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

Archive for September, 2010

Now 85% less douchey!

About  a month in and it’s been a mixed bag of experiences—some delightful, some vexing, and some downright perplexing. Now that I’ve made peace with the quagmire that is switching carriers and downgrading one’s phone mid-contract, the main challenge lately seems to be breaking old habits and forming new ones. Then there’s the realizations that come when awaking from an extended slumber, but more on that in a bit.

I have to confess, over the past few years, I have fallen prey to many of the nasty cell phone habits that I once criticized in others—and still find distasteful even though I was doing them myself. Some of these are:

  • Checking email/apps at stop lights
  • Checking email/apps in meetings
  • Placing calls inside of businesses
  • Reading a text while driving
  • Compulsively checking work things when I was away from work
  • Putting my phone on the table at meetings

Much like going to a bar sober, now that I’ve stopped, I’ve realized how much all of these sorts of behaviors have become commonplace and how odd they are. When we fidget with our gadgets in the presence of others, we are essentially saying “your presence, time, and the attention I am devoting to both are less important than what is happening on my phone.” I am now seeing it as an extension of the axiom that to arrive late to a meeting is to say that your time is more valuable than the other person’s—spending time on your phone while meeting with others is like standing in the doorway most of the time.

So, although I am genuinely not judging others for their habits, I can report that aside from feeling more present and appreciative of my experiences, I have felt about 85% less douchey. A few years ago, being on one’s cell phone all the time was sort of a jack-ass move unless you were a stock broker or delivered organs for a living. But these days, it’s just sort of accepted. Although I participated, I never really accepted it in myself and am happy to be paring way back.

I also admit that breaking these old habits is a process and there are relapses. I’ll soon be iPhone-less, which will help, but intermittent phone/email/social media checking has become such a part of my day, that I am having to relearn how to be on a computer—and how to be off the computer. I am also having to think ahead and how to remember little things and so much more. For me, the most difficult time to not check email is during work hours when I am away from my desk. The longer I am away from email, the more my anxiety grows, and the more I am submerged in this sense that the work-day is getting away from me or that an unanswered message is going to ruin everything. Of course, this is total bullshit. What I ultimately remind myself is that the compulsion to push the feeder pellet is about the endorphins, not about being productive or responsive, etc.

The flip side of the withdrawal symptoms are the many rewards, which are so positive and often quite profound. When I have a good day (where I stick to my rules and don’t cave to external or internal pressures) the perks are many. While I joke that this process is a “downgrade,” it’s actually the opposite. Daily, I am actively and enthusiastically working on  reclaiming things that had seemingly gone the way of the mimeograph:

  • Patience
  • Memory
  • Unoccupied moments
  • Eye contact
  • Conversation
  • Solitude
  • Anticipation
  • Problem solving/logic
  • Planning ahead
  • Following your nose
  • Courtesy

For me, each of these is inherently worthy and a personally rewarding pursuit. I already recognize that others don’t share my view, don’t care, are annoyed, etc. Some people are enthused and supportive, but others seem eager to poke holes in my plan. Fine by me. I am happier and more whole than I have felt in ages. Hopefully I won’t take this to the point where I’m the guy with the recumbent bike and a fanny pack with a rat tail and camping shorts, but if it makes for a more fulfilling and meaningful life, I’ll take it.

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Getting off the AT&Teet

Once I had made the decision to give up the iPhone, my next task was to choose a suitable dumbphone. It seemed easy enough: sell the iPhone on eBay to the considerable market of domestic and international buyers who will pay $500+ for an unlocked/jailbroken phone to use on any network, choose a new AT&T phone that was cheap-to-free, and pocket the difference. Unfortunately, I fully thought out my remainder of the service carrier’s subsidy.

For those of you not hip to the concept, the retail price of an iPhone is like $599, could you buy it with no contract with AT&T. To make it the much more attractive price of $199, AT&T and Apple “subsidize” the cost by making that money back over the course of a two-year contract through their steep and required monthly fees. You see, in addition to the voice plans that the vast majority of carriers require as part of their service—and a text plan—AT&T requires that all smartphone users have a data plan.

For me, this meant a couple of things: there would be no way to keep my iPhone but cut the data (there are tricks but AT&T seems to find out eventually) and there are very few phones they offer that I would want that aren’t considered smartphones. After a bunch of research into the features and reviews of phones that were free or cheap, could play music, and have a decent camera (since I didn’t intend to start stuffing an iPod or camera back into my pockets), I discovered from a string of emails to customer support, that if I wanted some manner of a QWERTY keyboard, but didn’t want data, I was looking for what they call a Quick Messaging phone.

Why do I “need” such a phone? A couple of reasons. First, I’m married and I have a toddler—with type 1 diabetes. So, on top of the general “where are  you” and “I need XYZ” sort of requests that are common in a household, we rely on text messages to communicate blood sugar levels, insulin dosage, and other time-sensitive actions to each other and to teachers/babysitters day and night. It’s really the most practical way to get the information across. I remember what texting on a 12-key phone is like, and it will not suffice. It’s not a matter of it being intuitive or easy, it is a matter of being able to quickly get the information across while half-asleep, in meetings, etc.

So I was looking for a phone with AT&T to meet my requirements but my initial customer support emails were misleading and had some misinformation in them. As it turns out, I haven’t completed my obligation to AT&T and it would be until February 2011 until I could just walk away. After a few more emails and clenched fists, I discovered that I would only owe them about $100 whether I chose another of their phones with a new 2-year contract or if I exited the contract with a penalty.

In the end, I have decided to get out of the contract game entirely. I don’t want to be in this situation down the road and since I no longer want or need space-age technology in a phone, I can afford to just buy a cheap phone outright and pay for service month to month.

This has been another good downgrade decision. When you choose the iPhone, your sphere of options goes from the seemingly infinite to about 2: color and capacity. Alternately, when you start considering all the other phones out there—even just the Quick Messaging ones on AT&T, there are tons of choices and none of them all that great. Lesser cameras, lesser music players, lesser interfaces, and none of them especially compatible with contacts, calendars, and iTunes. Before I decided to get off of AT&T, I had selected a Samsung Solstice which has a touch screen, the basic alarm and calculator programs I need for diabetes management, and is relatively small and cheap (with the subsidy). I trotted down to the AT&T store a couple of times to try it out and scope out accessories and everything.

When I was researching and pondering the viability of sneaking the iPhone past AT&T with no data plan (a process involving putting your SIM card into a lesser phone, activating it, then switching it back until they notice), I discovered a phone carrier called PureTalk USA, which apparently is owned by AT&T but does month to month service with only voice and text. It’s cheap (unlimited plans are $39) and they have a super limited set of phones from which to choose. They have one with a QWERTY keyboard that can also sync contacts and calendar events to a Mac. Done and done!

So that’s it. I’m ordering a Samsung Propel this week, porting over my existing number, and picking up a couple of accessories like a thing to convert their silly proprietary headphone jack to a regular one, and maybe a case. I’ll sell my iPhone for like $500 on eBay to some unsavory character and be done with it. I’m sure my new phone will be a nuisance and hard to use, but that is sort of the point. Whether I desire it or not, I need something I won’t be compelled to fiddle with at every available moment. I just want a crumby phone again. Can’t wait!

Distraction—there’s an app for that.

When I got my first iPhone (also my first smartphone) in December of 2007, I texted my brother who had sprung for one a few months earlier when they first became available. His response was “Welcome to life after iPhone.” Was he ever right.

As I’ve been researching the best “dumbphone” for my needs (and I’ll explain those in the next post), I’ve been reflecting on my love affair with the iPhone and why it is so hard to find a replacement. Being an Apple cultist, I knew I was going to get one eventually, even though it was spendy and the monthly bill is a lot, and I’d been anti-smartphone prior. I was taking the wait-and-see approach when my wife and stepmom actually gave me one. And I was instantly obsessed.

At first, it was delightful. A little slice of the always-on internet in my pocket. And the timing was perfect. We had a new business and I enjoyed the get in/get out convenience of on-the-go correspondence and the all in one media device abilities. What’s more, we had a new baby and I was spending a lot of hours strolling and rocking, and the iPhone gave me lots of ways to entertain myself and knock out little tasks.

Like a frog in a boiling pot, what I didn’t realize was how much it slowly took over my time and my mind as I allowed it to slowly take power over me. At first, it was a handy out and about map or a factoid finder—but slowly it was a compulsion to look up every passing musing or just goof around. Then the apps came and suddenly it was not only email I felt the need to check and knock out, it was Facebook and Twitter and RSS feeds and App updates and then Gowalla and so forth.

Following a series of aggravating emails ill-advisedly checked at bedtime, I started shutting off work email upon leaving the office. But as I started pondering this whole ‘off switch’ idea, I could no longer make sense of the ‘need’ to have this little distraction machine on my person any longer. For me, it is time to downgrade.

This was an easy decision to make actually. What hasn’t been so easy has been my test of neutering my iPhone to see what the disconnect is like. Under the General > Network settings of my iPhone, I switched off Cellular Data about a week ago. That still gives me everything on my phone but any apps that require internet/data connectivity when I’m not near wi-fi no longer work.

The really good thing is that this eliminates like 90% of the excuses for me to look at my phone. The bad thing is that things like maps, referencing emails on the go, and looking up things like phone numbers, etc. also off limits. When I got an iPhone, I stopped planning in advance. All to say that it was an important realization and an adjustment.

But there has been no shakes or vomiting yet. I am still using my iPhone until I can make the switch off (which has been more complicated than I thought) although I use it very little now. I even considered a scenario wherein I ditched AT&T but kept my iPhone using a service like PureTalk USA for just voice and texting. This would castrate my phone most of the time but would make it fully functional when in wi-fi zones. Not only did I decide that this sort of defeated the purpose (even though it would have been vastly cheaper than AT&T’s required data plans for smartphones), I wanted the sale of my iPhone to underwrite the new phone’s hardware as well as an iPad. More on that in the next post.

So, this is my eulogy to the iPhone. It has been fun… a little too fun. I’m bidding a farewell to the squinternet, and happily so. Just as I did with video games around 2000, I’m sending my iPhone packing because it is taking away from my experience of life. There’s just no denying it any longer.

The early effects

Although this whole tech-life downgrade/simplification concept has been brewing for a few months, I’ve really only been practicing it for about a week when I started this blog and came up with some ground rules for myself. I’ve got to say, I have been pleasantly surprised with how immediately and extensively the changes have sunken in to all aspects of my awareness, continuity of thoughts, and just overall feeling. It’s really quite astonishing.

There are many planned alterations that have not yet happened—such as ditching the smartphone and trading the laptop for an iPad—but what I noticed immediately is that the new habits and the intention to pull away from the ever-present connectedness has been an excellent awakening for me. In as many ways as technology was permeating my life at every turn, reclaiming my mind and time has affected my day in countless ways. A few examples:

  • I hadn’t realized how much the constant, intermittent use of technology throughout my day was complicit in me becoming increasingly more anxious, less patient, distracted, less creative, irritable, aggressive, selfish, less courteous, etc. Conversely, by corralling technology into planned times and places, I will go a few hours without checking in and it is like a breath of fresh air. I feel more content and aware.
  • Often, I will pull my phone (still have my iPhone until I can downgrade) out of my pocket and turn it on before I realize what I’m doing. It’s pure muscle memory. Now, I just laugh at myself and turn it off again.
  • I am much more productive. Still getting oriented in this new direction and still shrugging off bad habits, but by abstaining from social media and addressing sets of tasks like writing and email correspondence all at once, I save all that time and energy I had been putting toward jumping around.
  • Two of the biggest changes have been no internet the hour before/after bed and turning off work email when I leave. I hadn’t realized how I had been allowing aggravating emails or stressful correspondence to have such power over me at all hours. By keeping those emails in their place, I also keep many of the work emotions in their place as well. I also have been enjoying forgotten joys like reading magazines and watching a train go by.
  • By paring back on social media posting (and all the reading of posts), I find myself just sort of contemplating thoughts and keeping a lot of notions to myself whereas before I was rushing to share them for the gratification of feedback. Being in my thoughts is a lot more fun.

Those are just a few. Overall, I feel more relaxed, less in a hurry, and more present. That’s not to say that I don’t struggle with the distractions, escape, and temptations of clicking here and tapping there when I have a pause.The difference is that now I’ve made the decision to set this bigger goal for myself, I am constantly reminded to stay centered and to avoid reaching for the shiny, candy-like button all the time.

Feels good.

Initial ground rules and modifications

For me to start changing my behavior and many habits regarding the internet and—until I replace it—my smartphone, I needed to lay down some initial ground rules for myself. These parameters are a daily work in progress, but have shaped up as follows in practice. I’m interested to hear your suggestions in the comments.

Internet/Computer/Phone Use

  1. No using internet or computing/communication devices within an hour of waking up or an hour before going to sleep.
  2. Turn off work email (take offline or disable account) when leaving the office and leave off until returning to desk in the morning. If deadlines dictate an evening email session, turn it back on only long enough to respond to time sensitive emails.
  3. No checking phone while driving, stopped, walking or waiting. Only answer calls when driving if needed and check voicemail/texts only at intervals.
  4. When at home, office, and driving, take phone out of my pocket and ignore.
  5. When eating, meeting, or otherwise connecting with a human, do not use phone whatsoever.
  6. Never place the phone on the table—especially during meetings.
  7. Limit social media postings to 2-3 times per day. When posting, get in and get out (close apps/tabs), resisting the urge to scroll through and read posts or click on content.
  8. Instead of posting to social media or messaging passing thoughts, wait and see what still seems worth sharing when next having a social media or email session.
  9. Group types of online tasks: processing email, reading news sites, calls, work projects, personal TCB. Practice “uni-tasking.”
  10. When thinking of non-urgent communications after hours, email them to myself or save a draft and send during work hours in consideration of others.

Starter Settings

  1. On phone and on the computer, turn off notifications, badges (the number counter of messages), and sounds.
  2. Set default home page on browser to a calming image on the web—currently a Zen rock garden.
  3. Always turn off work email at night, weekends, and vacations. Make it hard for yourself to check those messages.
  4. When reading articles online (using the Safari browser), use the Reader function whenever available to reduce distractions.
  5. Instead of getting onto social media sites and being sucked into all the diversions there, install a Facebook or Twitter bookmarklet on your browser, which allows you to share websites quickly and simply.

In researching my final two selections of dumbphone, I am finding that I will have to do a lot of configuration to properly disable data features. The research alone has been intense and I’m finding out that most AT&T phones require a data plan. Sheesh!

Yes, but…

After sharing this blog and first entry with friends, I got a positive response, but also skepticism as to whether or not I was on the right path. A few friends pointed to the blog or iPad ideas as antithetical. Fair points.

But, to clarify, I am not anti-technology or anti-internet. This blog and iPad plan present no philosophical conflict for me whatsoever. What I’m rejecting is the 100+ micro-distractions that various pings, notices, buzzes, and compulsive check-ins cause for me per day and the mental/emotional tangents they send me on.

With no computer at home and a business that requires email correspondence, a lot of typing, and web access (public relations and business development for our branding/design work), I will need some sort of computational device. We run our own business and have a child with diabetes, so I am not in my office or at my computer 9-5 or even the minimum number of hours needed to do my regular work. Since I am getting rid of my smart phone, I really do need something to send the 75-100 emails per day for client and media correspondence and to write press releases, etc. Right now, the iPad makes the most sense in terms of configuration time, size/cost, distractions, and the ability to be out in the world. But I am totally open to other suggestions.

As for this blog, I think documenting my effort and experience is worthwhile—as is sharing it and hearing critical feedback. So, that’s where I’m at.

Finding the off switch—and using it.

Professionally speaking, I came of age with the mass-adoption of email, instant messaging, e-commerce, and the explosion of the internet. It was around 1997, and my first office job was a dot com—a place with myriad opportunities for a young person with common sense, a modest amount of ambition, and willingness to try their hand at anything that was thrown at them technologically. From that point on, professional communication in my life was like stepping onto a moving sidewalk. I was plodding along, then off I went. I picked up email etiquette, IM’d with co-workers and colleagues, and learned how to generally do business without picking up the phone or having a meeting.

Innovations came quickly and the office culture was simply to keep up. There was no such thing as a reasonable workload. After the dot com implosion, I went to work for the Austin Symphony where my modest hardware and software skills were put to good use. I moved into the PR department where I was suddenly communicating with hundreds of journalists at a time and I was asked to start carrying a company cell phone. I was so vehemently against it and insisted on pulling over to talk on it and powering it off when I clocked out. At the same time, I bought my first laptop for personal use and was having fun learning about its many uses and ways to be productive and creative away from my desk.

At my next job—Austin Museum of Art—cell phones were a must and I was issued a PDA – meant to simplify task management and give order to the chaos of tasks and priorities. Email in the workplace was 10 years on by then. The intensity and expectations surrounding the amount, meaning, and reply-time was gaining serious momentum. I started realizing then that one’s capacity to take on work is like a goldfish and technology was like a pond. The bigger the pond, the bigger the goldfish grows.

Then smart phones and social networks went mainstream about the same time my wife and I started our own company and had a baby. It was a perfect storm for constantly being in touch

I was never really interested in reading and responding to email on a mobile device until the iPhone came along. As a self-professed Apple product fanatic, I felt I had to have one—and as a new business owner, it seemed like a logical investment. It quickly became habit forming to have the internet and email in my pocket and I found myself checking on random musings and interrupting conversations with this new toy. I recognized that it was creeping up on me, but found myself unable to stop the compulsion. We started off working from home and whether the baby was sleeping on my chest or I was pushing the stroller, I began the bad habit of knocking out tasks or getting leisure moments in 30 second to 2 minute increments as I had them.

Cut to present day. Smart phones are everywhere. In meetings, they are placed on the table like revolvers in a saloon. After meetings, people stare into them like crystal balls. They are a futuristic Swiss Army Knife of adaptable goodness: music player, camera, calculator, day planner, and on and on. What a couple of years ago were a luxury have become—at least among my friends and colleagues—a must-have possession, much like a car or computer or refrigerator. Constant use is not only accepted. It is expected.

In recent months, I have started facing up to the growing realization that my iPhone, my laptop, Facebook/Twitter, nighttime email sessions, and stuck-in-traffic news checks and text messages… they are not making me any more connected or productive or informed or synchronized. What I’ve been forced to admit—for me, anyhow—is that these are lies I tell myself in order to keep up and to rationalize what has essentially become a socially acceptable compulsion. All of these intuitive and affordable mechanisms have burrowed their way into my life and become a big never-ending stream of distractions. And it is having a cumulative effect.

Now that I have really stopped to examine it, I see that—slowly but steadily—hundreds of daily interruptions have invaded my thoughts, my conversations, meetings, walks, meals, sleep, quiet moments, 60-second waits in the grocery store, days off, etc. Every offline action seems to have an online connotation—something I feel urgently compelled to post, research, bookmark, or categorize. I find myself thinking in emails or status updates. And I feel anxious and irritated if I go too long without it. It’s madness and I’ve decided that it must stop. I have made a decision to find the off switch and to learn the how to use it.

This has nothing to do with the technology per se. I think innovation is important and I find it fascinating and generally helpful. But to preserve my psyche and the quality of my days, I have made a decision to curb my access to all of it. Here’s how I intend to do begin:

  • I’m selling my iPhone and getting a free “dumbphone” that will call, text, and that’s about it. No data plan. No internet-enabled apps. I would forego texting as well, but we have a child (with type 1 diabetes) and it is a necessity.
  • I’m getting rid of my ever-present laptop. In it’s place, I am switching to a desktop that can stay where a computer belongs: on my desk at the office.
  • I’m vowing to email less and call more and meet face-to-face when possible. We waste a lot of time trying to delegate, get answers, and convey meaning when email is really an ill-suited medium.
  • I’m leaving work at work. That won’t and can’t be absolute, but I have already achieved partial nirvana by turning off work email when I leave the office and not turning it on again until I get back in the morning. I may do a little burst in the evening, but I’m confident I can cut that on most nights.
  • Social networks will continue to be a function of work, but I’m cutting back personally. I’ve realized that it had become a form of channel-surfing. It’s a rabbit hole that I am going to approach with caution.
  • Finally, I’m getting an iPad. This one may seem counter-intuitive. Why get the latest gadget if gadgets are bad? My reasoning is that I want something for home, trips and coffee shops that let’s me “uni-task” simply and quickly. I’m going to limit the apps and will enforce my new rules regarding work emails and am keeping it off an hour before and after bed. The main thing is that I can leave it behind whereas I need the phone on me.

Will it be enough? Will I be able to do it without the shakes? I don’t know. But one thing I’m sure of is that where I was headed before is a place I don’t want to go. I intend to reclaim my mind, my autonomy, and my unoccupied moments. While I don’t plan to become a Quaker or even a luddite, I am going to simplify.

This is not a temporary experiment. It is a way to chronicle and examine my decision to side-step the go go go pace I had created for myself in favor of a manageable pile. Starting now, I am making time for books, albums, friends, nature, and many many unoccupied moments. Thanks for reading!

Note: When mentioning the idea to friends, I have already heard a good bit of skepticism and “wait, but…” which I can understand. I have been a very plugged-in early adopter or and even eager advocate of technology. Also, keeping a blog and doing things like linking that to social media may seem—on the surface—like counterintuitive decisions. Why not just keep a written journal and share it with nobody? My reasoning right now is that as much as I see the pervasiveness of always-on technology, I have to assume that others are feeling the same way as me. In sharing my experience, my hope is that others might help me find a better way and that this might encourage them to consider the merits of paring back as well. My challenge will be automating re-posts and posting within my self-imposed rules. We’ll see.