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

There’s something that’s really been bothering me and I need to get it off my chest. And let me preface this by saying that I don’t think this is particular to me and my idiosyncratic, self-imposed tech boundaries. This seems to me to be a matter of basic manners, once you give it some thought.

In the world of professional (and possibly personal) communications, there’s some new conventional wisdom that goes something like this: if an email gets too long, pick up the phone. Or: if you’re emailing something you wouldn’t say in person, don’t email it, call or meet. Today, I want to add one: texting is not an appropriate mode of communication for contentious or stressful messages.

Think about it. Someone calls you, and you’ve got the opportunity to let it go to voicemail or to answer it depending on if you want to have that conversation. Someone emails you and you choose when you are on email and if you want to read that email right then. But someone texts you and BOOM you are reading the message. It’s just the nature of texts. Ready or not, they pop up and tell you what they are.

SO USE THAT PRIVILEGE SPARINGLY AND THOUGHTFULLY.

Most sensible people wouldn’t just burst into a room or but into a conversation to start telling you a bunch of stressful shit. Rather, the thing to do is to say, “hey, is this a good time?” or “let me know when you can talk about something.” This involves about 20 more seconds of your time, but saves the recipient the moment-derailing interruption should they not care to hear about it.

Meanwhile, even though texting is a way my wife and I communicate about childcare and his diabetes management during the day, I’m strongly considering trying to alter my text app settings to filter out work messages or to have them not pop up. Either that or I’m going to have to stop giving our my cell phone. Because it seems like what should be common sense has become a blurred line.

After all, why wait for a reply to an email when you can just text and get the answer right this very second.

Yesterday, I went over to Google News for my daily perusal to find that the top story was “‘Handsome’ mug shot of California felon goes viral”. The top story. This punctuated a sense that I need to find a new way to get my news.

It is a troubling trend, the Buzzfeeding of our information. It seems that in the past several years, our appetite for longer form news or even short form news of substance has diminished to the point where we half pay attention to animated gifs and top lists, giving them our precious clicks/taps, which tells advertisers and editors that this is what we want: crap. Seth Godin tied a bow on it in his blog post this week: In Search of Meaningful.

For all the reasons Godin points out, it makes sense how this has happened. But I am left contemplating what will be the longterm outcome. Sometimes I feel like a majority under 50 or so are lost to their smartphones, to Facebook, and to junk news. Gazing, sharing, up-voting, re-playing, and on and on. We’re losing our sense of perspective, hierarchy, and even of factuality. The result seems to be that we all amble around knowing the trending viral videos and sensational headlines of the day, but not the news or even what’s based in verified reporting.

As with most things, I try to focus on what I can do rather on what others can’t. Like the movie Idiocracy, is coming true and it is frightening. So I’m working to change my settings.

What I want is less news, less of the time, and only news that actually matters. It seems as though even the newspapers of the highest standards have turned their websites into the content equivalent of KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut combos. Most days I read my city’s paper on the iPad… the print layout digitally. At least this saves me from the bulk of the junk that fills most news sites. But I do want other perspectives. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for a new news portal that isn’t all celebrity gossip and click-bait.

And for my part, I’ve stopped clicking on the crap. It may be fighting the tide, but at the least it spares me the inanity.

One of the more challenging, thusly rewarding, parts of The Off Switch is when a contentious communication happens right before I leave work. Since I turn off work email everywhere when I leave the office for the day, I just have to wait and wonder until the morning when I get back to the office.

Of course, that is exactly what everybody did before email and before smartphones especially. We all turned if off and while we may have gone over it in our heads, there was no action. Cut to now: while I may shut down, others don’t and so I am left wondering what I will awake to in the morning.

Like many Buddhist-ish pursuits, a discipline such as limiting technology is its own reward. While I still may be mulling a response in my head, I am not sending it. I’m looking into the face of my child, reading news, and otherwise not being hasty. And that’s good.

For me, it is an exercise in knowing what I can control and what I cannot. It also circumvents expending a bunch of time and energy that are ultimately fruitless.

Incommunicado…

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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!

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