Where is the line between procrastination and gathering inspiration?

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When does checking Twitter or reading an article in The Atlantic cross the line from shame-worthy act of procrastination, into the defensible realm of a much-needed creative refresh? How long can you concentrate on a task before you take a break? Am I over thinking this?

I always assumed the latter, and didn’t give the topic of distraction-as-a-creative-refresh-tactic much thought.

But then I came across this article: The eternal struggle to balance creation and consumption by journalist and playwright Kara Cutruzzula. It’s essentially an explication of the weekly productivity reports she receives from RescueTime, a service that tracks your activities and assigns a productivity score to each. Checking LinkedIn or Slack hurts your score; writing in TextEdit or editing a spreadsheet improves it.

Kara describes RescueTime as an “infuriating and necessary tool for [her] creative life.” When her workweek is packed with deadlines and making stuff, she feels “drained, exhausted, and alive.” But when she procrastinates too much, she feels “stimulated, impatient, and deeply unfulfilled.”

I notice similar patterns with my work. But I’d add this: On days I get to do more than just writing (i.e. coding an email newsletter or brainstorming for a direct mail campaign), I’m much more likely to feel that *drained, exhausted, and alive” feeling. I think that’s part of the focus equation: when the tasks are considerably different, it’s easier to eschew procrastination.

The full article includes interviews with different creators. Check it out.

Photo by Flickr user Dickson Phua; used under Creative Commons.

Lost potential

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The past ten years have been an exceptionally big waste of human potential. (And I’d probably extend my assertion back even further if I knew more about world history.)

But since the financial crisis of 2008, access to capital (for governments or private companies) has been incredibly cheap and plentiful. Yet we haven’t invested significantly in public infrastructure, despite more than a decade worth of promises and proclamations. Elon Musk is one of the few people in the public sphere willing to make spectacular bets. (Or perhaps he’s just better at PR than his fellow crazy billionaires.)

If you want a hint of what this lack of investment feels like, just go for a ride on the NYC subway. Most of the cars and stations are living monuments to a time when we thought it was OK to spend money on big, crazy projects—like digging a gazillion tunnels underground and figuring out how to wire them with enough electricity to move a few thousand pounds of steel and flesh 100 miles under a river, 24/7. Part of me thinks that it’s great that these cars are old! It shows that good ol’ fashioned steel (not plastic!) can stand the test of time.

But the system isn’t keeping up with demand. The cars are packed with commuters and delays are the norm. The personal inconveniences I face every morning aren’t what I’m concerned about here; I do OK. My $2.75 subway ride is usually 20-30 minutes and everyone in my workplace faces the same delays and frustrations.

But every morning, I wonder what the subway could be like, and how that would make life more pleasant for the hundreds of thousands of NY commuters. It might encourage more investment or sway a few people from leaving the city. It could also start restoring people’s faith in public institutions, demonstrate that organizations can respond to change, create dynamic plans based on measurable objectives, and deliver some degree of improvement.

I suppose this is why it’s more fashionable to point to dictators as a desirable way of running a government. “What has democracy done for me, lately,” one might wonder.

I don’t endorse this selfish view of a sprawling and complex system like our democracy, which was designed to deliver a slow pace of change. But is it unreasonable? To hope for a different way, when the current trajectory and recent examples don’t make it likely that our institutions will rise to the challenge and deliver the things people want?

I don’t want to pass too much of the blame to social media; it’s an easy out. But Facebook and Twitter are really good at clustering people into like-minded groups, then feeding them niche stories that are likely to foster “engagement” (i.e. make them mad). It’s not even that the content is hyper-partisan or even false. The harm is in the curation. We don’t get a balanced daily media diet when so much of our news comes from social media. And that means we’re all the more likely to see the stories that push our buttons and offend our beliefs, which pushes us further away from each other, and further away from imagining a different way.

There’s a lot I’m leaving out here. I don’t have a conclusion. I’m just trying to flesh out my thoughts. Perhaps I’ll return to this topic on another day.

[photo cred]

You are what you consume: Facebook v. Twitter

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You are what you read, watch, and listen to. The content you consume changes how you think about the world, and determines what topics you’re aware of and concerned about. Over the past century, countless thinkers have explored this idea, and from a variety of perspectives.

McLuhan focused on the media type (i.e. books vs. television), and asserted that the medium through which content is delivered changes how the content is encoded by the creator, and decoded by the recipient. More recently, Nicholas Carr argued that ways digital media affects our ability to focus and follow complicated arguments. Eli Pariser coined the term filter bubble to describe the way social media is designed to show us content we already agree with—clustering us into like-minded groups infrequently exposed to ideas that challenge our existing attitudes and beliefs.

But what if social media, the same technology that helped create today’s highly polarized political environment, could be used to reverse the trend? What if you could assemble a custom feed of diverse thinkers representing an eclectic range of voices from across the political spectrum, or whichever thing you’re into. And since your thoughts are influenced by the content you consume, this could help your thinking be more inclusive of a range of views. It’s a personalized news feed more directly curated by you, rather than Facebook’s engagement algorithms.

That’s how I use Twitter. I follow an eclectic mix of artists, journalists, comedians, entrepreneurs and startup influencers, and political thinkers from both sides. When I open my Twitter homepage, I’m exposed to views I agree with and those I do not. It’s a way to take me out of my bubble every once and awhile, and remind me that “the other side” often has good points to make and  deeply held beliefs to defend.

I suppose I could use Facebook to achieve a similar result. But in my experience, this isn’t how that service is used. Facebook is more for private, personal news and achievements; people seem to be acutely self-conscious when posting there. Twitter is more free-form, public, and informal. Twitter starts with the assumption that you’ll follow people you might not know (i.e. famous people); Facebook is based on precisely the opposite premise.

And really, you could achieve this type of thought diversity by reading different books, picking up magazines from “the other side” every once and awhile, etc. But the cost of engagement is lower on Twitter; all you have to do is click the “follow” button.

Why I use a VPN (most of the time)

Control keyShort answer:

I’m paranoid and easily impressionable

Long answer:

Earlier this year, Congress voted to repeal rules that restricted ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and T-Mobile from selling information about the websites you visit. (Go here for a good overview courtesy of The Verge.)

I don’t have anything to hide; my internet history is basically just Twitter, New York Times, Amazon, and a few banks. But it’s not about whether or not you have something to hide. When combined with other publicly available data and information companies can buy about me (i.e. credit report, job history, location of home and work), my web browsing history can convey a fairly robust and accurate picture of my life.

It’s just another way we lose a bit of our privacy (and ourselves) to private corporations, so they can better target us with stuff to buy. Using a VPN is a way to get back a bit of control back.

How a VPN protects your privacy

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A typical internet connection links your device up right to your ISP’s infrastructure.

When you connect to the internet via VPN, there’s a middleman that encrypts all traffic to and from your ISP. This means that your data is anonymous to your ISP, and certain information your browser automatically shares with other websites are anonymized, too.

Why I said I use a VPN “most of the time”

I always use my VPN when on public wi-fi. Even if the coffee shop wi-fi is protected by a password, it’s super easy for a bad guy to steal your logins and passwords. (Learn more here.)

At home, my internet connection isn’t usually fast enough to support a VPN connection. But if you have a normal internet situation (i.e. cable internet) you probably won’t even notice a speed difference.

How VPNs work:

You can add a VPN in your device settings. Most VPN services come with their own apps, that make setting everything up super easy.

I use PureVPN, which has apps for Mac and iPhone. I tried another service, but it didn’t work as reliably as PureVPN. It’s usually $11/month, but they’re having a promo now for an annual subscription for $80.