The Week I let NPR Experiment On My Mind #Infomagical

Last Monday when my phone buzzed and I had text from an unknown number wishing me “Happy Infomagical Day!” it took me a minute to remember that I was not being hacked. The week before I had heard an interview with Manoush Zomorodi of NPR’s Note to Self, discussing a week-long program to help people use technology more “mindfully” and reduce stress by information overload. I’m not usually a joiner, but it’s the time of winter where not much is going on, work is busy and having a little project sounds appealing… so I texted Note to Self my number.

Day One: No Multi-Tasking

Day One Infomagical sent me a text with a short podcast explaining how multitasking is not only cutting into productively but exhausting my mind with pointless and constant redirection. If we are not being interrupted by some external distraction, we start interrupting ourselves. My first assignment was to do one thing at a time all day – no multitasking.

My usual Monday consists of checking email, answering the phone, running to the fax machine, drafting documents and finishing whatever did not get finished on last week’s to-do list. I typically change focus about every four minutes, not to mention checking my phone randomly for texts or refreshing my email for no reason at all.

I decided to cut my time into blocks. 15 minutes in the morning to check emails and return calls, then I would spend an hour on an unfinished writing assignment. I closed my internet browser, and decided against playing background music. One. Thing. At. A. Time.

Several hours later I got a text checking on me. “Are you managing to do one thing at a time today?” it asked. I replied yes, and was rewarded with a photo of a cute puppy. Later that night I got another text asking me to rate how I felt and how well I stuck to my goal.

NPR is definitely experimenting on me.

Day Two: Tidying My Phone

On the second morning I got a text directing me to an Infomagical interview with Marie Kondo, author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The podcast suggested ways in which Ms. Kondo’s philosophy on tidying and joy can be applied to digital spaces in my life, like my phone. I was skeptical. But, not wanting to be a quitter, I deleted several apps from my phone that I have not used in weeks and consolidated the rest into folders. It is nice having everything on one page. I also added this photo as a background to make my phone more friendly.

I was disappointed that day two’s assignment did not come with a cute animal photo reward. NPR if you want me to follow directions ,send more adorable photos!

Day Three: No Memes

Day three’s assignment was no memes, no trendy topics, no useless internet fluff. The morning podcast, texted to my phone thankyouverymuch, used the dress as an example of the classic meme that everyone is talking about but that really adds nothing productive to your day. You know, that dress. It’s totally white and gold by the way… but I digress. See what memes do? They distract me!

By the time I listened to the podcast at 8:15am I had already checked twitter and my email twice. Oops! I vowed to do better for the rest of the day and avoid the cute animal videos, election op-eds, the 20 things to eat in order to live forever lists, the snarky community forums and every other irresistible but unnecessary topic the internet enticed me with on Wednesday. I only opened one browser window – research for work – and minimized it when I was not actually researching. Oh, and I set my phone to silent and left it in my purse. And guess what, I was crazy productive on Day 3!

Toward the end of the day the text questions started coming again – how do you feel? How did today go? Then, I was rewarded with a Yoda meme.

Day Four: Talking, Talking, Talking

Day the fourth of infomagical was all about having a conversation with someone in my life. A conversation that was a minimum of seven minutes long, to be precise. On the phone or in person. No texting, g-chat or messaging. Sounds simple enough, but if you really think about it, how often do you have a conversation about one topic (out loud) lasting more than seven minutes? Most of my daily interactions involve quick phone calls – Did you receive the paperwork? Where is the email you promised? Can you pick up bread from the store? What time should we meet? And I usually carry on one long conversation throughout the day with my most excellent friend who lives in Chicago – via text.

Lucky me, the long conversation assignment arrived on a day I was scheduled to spend four hours in the car with my dad. We had many conversations. Was this cheating?

Day Five: Life

The final day of Infomagical was all about how to use technology to enrich our lives instead of being trapped by all the information out there that we may be missing. Instead of feeling like we have to consume all the information out there – perhaps only reading half an article, skimming a news story or ingesting sound bite after sound bite – we should be thinking about what we want to achieve from the information and reading accordingly.  

The assignment was to write your own #infomantra as a note to self. This felt silly, but I had come this far, so I wrote the note.

Stopping myself from multitasking had, by far, been the most helpful advice all week so I based my #infomantra on focus. Silly as I felt having a sticky note on my keyboard it was helpful to have a concrete reminder to ignore that fleeting thought telling me that I should refresh my email mid-sentence, or make a call before I had completed the paragraph I was drafting.

Conclusion: Try It

I went into last week quite skeptical. How could following a list of tasks for only five days make me more productive and satisfied with work, and less stressed in general? No way. However, I have to admit that it worked. I got a lot done.

Cannot wait to see what Note to Self is going to do with all my data though.

Everything in the podcasts is pretty common sense advice, but sometimes it takes someone else telling you to put down your phone and get to work to, well, put down your phone and get to work. I work in an environment where internet access is constant, there are continuous excuses for interruptions and everyone wants everything from you immediately. It is common to talk to someone on the phone while checking your email or reading a document. I never considered how much this hurts my ability to get things done, since multitasking has become the new standard for busyness, and busyness is good. When you ask someone how they are, the usual response is “I’m so busy, I’m doing this, I’m doing that…” When did being busy become synonymous with being productive?

Tomorrow is another Monday – everyone’s favorite day right? I will not have the podcasts or the cute texts, but I’ll try to remember when I start interrupting myself – to check email, check twitter, check on that other assignment, call that person – to stop it! Stop and ask myself, is this actually helping me accomplish what I need to accomplish today?




Review: Olive Kitteridge

Recently I finished reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout  and am half way through her novel, The Burgess Boys. As I read, I am pulled, bodily, into the character’s world. The people who populate her novels are not always (often not) likable, but damn they are natural. Her books are full of scenes depicting every day moments that feel very real, like spying on neighbors, not reading fiction… A woman is humiliated during a discussion and feels heat spreading over her scalp. Siblings communicate over a family crisis and it feels both warm and strained. Reading these passages, I shout in my head – “so lifelike!” In Olive Kitteridge, there is a moment where a long-time couple is trapped in a dangerous situation, but soon the danger becomes the threat to their marriage as they say aloud the unspeakable things that have chafed at their own thoughts about the other for years. It feels devastating.

Even as I am enjoying Ms. Strout’s novels (and I plan to go buy the rest as soon as I’m finished with these Burgess brothers), there is another feeling pricking at the back of my mind. Jealousy. Her prose is so effortless, her observation so poignant, that I can only wish I were so talented.

HBO recently made Olive Kitteridge into a mini series, nominated for several golden globes. I have not seen it yet, despite my curiosity, and my enjoyment of all things Frances McDormand. Truth is, I’m afraid. Any time I read a book, then watch the screen adaptation too soon, the television images always supplant the experience of reading.

The summer after freshmen year of college I worked at a library, using the opportunity to consume the paperback stacks as well as the more slender DVD collection. It was my goal to spend the summer reading a succession of novels followed by watching the film versions. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, then Memoirs of a Geisha directed by Rob Marshall, and so on. I did this with several titles, but soon realized that, while often beautiful, fun, or intriguing, the movies always left me with a feeling different than the books. Obviously, fitting a two hundred page novel into a two hour film necessitated some abridgment, but the direct comparison left the former feeling like a meal and later like a snack.

So when it comes to Ms. Strout’s enveloping works, I chose to wait just a little longer to let her words cement themselves before I move on to the equal brilliance of Ms. McDormand.

Plagiarism ~ Wrong but also a Nuanced Concept

The other day I came across an interesting article by Jessica Lahey, in The Atlantic, entitled “What a plagiarizing 12 Year Old has in Common with a US Senator.” The article addresses the recent controversy surrounding Ph.D. candidate Zack Jud, sixth grader Lauren Arrington, and research involving lionfish. The thrust of the piece explains that when children make missteps, it is up to the adults surrounding them to point out the error, explain the reasoning and redirect the child toward accuracy and integrity.

When I was young, very young, I copied some illustrations from a picture book. My six or seven year-old drawing ability was not on par with the illustrator of the book, but I tried my best to copy the adorable hamster cartoons. They were depicted engaged in various activities like jumping rope, cooking and lounging at the beach. Pleased with my results I shared my drawings with my mom’s friend, an artist.  I recall her telling me how creative the pictures were, and although I did not know why, her compliments felt somewhat sour.

As a youngster, I had not yet learned the complexity or even the concept of plagiarism. I loved drawing and took a few children’s level art classes where I often copied lines drawn by a teacher, or was encouraged to mimic the shapes and shades of famous works with my own colored pencils. I used many images for drawing practice – family photos, magazine ads, National Geographic spreads. Children learn by watching and imitating. In copying anything I enjoyed, including book illustrations, I was simply trying to understand how to make something that I admired. But eventually comes an awaking to the ideas of personal creativity, ownership of ideas, and credit.

I later understood my discomfort with the praise I received for “my” hamster drawings. I had copied the illustrations as a means to improve my technical abilities, while the friend instead praised the idea behind the drawings, which was not my own. I discerned the difference when I read a book about Helen Keller detailing the controversy surrounding “The Frost King” a published story written by a young Keller, but later revealed to be strikingly similar to “Frost Fairies” by Margaret Canby. I suddenly understood – ideas can belong to people, and taking someone’s idea is like taking their car or dog.

As a senior in college, a fellow English major and I gave a small talk about plagiarism to teachers at a local high school. The internet was fast becoming students’ research tool of choice and Wikipedia was catching on, so the teachers wanted to be able to keep pace. If students were going to google research topics, the school was going to google their final term papers right back. We focused our presentation on how to detect planned, intentional, internet-based plagiarism. We did not consider why eleventh graders might be stealing writings about the battle of Belmont, or appropriating lines of E.E. Cummings – only how to catch them. There was also little discussion of why plagiarism is such a threat to integrity, especially in young adults who are presented with new ideas daily, and are learning to differentiate for themselves, and others, the distinction between their own work and another’s.

I agree with Ms. Lahey, and others, including Jud himself, who have written or spoken recently about this lionfish research debacle, that parents have the responsibility to teach this concept to their kids (as well as a myriad of other things we expect them to learn as they reach maturity). Throw teachers in there too, because they often uncover the indiscretion and dole out the penalty.  But just how should this lesson be conveyed to children?

We all agree that a person’s ideas are her own, and that taking those ideas for profit, or holding them out as your own without credit to the source, is wrong. We have copious amounts of intellectual property law to back this up. It is a black and white concept that appears easy to explain: plagiarism is like stealing and stealing is wrong. Here is something to consider though, if you unpack the idea of using unoriginal work, many gradations of gray are revealed.

For instance, in a law firm, the phrase “don’t reinvent the wheel” is often invoked. Meaning, if Fred down the hall wrote a motion on the same topic last week, why not use Fred’s motion and just make a few edits? The lawyer does not then footnote his motion attributing any turns of phrase to Fred. However, when it comes to referencing statues, regulations or case law, lawyers carefully and specifically cite each reference. The critical legal information is cited, but the common practice of sharing work within an office abrogates the need to credit Fred, even though motion number two borrowed entire paragraphs of Fred’s writing. This method prioritizes time-saving and presenting the best argument, over protection of any one person’s creativity in their work within a firm. On the other hand, such a practice would be completely unacceptable for a final paper in a college course.

Other arenas where using another’s work or ideas is objectionable are academia, invention and writing, among others. We all know that there are many themes that have been written about time and time again – man v. nature for instance. It is acceptable to write an original story with this theme, but wrong to copy words from The Old Man and the Sea. And then there are new works that are retellings of prior works – My Fair Lady and Pygmalion, as an example.

As children grow into adults, immersing themselves in different environments as they learn – academic, a specific profession, a field of work – they experience context based norms for crediting others work. As copyright law shows, it is possible for several people to have the same or very similar idea separately, yet we also want to protect ideas and the people who have them and develop them first. It’s a tricky concept for kids (and perhaps even some adults) but it is important that we all learn to respect the work of others, and use it to grow, but not as our own.