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

Archive for December, 2010

Stop the Insanity

Remember Susan Powter—the little spitfire of a woman with spiky platinum blonde hair who proselytized fitness and sensible portions? Well, I am hijacking her catch phrase: Stop the insanity!

I entered the office sector of the workforce in 1998 or so. This was right after colleges were requiring email accounts and innovations like instant messaging and e-commerce were hitting big. I had made the leap from food service to a dot com start up and I didn’t so much as know how to send a fax. You’d think that there would have been an insane pressure to keep up and communicate, but that was not yet a part of the general work culture. That would come later. But my point is that I can still remember a time when work was done 9-5 on weekdays. Getting or making a personal call at work was a major embarrassment. And with the exception of special occasions, no one but stock brokers, doctors, and maybe sales people were expected to carry or answer a cell phone on personal time. Your time was your time.

With the rapid acceleration of technology that’s cheaper, faster, and better… every professional industry from nonprofits to enterprises have hopped onto the manic treadmill of endless workloads and limitless communication for the sake of efficiency, productivity, and keeping up with the competition. I can remember the frog-in-a-boing-pot transition and we were all complicit. Employers piled digital duties onto our analog ones and we went along with it—either for job security or to round out our personal skill sets. In any case, I think we gave up something we shouldn’t have and I can see that it is going to be difficult to dial it back.

After 7 years in the world of arts organizations where everyone gets half a wage to wear 3 hats and is thankful for the chance to do so, my wife and I started our own business doing PR and design here in Austin. In my experience, when you start your own business, you are willing to give it 22 hours a day because 1) you want to see your fledgling venture succeed and 2) you’d do just about anything to not have to work for someone else again. For the past nearly-five years, this has definitely been the case with me.

I’ve given up almost every bit of free time and personal pursuits and in their place, I have spent building the business. When client and administrative work was done, there is always new business development, promoting the company, or tweaking existing work. Having your own venture is particularly seductive because it is completely rational and justified to put in the extra hours. But eventually, you have to ask yourself “at what cost?”

I think central to this mutually agreed-upon insanity that most of us participate in is the expectation that when we work 14 hours a day and into the night, that others are meant to play along. Just this morning, I sat down to my computer at work and saw that a client emailed at 6 pm then 8:30 am with an incredulous follow up: “I assume you got my message!” The subtext is not uncommon. It seems our professional culture has devolved to the point where instantaneous communication has become so effortless that people don’t think complete thoughts, can’t judge reasonable limits of communication (like when a 4 page email might have been better handled with a call or meeting), and have become increasingly impatient with one another.

"Lord of the Flies" (1963) directed by Peter Brook


This past summer as I was having a series of realizations about myself and the role of technology in my life, I began to see that there was no end in sight for the endless barrage of emails, voicemails, direct messages, tweets, status updates, comments to status updates, invitations to connect on LinkedIn, surveys, event invitations, newsletters, and so forth. With each passing month, more people are getting smart phones loaded with hyper-connected apps and the effect is like the Lord of the Flies. Sucks to your asthmar -I have the conch! People have no self-control (present company included) and with mass adoption comes mass blindness to the issue. In short, everyone is too busy staring into their phones and responding to midnight emails to see the madness in everyone staring into their phones and responding to midnight emails. I was just as bad as anyone really.

What I’ve decided is that while I am not interested in a crusade to change the habits of others, I no longer wish to participate. Our time is simply too finite to spend so much of it in a digital haze. Moreover, as my good friend David Craig said, “I don’t want people to have that kind of power over me.” That one hit home. When you are on vacation or laying in bed or in the park with your child and a work contact is able to reach through and pop up and interrupt to ask for a reply or to seek action immediately… that’s not cool. More specifically, when you allow that to happen—there is a problem.

Stop the insanity.

For the majority of the past 3 months, I have been shutting off work email when I left my desk and not opening it until I get back to work. There are usually about 20-30 waiting for me each day and while maybe one per night is presented as “urgent,” I can’t say that a colleague has bled to death pinned under an armoire or anything. My point is: it can wait.

What’s in a wallet?

Admittedly, this post has nothing to do about technology or the interruptions/distractions caused by gadgets, but it does have to do with simplicity. Silly as it may seem, I have been on a 15+ year search for the perfect wallet set-up. My childhood friend Brian and I have both been working on it for years. At issue is finding a wallet that accommodates just enough, but not too much with the right features.

Over time, what I want from a wallet has changed, but one thing has remained consistent over the past 7-8 years: it must also accommodate my keys. At some point along the way, I decided that the number of keys on my ring was directly correlated to how needlessly complicated my life was becoming. At one point when we were working from home, I had it down to a car key and a house key. Then came the office… more keys.

The Jimi. That's a product name, not a pet name.

A few years back, after using some sort of zip-up wallet with a keychain on it, I discovered the Jimi Wallet, a plastic case with a money clip and key ring built right in. The limited size kept my frequent whatever cards at a minimum and the key ring was just dandy.

The holy grail of consolidating pocket things.

Then I got the wise idea that I could combine my wallet and keys and phone into one… thing. You know, so I could just wander around with that and a staff and a loin cloth. I don’t know what I was thinking but I definitely took it too far. While the Sena Wallet Case was handsome and could be retrofitted with a rectangular key ring, it only held about 3 items aside from the phone. Then there was the matter of the key noise when talking on the phone and the fact that opening the door or starting the key was awkward and frequently sent the phone flying. After a broken iPhone with no warranty, I reverted.

The Jimis ultimately wear out and so when I was making all the other changes, I decided to re-address the wallet. In order to keep keys on my person to a minimum, I had previously taken to clipping a second keychain to my laptop bag, which gave me a decidedly Schneider (a la One Day at a Time) sound.

I was looking at wallets that help iPod Nanos when that was part of my working configuration when I thought of a style I had previously dismissed: the key wallet. A key wallet is usually a tri-fold wallet with a series of little loops inside that each hold a key. I’d never used one and could imagine all of the keys laying down in there, but I thought it was worth a try. Not to be anti-climactic, but I got one and it is great. It holds like 6 keys and I put my car key on the external loop, which helps when it is dangling out of the ignition. Done and done.

This sporty little number is called the Dopp Regatta 88 Series Key Case


The iPad is not an Amish electric fireplace

As chronicled in previous posts, I have ditched the smartphone in favor of a much dumber one and sold the laptop so the desktop at work is my only proper computer. As intended, I now no longer have emails and notices buzzing in my pocket or my entire work life on my back. Since I have no other computer at home, I decided on an iPad for leisure and the as-needed, if limited remote working device.

For me, the iPad isn't as paradoxical as an Amish electric fireplace.

When I first shared this idea following announcing my intention to back away from the bleeding edge of technology, a lot of friends questioned the reasoning. The refrain was that I was rationalizing a desire for a new toy that represented everything I was trying to reduce in my life. I disagreed and still do.

First of all, The Off Switch isn’t about being anti-technology. While I am an advocate of wandering out into the woods with nothing to connect you, I have no interest in making that a daily pursuit. In other words, I never sought to spend my off hours whittling or tending to the garden— per se. Rather, what I sought was freedom from the interruptions and the ever-present workload, while still being able to access the best parts of technology in an additive and selective way.

Let me also say that when the iPad first came out, I didn’t want one. At the time, I had an iPhone and a MacBook and the were just no more waking hours into which I could shoehorn yet another svelte, intuitive iDevice. At the time, in a note to a few techie friends, I did postulate that the iPad might be an iPhone killer if there we’re a way to push VOIP calls to it, which ultimately there was. But even then, I was longing for an escape.

Like many pundits, I saw what the iPad wasn’t and how it could not compare to my computer: lack of multi-tasking, too small of a screen, no Flash, relatively small memory, hard to type on, and inability to handle many of the software platforms on which I’d become reliant. Of course, these were exactly the limitations that made it the perfect thing for my new world view. For me, the iPad is now just enough: just enough capability, just enough size, and just enough happening at any one time… one.

The way the iPad is working into my life is as follows. At home, it is a countertop or couch-time message reader or web surfer, but not

Gramercy's wee Sling bag. I put my dumb phone in that clear pocket which has the added bonus of getting it off my person.

something I can work on fully. I grab it on the way to work and only some meetings and it usually never comes out. When it does, it might be a note taking device or a visual aid, but unlike the way that laptops at a meeting are like a game of Battleship (hey, what are you doing over there?), I feel like the iPad is relatively unassuming when not in use. I’ve only got wi-fi access on it, so it doesn’t buzz and beep nor is there much of a temptation to whip it out at an intersection. Upon returning home, it stays in the bag until the kid is asleep, then comes out for a little light browsing, news, and maybe e-reading. I write this blog on it, for instance.

Of course, it is a seductive little thing. The trick for me is forming new habits and being ever-conscious of my use. I try to only download apps that are useful and non-distracting (and any non-utility apps are tucked in a folder called “distractions”). I try to put it away when I’m done with it rather than reaching for it during commercials or breaks in the conversation. And when I do bring it to bed, I do my best to stay off social networks, email (I turn work email off when I leave the office), and tons of web browsing. The jury is still out on whether it belongs in that time at all.

As for the word “need,” allow me to explain. Certainly, I do not need leisure web time – although I don’t care to spend productive work time goofing off in that way. When I’m ‘off duty’ I still like to read news and email friends and do some very light Facebooking. And I see no conflict in that. Where the need comes in is with my work. My wife and I have owned our business for about 5 years and as it is a PR/branding/design client services agency, there are some inherently time sensitive communications that must happen as a function of my role. I do most of the business development and a good share of the PR, so that means that while most things can wait until I’m at my desk or can be handled by phone, certain things can’t.

Enter the iPad. For me, it has been the perfect solution because I can usually anticipate those urgent situations and then I just grab it on the way out the door. With an Internet connection and sometimes a wireless keyboard, I can pound out some pretty decent work in the field and then I can get back to whatever else I was doing. Of course, the trick is to leave it tucked away when I have a few minutes to kill and I know there’s Internet available.

So, the dumb phone, the desktop computer, and the iPad are my imperfect family of gadgets. What I like is that each one serves it’s purpose, but I can leave it behind when I’m done. The thing in my pocket, the thing on my desk, and the thing on the couch are each available—but not excessively so. And to me, that’s just perfect.

Banishing the computer back to the desk

Continuing the theme from my last post on my migration from smart phone to a dumber model, I thought I would get into how and why I dumped my previously ever-present laptop for my first desktop in years.

Starting around 2001 when my wife bought me a 12″ iBook, I have been a laptop devotee ever since. From that point forward, I almost always had one of a series of Mac laptops over my shoulder while out and about – or on my lap at home. And when I was at my desk, I had it plugged into a monitor and keyboard. This meant I always had everything with me. The down side was that I always had everything with me.

Certainly, carrying my laptop around like some sort of St. Bernard had it’s advantages. You’d be surprised at how often I would whip it out to save a presentation or to do some other digital sorcery on the fly. But it was the inescapable screen that ultimately killed the idea of the laptop for me. I would sit down on the couch after putting the baby to bed or crack it open on vacation then suddenly I’d be in full on work mode for hours. No good.

So I decided to see how the other half lives by taking one of our office iMacs and configuring it for myself. Thanks to the built-in Migration Assistant

The iMac: a computer I'm not tempted to whip out on vacation.

program for Macs, moving my data/programs/settings over was a snap. Mainly, the rough part was getting used to not having a computer available to me always. It meant that suddenly, I’d have to do a lot more at my desk within work hours: syncing my phone, serious emails processing, light design, web updates, some social media stuff, etc. Moreover, I’d have to think to do that stuff in advance.

Much of this Off Switch businesses is less about rejecting technology and more about relegating perfectly fine technology into what I consider to be appropriate parts and amounts of my day. Jettisoning my beloved laptop was definitely a big part of that change. After establishing some new parameters for my use of digital communication, scrapping the laptop was simply the perfect follow-up to ditching the iPhone. And I haven’t missed it.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there have been repercussions to being without a laptop. Sure, there are some random tasks that I can no longer conveniently do at home or out and about, but mainly it’s keeping up with communication. Since I am sending less, I am getting less, but the issue is that by only doing email and other tasks at my desk, it can get overwhelming since most people are emailing day and night. What I’m finding is that it is forcing me to 1) let go when I am not at my desk and 2) make better use of my time and tasks when I am doing email.

I’ll get into this in a future post, but one gadget I did buy since I stopped using my iPhone and sold my MacBook (my wife has a laptop, but I rarely use it) is an iPad. It’s limits are what I love about it as well as it’s uni-tasking nature. My main bad habit to break is my impulse to grab it on the way out the door they way I always did with my laptop or smartphone. Say what you will, the iPad is just the right thing for slowing down, focusing, and having a more leisurely experience with technology. And since Mac laptops retain a good bit of value, the selling price covered the iPad and accessories!

With a literal weight off my shoulders, I am finding myself less burdened with the implications of having access to everything all the time. I’m embracing the limits and shrugging about the rest of it. For me, I’m accepting that there is a price associated with that particular trade-off and that I was due a refund.