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

Archive for October, 2010

Folding a Fitted Sheet

Exorcizing an abundance of gadgetry, connectivity, and bad tech habits from one’s life is about as tidy a proposition as folding a fitted sheet. As opposed to the relatively straightforward realization that the smartphone, the apps, the laptops, and the associated bother were taking away from my experience of life, the process of actually getting rid of them and transitioning to alternative modes has been long and tedious.

As detailed in other posts, I have navigated the treacherous waters of canceling my cell phone contract, selecting a month-to-month alternative, prepping and selling my iPhone on eBay, and identifying a suitable handset that would be easy to use but capable of being lobotomized appropriately. Selling the laptop was easy enough. 

It would have been much simpler had I just been getting rid of a cell phone or laptop altogether, but due to professional and personal obligations, it wasn’t that cut and dry – so there were still a lot of capabilities I wanted to maintain, even if modified, and it took a lot of research to sort it all out. Those include: ability to sync contacts/calendar/photos/music to a Mac, a QWERTY keyboard for texting, and some modicum of simplicity. For those interested, here’s what I switched from/to:

– iPhone 3GS => Nokia e71x
– AT&T 2-year contract with unlimited data => PureTalk USA unlimited voice/text only
– MacBook 13″ => iPad 3G (plan not activated) at home and for travel, iMac at the office

So, that’s the stuff. Certainly, the limitations inherent in each are meant to keep me honest, but really the whole shift in gadgets is a just catalyst as a part of a larger change the way I use technology, and the interruptions it causes in my thoughts and experiences.

Now that the transition is complete – with the things, at least- I feel tremendously relieved. Not just from the arduous task of the decisions and process outlined above, but from the near constant compulsion to check-in, update, synchronize, and to ‘knock out’ hundreds of little tasks per day at odd moments.

A friend pointed out that, along with distraction and escape, having the Internet in my pocket and a computer on my back was creating a lot of over-stimulation. The notion seemed almost absurd – if not quaint – when she first said it. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how right she was. 

With the onslaught of affordable and connected gadgets, social networks, and great web content, my life had become overtaken with what amounts to an amalgamation of the boob tube, video games, a stock ticker, and an overbearing gossipy friend. Not unlike a frog in a boiling pot, things had become unpleasant and so the process of unplugging and simplification has been really, really nice. 

It is hard to describe the changes in me. The difference is what I imagine in those who quit smoking or sober up. I feel more clear headed. I can concentrate better and connect more deeply. I feel infinitely more relaxed. Moreover, I often find myself deeply exhaling in the way one does after a good long sobbing session. 

But now that I’m becoming more acclimated to the sensations of relaxation and focus, my mind and soul are revisiting thoughts and memories and sensations that have been long forsaken. Whereas before, an unoccupied moment would be seized as an opportunity to pull out my phone to do something digital, I now observe my surroundings, reflect on the past, or just breathe. Not saying that I’m Mr. Zen all of the sudden, but by comparison I do feel like I’m transported to 5 or 10 years ago before all of this mess took over.

This weekend, I visited my brother in New Orleans in celebration of his 50th birthday. It’s a city I’ve visited 15-20 times before in college and on various road trips, and this time I found myself reflecting on those experiences and really taking in my environment. It was my first chance since all of these changes to get out of my routine to just discover and also to unwind. My reward was a interwoven sequence of long meals, lively conversation, and some extended ganders at architecture and people. It’s the sort of stuff I would have thought I was doing before, but this time I was in it.

So good.          

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Right-sizing my gear

In the past couple of weeks, i have decommissioned my iPhone – switching to a lobotomized Nokia e71x – and sold my laptop after transferring everything to a spare iMac at the office. This is the first time in 3 years I haven’t had email/web on the go and the first time in a decade I haven’t had a laptop.

A couple of days after I sold the laptop, I made the final purchase to complete the planned transition. I got an iPad. While it might seem counter-intuitive to buy the latest, snazziest gadget from Apple in an effort to downgrade and simplify… allow me to explain my thinking.

First, this whole life-change is not about being anti-technology. It’s about being anti-inqterruptqion, anti-distraction, and anti-sucked into work 24/7. Leaving the major computing on my desk and getting other computing out of my pocket were the first parts of that – leaving me in need of a solution for a thing on which to enjoy leisure music/video/web/reading and for those times that i did want or need to write or correspond away from my desk. Again: not ever-present and buzzing in my pocket, but available when I please and also something i can leave behind.

So far, so good. I will admit that the iPad is a seductive little gadget, but it’s keyboard-less and uni-tasking nature make it a great little casual content machine as well as a helluva simple writing or corresponding tool. In fact, I’m writing this post on it right now. I found a slim fold-up stand and got a Bluetooth keyboard for longer sessions, which have already proven themselves handy when i want to steal away and focus.

The main impulses I’m fighting one week in are 1) to grab it or the bag/accessories on my way-out the door and 2) turning it on to “just check in” the way I did with the iPhone. Both are bad habits in the making, so I am being extra aware. The other slippery slope is reading in bed. It breaks my rule of no Internet gadgets an hour before/after sleeping, but i have begun to wonder if I can just turn off the wifi or just not do web stuffs with a similar effect. I suppose it boils down to whether i feel that the issue is the fragmentation of my consciousness or more generally over-stimulation. I’ll sort it out.

Remaining to do are to jailbreak my iPhone so i can fetch a better price and transferring off of AT&T to the month-to-month Pure TalkUSA deal I got. It is a tricky thing since I want to keep my number, not be penalized by AT&T for jumping ship, and I need to have up to a 72 hour block of time for the number to move over. Tricky.

All in all, it has been lovely so far. Honestly, i feel like I’m on a permanent vacation. I feel much less stressed and preoccupied. Moreover, I no longer feel the burden of having the Internet, email, and dozens of apps and countless files strapped to me at all times like a bomb. I wouldn’t go so far as to say “euphoric” but definitely unencumbered.

I recognize that many of these changes were perhaps more about discipline than the actual tools, but I have also seen in myself a compulsion to push the feeder pellet – and am dedicated to making it hard to waste countless moments in that way. The whole process has me looking at my life in a renewed way, asking: what else is frivolous? More on the next set of changes soon.

Hint: I’m hyper-localizing my work day.

The opposite of the intended effect

Today, I experienced what might be called a backlash to The Off Switch—not this blog, per se, but the general premise of being connected less. While there was no actual damage done from my intention to be out of touch, I am finding that merely the notion that I might choose to be unavailable by email has negative connotations.

If you don’t know, my wife and I own and run a small agency which offers branding, design, social media, and public relations services. We have about 25 – 30 clients at any given time and personally, I send about 120 emails a day —several times that if you consider press releases that go out to 200 – 500 media outlets at a time. The lion’s share of that correspondence happens 9 to 5 and the nature is just moving along projects with clients, media contacts, vendors, freelancers, co-workers, etc.

All to say that very little of what we do is terribly time-sensitive. I’d say 95% of people need a response within a few days and the remainder need a reply within a 1/2 day – although some things do beg for a quicker response. That being the case and having not used my iPhone to check messages for several weeks prior to  completely decommissioning it Saturday, I had begun using the following message below my outgoing email signature:

NOTE: As part of a quest to tame technology-driven interruptions and distractions in my daily life, I am checking email less frequently. To reach me with urgent matters, you may call/text me at the cell number above or email 5124504395@txt.att.net – Follow my progress at https://theoffswitch.wordpress.com

I thought it was a simple way to let people know that urgent matters should be redirected and to let them in on my little project. I thought wrong. This afternoon, one longtime and very supportive client called to say that it sent the wrong message. Whereas I believed I was offering clients a more present, less distracted, better me… this client felt that I was broadcasting my indifference to communications and was putting myself at a disadvantage. This was a sobering, but much appreciated message as I had truly not intended to have clients or anyone else feel that way. Ugh.

Call it an idealistic notion, but what I had hoped is that colleagues would see that by fragmenting my time and attention less in meetings, during tasks, en route, and while at rest… everybody would benefit—including them. For instance, during a meeting, each person will get a me that arrives rested and centered and ready to focus on the task at hand. I will not be checking messages or thinking about the email I will write when I walk out of the room. Similarly, emails to them won’t be written with one hand at a stop light or in line at the grocery store. Sure—this might also mean that a reply comes an hour or two later, but it seemed like a good trade-0ff to me.

I thought about this a lot today and a good bit in the preceding weeks. As someone who works primarily by email, I considered the ramifications of these changes to my workflow, to my clients, and to my reputation. At its core, I think the tension of ideas here is the sense that effective PR, social media, and client service comes from agile response—that the value we offer clients is the always-on connectivity to people, networks, and news. In actuality, that is only partially true. Yes, we must be attuned to these things to be informed of the people and trends that make it all work, but in the absence of deeper connections and ideas, being connected and quick are ultimately meaningless. Ultimately, what we offer the marketplace is the ability to identify an emotional connection with something and then to tell that story in a compelling way. Doing it very quickly is not all that essential.

When I see someone in a limousine, I say to myself, “hey, that person had $150 to blow.” It’s not that they are rich or important—they just rented a limo. The same is true for people with smart phones or bluetooth earpieces or iPads or whatever. The gadgets don’t make them better at their jobs—not unless they are stock brokers or delivering donated organs for a living. If it adds something to your work-style or just makes life easier or more convenient—great. It no longer did for me, but that it not a statement on anyone else. Ultimately, breaking the perceptions around my own smartphone usage may well prove to be a challenge.

At the end of the day, what I’ve learned is that it is one thing to make a change and to have solid reasoning for that change, but it is another matter entirely to broadcast that change out into the world. I’ll have to keep in mind that people may well take offense. Although this shift is entirely personal, it is inevitable that people in my personal and professional lives might take it as a statement about them or our relationship to one another.

In closing, work colleagues should know that I will be just as available for time-sensitive and urgent needs as before. If there’s a PR crisis or if you just get pinned under an armoire, call me or text. Alternately, you can shine the Wyatt Brand beacon in the sky and we’ll be there. And when I arrive, you can take comfort in knowing that I’m gonna really be there. Totally there. Totally.