Thankful

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On this day that we reserve to give thanks, I’m thankful that even while I’m writing a blog about focus, I can update my blog while watching football, drinking beer, eating great food, watching TV and hanging out with great friends. We are far from home, but some amazing friends of ours came out to share the day with us from Tennessee and we’re cooking a huge feast, so we feel loved and very lucky. I hope all of your Thanksgivings are great as ours is. No more blogging until the weekend if I can help it.

 

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Send Me A Story

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I’ve written before about how I have found it harder in recent years to read for any extended stretch of time. This one is especially sad to me, because I have always loved to read. When I was a kid, my grandmother (my dad’s mom) always made reading sound like the most amazing adventure of all time. I can’t say I remember a great deal of my life before I started reading, but I distinctly remember my Grandma telling me on many different occasions that if you could read, you could go anywhere in the world you wanted. All you had to do was pick up a book and use your imagination.

This was obviously an extremely powerful image for me, and I remember being excited about starting school because it meant I would learn to read. My mom still likes to tell the story of how I came home from my first day of kindergarten and told her that I wasn’t going back because they weren’t teaching me how to read. Thus began my long career of working against the establishment.

But I digress.

My point here is that for most of my life, I have loved to read. My Grandma’s take on it was obviously a little simplistic (hey, I was 4), but it’s always stuck with me and I still think it’s true. And I still love reading, but I’ve just gotten out of the habit of spending more than a few minutes doing any single task.

I’m telling you all of this to tell you that I recently signed up for a service called Send Me A Story. The concept is pretty simple. You give them your email address, and once per week they send you an email with a long form non-fiction story. It’s usually a great piece of journalism, sometimes new but sometimes very old. This week, it wasn’t journalism at all, but an essay from E.B White called “Death Of A Pig”. All of the things they email you come from longform.org, an online repository of sorts for long pieces of non-fiction. All of this is connected with Instapaper, which I also can’t recommend enough. Instapaper lets you look through all of these long articles (or articles anywhere on the web) and click a button to “Read Later.” Instapaper saves it for you so you can find it again when you have a chunk of time to devote to the article.

There are so many things I like about this setup. First, I get one article per week to read, even if I take no further action. I don’t have to waste a ton of unfocused time browsing around the internet looking for interesting things to read. Second, if what I receive doesn’t interest me or I’ve read it already (that was the case this week), I can head over to longform.org and quickly sort through the articles there to find something I do like. In the email they send, they also link a few other articles as well, so it’s often really easy to find one that does appeal to you. Finally, I really love the “Read Later” button. I realize this is a great way to create yet another queue of items I’ll never get through (see: Netflix), but it also takes away the pressure to read something as soon as you’ve found it. I often see articles that I’d like to read when more pressing matters are calling for my attention. Rather than cursorily glance through them while performing my other task poorly (or just forgetting about it entirely), I can now save it for later and read it when I have spare time.

All of these things are really secondary though. The main thing is that I’m reading something longer than a Facebook status update or witty blog post. My hope is that this will translate to actual books as well, and I have been doing a bit better about consistently reading the books I start. If I can get back to a place where I can read for hours without feeling a pressing need to check my email or turn on the TV, I’ll be a happy camper.

And my Grandma would be proud.

Public Isolation Project

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For the past few months, the first floor of our building has been hosting various art projects. They’ve all been interesting, but none quite as intriguing as the current installation, The Public Isolation Project.

The Public Isolation Project is a collaboration between Joshua-Jay Elliot and Cristin Norine, and the theme they are exploring is the impact of social media on our lives. The basic premise is that Cristin is living on our first floor, completely surrounded by glass, for the month of November. She can only communicate with people outside of her box via social media, including text messaging, instant messaging, video chat, Twitter, Facebook and the like. She can also gesture and yell at people through her glass walls, but she can’t make phone calls and she can’t have any physical or face to face interaction with anyone.  She’s blogging about her experience here, and it’s been interesting to see the progression.

Since we’re working in the same building as Cristin, we’ve quickly made friends with her and keep track of how things are going. She’s been a great neighbor, and we can’t wait until the 30th when we’ll get to have a drink with her in person. I’m writing about her because I think what she is doing is an interesting contrast to what I’m doing on this blog.

Cristin is essentially making social media her only form of communication, which means she’s inviting the chaos of the digital world to take the place of normal human interaction. She’s hoping to get an idea of how much of this we’ve already done (quite a bit I’d say) and how much of our lives just don’t translate to the internet (again, I hope it’s a lot!). Coincidentally, at the very same time, I’m trying to improve my ability to focus and concentrate, which so far has meant figuring out ways to limit my exposure to social media because it is so disruptive.

In her blog, Cristin has talked about how she feels constantly distracted in the past, but tonight she wrote a really great post about how multi-tasking isn’t working for her. It’s a strange overlap for my tiny project here, and I’m really excited to see if she’s able to uni-task while using social media in the way that she’s doing right now. My strategy so far has been to eliminate or limit streams, but her strategy will be to focus on one at a time. I don’t think that would work for me, so I’m hoping she can pull it off.

If you’re not already following the PIP, I encourage you to do so. She’s got about 10 more days in the room, and the blog entries and photos she’s posting are great (this is her best photo so far, obviously). I’m interested to find out if Cristin comes out of this experience more connected to the world through the internet, or whether she finds some of it distasteful after this.

Oh, and remember how I said I had culled my Facebook friends list down to 431? After a second pass, I’m down to 403. Hopefully I’ll be under 400 before long!

Un-friending

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This has been a really great week in a lot of ways, but it has been absolutely exhausting too. I have definitely not been able to focus very much. We had a launch party for my office in Portland, and that meant we had quite a few people in from out of town and a lot of late nights. It was all an amazing time, but it’s good to be back to the blog.

In all of the hubbub, I completely missed National Unfriend Day (NUD for short), but fortunately, you can celebrate NUD whenever you like. The question really becomes, why should I delete these “friends?”

I think the more important question is, “why did I ever add these people at all?” Facebook has created an entirely new realm of social etiquette, and part of that etiquette appears to be that you should accept all friend requests unless they are from a stalker or a serial killer. I know I’ve been guilty of accepting a friend request and then immediately hiding that person from my feed. I’m sure someone out there has done that to me as well. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we just didn’t pretend to like each other in the first place?

What’s more, these people can end up being a source of stress in your life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a status update from someone I barely remember about politics or religion that really got under my skin. I usually spend a few minutes trying to decide if I should respond to whatever idiocy they’ve put out there, and then I remember that I don’t even know this person. I sat beside them in 3rd grade once, or we went to the same college, but that’s about it. It’s a ridiculous source of stress, and one that is completely caused by social media.

So, I took Jimmy Kimmel’s advice, and I’ve unfriended. It’s time for us to admit that if we don’t keep in touch with someone, there was a very good reason we parted ways. We are not part of each other’s peer group. We don’t like the same things or have the same goals. We are politically and philosophically different in many ways, and obviously didn’t get along well enough in real life to sustain our friendship. It’s nothing personal, but these people have to go.

I had 487 Facebook friends. That is a lot of people, but I justified that number by saying that I did indeed know all of these people in real life at some point. But most of them were blasts from the past, often people I never spoke to at all in high school and haven’t seen since. So after my first round of purging, I’m down to 431 friends. I know that doesn’t seem like a huge change, but that’s over 10% of my list gone. I would wager that everyone reading this could easily cut their Facebook friends list by 10% and not even notice the difference.

I will likely go back through this list a few more times and raise the friendship bar a little higher for folks to stay on my list. Did anyone else participate in NUD? If so, how many friends did you chop?

National UnFriend Day

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At work this week, we’re having a big launch party for our office here in Portland. Now, we’ve had an office in Portland for almost 3 years, and we’ve been in this particular office for a little over a year, but the time is finally here for the big house warming party. It’s going to be a lot of fun, but it also means that there are lots of folks in town from Nashville. That leads to drinks after work, group dinners, and very little time for blogging. I’m hoping to write a more substantial post tomorrow, but for now, some brief points.

  1. Lifehacker posted its winner of the best distraction free writing tool, and it’s not what I thought it would be. I’m sure Q10 is great, but as a Mac user, it’s not much good to me. I’m sticking by my earlier choice of WriteRoom if you’ve got some dollars to spend.
  2. I read this great article today on early rising over at The 99%. It intrigues me, but I’m also more than willing to confess that I’m not turning back my clock just yet. I know that getting up early is a great thing, but I haven’t embraced it so far.
  3. Tomorrow has been deemed National UnFriend Day by Jimmy Kimmel, a day where you Unfriend all of those people on Facebook that aren’t really your friends. I doubt I’ll be as strict as Jimmy would like, but I’m planning to participate and write about it here. Here’s Jimmy and William Shatner promoting this new holiday:

Tomorrow, I unfriend and tell the tale. If I’m not in a food coma from our dinner here, that is. If I am, it might be Thursday.

Filters

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I talked in this entry about how technology has gone from “pull” services to “push” services, meaning that the internet now comes to you if that’s what you want. You can get everything from email to weather updates to traffic information and Facebook messages on your phone or in your inbox 24/7. As these technologies emerged, all of this seemed like a huge convenience, but all of these push notifications aren’t convenient at all. They are distracting and unnecessary, which makes them more trouble than they are worth.

While thinking about all of this, it occurred to me that this is really all about filtering. We use filters in every aspect of our life, and indeed we always have. When I was a kid (before the internet), the filter that kept me from knowing what all of my friends were doing at any given moment was the fact that I couldn’t see them all at once. That was the only way to really know what anyone was up to, you could either see them or you were talking them on a phone (that was connected to the wall! With a wire! I am old). Throughout my entire life, we have been working as hard as we possibly could to eliminate these filters.

First, we got an answering machine, which let folks leave a message to tell us what they were doing if we weren’t home. Then, we got call waiting, which let people call to tell us what they were doing even if we were on another call. Then we got cell phones, so people could call us no matter where we were. Then we got voicemail to replace the answering machines. Somewhere along the line we got email and websites, and then Myspace happened and now we have Facebook, the single most convenient and intrusive technology the world has ever seen. Facebook is the culmination of our filter elimination process (so far). At this point, if you don’t know exactly what a random person from your high school that never spoke to you while you were actually attending said school together is doing, then you’re not using Facebook right. All of the filters are gone.

Like I said, at first, this seemed like a good thing. We were getting so much information, and information is power, right? But at some point, I realized that information is only powerful if it’s relevant. I don’t need to know every intimate detail of a high school acquaintance’s social life. I don’t care if they wish me happy birthday. And I really don’t need all of that crap popping up on my phone at all hours of the day and night.

In the past, filters were there by default, sometimes because of technological boundaries, and sometimes because our technologies were just more polite than they are now. At this point in the technological revolution, we have to be responsible for creating our own filters, and creating filters is harder than it sounds. After all, it’s really affirming to get 354 happy birthday wishes. It satisfies the voyeur in us all to see random pictures of people from our distant past in their daily lives. And being “in the know” makes you cool, right?

But really, what’s the point of all of this?

I’m going to be making a lot of posts about filters. Some of those filters will be technological, some of them will be more practical. I’ve already listed some of these in this post before I even knew what I was doing. I’ve added a couple more that I’ll list here, and I’ll be experimenting with more as all of this continues. My new additions are:

  1. SelfControl – This is a pretty nifty program that’s worth a try if you have trouble setting aside your internet addictions. Basically you create a blacklist of websites that distract you like Facebook, Gmail, and if you’re like me, ESPN. Then you set a timer and you click start. This program keeps your computer from visiting those sites for whatever amount of time you specify. It’s a simple and effective way to force some focus on you. It’s a free download, but one word of warning: there is no undoing this program. Even if you shut down your system or delete the program, you can’t turn it off once it has been started.
  2. I’ve decided not to write in this blog over the weekends. As a matter of fact, I’ve decided not to do anything on my computers that is not a leisure activity over the weekends, and even those I will limit. If the high speed nature of the internet is causing this shrinking attention span, I’m going to step away from it as much as possible for a couple of days per week. Seems healthy to me. Please note, checking your fantasy football score is most definitely a leisure activity.
  3. Moving forward, when I’m socializing with friends at a restaurant or a bar, my phone is staying either in the car or in my pocket at the very least. This is doubly true if that friend happens to be my wife. She is way hotter than my phone.

Okay, that’s it for now. I know that I picked on Facebook quite a bit here and then completely ignored it when it came to taking action, but don’t worry, Facebook is on my list. It’s just such a big problem to solve in terms of limiting the things you don’t want there and balancing that with getting the things that you do want. It’s a delicate balance, so that one might take a bit longer.

Some links

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It’s been a great weekend here in Oregon, rainy and quiet. By April, I’ll be sick of rainy and quiet weekends, but it was perfect for now. I’m purposefully avoiding a ton of blogging on the weekends right now (more on that later this week), but I do have a couple of  links I wanted to share with you.

In what is truly a bizarre coincidence, Lifehacker has posted about the Five Best Distraction-Free Writing Tools. This is a series they do, and they’ll post again in a day or so letting us know which program the readers chose. As I said in a previous post, I’ve tried a few of these, and I’ll go ahead and say that WriteRoom is my favorite. That’s what I’m using right now, actually. However, I picked up WriteRoom from MacHeist when they were giving it away for free in exchange for promoting them on Facebook, so I didn’t pay for it. All of these are fairly similar, so if you’re interested in trying any of them, I’d say start with the free ones and see if they fit the bill. But really, I’d recommend WriteRoom to anyone. It blocks out everything on your screen and lets you focus, but it still has quite a few bells and whistles in terms of formatting and tweaking.

I’d also like to recommend a blog I’ve been reading that’s been a big help when it comes to thinking about simplicity and focus. It’s called zen habits, and I especially recommend the Start Here section. He’s also got a free book called Focus that you can download in PDF format here. Lots of great tips and tools to try here, it’s worth an add to your reader.

Okay, off to enjoy the rest of my Sunday night. I’ll post the Lifehacker winner when they announce. And don’t forget to change my feed in your reader if you don’t mind.

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