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How I’m Getting a Smartphone, While Avoiding Crazy Habits

How I’m Getting a Smartphone, While Avoiding Crazy Habits

    What makes a smartphone “smart?”

    This may sound like a dumb question, but I have actually been asking it ever since I made a commitment to upgrade my time management system with the purchase of a shiny, new 2011 smartphone in January.

    Setting aside the question of the costs (which I understand can top US$2,000 per year when internet charges are included,) I am focused on discovering whether or not I can boost my productivity with an intelligent choice. In doing so, I realize that I could end up deciding to maintain the status quo: a cheap Nokia cellphone and an old Palm PDA.

    Important: this is a productivity effort on my part, not a shopper’s comparison.

    I have never owned a smartphone, and after seeing some of the ways in which they have been used and abused by their owners, I am wary. I don’t want to become another smartphone addict who can’t stop themselves from using bad habits daily. Instead, I have delayed purchasing a smartphone, and I have decided to ignore the advertisements in order to make a decision.

    So far, what I’ve gleaned about these devices has been interesting.

    One of the main lessons I have learned is that smartphones aren’t all that smart when it comes to enhancing an individual’s productivity. To understand why this is the case, let’s first define what I DON’T mean by using the word “productivity.”

    Convenience, not Productivity

    Many of the most recent smartphone innovations have more to do with convenience than productivity. For example, if I’m traveling on the road and need to take a picture, a smartphone could take the place of a forgotten camera. Smartphones have been continuously redesigned to replace electronic tools such as:

    – a camera
    – a DVD / video player
    – an mp3 player
    – a camcorder
    – a voice recorder
    – simple browser
    – an instant messaging system
    – an email and text messaging system
    – a GPS device
    – a cell phone
    – a radio
    – a gaming device
    – a laptop

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    It appears that smartphone manufacturers have focused their attention on cramming as many electronic tools as they can into as small a case as possible, which is has been an amazing thing to watch as a non-user. Even though the miniaturized, smartphone versions of these devices are usually not quite as robust as the original, it must be fun to be able to pull out a smartphone that does the trick every time, rather than having to lug a knapsack full of the technological gadgets listed. Friends and family should be impressed as I switch from one device to another as I sit on the beach.

    When a smartphone replaces a knapsack-of-gadgets, that must be a good thing. But is using fewer muscles and taking up less space the same as being more productive? Isn’t that really about a little added convenience?

    Convenience is not really what I’m after… I am more interested in being productive in the meat and potatoes kind of way: getting more done, making fewer mistakes, doing stuff cheaper, and pleasing those who are the recipients of my work. “Convenience” seems to be a lesser matter.

    Entertainment, not Productivity

    I imagine that with smartphone access to ebooks, music, pictures and videos that I’d always have a source of content to prevent me from ever getting bored. I’d always be able to escape some mind-numbing task, and disappear into something interesting and more captivating.

    Of course, you may not like it if you happen to be giving a presentation at the very moment at which I decide that I’m bored, and I turn to my device t osearch for something more interesting. Yet this is exactly what’s happening around the world as smartphone users drift to better quality entertainment in the middle of meetings, conversations, weddings, dinner dates… heck, I’ve even heard that people reach for them while they are lying in bed, or sitting on the toilet.

    A more entertained life has its advantages. The most recent research shows that jumping from one text to another floods parts of the brain with dopamine. (link here: http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/video?id=7397649) As welcoming as that sounds, it has little to do with productivity, unfortunately.

    Information, not Productivity

    If I were to leave for a business trip I imagine that while I’m in the taxi to the airport, I could check to see if my flight were on time. I could also see the news as it develops in the moment, plus watch stock prices, bond yields and currency fluctuations as they happen in the minute. A storm happening 3,000 miles away would be information that would be at my fingertips.

    It’s obvious that I’d be better informed, and I imagine that I could save some time with the information that I could use to decide to change my travel plans. But would that translate into greater productivity for me? Maybe a little, but it wouldn’t replace the information I could get from a phone call or laptop.

    Converting Down Time, not Productivity

    At the same time, a smartphone does seem to facilitate a particular thought that runs as follows:
    “Here I am sitting in the doctor’s office with nothing to do. I wish I could be doing something else instead, such as
    sending email / watching a movie / reading an ebook / surfing the internet / creating a video / purchasing a nick-nack on ebay, etc.”

    Smartphones make it easy for us to switch tasks from something that we don’t want to be doing to an electronic activity that we’d prefer to be doing.

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    Surely, that must be a good thing!?

    Maybe not for me. I have a neat habit of taking naps in doctor’s offices, or anyplace where I’m seated and waiting. I also like to meditate in quiet moments, and I just love the serendipity of finding an old magazine with an interesting article.

    Would I be less productive if I engaged in any of these activities instead of using my smartphone to IM a friend at work? Probably not.

    At the same time, I have been known to travel with my mp3 player and Palm PDA to locations in which I know I’ll be waiting for some time. Combining these devices into my cellphone, which I have with me all the time, would give me more choices around converting my down time. I could still take a nap, but I’d do it with my smartphone in my hand, knowing that I could be doing something electronic when I wake up.

    That’s a little more productivity… perhaps.

    Sex-Appeal, not Productivity

    In airport terminals all over the world for the past few weeks, people have been looking over the shoulders of those who possess the latest and sleekest gadget – the Apple iPad. I actually borrowed one the other day for a few minutes and it felt like an amazingly beautiful creation. Undeniably sexy. Used anywhere in public, it could hardly fail to attract attention with its design and functionality.

    Gaining other people’s attention and admiration, as ego-boosting as it might be, is not an increase in productivity, however.

    Real Productivity

    The cases mentioned so far address the hype that has been used in smartphone ads. What I have noticed is a very different vibe around these devices than the vibe that existed around other time management tools that I introduced in my daily life in past years.

    1991

    As a new employee at AT&T Bell Labs, I remember seeing the first DayRunners and DayTimers and thinking that I needed to get one of those. I ended up with the former, and there was no mistaking the fact that the system of folder, little pages and inserts was for a single purpose: productivity enhancement. They were not for entertainment, communication or replacing anything in the knapsack-of-gadgets in a cool and sexy way.

    Back then, having a planner showed that you were serious about being productive. (Or so we thought.)

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    1997

    When the Palm Pilot was made available in the mid-1990’s, I remember being relieved. Not only could I manage my most important information more securely (with multiple electronic backups,) but I could also carry that information with me wherever I went.

    As other software programs were released for the Palm, I saw them as interesting toys, but hardly the reason why the Palm existed in the first place. Like the DayRunner, the Palm was all about productivity.

    2010

    Now, I am attempting to make the next upgrade, but as you may have noticed, I am struggling to see what, if anything, a smartphone will add to my productivity.

    When I adopted the DayRunner and Palm Pilot, it was clear to me that the new habits I needed to adopt to make these devices work would help me to be more productive. In the case of the DayRunner I learned to:
    – bring my diary with me everywhere
    – have backup refills
    – browse OfficeMax for improvements
    – check my calendar before making new appointments

    With the Palm, I learned that I needed to:
    – synche it with Outlook and the Palm Desktop every 1-2 days
    – keep it well charged
    – travel with a charger at all times
    – always look for new software or hardware upgrades

    These habits were new ones, but they were worth the investment of time and energy because of the overall productivity gains. Looking back I can see that any upgrade to my time management system requires that a user develop some new habits in order to realize the necessary improvements.

    When I review each of these habit changes, however, I now realize that I was making upgrades to what I call the Fundamentals of Time Management: Capturing, Emptying, Tossing, Acting Now, Storing, Scheduling, Listing, Switching, Interrupting, Warning and Reviewing. Each of them is a physical action that is profoundly affected by the choice of tools that are used.

    For example, the DayRunner changed the way I did my Capturing, as I now almost always had a pad of paper with me. I also was able to upgrade the method I used to Store addresses and phone numbers, keeping the same pages for years at a time.

    When I bought the Palm, it also affected the way I did my Storing, as I could now backup all my information in several places and never have to worry about ever losing it. Also, having an electronic Schedule meant that I could do away with Task lists, Todo lists and Next Action Lists and make plans for time slots occurring days, weeks and months in the future, something that was too hard to attempt with pencil and paper.

    These two upgrades made sense to me in a practical way — they changed how I executed the 11 Fundamentals. Meat and potatoes productivity.

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    Now, in 2010, the more closely I look at modern smartphones the more confused I get, because I can’t clearly see the productivity advantage. I don’t want to waste my time and money on fluff.

    As I mentioned before, what really scares me is the fact that I might pick up some of the bad habits I have seen. According to the New York Times, the devices enable digital distractions, a modern-day addiction that is just as hard to break as any other.

    One company I know well even banned smartphones from the boardroom because its directors and executives could not control the addictive habits that they have developed. And I’m sure I’m not alone in having friends who continually interrupt meals, movies, conversations, meetings, play dates with kids, sporting events, etc. to pick up their smartphones in anticipation of a ring, beep or buzz.

    I am desperate to avoid falling into this trap, partly due to the etiquette and health risks, but also because they are so unproductive – the very opposite of what I am trying to accomplish with an upgrade. I don’t want to be distracted to the point where I don’t know what I’m doing.

    It’s not that I think that smartphones will always be useless. Far from it. I believe that the combination of several devices into one could be potent, but they will only become so when the capabilities of one device are combined with another to impact one of the 11 Fundamentals in a new and innovative way.

    For example, the calendar could be used to block certain kinds of interruptions, until I am ready to work on them during designated times for “Emptying.”

    If I could challenge smartphone manufacturers I would say:
    “Imagine a knapsack filled with all the gadgets now being squeezed into smartphones: a laptop, camera, mp3 player, radio, etc. Apart from the obvious convenience of a smaller size, how is the smartphone better?”

    If I can’t clearly answer that question by Christmas, then I’ll be sticking with the cellphone/PDA combination that I use today. I’ll be tracking my progress in making the decision on my website and I welcome your reactions, questions and ideas in the comments below.

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    Francis Wade

    Author, Management Consultant

    How To Manage A Post-College Productivity Dip Why You Need to Understand and Accept Your Productive Type A Tendencies The New Lifehacking #7 – Why You Should Be Open to New Stuff, But Wary About Using It The New LifeHacking #6 – Staying Away from Harmful Gadgets The New Lifehacking #5 – Tricking Yourself into Making the Changes You Need

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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