A quest to tame technology-driven interruptions and distractions in my daily life.

I’ve come to the conclusion that constant access to devices, the internet, and social media is not making us stupider… it’s making our stupidity more readily evident. Certainly, many are losing the mental agility to reason or to summon up things from their memory, but I’m talking more about fundamental world views, ideas about fellow man, etc.

How many times since the rise of Facebook, for instance, have you had a face-palm moment about a childhood friend or family member espousing an abhorrent religious-based or politically charged opinion? It’s so disappointing to discover that loved ones we assume are enlightened or at least tolerant are actually not only harboring hateful or self-serving/righteous views, but they are unashamed to proclaim them online.

I do think it is worth considering the merits of our lives and the internet reflections of our lives not becoming too silo’d. It is for that reason that I have put off unfriending or hiding the feeds of Facebook friends that “love the sinner, hate the sin” for instance or who border on racism with a vitriolic hatred of Barack Obama.

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This came to a head for me a few months back, when a cousin who lives a decidedly more country life than I, posted a photo of that Duck Dynasty fellow saying that she supported him. I was in bed sick, and not thinking all that clearly, but I was hurt and angered nonetheless. I commented, that I loved her and her family but that I supported both my brothers and my brother’s 20+ year partner, her sister, her sister’s longtime partner, our late aunt, and on and on – tagging them all. It was immature and punitive. I was pissed and wanted to call her out.

By the morning, she’d deleted the whole post with my comments, unfriended me and my brother’s partner, and posted a string of “marriage is one man and one woman” crap. I was incredulous as were many others in the family. I was called upon to make up and to make sure my aunt wasn’t angry. I just waited.

Before social media, texting, or even email, how would this have played out? I would have had to call or write her a letter to express my displeasure. My tone would have been much softer, if I had even spoken up at all. But of course, I would have likely never been privy to her views on the subject. Not only that, but she probably developed a lot of her views on Mr. Duck Dynasty and the idea that he was “expressing his faith” on social media.

I thought on this a lot. Especially as another cousin posted something vaguely bigoty a month or so later. While I do think it is important to speak up on the big issues that affect social views and our society, I also weigh this against the pointlessness of alienating those we wish to influence or enlighten. Had I not used Facebook to lob a flaming bag of shit into her post comments, she wouldn’t have shut down. What I should have done was to pick up the phone and told her that I loved her and that I know she loved our gay family members. Then we could have had a conversation rather than a pissing match.

About 4 months later, I emailed her an apology – not for disagreeing with her but for hiding behind the internet to embarrass her. She accepted my apology and her reasoning for the post was very telling and I am still trying to process it. She said that she was just trying to raise her kids according to the teaching of the bible. I am no biblical scholar, but I wonder where it says to forsake half a dozen family members in favor of a reality TV personality looking to drum up publicity.

She’ll probably never read this post, but if she does, I hope she knows that I respect her instinct to protect her family. And while I disagree with her viewpoint and hate that the Duck Dynasty post drove a wedge between us, I am thankful that it caused me to reflect on my own lazy habits. Trolling the internet and bullying people is just as ugly no matter what your agenda.

Lesson: sleep on it then pick up the phone. It might just change a mind and save a relationship.

This post goes out to Caroline Giegerich over at Daily Marauder, who like many of us is trying to live her life while sticking to her sense of propriety about values, autonomy, tech, and human decency.

We were recently commiserating about the professional and personal challenges of limiting one’s gadget usage, and the ability to access maps on the go was a shared complaint. While not looking at social media, internet searches, etc. are easy enough to do without, weaning oneself off of GPS is a bitch.

That said, this weekend in Dallas, I remembered a trick that I thought worth sharing. Without getting into the technical mumbo jumbo behind it, which would require me to Google the answer anyhow, the GPS location services on our phones use a combination of the (normally) always-on data plans and the wireless signals – the latter which uses triangulation of nearby cell towers.

In any case, as it turns out, the built-in Maps program (and perhaps others… I haven’t checked) work well enough with no data plan. Your mileage may vary, but here’s how it works for me:

The key is that you can’t interrupt the Maps app when you are en route. Under Settings, set the Auto-Lock to 5 minutes. Then make sure you touch your screen every few minutes so it doesn’t lock. Start your trip when you have an available wireless signal. If you are lost, find a library or coffee shop or someplace with free wi-fi and then open the app. Search for what you are looking for and then tap on Directions.

Now, just leave the app open and you can even zoom in to see roads you need to reference or turn on. Works like a charm provided you don’t try to search for a new spot or take a call or something.

Happy navigating!

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South by So Tempting

Every year in the middle of March, something interesting happens that is going on right now. Amidst my life and work and attempts to balance tech and real life, the South by Southwest (SXSW) 10+ day mega conference happens. And in the middle of that, my birthday happens.

If you are unfamiliar or have not experienced it, SXSW is like somebody kicked a huge ant-hill in central Austin, bringing out nearly 100,000 industry-players, innovators, marketers, artists, developers, free-gans, and wannabes for a seemingly never-ending churn of panels, parties, lounges, showcases, screenings, impromptu cafes and markets, and lots of activity in general.

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Except three years in high school, I’ve lived in Austin since 1980. The city has changed in innumerable ways, and SXSW is no exception. In the 25+ years since it started it has grown from a indie music festival with unsigned, unknown acts to what it is today: [insert your personal opinion here]. A lot of people have deep-rooted opinions about SXSW, but I see it as inevitable as change itself.

For a few years, I played in SXSW then began to avoid it… that is before we started our agency and clients near and far started hiring us specifically to help them make the most of the conference. Then I had to participate and I started to get into it. It’s an important source of springtime revenue for us and there are lots of fun ways to flex our creative muscles as well. This year, we have 6 clients participating in SXSW in dozens of shows and panels and booths.

However, in the context of The Off Switch, it can be tricky. With events and announcements happening day and night all over the city, there’s no plausible way to just disconnect for my own personal sense of balance. So I tend to bend or break the rules to participate in the requisite tweeting and email work that needs doing.

The funny thing about this sort of tech binging is that it inevitably reminds me of what can be so stimulating and fun about the constant connectedness. The big media coverage proliferates for the clients, the social media mentions multiply, inquiries and issues are coming in day and night and it gives me “yummies” for a lack of a better term. And inevitably, I’ll have to consciously pry myself away, even in the weeks following.

I wouldn’t call it a relapse exactly. It’s not as though I quit technology or something. But it is a fruitful exercise to remember the slippery slope. Technology is always there, always beeping and flashing and ready to appease me.

Which brings me to today: my birthday. I always take most of the day off and just sort of go where the wind takes me. It’s in the middle of mayhem and is very impractical, but I do it anyway. It’s a good reminder of how when we step out of the noise, things don’t implode and neither do we. Even though jumping into the fray is so easy. So tempting…

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Even less is even more

A few months back, I wrote a post called Less is More about the general state of my relationship to technology things, and how I was contemplating getting a laptop. The idea was that I would eliminate my desk entirely.

A month or so later, after officing with other people (at the company my wife and I founded) for about 7 years, I finally got my own office. In my prior shared office, I had a standing desk which I hunkered over even when standing and it accumulated paper, which I hate. So, I started to think about that was the absolute minimum I needed to work efficiently and in a relaxed posture. I considered a bunk bed with a lounger underneath, I bought and returned a fold-up desk, and even momentarily entertained the idea of hanging a hammock, but instead I settled on this:

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It’s the Mac Mini I had on a $30 shelf. It was fairly simple to install and doesn’t hold a thing… which is the whole point. If I had more to spend, I might even mount the monitor into the wall and tuck away the computer altogether. Having no desk is really liberating! Here’s the whole set up:

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The mouse and bluetooth keyboard (and my coffee) go on that little side table and when someone comes in to visit, I just pivot my chair and they sit on a guest chair. Then I’ve got a similar shelf just inside the door for my keys, phone, pens, and papers of the moment.

I’ve got to say, there really is something to doing away with the desk altogether combined with leaning back. It changes my whole frame of mind when I sit down to work. I don’t have my phone on me so there are few distractions or excuses. I’ve also managed to get back to 3-5 emails in my inbox, which is lovely.

Even though I had this set-up and was thoroughly enjoying it, I found myself checking the Apple Refurb site for lower cost MacBook Airs. I don’t know… just in case. Cut to Christmas Day, when I opened the gift from my wife expecting a shirt or something and it was a brand new MacBook Air. I was blown away and initially really excited. It was such a nice gift and so thoughtful. But as the hours and days passed, I began feeling a burden about it. What did I need a laptop for? Was I going to start carrying it around with me? Sure, it would be useful, but also work would always with me and the temptation to fall into it.

So, after an apology to my wife, I marched into the nearest Apple Store and returned it. And I felt a weight had been lifted. In the end, the gift my wife gave me was the gesture, a reminder about what I do and don’t need, and permission to go buy a few other things. And I am appreciating my minimal set up and lack of laptop more than ever.

I recommend rethinking and experimenting with your desk and technology in general. Do what works for you!

Three Years On

Three years ago, I posted my first entry here at The Off Switch as I endeavored to take back my autonomy from technology. In the many posts and years since, I’ve discovered a lot about myself. In most respects, the premise worked way better than I anticipated—bringing me peace and balance in ways I hadn’t imagined. But in others, my own bad habits have still found a way to pull me in.

When I think back to the summer of 2010, I can remember clearly my state of mind. Things were not going well in my life, and a common thread through my problems was a constant escape into my phone or laptop for work and for leisure. Running a small PR and design agency in a choppy economy with two dozen clients means that a few times a day, there’s a pressing matter for someone. And whether I got that message at 6:30a or 11:30p, I was apt to fall into the abyss.

The weeks that led to the changes first chronicled here are hazy, but I do remember a sense of excitement as I researched and pondered ways to cut way back. Previous to my business life, I was a dreamer who did a lot of camping and home recording. I was a person who that rejected cell phones and work norms, so I was as surprised as anyone that I gradually became one of the most wired people I knew. Perhaps that’s why I longed to get back to a place with more balance and less noise.

So, what can I say about the past three years that the intervening blog posts don’t already detail? Perhaps that it has been way easier and more rewarding than I thought. Also, many of the people closest to me are still agitated by the limits, probably because its an inconvenience to them. But it rarely interferes with work—or life. Honestly, while I’ve gotten accustomed to the few things I miss like GPS and the ability to check on an urgent thing… I still wish for them a lot of the time. And I know it would be easy to go back or even cede a few of the boundaries I’ve set. But I know that slippery slope would give way to tons of bad habits I want no part of. Plus, I enjoy the challenge.

One other thing. When I started all of this, I thought that maybe I’d lose some clients or other business opportunities as people in my line of work are expected to be always on. I was a little nervous, but ready. As it turns out, we’re busier than ever. While I can’t say that it’s because I’m more rested and balanced, I will say that I approach work most days ready to rumble and with some perspective. I think it’s because I’m not constantly on, but who knows.

As for how long I’ll continue, who is to say?! I generally tend to go against norm and stubbornly stay there, so this may be a permanent. Sure, I’ll get a newER phone when this one craps out and I may adapt my rules over time, but I don’t see myself ever giving in to all again. I like myself better when I’m not staring into a screen.

So, TTFN!

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A couple of weeks ago, my wife and five year old pushed off for a good-old-fashioned, week-long, family road trip vacation. True to form, I didn’t check work email and generally checked out. Here are the top five things I learned on my summer vacation.

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5. A road atlas gets you there quicker. There being on vacation—not in the destination sense but in the sense of the journey. With a web browser or smartphone app, we tend to get caught up on the quickest route to the destination and where we are right now, but with a paper map or atlas, it’s much more a matter or trusting the journey and letting go.

4. It’s hard to get away. Even though I delegated projects and gave others full authority to run the business while I was out, I only had 1 weekday where I didn’t get a work call or got text requests from my team. They knew I was off of email, but perhaps the temptation to just check with me on this or that was too great. Next time, I’m picking a place with absolutely no cell reception.

3. There’s no rush except the one we create. I generally spend my days in a hurry. I try to take it easy at home, but once I leave for the day, its all go go go. But when you’re putting across the country with a five year old, there’s only so fast you can go. Bathroom breaks, silly stops, wrong turns… it was an excellent reminder to enjoy the ride and to not pack so much in.

2. Be where you are. Similar to #3, without things to do and places to be, I re-learned how to just be wherever I was: IHOP. On a farm road in the panhandle. Wandering around Denver. Another IHOP. Certainly, not being online or at my computer helped me remember what it’s like to not be expected somewhere… and that’s part of the point of a vacation. Which leads me to…

1. You can’t get perspective if you’re 2 feet from a screen. And I need that kind of perspective a lot more than once a year. Although I realize a vacation is a commonly heralded ritual, it’d been a few years since we took one. I had forgotten a lot about myself and the world. And what I hadn’t forgotten, I’d exaggerated or willfully ignored. In other words, I haven’t been myself. I’ve been living to work. Even limited, the screens come between the me I see and the me I am at rest.

All in all, I got really relaxed and remembered what’s what. Next time I won’t wait so long.

Less is more

I am not is a state of Zen. Nor am I in a place of optimal productivity. But I’ve found a modicum of balance—and as a business owner with a wife and young kid… that seems like a big deal to me. When I started on this quest just under three years ago, technology wasn’t working for me. I was worn down and distracted and unable to escape the beeping and buzzing that defined my waking hours.

Cut to present day. I’m still far from what I would consider a model business owner. Or husband. Or dad. Or technology user. But I’m a lot closer to all of those things, and I feel pretty certain that The Off Switch has helped. A lot. And things are much better—and not just in a less distracted way. Marriage, fatherhood, business… all going very well.

Business has been perhaps the biggest surprise. Going in, I kinda thought that it would be the thing that might suffer by me shutting down at 6 and de-teching big parts of my day. It may well be a coincidence, but our best three years have coincided with my three years of The Off Switch. Hmmm.

So this brings me to my latest technology contemplation. We’re restricting things at the office, and I’m about to find myself in a smaller space, perhaps sharing with one more person. It’s a cozy little spot and when I think about working in there, I don’t imagine a desk at all. Instead, I envision a chair and a laptop. Maybe a shelf. That’s it.

Right now, my computing solution consists of an old iPhone with voice and text only, an iPad mini for meetings and leisure, and a Mac Mini at a standing desk in an office I share. The phone and tablet are serving my needs just fine, but the whole desk/computer situation feel… unnecessary. What I like about it is that it is just a workstation that stays at the office and serves a function with no ability to work on it elsewhere. What I don’t like about it is a) the desk is a place to accumulate paper and dirty coffee cups, b) the computer is a little pokey, and c) the whole posture of hunching over a keyboard and mouse feel feels really wrong.

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As usual, whether anybody is reading this or not, I’m using this blog to sort out my options. On one hand, I can just ditch the desk and put the Mac Mini on a shallow shelf or wall-mount set up and position it so I can sit however I please. That’s very inexpensive and there’s no temptation to try to take the computer home or out and about.

Which brings me to the other hand. I’ve been wondering about having my workspace be just a chair or two and a laptop with a side table or something to put a coffee on. Something like a little chatting nook. Of course, I would have to invest in a laptop (a refurb MacBook Air would run me $750) but that not a huge deal. The more troubling aspect of that plan is the ability to take the laptop away from the office—something I willfully gave up three years ago.

I can’t deny that being able to get a little work done on off hours would be really handy. The iPad can accomplish some basic tasks but has its limits—which I mostly enjoy. But to really get down and dirty on some tasks, I need a full computer. What I’m contemplating is: when it comes to the balance of tech… is less more?

What do you think?

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