Month: June 2017

Time well spent with your technology

Technology is an unavoidable part of our daily experience… but is your time well spent by the technology you use?

The problem is that a lot of technology is like sugar – it tastes great and is addictive, but too much and too often is terrible for you. You crave it and it makes you happy for a moment, but guilty and dissatisfied with yourself afterwards.

The good line I draw between technology I use frequently and technology that I limit: will this make me feel happier afterwards? Will I feel satisfied and fulfilled? Will I be creating and producing something?

Or is it tech/entertainment that steals my time and leaves me afterwards with the self-loathing of binging on a dozen donuts by myself?

Your time is valuable

Spending your time well feels harder and harder, as we live with increasing distractions around us.

Think a second about the mobile apps that make you feel happy after using them. Then think about any apps that make you anxious to check notifications, isolated, or unproductive after using them.

Seeing more and more apps treating users like sheep to be tricked and ensnared, tech entrepreneur Tristan Harris built a set of design principles and values for technology that respects users and their time.

Take a look at this list of the top apps that make us feel better – and the ones that make us feel way worse.

When I think about my app use, it’s an obvious contrast. Many of my “happier” apps save me time. The “unhappier” apps are stealing my time.

And there’s numbers to support that idea. Look at that chart from Time Well Spent: apps that generally made people happy tend to take a significantly smaller portion of users’ time. Most of these “happier” apps take only a few minutes, while all of the “unhappier” apps lead to more than 20 minutes of use on average. Many of the “unhappier” apps took nearly an hour of people’s time or more.

Personally, most apps that make me happier like Google Calendar, no-ads Weather Underground, and Google Maps among others, take relatively small amounts of my time of my time. These help me schedule time for friends and the outdoors (Google Calendar) and plan for weather conditions before a hike (Weather Underground). I use them for a hot second, then get back to real life.

Apps that try to suck me in, including social media and news apps, I now turn off all notifications and sign out immediately after using them. Or straight up uninstall.

The cost of your time

Another thing I’m noticed about the apps I use is the actual cost.

Just about every app that leaves me unsatisfied is free. Then the apps upsell you or wants to hold your attention as long as possible to make more money by marketing to you.

The “unhappier” apps are making their money off of your time and attention. These apps want to hook you and keep you. Some of the most addicting games make money by forcing you to make purchases to progress or skip a waiting period. They have you hooked like a gambler at a casino.

Some of these apps also have the worst kind of marketing and advertising. Ads that pop up and interrupt you. Moving ad banners that distract your eye and prevent you from focusing. Targeted advertising that collects data about you to find your interests, your insecurities, and your weak spots. The kind of marketing that always seeks to convince you that you’ll be missing out or need more. They want to keep you anxious.

These apps don’t want you to feel satisfied. They won’t tell you that you are fine the way you are. They won’t tell you that you have enough.

On the other side, I’ve willingly paid for the apps I feel are worth it. I don’t have ads and I’m supporting developers who made a product that improves my life.

The result of your app use

After you close the app, what do you have to show? Do you feel more prepared or productive? Or do you feel lost, isolated, or like you haven’t done anything?

I want to keep only apps with a positive impact on my life and time. I love Podcast Addict, Spotify, and Chrome. I’m often using Chrome on my phone, to look up answers and ideas, from recipes to make for lunch to types of plants that would do well the shady corner of my garden. Or I’ll use it to look up an idea I’ve been thinking about, like what percent of time do people spend outdoors? (It’s about 5% percent for most Americans these days, in some regions even less.)

These help me discover, learn, and actually make something. Take notes or schedule an event. Plan ahead for being outside by checking the weather. Navigate and avoid traffic. Read or listen to long-form content like a book, podcast, or music. Exercise and be outside. Meditate, go for a walk, and be present.

That’s in contrast to apps that leave me with little or nothing to show for an hour of time. Time wasted away scrolling through a feed of posts or a game that never ends. Apps that want my eyes glued to a screen.

So delete or limit the apps that steal your time.

We need apps that allow us to be in the present moment, think deeply, and connect with the actual (rather than online) world around us.

Keep the tech that leaves you feeling your time was well spent.

Posted by shanmcf in Creativity

Breaking free from the social media trap

snap pea flower

I feel more connected to the world looking at the snap peas in my garden than browsing social media.

You know the feeling. You open an app or new browser tab, to “check in” because you might miss something important. The feeling of pleasure about the number of social media notifications, or disappointment when there are only a few. You scroll down a feed full of posts and photos from people you know, looking for something interesting, liking a few things, maybe leaving some comments here and there.

A few satisfying minutes later, you feel more awesome and fulfilled about your life.

No wait. Scratch that. Maybe a few minutes (or an hour) later, you feel more isolated and lost.

Join the club. Research indicates users who spend more time on social media feel less productive and more isolated.

Speaking to the portion of the world with power, electricity, and the education to read a blog post: we’re pretty damn lucky. Then why are we so unhappy?

It’s not just the fault of social media. But it has contributed to our modern habits and feelings we did not expect. The allure of social media draws us in with the promise of friendship and connection we all crave. And for many of us, it’s now a habit to unlearn.

These posts don’t “feed” our desire for true connection. The desire to look into someone’s eyes and to feel understood, to laugh, or savor the presence of being together.  The social part of social media is almost entirely an illusion. It’s a virtual social life, devoid of so much real-life satisfaction.

Social media is by default, full of updates from other people’s lives, which probably have nothing to do with you. Essentially, it’s a window into all the fun activities that you’ve been left out of.

And that’s how your brain responds, by reacting as if the herd has abandoned you. You go looking for social connection, only to walk away feeling isolated.

Skip passive consumption, go make something!

One of the takeaways researchers found about how we use social media, is that a surprisingly small about of time is spent actually engaging with other people. They found only about 9 percent of social media time was spent engaging with others. The largest usage pattern was consuming random pieces of content.

After closing out the tab or app, users felt a profound sense of remorse. Despite the small pleasure of viewing content they found interesting or “liked,” their time was wasted.

The antidote to unproductively consuming a string of disconnected content?

Make something. Build something. Grow something.

It’s hard to explain how enjoyable it is to look at the snap peas growing in my garden, see a new flower, and pluck off a pod to eat.

Get away from passive consumption and start producing. Don’t get trapped in a cycle of anxious multi-tasking productivity though. Concentrate on a single task and reap the satisfaction of true effort.

If you’re consuming content, dive deep. Much as I love following links and can fall into a rabbit hole of online posts, even long-form content may not bring the sense of reward and accomplishment at the end of a book.

Following the same train of thought for an extended period of time is significantly more rewarding that scrolling down a quick-hit listicle. Mulling over ideas for the length of a book, or reading multiple books on related topics, gives you a deeper insight that you’d find from days of online “research.”

Appreciate the now

It’s easy to look at the grand adventure someone shared on their feed and wish you had the time/money/guts to do the same. Or perhaps it wasn’t even your friend’s adventure, but a video about a someone who quit their job and somehow survives off adventure.

Envy is another one of the unintended consequences of social media use.

Appreciate the time you have. The money and possessions you have. Enjoy it. You need to “like” your life, you don’t need a bunch of other people to validate it.

Take a moment to be grateful for a good breakfast. Without sharing a picture of it.

Get back to real life

All these oh-so-important posts also distract us from opportunities for solitude, contentment, and gratitude. Essential ingredients for a confident, fulfilled, and happy life.

That’s right. The opportunity for solitude. Confidence without the need for approval and outside validation. Contentment and gratitude for what we already have.

You don’t need to delete every social media account you have. But uninstalled the apps for a while. Turn off the push notifications on your phone. Sign of the website on your browser.

Seriously, go for a walk.

Savor the world around you. Be outside. Touch a leaf. Be amazed at a vine twisting its way around a mailbox. Stare at the reflection in a puddle. Eat a snap pea from your garden. 😉

When you’re with friends or family, be with them. Appreciate those moments, don’t check your phone as if there’s something more important happening online.

Break the habit. You won’t miss that much.

Posted by shanmcf in Strategy

Why you should go outside today

Go outside today

You don’t need proof that going outside is good for you.

There’s many reasons you should go outside, including scientific proof, much anecdotal evidence, and likely moments from your own life that demonstrate the powerful influence of the outdoors.

In general, we know why we should go outside. Yet we stay inside anyway. That’s why my challenge to you isn’t to go outside in general (although I fully support that).

My challenge to you is to go outside today. ASAP.

Here’s why: you need to stop putting off time outside. You know it’s good for you, now do it.

Stop making excuses

Don’t wait for perfect weather. Don’t put it off and say “I’ll go hike this weekend.” Don’t say there’s no time. Don’t get trapped by thinking the outdoors is only for grand endeavors with mounds of fancy gear. Don’t feel guilty if it’s only a couple minutes.

Whatever shoes you are wearing right now are just fine. The clothes you have now are great. Go take a walk, sit, run, stand, lay down… whatever. Go outside.

We need to start changing how we think about the outdoors. Being outside is not just about mountain tops and adventure. It’s about the porch at your apartment, the tiny park a block away, the picnic table at work, the outdoor beer garden with friends (instead of the screen-filled sports bar). We need to start building healthy habits that get us beyond the walls of a cubical at work or the living room at home.

Most Americans spend more time in a car each day than outdoors. You likely spend more time per day with your eyes glued to phone, computer, and television screens than looking at the world around you.

And that world around you is passing right by, beyond that car window or that screen.

Our peace of mind and creativity is being entertained, distracted, and lulled to death by the products and services that profit on our attention. Social media is free and Netflix is relatively low-cost (per month at least), but these things have a much higher cost than money. While these might not waste large amounts of our dollars, they are wasting large amounts of our time.

Change how you think about being outside

Start by changing how you think about the outdoors: “outside” is not somewhere else far away. You really just need to open the door. Then make opening that door a habit.

I don’t care if that means brushing your teeth on the front stoop for a minute. In the morning, a few minutes outside observing the life around you can change your whole day, cultivating calm, creativity, and connection with others. At night, just those couple of minutes allowing yourself to look at the sky or the trees lit by the streetlamp. As a result, you could help you sleep better.

Don’t allow yourself to feel disappointed if going outdoors means your own yard or the local park, and not the top of a difficult-to-access crag. Let yourself feel lucky if you have a yard and the local park still exists. Revel in the luxury of a simple, content moment. A moment when you need nothing and no one needs anything from you.

So close the screen. Take a break and get some air outside.

Posted by shanmcf in Creativity

How to take a walk (in 5 steps)

How to take a walkYou want to have a clear, unburdened, creative mind? Go take a walk.

YouTube celebrity Hannah Hart mentioned at NerdCon about how she often takes a walk – and it struck me as something that so few people do anymore. Poets like Wordsworth and Thoreau and nearly every classic writer and thinker were avid walkers. Even back to Marcus Aurelius and Lao-tse.

But these days, busy and successful people don’t have time to just take a walk. Do they?

I’d argue that busy, successful people must take a walk. Research shows again and again that walking outdoors enhances creativity and reduces psychological stress.

We need to re-learn this most basic pleasure. We have to reclaim our attention from the push notifications. We need to unplug from the constant barrage of marketing and advertising. We must re-connect to our imaginations and creativity.

And it’s free!

So make time to clear your thoughts. Open your mind to the world around you. Let your eyes wander. Discover.

We forgot how to walk a long time ago

Our culture started forgetting this basic pleasure of walking a long while back.

Several years ago, I picked up an old collection of Reader’s Digest stories from 1946. It includes delightfully interesting essays from some famous folks,  like Winston Churchill’s thoughts about painting and Helen Keller on what she would do if she could see for three days. Such gems.

But one of my all-time favorites in the book is titled “How to Take a Walk” by writer and naturalist Alan Devoe.  He lists three rules, with a bonus fourth, for taking a walk.

  1. A walk should never have an objective

If you’ve got an errand to run, do it another time.

Just go. Wander. Otherwise the awareness of your plans with gnaw at your subconscious, like “a maggot in a walnut,” Devoe warns. Gross.

  1. A walk should never be a premeditated ritual

How often do we do anything spontaneously? Put on your nearest pair of shoes. Open the door and go out. Don’t make it a planned activity. Plans can quickly burden your walk with obligation or guilt if you can’t make the time.

Shut off Netflix mid-show if it occurs to you and revel in your willpower. Drop the overwhelming to-do list for a few minutes and come back to it refreshed. Sign out of everything before you go to sleep and go for a walk before you check email or Facebook in the morning to kickstart your day.

If you plan it, it’s much less of an adventure.

  1. Leave your problems and worries at home

If you go out for a walk with your mind overloaded by thoughts about making it to your next paycheck or that new loud rattle your car is making, you could return home feeling even more anxious.

“You must learn to expunge from your mind every single one of your usual worriments and vexations,” Devoe writes. “Until you have learned to do this, walking is worse that useless.”

I love his wonderfully ancient-sounding vocabulary on this point, but it’s true today. Devoe says this is the hardest part about walking to master and I completely agree.

So imagine stepping out of your home and leaving everything behind, for just a few minutes.

Let this walk be an escape. A few magical minutes of peace.

  1. Bonus: Don’t get distracted by people

Don’t get pulled into people watching. Especially insecurities or negatively judging others.

Try not to think about their clothes or if anyone is watching you. Drop your guard and have a deep breath. Ignore the drivers on the road and the pissed-looking commuters rushing to the train.

Look at the sky. The reflections in the puddles. The leaves in the summer or the gray bark in the winter. Feel the texture of the ground under your soles.

Enjoy being outside. Be present.

  1. Don’t walk and post on social media

Ok, that’s not Devoe’s rule! That’s my rule, for me.

If I do bring my phone, I put it on airplane mode. I’ll hide it in a pocket or bag where I can’t feel it while I walk, somewhere a little difficult to reach so I’m not tempted to pull it out.

But if I see something I must photograph, I leave the editing and posting for back home. Tell yourself you’ll save the data and wait for the wi-fi connection. Enjoy taking the photo and keeping it just for yourself.

I love taking photos, but I have to keep my camera and walks separate or I end up forgetting about the walk. It becomes a hunt for the next photo. This breaks rule 1, since the photos become the primary objective!

A few minutes outside changes everything

Americans spend about 95% of their lives indoors! How crazy is that!

We let our backyards become overgrown, never learn to garden at all, don’t appreciate the national parks we have, and under-fund our local lands. We sit inside and “pin” digital photos of someone else’s grand adventure or their potted plants, making excuses that “someday we’ll do that” or we “don’t have a green thumb.”

Experts beg people to go outdoors for even just 5 minutes each day. How pathetic is that.

Let’s change these numbers. I want to make drinking my coffee on the porch a habit, eating dinner outside a regular event, packing a picnic on the weekend a frequent treat.

Such simple changes that improve our mental and physical health, re-frame our entire outlook on life.

The kind of change that can start now, with you and me.

When you get home at the end of the day, drop everything you are carrying immediately and change out of your work clothes (I can’t relax wearing “work” clothing).

Leave the headphones and Spotify and podcasts and switch your phone to airplane mode. Or be really daring and leave your phone behind. Leave behind the anxiety that you “need” your phone in case “something happens.”

Unplug. Open the door and just go.

I know, going for a walk sounds like a boring hobby from an obsolete era. It’s something you do for the sake of your dog or your grandparents might do. Walking isn’t something we associate with “fun.”

But in an age of “optimizing” and squeezing “productivity” out of our every waking moments, we forget how to enjoy the most basic things that make us human. How to enjoy simplicity.

When was the last time you walked down your own street, with no destination in mind?


Posted by shanmcf in Creativity