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

Archive for December, 2011

While you were out

A commenter and friend suggested that I blog about what I’ve noticed or experienced as a result from actively curbing the role of gadgets in my life. It’s a subject that I’ve thought about many times and a positive effect I experience daily, but still it sent me off into a world of reflection. What has this change meant to my daily life? What have I noticed or been present for that I likely would have missed before?

While I’d like to say that I’ve spent lots of introspective time walking in the woods or drinking coffee at daybreak, my reclaimed continuity is not so picturesque or even overt. In reality, the peace I’ve found is invisible to the naked eye. And I’m not always as disciplined as I’d like—nor as Zen. But still, I’ve definitely seen an increase in things like reading, listening to music, and a lot of experiencing the moment.

For me, the insipid nature of the smartphone (and a lot of times, social media) is in the way it preoccupies the mind and the small moments. These are the times I notice most often. Waiting for the train the pass. Standing in the checkout line watching people. Zoning out on a short walk. It’s partially the observations or thoughts I’d been missing by racing to check in on the iPhone, but partially it is the cognitive reset. I was overstimulated and overheated—so now that I’m allowing myself to just be in those moments, I find my thoughts to be more even, my feelings more available, and my self more centered. I have noticed all sorts of things about myself and my habits that I had been missing.

20111211-214036.jpg

Beyond myself, I experienced my wife and child in a way I had not been. I think gadgets and a lot on the Internet are rationalized as discovery or communication—when they are plainly escape. The stresses and routines of both marriage and parenting a toddler definitely require patience and focus, and by putting down the phone, I have felt more present and able to experience the exquisite moments, as well as to be accountable for the more mundane. Domestic life isn’t always thrilling, but it is worthwhile and rich (if you are there for it).

While I have in no way transformed into a Henry David Thoreau, I have had countless realizations about self, about the world, and about human nature… realizations I don’t think I would have had otherwise. As someone that observes the world and communicates for both a living (public relations) and a hobby (songwriting), it’s hard now to understand why I’d allow myself to be hypnotized to the point of really being numb. I guess it happens slowly and becomes gradually acceptable so you just sort of get lazy or indifferent to it. But I can plainly see now, that it was diminishing my creative abilities.

I hesitate to write about this next observation although it is one of the most frequent and apparent contrasts. At the risk of sounding like a righteous ex-smoker, the primary thing I notice now that I missed before is how a good number of people around me are just sort of checked out. I started The Off Switch for me and—like my vegetarianism—have no interest in imparting those views on others… but sometimes I do want to pull a Louis CK and shout people down, “Hey! The fleeting, finite miracle of life is rushing by. Get your fucking face out of your phone!” But I don’t because a) that’s not my business, b) that was me a year ago and still is me on occasion, and c) that’s not my nature.

Still, I have to say that it is almost overwhelming how much people in the world, sitting across from one another, over dinner, at home on the couch, in parks and in cars, are avoiding true connection, evocative conversation, enlightening observation, and sublime sensation in favor of whatever random task they tell themselves is demanding their action online. I’ve come to believe that Facebook and smartphones are the opiate of the masses. It’s like something out of Idiocracy or 1984. I don’t think there’s much sinister at work, but it is harmful nonetheless. People are wasting big chunks of their days jumping down internet rabbit holes or grasping their ‘precious.’ I’m not judging but I am staying vigilant for myself. There’s so much out there to see, hear, smell, feel, and taste and really… there’s not an app for that.

20111211-220724.jpg

Communication Breakdown

An old entry that I slept on like 250 times…

I have a confession: technology does not bring out the best in me. That may seem like a big DUH given the nature of this blog, but I guess what I mean is that even when I limit my access, I don’t exercise enough self control. It’s like the saying “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

This was brought into sharp focus recently when a series of texts, their timing, and content threw me into a world of doubt about myself and the textee. It happened over about a 24 hour period, maybe 10 texts in all (including replies) but what was said and not said altered my perception of the relationship entirely.

When all was said and done, I realized that the technological tools and access to one another (and lack of it) was facilitating an exchange that was not helpful or healthy. Ten years ago, before I had a cell phone, I would have slept on it at least twice before saying anything. In that time, I would have gotten a little perspective and the conflict would have seemed far less important. Even then, though, I remember the new phenomenon of saying things in professional email that I would never have said face to face. Perhaps it says more about me than it does about technology.

Oftentimes, following and ill-advised texting or email bender, I feel like “where the fuck did that come from?” I know better, but I must get something out of it. When I’m in my most honest moments, I have to admit that it’s my core desire to be liked and to see myself as likable that sends me on these tech binges. Usually, there’s some sort of cliffhanger involved. It’s 5 o’clock or Friday and I think someone is mad or misunderstands me and I get obsessed with showing them otherwise. I want to fix it asap. When I find myself checking Facebook frequently or spending more than a minute or two on it, that’s a similar thing happening. It’s satisfying to see people liking or commenting on a post. And while that’s fun, it’s not all that healthy. But that’s a whole other blog entry.

So, for me, learning to enforce my technological boundaries starts with accepting my personal ones. Next time I find myself trying to effectively fix a relationship or my image of myself with a text message or an email or a status update, I think I’ll not.

iControl: How to keep your phone in check

Recently, I’ve had a few friends who’ve found themselves with an iPhone when they never even intended to get a smartphone. Either the dog chewed up their old phone and pragmatism/family plans prevailed… or work finally coerced them into carrying the technology. In conversation, they’ve asked for my pointers on keeping their new gadgets useful but as non-invasive as possible. And all have shared their concern that they will be seduced into becoming screen-staring zombies.

As previous posts chronicle, my personal level of desired connectivity and lack of distraction has led me to using my older iPhone with a month-to-month SIM card from Pure Talk USA (no jail breaking/hacking required). This means I have no data plan and can’t access the Internet unless I’m in a wi-fi zone. Even then, I chose to stay away from most apps and to disable most notifications. Here are my tips for configuring the iPhone for minimal bother:

Distraction: There’s an app for that
While the App Store has hundreds of thousands of apps for download, there’s no reason you have to. On my iPhone, I only installed the Remote app that lets me control the music in my house. The rest of the apps that tend to be a waste of time (Mail, YouTube, Safari, Weather, etc.) I just tuck away. I don’t even have Mail set up.

20111208-194717.jpg

Alerts: They can wait
For me, one of the most incessant aspects of a smartphone is how it tugs at your sleeve for attention constantly like a needy toddler. Web-enabled apps (especially the social media ones) buzz, ding, and display a “badge” with a number of messages each time something happens related to those accounts. What most people don’t realize or aren’t motivated to investigate is that shutting them off is simple. Within the Settings app, there is a Notifications panel that lets you choose which apps notify you and how that will happen.

20111208-195358.jpg

Sounds: Silence is golden
You can customize even further by going in to the Sounds panel and silencing anything that normally bothers you. And here’s a tip: unless you are waiting on important news—like from an organ donor—put your phone into Airplane Mode when you sleep. Alarms still work but the phone, text, and Internet portions are temporarily disabled so you won’t be jolted awake by a retweet.

20111208-200004.jpg

Mail: Leave your work at the office
I’m 38, but I can remember a time not too long ago when there was no interest or expectation of being on work email nights, weekends, or on vacation. If you were needed, somebody would pick up the phone. Now, thanks to the readiness and ease of technology, we’ve collectively slipped into the bad habit of checking and sending work emails from the moment we open our eyes until our heads hit the pillow—and often in the middle of the night. One of the best things I did for myself was to discipline myself to just turn off work email when I got home and then not turn it on (barring a truly time sensitive work issue) until I get to my desk in the morning. I’m a small business owner and I do public relations, and even still I have found that there are very few urgent emails that come after work hours. If someone needs something… they will call.

20111208-200503.jpg

These are all quick, easy and reversible fixes that—for me at least—made a huge difference. I recommend giving some of them a try. You’ll thank yourself.