone just because it’s the most accessible. And when we try to find some escape from the problems we have in our lives, it’s the first thing we touch is the first thing we approach.
One of the statistics that I share in my book is this idea of, as you read it, you know, that my whole idea is our smartphone is not a tool. It’s actually a new type of relationship. And if you think of it as a relationship, there is a bunch of tools we can use that are proven to work in relationships that can also be applied in this context. This shows up in so many ways. One of them is that I think it’s around 97% of Americans feel distressed with the idea of leaving their home without their smartphone.
Another statistic is that I think it’s about 25% of people have their smartphone in their hands when they’re walking down the street. But that number gets cut in half when another human, a friend of theirs is walking next to them because we feel more in control when we are in a social context when we’re with other people, and a smartphone replaces that social context for us. So that’s why I focused on the smartphone primarily in terms of tips. And I think that’s where your question was going.
Sean: Yeah. My question more specifically now is, how do you have a healthy relationship with your digital devices and digital life?
Sini: I think you mentioned a couple of things initially. You talked about how you removed some of your apps and how you rearranged some of them and how you replaced other apps. You deleted them and made sure that you had more intention every time you opened a smartphone.
And as you know, in my book, that’s pretty much the last third of the book. And so what’s the other two-third focused on, well, the first third is focused on awareness. The second third is focused very much on yourself. And then the last part is focused on changing the device because I think if you think of it as a relationship, most of us have been able to overtime develop a healthy relationship with our parents, with our siblings, with our good friends, hopefully with a romantic partner, although most of us are not successful the first time around.
It takes a couple of tries to get that healthy relationship, right? But over time, we’re capable of developing ourselves to be in a healthy relationship with the other, whether that’s our parents, our sibling, or romantic partner, doesn’t matter. It takes some years in many cases to get there.
And I think we’re in a similar situation right now with the smartphone. Most of us have had one for over a decade. Now, maybe even 15 years, that’s about the timeframe. And I think the past decade was a pretty toxic relationship with our smartphone kind of co-dependent. But at this stage, we’ve been seeing an increase of media consumption of an hour every single year for the past five years or so. So it’s pretty obvious that we’re consuming more and more and more as we would in any toxic or co-dependent relationship. But there is a breaking point at some point, this breaking point will come.
And I think we are at that breaking point where a lot of people are gaining awareness of what’s going on. And my book is trying to say amazing. We have the awareness now. And I think the second step is not buying a dumbphone. It’s not putting your phone in grayscale. It’s not deleting all of your apps. It’s actually working on ourselves to get to a stage where we can have a healthy relationship with a digital device. And so that’s why the core of my book focuses on that. Self-development and then the third part is very focused on the tools. What can you do to your smartphone to make it a better partner?
Sean: I think you are so astute to put it in that order because you’re absolutely right. If I fix my smartphone, there’s still a problem with my computer. If I fixed my computer, there’s still a problem with my TV and a lot of these things, I think how you framed it. That’s what I loved about your book is that how you framed it was this relationship idea. And as with any relationship, it’s a two-way street, you can’t just blame the other party and say, this relationship is not working out because of you. What is my role? What is my responsibility?
And it takes not only a lot of self-awareness, but a lot of self-discipline or just additional willpower to be able to do that. And I love that you went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat that you meditate. I remember reading some when you say you needed to meditate more, that’s always on the top of my head that it should always be more time for meditation, but these are things that beyond awareness takes a lot of willpower. Can you speak a little bit about willpower? I remember reading somewhere where you only have so much willpower to make X number of decisions per day. And the tricky thing about technology is it’s so habitual. It doesn’t require any willpower. Just pull out your phone and go on Instagram or YouTube. What do you think about willpower?
Sini: That’s a fascinating topic because, on one hand, we are getting so much convenience with our phones. On the other hand, convenience also requires a lot of choices because now that we have so many options, we actually have to pick between these options and it starts very early on.
One of the examples that I’m sharing in the book is when I was working at Apple and taking these shuttle buses to Cupertino every single morning, the first year around, I was very confident that I could pick and choose my bus every single morning, depending on how tired I was feeling and how long the last night was, was out socializing with friends. I just felt confident that I had enough willpower to make that choice. Every single morning, I did that for a year and I was drained. I was just drained every single morning because I woke up with the anxiety of missing a bus of getting late to work of missing my first meeting.
It was a horrible experience. And the second year I decided to take the same exact bus every single morning to wake up at the exact same time every single morning, and to make the first half an hour of my date, a ritual, it’s always the same. Everything happens in the same order at the same time. And when I get to the bus at that point, I have not made a single decision in my day. That was kind of the goal. Get to the bus without a single decision made.
And that freed up so much willpower to actually do a better job. I felt less anxiety because I didn’t have to choose and choosing takes willpower. As you said, willpower is a limited resource. And over the hours in a single day, it gets drained. So it gets drained and drained and drained. And then we come back and our dreams of starting our startup at 5 PM there just go down to drain because we have no willpower to do it.
And then Netflix is a very convenient choice. So we open Netflix. So we go on Instagram where we go on Facebook at 5:00 PM. Our willpower is pretty much drained. If before that, we had to make a lot of decisions in our days, whether that’s choosing food or at work, having to pick between options, it all drains willpower.
And so the question is where can we reduce choice? Where can we maybe even reduce conveniences to have fewer choices to extend the willpower in our days? And the other question is also how do we actually support willpower with the right tools? One of my favorite thought experiments is the idea of a living room, the average American living room, and what it is designed for. And I’m sure that you know, that the TV is like the centerpiece of any proper living room in the US.
And so we’ve decided to place couches around it and to place comfortable around it and to make everything in that living room kind of point to the TV. Now, if we design our environment in that way, chances are, we will use it as it is designed. So if we design it to be a comfortable space to watch TV, then that will be our overwhelming experience.
The question becomes how do we design our environments to support what future us desires the most? What makes us proud? What gives us true joy? And I’ve seen some experiments of that in San Francisco at some homes where the TV was no longer a centerpiece. One of my friends has this beautiful apartment in San Francisco where the idea is a room to have conversations and engage with your friends. And so couches are placed in a circle basically, and there’s some floormates laying around.
And the centerpiece of the room is two boxes with gadgets. They’re like massage, guns, and foot massagers, and just detect devices that many people haven’t tried so that when you come in, your first instinct teaches you to grab one of these tools and start playing. And when we start playing, we want to play with somebody. And then we get into a conversation. And suddenly we become friends when somebody else in this space that was designed for that interaction.
So my thought experiment is how would I design my living room? If I wanted to purpose to change away from comfortably watching TV, to maybe launching a startup, maybe becoming better friends with my romantic partner, or whatever the heck it is that we desire to do. But I would bet that most of us are not intentional about the TV and where we place it in, how we design a room around it.
Sean: I just put up a TV in my office. I need to rethink, I design this room intentionally. So everything in my office isn’t focused on the TV.
Sini: It could be a simple thing. You could put a blanket over it for most of the time to give you a different experience. Like it can be simple changes if you still want to use and need the TV, but it’s just, I think a really fascinating thought, how do we bring structural intention into our life? How do we design the structures around us with intention and whether that’s virtual structures or physical structures, doesn’t really matter. The same concept holds true.
Sean: That’s amazing. This has been a really wonderful conversation. Any parting thoughts before we wrap up the interview, I don’t want to give away your book, obviously.
Sini: I’m like 50 tools in my mind that I want to share.
Sean: (26:13) Our listeners are alumni. Few of them are prospective students. Is there anything you want to leave them with to enticing the buyer book?
Sini: Yeah, maybe two things that have been extremely helpful to me. There’s one app that has been tremendously successful that I want to call out. It’s called Yapp reminders, Y-A-P-P. And it’s basically a tool that allows you to customize notifications that are sent at random points in time to your phone. And I customized some notifications to be sent between 5:00 PM and 10:00 PM. Cause I know that’s typically when I get most distracted and all these notifications are trying to do is bring my awareness back into my phone usage.
So they ask me questions like, are you truly enjoying what you’re doing right now? Or are you proud of how you are using your phone at this moment? They’re just little reminders of consciousness that pop up at random points in time between five to 10:00 PM to remind me that I have a choice here that has been extremely helpful for me to just get my mind back into these unconscious scrolling behaviors or binge-watching behaviors.
So that’s one, another one that I want to call it because I’ve been benefiting so much from co-working with people. So it’s an accountability system that I have right now where I spent five to six hours every day, either co-working with somebody in virtual spaces. And they’re amazing apps for that, like focus mate or inflow. These are great apps where you are partnered up with people in Zoom, like calls and you’re just coworking for an hour. It’s like your gym and you get a gym coach, but it’s for your mind and for your achievements. So it’s really, really helpful.
And I’ve been utilizing that by basically just setting up two workspaces in my home with desks that you can move up and down. And so people come over. I just schedule people for every single day and they come over and we could work together and I helped them be accountable for their work. And they helped me be accountable to my work so that I don’t have to rely solely on my willpower. And I think using each other in creating win-win situations is actually the most powerful tool we have in supporting our willpower.
Sean: That’s amazing. Now I really have to introduce you to a doctor who teaches at Superhuman, the science of peak productivity and performance class. That’s the name of the class it’s one of the filler classes now. Her and Luke have been teaching it for, I think, a little over two years and it’s always oversubscribed.
And one of the biggest things it teaches us is these focus sprints. So, I have on my Calendly, I don’t know if you noticed that when you booked the time there’s a focus front hour. So, if you are available, if you have a Calendly, I would love to do focus sprints with you.
Sini: Awesome. Yeah, that sounds great. Would love to do that. Yeah. Schedule something.
Sean: Sounds great. Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Sini. It’s been a real pleasure having you. Sini’s book is coming out this week. Make sure you check out the links in the description of this episode and thanks.