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?

 

 

AIM: Typing Tutorial for a Generation of ’90s Kids

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A door creaks open. A door slams shut. A robotic man claims that I have mail. That is the sounds of fourteen year old me talking to my friends. On AIM. If you grew up in the time of NSYNC, beanie babies, and walkman tape players, you know what I’m talking about. America Online Instant Messenger, for all you kids out there. As I will one day tell my future children and grandchildren, back in the days of wooly mammoths, ‘texting’ could be done only from a desktop the size of a microwave. You also had sit out in the open, typing in your family’s living room when no one needed the phone.

Recently, someone remarked that my typing is rather speedy. “I grew up flirting with boys online,” I joked. That sounds creepy, but as a tween it literally never occurred to me that I could talk to strangers on the internet. The only people I chatted to were those I met in person, asked for their screen name, entered it into my “buddy” list and then logged on to converse with nonchalantly awkwardly. AIM was a way to flirt with boys outside school, without doing it directly by, for example, (horror of horrors) calling on the phone. Like bumping into someone at the store and having a random chat. “Oh, you’re online too? Just saying hi.”

Then there was the away message. The goal of the away message was to come up with the wittiest quip possible ~ the kind of message that said: If I were here to talk to you it would be the greatest conversation because I’m hilarious, but I’m also so fun and busy that I’m out doing something amazing right now. Preferably worded via a song lyric. The status message has lived on in various iterations, but none so elegant as the AIM away message.

AIM continued as a communication force in my life into college. The away messages migrated from moody song lyrics to moody poetry and movie quotes. Anything referencing Garden State was especially popular. I used AIM with friends to decide what time to meet for dinner. It was a distraction from that English 101 paper of epic procrastination. A way to find someone to talk to late at night if you were both up. And, while we’ve all moved on to new email providers, apps, webpages, and texting, AOL was my first email and online identity and for that, I have a little soft spot for it.

Shakespeare once said: if something is on the internet it’s there forever. That certainly seems true for embarrassing photos anyway. The other day I wondered if everything really is still there. So I logged on to AIM. My flimsy password still worked, but it was evident that in the 8 + years since I’d last used it, AOL had deleted my inbox, sent mail and saved conversations. Somewhat disappointed that a little piece of my past was now in the abyss of the internet, I almost signed off. But that’s when I noticed the AIM contacts list informing me that linzy568 was offline. Scrolling down, they were all there – the high school classmates, college friends, crushes, kids I met at camp – all currently offline. Thanks for the memories AOL!

Just remember, some day we will all sigh at the adorable nostalgia of Siri.

 

5 Years of Technology in 5 Minutes – my first smart phone

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Until a week ago, this was my phone.*

I’ve had this phone for five years, and it doesn’t connect to the internet, it doesn’t have email, it doesn’t do group texts and the photos it takes appear the size of a postage stamp before they become blurry.  But back when I got this phone, before smart phones were everywhere, I liked it.  It did everything I thought a phone needed to do; call and text.

Fast forward half a decade and smart phones are the norm. Call it invention being the mother of necessity, but it began to feel like not having a smart phone was actually having repercussions on my abilities to socialize and work.  Someone would send me an email and I would get it four hours later when I was back at the office.  If I was heading out to a meeting I quickly did a map search of the location so I could find my way there. My friends would make dinner plans by having a lengthy text battle in group message format to ascertain the where’s, the when’s and the who’s.  My strategy for this one was to wait out blank message after blank message until the torrent subsided and I could ask one friend where we were meeting.  It’s like everyone else was Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson, while I was still saying “Hey guys, what’s so wrong with the telegraph?”

So, after months (maybe years) of going month to month on my little Neon, I decided it was probably about time to update myself.  I went to the (insert cell phone carrier name here) store in the mall.  Why not buy online you say?  Well, because it took me until 2014 to get a smart phone – do I seem like the kind of girl who can jump right to the online ordering and registering of my new technology?! Anyways, I went to the store. The salesman was friendly, although he did call his fellow salesmen over to look at my phone, like I was on an episode of Antiques Road Show. “Larry come over here, she has one of the old green neon LG’s. I haven’t seen one of these in ages!”

It is a great jump to go from the technology of five or so years ago, to today.  The greatest leaps for me are the gps and the messaging.  Every app that I download wants to know my location.  If I’m buying shoes online, does the internet really need to know that I’m across town at a coffee shop and not in my apartment?  However, getting places is much easier with a little voice from the passenger seat prompting  “turn left in 900 feet.”  I can check the news whenever I want, my calendar sends updates to my email – these are all new things for me! But as for candy crush … I just don’t get it.

I was not fighting the new phone for any sentimental reason or because I don’t like technology  in general (to the contrary, everything else I have is pretty up to date), it just seemed silly to get rid of a phone that worked.  The problem is that what works in 2009 may not work in 2014, simply because everyone has moved forward in their communication methods.  The new technology becomes part of how we relate to each other. It is not only about being able to group message all my friends a photo of my cat at once.  It’s about communicating in a timely manner.  Years ago, someone sent you a letter and it travelled by mail to your door. Then you read it, wrote a reply and it travelled back to your friend or colleague.  With email and laptops that exchange was collapsed into a few hours. Now, the expected return time on a message or email is much shorter, given that you can receive an email anywhere.  I’m not saying that you have to respond to all communications right away, just that I’m happy I now have the option.

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*I know that having any phone is a privilege that I am afforded because I live in a country with cell reception, I have a good job, and I can afford it.  This post is not about having an expensive phone as a marker of status, it is about older cell phone technology vs. smart phones, and where that places you in a cell phone culture growing ever more accustomed to having a bazillion apps in your pocket at all times.