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

Archive for January, 2011

Seduced by ones and zeros

As I strolled the several acre grounds of client The Canine Center for Training & Behavior today for their grand opening, it was easy to remember how experiences like an afternoon outdoors with my dog were motivation enough to push away from the Internet and enabled gadgets. So simple and peaceful and easy.

Just over a week ago, however, I was reminded about what makes the ones and zeros so utterly seductive. For the last dozen years or so, I have been working in public relations—five of those for myself. I did not study that in college (art degree) and generally considered marketing and PR to be a career path of professional liars to sell sneakers or cover up oil spills. That was before I discovered cultural/arts/community PR. It had honestly never occurred to me that one could promote things that were… good.

Working at the Austin Symphony and Austin Museum of Art, I quickly fell in love with the art of getting the story told of this soloist or that exhibition—through editorial coverage and later social media. Unlike the science of paid advertising where you can throw down your money and buy an ad—dictating it’s size, wording, and placement—”earned” coverage comes with a special thrill as you work to draw out the most compelling attributes of something, pitching it to media contacts, then helping them assemble all the pieces that go into a well-crafted feature story, for example. Then there’s the great fun of reading it, sharing it with the client, and so forth. Even today, it is my favorite part of what I do.

While I can still remember the days of faxing a press release then calling to follow up about whether not it was received, most everything is now done digitally. On any given workday, I might well send a couple hundred emails in correspondence, with an additional 300 to 1,500 if we are sending a small or large announcement out to our media lists. Like any modern day office worker, I’m jumping between email, the server, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Word, Excel, and a few other utilities with a few calls thrown in. It seems kinda crazy, but when I’m in it, it is actually a lot of fun.

Last Thursday, we had a big media and VIP event at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas for client Texas Cultural Trust. For the assembled guests followed by a few thousand media contacts, we were announcing the dozen honorees for the 2011 Texas Medal of Arts Awards, including such notable Texans as Bill Paxton, Bob Schieffer, Barbara Smith Conrad, and ZZ Top. We had been preparing for months and had kept the names closely guarded until the big moment.

Winspear Opera House

 

We came armed with phones, laptop, and iPad. Media lists and social media accounts were all queued up in advance. From the time we arrived at the venue, we were tweaking and prepping, tweeting and posting, and generally getting amped up to throw the big switch. I found myself feeling almost high from the combination of excitement and technological activity. I was anticipating the coverage we would be getting, hunting down planned and surprise reports, checking email replies moment to moment, and generally reveling in the afterglow of a widespread announcement. We hit the road almost immediately after, but I had my co-worker checking my email on her smartphone regularly throughout the drive. It would have been both impractical and maddening to wait the four hours until we got back. As far as pushing the lever and getting feeder pellets, making a big media announcement is like a feeder pellet smörgåsbord.

I once went to an employer-suggested professional development thing where the ‘facilitator’ used the expression “getting your yummies” – meaning doing or saying things that give you a response that supplies you with a boost of praise or self confidence. I have used the term many times since, and it definitely applies here. In building up for that big media announcement and following the response obsessively, I was definitely getting my yummies.

That’s not to say that I feel like using technology as an implicit part of my job—and loving what it makes possible—is some sort of contradiction to the premise of The Off Switch. As I’ve written in previous posts, it’s the incessant interruptions of smart phones and the rabbit holes of Facebook and the ever-present work mentality of laptops that I am actively trying to escape. But the whole Dallas episode was a good reminder of how complicit my vocation is in the struggle. If I had a job that didn’t involve lots of “urgent” emails and phone calls, I somehow doubt that I’d take issue with the associated technology in my off hours. I feel like incessant phone checking and Facebooking are rampant among most parts of the American population, but I somehow feel that I would not be as susceptible if I were, say, a barista or park ranger.

In contemplating this post, I tried to think of a parallel. I’m not like an alcoholic who can never take a drink again. Nor am I like an Muslim who can’t eat pork. It’s not even comparable to a vegetarian who refuses meat, which I am. For me, this whole paradigm shift is more like a filter that I have the privilege of applying to my life. Like being a locavore or someone who buys only American or a green-living type or a coffee snob (which I also am), this life change is about selectively participating in what’s available—on principle.

Several months back, my wife asked me which I’d choose if I had to give up coffee or using a Mac. I can’t remember my response, but something tells me that I chose Macs. It’s not that coffee isn’t one of my favorite things, it is, but at the time, I couldn’t imagine doing without one. Until recently, I’d even go as far as to say that being a Mac user was a central part of my identity. To be perfectly honest, I felt dependent on interacting with the operating system to feel like me. I know. But now that I’ve gotten rid of the iPhone and my MacBook, and I’m no longer fooling with those interfaces from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep and every 15 minutes in between, it’s not so important to me. I’ll probably be a Mac user as long as there are Macs, but it’s just not that big of a deal any more.

So, while I still get plenty of professional yummies electronically, and will continue to around the big PR moments, these days I’ve been getting more of my personal yummies face to face – over coffee when possible.

Mmmmmm

 

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Hyper-localizing my life

Hyper-localization. It’s a bit of jargon that’s come to prominence in journalism and market-segmentation circles, essentially meaning that one can find

I am here

more—or at least equal—power in an effort by directing it at a very specific area; as in a zip code. Mobile phone app developers have embraced this concept in creating programs that utilize the built-in GPS positioning capabilities of most smart phones to help users find products, businesses, activities, and other people that are nearby. I decided on a different method. I took a walk.

I’ve been an Austin resident since 1980, save 3 years in high school in Texarkana. In that time, I’ve lived in about 14 places in this city. 4-5 were north or around campus. The rest were south. I currently reside in 78704, an area billed as “more than a zip code… a way of life.” Seems to me that people co-exist here in many ways of life, but it’s a nice place to call home regardless. Not too much rampant development. Not too many big box stores. A lot of ‘individuals’ and small businesses, which are probably my favorite attribute of the area.

When my wife and I opened up our first out of the house office in 2008, we looked central and south, but we really wanted to be near our home. We ultimately chose a place about 8 minutes drive from our house on the end of the trendy/funky South Congress district of shops, restaurants, and—more recently—parking lots full of food trailers. It was fine, but a little pricey and a little bit of a schlep, especially when running home for the kiddo or when rush hour happened. As I started awakening from the long slumber of a technology-laden mindset and really began looking outward and inward, I could feel that more changes were coming beyond ditching the laptop and smart phone. I knew that once I shed the omnipresent, omnipresent gadgets I would be suddenly faced with a subsequent  series of realizations about my life and choices. It was thrilling, but frightening.

I think part of what makes technology and especially so-called ‘productivity and connectivity’ platforms, is that they present both a portal for escape and a mirage of superhuman capability. For me, technology has made a lot possible. I was able to start a business with my wife with nothing more than our reputations, a laptop, and a cell phone. As the business grew, I used nighttime and weekend moments to keep things moving forward and to build all aspects of the operation while also servicing client needs. I always knew that my time, psychological agility, and energy would bend—although I was
unsure how far. So, in this way, through real and tele-commuting and by working here and there, I was able to stretch myself beyond what I would call reasonable.

About the same time I started re-assessing my abuse of the internet and it’s complicit hardware, I began realizing that I was becoming one of those who would be on my deathbed, not wishing I had spent more time at work. I had built this life raft to escape from the day job conundrum, but had been so busy paddling it that I hadn’t made time to lay back and enjoy the sunshine. It seemed that another change was in order. Our old lease was up at the end of November, and we started weighing our options. What sort of daily reality did we want for ourselves. Lovely as our old offices were, I found myself feeling as though I had to suit up and get over there 8 hours a day. As I started slowing down, and entering my tech-detox, I began envisioning a new sort of workday. I imagined work at a human scale and a realistic pace. You know… like in a small town and/or 30 years ago. It’s not to say that I was some sort of jet-setter or high-powered so-and-so, but with a PR/branding business in Austin, there is just a number of events, meetings, and errands that are built-in. Then I began looking at the neighborhood around my home in a way I had never done before.

I had always appreciated the small shops and amenities nearby, but almost always at 40 miles per hour as I sped to and from our house. In the recent years since we moved in, a lot of cool things had come in and I found myself extra-interested in seeing them succeed. Recently, I started diverting my nap-time stroller excursions out of our immediate neighborhood to the adjacent commercial areas. Since I no longer push with one hand and stare into an iPhone with the other, I started really looking around and taking inventory. There is a lot in the 4 blocks around our house to be really proud of—and businesses I wanted to know about—and see succeed.

One of the really peculiar things about modern life is that while we have access to a tsunami of information about our communities and friends, we are often so busy running around and “checking in” that we’re generally checked out of actual engagement with our surroundings. As I started exploring these 4 blocks from our front door, I found that it was a place I wanted to be. I wondered if I could be one of those people who walked to work. And so I began a Craigslist search for a suitable situation. After a just a few weeks, I found a place with potential that was literally 8 minutes walk from our front door! Including the street we live on, I can get there by crossing 4 streets—two traffic lights—and the best part is that there is all of this great stuff on the way.

I found myself quickly romanced by this idea of ditching my car some days and just sort of taking things down to a pedestrian pace. It took some work, but

My new commute

I negotiated the lease and re-configured our offices into this space. We’re still getting things set up, but I feel so good knowing that I’m supporting my neighborhood and truly living there. Rather than whizzing by the local shops and hoping they survive, I am getting to know the clerks and owners, giving them my business, and have even started to think of ways to work with them in some capacity. There is a certain element of sustainability about it that’s very satisfying as well. While I don’t walk every day, I feel good about the fact that I am driving less and breathing fresh air more. For the first time in what seems like years, I am slowing down enough to pay attention. I’m looking around and not only appreciating, but participating in my immediate community. I am picturing a new reality for myself wherein I create a little Northern Exposure right around my home.

While not entirely, what if most of what I need is right here in a stone’s throw from my house. Perhaps, if I take the time to find out, there could be good friends, collaborators, clients, and more right here. Of course, through the wonders of the internet and airplanes, I can continue to do business all over. But I can focus the rest of my energy right here. As someone recently pointed out, Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, and other great spiritual leaders did all or most of their life’s work in their immediate surroundings yet had a profound and global impact.

So, that’s my new definition of hyper-localization: living, working, and being in the immediate community around my home and making a sincere effort to be a part of the here and now. To hell with what the smartphone and marketers tell me, I’m going to discover what’s nearby with my own eyes, ears, nose, and two feet. Here’s a short list of things I’m loving about my 4-block world right now:

View My little neighborhood in a larger map

My little neighborhood

 

 

Low Resolution Tech

It’s been 4 months and a day since I started blogging here at The Off Switch. Today, WordPress emailed me some automated stats to alert me that my 15 posts thus far had been viewed over 1,500 times! With only 63 ‘likers’ over on Facebook, I had no idea if anyone was reading, so this came as a pleasant surprise. The email also indicated that some arrived by search, apparently looking for “imac on/off button” or “switch my wife.” Sorry folks.

I have to admit that I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. The mass good intentions and conspicuous timing always make me wary. But this year, having started on a new resolution back in September, I feel ready to embrace the concept. If anything, I’ll re-up on the changes I’ve already committed to and stay vigilant.

Most years since we started our business, my wife and I have taken the week between Christmas and New Year’s off. We may check the odd email or knock out a couple of time-sensitive tasks, but mostly we just do other stuff. Again, this year, we had a sort of “stay-cation” wherein we hung out and generally worked on projects we’d been meaning to do all year long.

In terms of technological involvements, I found myself distracted in the sense that I knew emails were accumulating and that really bothered me. On the other hand, I did better than usual not diddling on the Internet/Facebook and generally not checking in.

I got food poisoning or some sort of raunchy virus on Christmas Eve and was near death for about 36 hours. I totally missed Christmas, but the upside was that I slept for an unprecedented span of time and didn’t so much as text or check email or anything for that whole time as well. It was a nice way to celebrate the holidays, even if I felt like crap. I think I’ll be experimenting with total tech blackouts this year – for vacation jaunts and holidays. Even though I’m not Jewish, I have thought about observing Shabbat with no technology to act as a mental sorbet. We’ll see.

So, here’s my resolution: I resolve to remain aware of the role technology and it’s rising tide of interruptions/distractions in my life and the world around me. In the past 4 months, I’ve already experienced a re-awakening of sorts. I’m more present, less impatient, and generally enjoying life on a deeper level. What’s more, I feel empowered to examine and change other aspects of my life that aren’t working as they should be. Just the simple act of asking myself if this bit of technology or that gadget are serving me well has me asking similar questions elsewhere.

Happy new year to you! I hope 2011 is surprising and invigorating!!