Ask yourself. How?

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I love the idea of New Years Day.  I whole-heartedly dive in to the “new year, new me” mentality, despite what some experts may say about it. It is a time for deep self reflection and an opportunity for continued self-improvement. And boy do I love me some good ol’ self improvement. I thrive, not on self-flagellation, but on the concept that we live in an amazing era and can always work to improve ourselves. I know I won’t reach perfection, but I feel the need to strive for it.

As a father, husband, and educator, one area that I’ve grown increasingly concerned with is my time spent mindlessly using technology. I scroll social media, constantly search for and read too many articles, and I check email at all sorts of hours. As 2017 came to a close, I started to take issue with my smartphone and what it is was doing to me. I’ve become upset with the designers of our technology, luring us in and hooking our attention with proven psychological techniques that deprive me of the time that I’m always chasing down week after week.

As I struggled to keep my eyes open, watching Mariah search the stage unsuccessfully for her cup of tea, surrounded by millions of semi-frozen people waiting for the ball to drop, a commercial for Google played. It was a 2 minute spot that successfully tugged at my heartstrings through savvy use of images and music, and it presented the most asked question of the year 2017: How?

Take a look below:

Pretty good right?

For starters, despite the many atrocities of 2017, there is immense hope portrayed in this commercial. In the face of tragedy, people show incredible compassion.  Progress has been made in so many areas of life. So many family and friends are incredibly stressed by the world right now. It is easy to think that everything is on the decline and only getting worse. Step up on Mr. Keating’s desk, however, and your perspective may shift.  We are bombarded daily, with all that is wrong with the world that we forget to look for what is right and what we have to look forward to. We, collectively, have started to become guilty of historical nostalgia, longing for the days of old, when smartphones didn’t exist and nothing bad ever happened, ever. Some even think everything back then was “great”. I’m as guilty as the next person. I long to run out into the woods and unplug, despite nearly breaking out into hives every time I lose my cell signal. I talk about video rental stores like they were better than Disney World, forgetting the fights that ensued over which tape to rent and the massive time commitment they took.

Maybe the problem with how we look at our technology is the same problem we have with our view of New Years resolutions.  We fear hard work, we are always looking for a magic pill to take away our suffering or an easy scapegoat to explain away our behavior.  The shortest workout. The cheapest gadget. The next great app. The cell phone that will revolutionize your life. The book that, once read, will change your habits. None of it matters if you never take stock of your own emotional, mental and psychological well-being and face the fact that: We. Are. Weak. To be human is to be massively flawed and yet to still have the potential to improve and strive for perfection through learning over time. 

I take incredible issue with the attention economy and the metrics that social media and cell phone manufacturers use to gauge their success.  I do not think it is for the betterment of human kind. I want designers who respect my time and want to help me become a better version of me.  I believe that is possible.  BUT.  In the meantime, that process is completely and totally up to me. I can’t blame the cell phone. I can’t blame Facebook.  I can only change my own behaviors around these products through education and I can hope to model that behavior for those around me.

What the Google ad reminded me was to ask myself: HOW am I using technology? How is this making my and my families life better? How is this good for humanity? Am I using it to better myself and the world around me? Or am I using it to escape reality and lose precious time with my wife and kids? If you have thought about this I recommend a few steps:

  1.  Awareness – Check out the links within this article. Tristan Harris and Nir Eyal are doing excellent work advocating for a more ethical system that can help people rather than rob their attention. Cal Newport is the productivity guru that you never knew you needed.
  2. Define why you are using social media – and what benefit it has for you.  For me, I enjoy the accountability that facebook can provide for my fitness goals and I enjoy keeping up with friends and family.  I love using Twitter to discuss issues with my PLN.  I officially obtained my old man card and gave up trying to use Snapchat.
  3. Track how much time you use on your phone.  Try the free version of Moment  and see if you are comfortable with spending an hour plus of your day on social media.
  4. Delete apps, not accounts – Apps are convenient and easy to use.  I deleted the Facebook app from my phone and it drastically reduced the amount of time I spent on it, for the better. I now use it from my browser and I am working on only using it from a computer.
  5. Turn off notifications. A notification could be more accurately named an “interruption” and we all have too many of them in a day. This tip alone could completely reshape how you use your phone.

Finally, as a priest from my prep school told me when I was 16, “Don’t be so hard on yourself!”. We humans are allowed to distract ourselves occasionally. We are working hard every day and some time wasting is not only inevitable, but necessary.  Don’t beat yourself up if you or your kids are looking at screens for a good portion of the day. If you are feeling guilty and looking to make a resolution in 2018, though, start with some “How?” questions, throw away your rose colored glasses, and remember that things are pretty great right here and now.



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