Social Fasting: A Mind-Focusing Productivity Cleanse

Having a very community-focused job and life means that I (and many others we know) spend a lot of time staying “connected” to our peers through social media. I’m a big fan of the power of social media as well as an opponent to it in certain ways.  My personal social habits include the use of LinkedIn for professional posting (mostly auto-posts that come form my blog and other platforms) and Twitter for my more interactive social engagement.  I stopped Facebook usage well over a decade ago for a variety of reasons and my personal social circles continued on quite fine without it.

Social Overload – Understanding the Impact

A great post was shared by Ethan Banks on the challenges of productivity and getting distracted by online engagement and various rabbit holes of things like meme searching and such.  A big thanks to Ethan for sharing his personal story goes along with my own experience of using the StayFocusd plugin for Chrome which is set to have Twitter and some other sites locked down to 15 minutes per day.

What that did for me was to ensure that I use these sites for very specific tasks and keep the focus tighter when I’m using them so that I don’t find myself spending too much time off-topic and cutting into productivity.

Social Fasting – Cleansing as a Life Hack for Productivity

Intermittent fasting is one of the most effective weight loss and diet management plans out there.  That’s just a fact, and one that I subscribe to as a successful way to keep my body fat and energy levels as close to ideal as I can.  Then it hit me….why don’t I do the same thing for

 

We are gripped by the need for dopamine (no, seriously this is a synaptic response when we engage through social media) and one of the biggest challenges you’ll face is the “I have a notification, so I have to check it” habit.

This is the screenshot from a couple of days ago when I began my latest social fast:

 

My Social Fasting Routine

It’s pretty simple.  I just cold turkey style for chunks of days.  I began with not checking Twitter for a few hours, but then found that I got back on and kept re-checking and refreshing the timeline for a while.

Every week or so, I drop off of Twitter usage for 1-3 days.  My postings are done using other tools (blog auto-posts, PostBeyond, Buffer) so that I keep other outbound social media content moving, but I just don’t interact with Twitter for those social fasting periods.  Once I got used to doing this on-demand, it made me think more about how to better use the platforms in a more productive way.

My recommendation is to give it a try by not going on social until part way through the day.  Put aside the urge to wake up and grab your phone to check your social media.  It will help your life (and potentially your relationships) by giving you the focus to really stop and think about what’s on the todo list for the day/week and letting you stay more focused and productive with the continued habit.

The Down Side of No Social – Missed Messages (legit ones)

My Direct Messages on Twitter are a genuine contact method for many people.  You may find the same thing as you take your social fasting.  There are other options such as setting up notifications via IFTTT to let you know if you have a DM.  Personally, I just make sure that people know how to reach me via email and for some, direct text message.

If you do heavily use DMs as a contact method, you may even setup a Twitter client (e.g. TweetDeck) and only allow your DM column.  Set your times in the day or week when you allow yourself time to open it.  Use calendar notifications to force the habit of opening and closing.  We do love our dopamine hits of taking in notifications and refreshing the timeline, so we need those little hardened reminders as a helper sometimes.  Nothing wrong with that.  You’re fighting human instinct and psychology on this stuff, and creating (or breaking) habits takes work and routines.

Escaping the Grip of FOMO

But…but…but…FOMO, and how do I keep up with news?!  Great question.  First is the FOMO challenge (Fear of Missing Out).  If you take time away from social media, it feels like you’ve left the conversation, but the reality is that you need to and the world keeps on spinning just the same way it did before.  Getting caught up is never an issue once you learn to take breaks.  If you had a situation where you had 3 events to attend the same day, would the 2 events you can’t go to suddenly leave you far behind in your learning? Probably not.  If you are the type of person to sign up for so many things, you’re probably a pretty aggressive learner already and the catch up is easier in many cases because you are more focused on what you want to get out of it.

The second bit is the “what if something happens in the world that I miss out on?” which (spoiler alert) is a as much fake news as any of the content we read 🙂 . If any serious event takes place, you will find out about it through any of a dozen other means.  It’s not that you are shutting your eyes and ears and denying the world is spinning around you.  It’s that you are just stepping back from the real-time immediacy for a bit.  We used to live this way quite well prior to the advent of social media.

Taking a social fast will have you rethinking how to better use your access to these networks hopefully.  Feel free to reach out to me on tips and tricks with social fasting and how it has begun helping me both personally and professionally with productivity and mood.

 




Visualizing your Solutions: Mind Maps and Wireframe Diagrams

Let me start this post out with a huge thanks to Rene (aka @vcdx133) and Melissa (aka @vmiss33) who has been very helpful with me getting from idea to diagram/document using these tips. Having a simple template to start things off with becomes the best way to get Visualization helps your ideas become more clear because it forces you to see the relationships between things, and to do the physical process of drawing them out on paper and/or using a digital platform. Before you think you need to be an AutoCAD, or even a Visio export, you have to learn to quickly get ideas drafted out.

There have been many days where I stared at a blank diagram software screen and fought with how to get it to work in a nice way using the product when what I should have done is to start with just sketching it out in rough format first. This goes to the classic phrase “don’t let perfection get in the way of good enough” When you need to take the thought process from ideation to visualization, there are many tools and techniques that can help you. The most popular ones I use nearly every day are:

  • Paper sketches
  • Mind Maps
  • Diagram Tools: Visio, OmniGraffle, PowerPoint

Each has a distinct purpose in the process.

Paper Sketches

This is one that Melissa (aka @vmiss33) has taught me to leverage more and more. When you want to get started on an idea, just break out a pencil or pen, and some paper. Scratch diagrams and sketches take your idea and put them into a visual form. This helps you think about how to visualize it before you go diving into OmniGraffle or Visio and find yourself searching shape catalogs for hours and getting frustrated. Scratch pads and notebooks are excellent for both words and diagrams. As you write out and sketch out things, your mind is forced to connect the physical motor act with the thought process. This helps to enhance learning and to get closer to a result for you with your ideas. I’ve also gotten some really nice notebooks which I enjoy using. Rhodia is one type that have very nice paper and lots of different styles. My favourite to use is engineering paper or graph paper style.

Mind Maps

Whether it’s a site map you want to work out, some ideas and related content/thoughts, or just general brainstorming, mind maps are also a great tool for taking verbal and thought processes and putting them to paper easily. Start with your core idea/thought and then branch out from there using simple mind map diagrams. There are lots of resources online to help you as you learn to use this technique to expand on your ideas. MindNode is a product I use for the Mac, but there are many different products which you can find online. The goal is really just to adopt the practice first and then you can use this for both self-ideation as well as for collaboration. A project manager who I worked with for years taught me the value of quickly scribing down discussion ideas for project planning using a mind map which has served me well over the years.

Diagram Tools

Before you think you need to be creating perfect diagrams with visually-stunning graphics, start with the basics. Wireframe diagrams can be easily drafted out as a digital version of your earlier sketches. You can choose the level you want your graphic quality to be, but the best diagrams I’ve used and created are ones that I modelled after a template that I got from Rene Van Den Bedem (aka @vcdx133). Using a seemingly simple diagram format means you concentrate on the content. Once the content is completed and your idea is committed to a diagram, you can then tune the graphic style all you want. The first step is moving from concept in your head to the concept in a diagram. Products I’ve used include OmniGraffle, Microsoft Visio, and even Microsoft PowerPoint can be quite handy for doing such diagrams. Hopefully these are helpful tips for you as much as they were for me.




All Slacked Out – Long Live Email

There is always a fight for the industry to come up with a “better mouse trap”.  Quite often, there is good reason for this.  The real question when we try to do something like design a better mouse trap, should be “do we really have a mouse problem?”

Here’s my Slack journey.

Step 1 – Everyone talks about Slack.  I try Slack.

We’ve been inundated with the conversations that start with “Hey, are you on Slack yet?” and the plethora of emails with invites from all of our communities that we participate in.  As the promised “email killer”, Slack seems like it could be a worthy replacement for the IM world, combined with the ability to share information like some file sharing products do.  By sharing better in real time and with persistent chat, this could really unseat the need for email, right?

Slack-WhyNot

Step 2 – Day 1 – So much chat goodness!!

It’s like having DMs, but with the world!  Every sub-group of folks that I do things with are on Slack, so I’m on 7 different Slack teams, each with two channels: #random and #general

Slack-day1

I’m a little worried about the fact that everything is in these two unorganized channels, but that’s the beauty of Slack, right?  Everyone says that we should segment it to make it better, but not a single one of the Slack teams have done so yet.  I’m sure that they will, right?

Slack is interesting because it’s got the randomness and immediacy of Twitter, the reach of IM, and the promise of eliminating the need for email.  I can’t wait to make this work!

Step 3 – It’s a little overwhelming

Well, I still have email.  I still have Skype, which I also use for voice and video calls every day.  I still have SMS and Twitter, both of which are primary contact methods for many people.  FaceTime for free calls is a clincher, so that’s not going away.  I’m sure that I can make Slack a primary use product.  After all, it’s promised to eliminate the need for email.

slack-lots-of-content

Step 4 – Always on.  ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS on

The email killer is now taking up most of the day tracking notifications.  The conversation counter is ticking up constantly.  There is quite a bit of chatter on here, so more chat should mean more value, right?  The issue is that it has become so noisy that I have already started to just reset the notifications and scroll to the bottom without reading the content.

Email has the ability to be closed out.  I’ve specifically set my email regimen to be only open during certain hours of the day, and I check occasionally just to make sure that nothing urgent comes up.  Skype and SMS are the primary source of “Hey, I need something pretty urgently…” type of content.

At this point in the Slack journey, I’ve already stopped using the client after hours and on weekends because it has become very noisy.

Slack-downtime

Step 5 – Slack Jumps the Shark for me

It doesn’t take too long before I hit the wall.  I’ve tried using Slack in my daily routine on 3 different occasions.  Each time I give it a try over a few weeks.  Each time it results in the same sensation.  I want out.

Slack-lastday

 

Step 6 – Freedom from Slack

I still have Slack.  Notifications are turned off altogether.  I log in every once in a while just to scroll through the conversations.  What’s interesting is that I’m not the only one.  Most of the Slack teams I’m on have reduced the usage to near zero.  Email is a very different medium for sharing information.  IM, Skype, SMS, FaceTime, and other products have such a deep integration to day-to-day interaction with many people that it has become a mainstay.

The moment that I accept that Slack just isn’t working, I immediately feel relieved.

Slack-ImOut

Slack is great, but not for me.  If you’re connecting Slack to development workflows and lots of micro-team collaborative work, I applaud you and the product.  I think I could have made it work with a few adjustments:

  • Organize the channels and content appropriately
  • Integrate with other systems to enhance the workflow
  • Find the teams that can use it well, and will also shed other medium to fully embrace it

Slack didn’t replace email.  It never will.  Hoping that you can find more from it than I did.

slack-irony




Blogging and Productivity on the road

One of the challenges that we have as technologists and bloggers is the ability to find time to blog no keep up with learning while still maintaining a good life balance. I had an article nearly done for today’s #vDM30in30 but this seemed like the ideal time to approach this subject instead.

Writing on the Road

I’ve taken to using Evernote as my preferred writing platform because of the ability to sync between all of my devices easily. Having made the error in the past of always live writing in WordPress on the web, I’ve lost a couple of articles to internet connection drops and such. Not fun.

There can be some formatting adventures when you paste from Evernote into WordPress, so be careful with that. Plus, the autocorrect is shaky sometimes and you may find that it lets you get away with some vicious misspelling on occasion. In other words, always proofread before you publish.

Other than the sync capability, Evernote is a great collaboration platform. It’s the very engine that drives Virtual Design Master and a few other projects that I work on.

Now that we’ve covered the “How?” of the writing challenge, what about the “When?” for writing while on the road. The short answer is “Anywhere, whenever you can”.

Because my new job has me travelling much more this I done before, I’ve become quite good at using time like that spent in airport lounges and during flight in order to get some content committed.

It isn’t easy to squeeze it in, and at first it can be a real difficulty as you work out how to go from place to place and then get into a mood for content creation. Much like the 30 blogs in 30 days initiative has taught me, it’s like a muscle that needs to be trained.

Learning on the Road

Learning in general can also be a challenge. The good thing about travel and flying is that it will give you some time where you are able to read more than you may normally do at home.

I am a strong believer in the power of continuous learning as a way to keep fresh and enhance your skills and career. My routine while I’m away from home is to always have one or two books on my Kindle app on the iPad, plus I often download some PDF content which can be stored in iBooks.

Another thing is to be able to store offline learning content such as Pluralsight videos or iTunesU video and audio. Podcasts are also great for when you are on the road. Many people even use these while driving in the same way as an audiobook. Those can also be great resources for passing time and adding to the laearning funnel.

Even if you aren’t rapidly tearing through books and other learning resources, just think that it is more than you may normally have time for, so any learning is a bonus.

Planning on the Road

This is another Evernote task for me. There are a number of tools that I use on the web, but when no internet access is available, Evernote with offline notebooks is my tool of choice.

If you can get access to the Internet, I’d suggest something like Asana and LeanKit for task tracking. These are good for centrally storing your task management, but in a pinch, Apple Notes and Reminders are also helpful.

Tweetups

When you’re in a town you’re not normally from, don’t forget to use Twitter to find some of the local crowd you may be able to meet up with. We have a very nice community with people who are always keen to connect in person too. On this recent trip I managed to meet Kenneth Hui in Boston along with Matthew Brender, plus I met a new Twitter friend Craig Tracey who is local to Boston.

This is what makes communities like ours fun. As Stephen Foskett once told me “Somr people don’t understand it, but my Twitter friends are my real friends.”

Rest is Good

Another thing to remember when travelling is that you tend to do more than you would at home, so while I’m giving lots of ideas on how to use free time for productivity tasks, don’t forget to take a break and get some down time too.

Keeping connected with people who can’t be with you during travel days is also a big part of what makes it better. Honestly, if it weren’t for FaceTime and iMessage, I wouldn’t make it through the day. That is one of the greatest parts of being accessible with these tools. Even when you are on the road, you can still add a few comforts that can help you make the best of it.

Hopefully this is helpful for those who are currently, or who may do travel for work at some point.

Ironically I’m writing this on my iPad Mini 3 in seat 13A en routes from Boston to Toronto.