10 Questions With Brian Solis (S1, Ep4)
Just how harmful is technology to our productivity? The “Lifescale” author shares how we’ve become slaves to technology, what tech companies can do to really help with “Time Well Spent”, and what we have in common with “Wall-E”.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on LinkedIn.
For decades, technology has advanced the course of humankind such as bringing us to the moon, helping map the human genome, getting us from place to place on-demand, changing how we purchase goods and services and even find entertainment. But we’ve entered a period when we’re less enamored by its benefits and perturbed by its obsessive nature. We’re overwhelmed by notifications, constant pings across social networks, have a Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and therefore need to “be on” all the time, and have achieved a level of digital distraction never seen before.
Brian Solis, a principal analyst at Altimeter Group, realized he had this problem so he turned it into his latest book entitled “Lifescale: How to live a more creative, productive, and happy life”. It’s an interesting read that provides tangible steps we all can take to wean ourselves from our technology to reclaim our creative minds and get back to true ideation, not being enslaved by the latest ping, chat, or demand for attention. In this edition of “10 Questions”, I asked Solis to provide some insights into his findings and what we can do to be better humans.
- You can read my review of “Lifescale: How to live a more creative, productive, and happy life” here.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity.
As an analyst who has studied digital transformation within organizations, “Lifescale” is positioned for the consumer, not the employee. We always hear about “being on,” that hustling is a necessity, not an option. Can we still follow “Lifescale”?
The cult of hustle is in no way, shape or form equivalent to shipping or executing. We glorify “busy” because it gives a sense of execution when very little has been accomplished. Busy doesn’t, by any means, signify that we’re actually producing to our full potential.
Whether you work in Silicon Valley or not, the journey I describe isn’t without challenges. As tech addicts, we’ll fight to keep our devices close at all times, while gradually weaning ourselves off checking them constantly. But the point of “Lifescale” isn’t that we’re going to go off the grid. We all need to check email, but not every two minutes or at 3 a.m. The same applies to social media. I’m not advocating complete abstinence, but I do think its healthier to check in once or twice a day, not a dozen or two dozen times. It’s about moderation.
I also believe it’s important that everyone — people at all levels of the corporate structure — get on board. I’d love it if they all read and embraced “Lifescale”, but even if they just take in some of the information I share in the book, there will be progress. For example, constantly “being on” doesn’t actually accomplish much. If you’re going to get big things done, you need to focus in on that one big task, not respond to 100 emails in 10 minutes. Once our industry’s leaders understand how closing our doors, blocking email, putting on noise-canceling headphones and spending a few hours focusing on one challenging assignment actually boosts their bottom line, I think they’ll get on board with this less-is-more approach. For some, it will take longer, because they’re dealing with their own undiagnosed distraction issues, but I’m a positive person. I believe change will come sooner rather than later.
You take on Big Tech for our technological distractions, but Apple, Facebook, and Google have made efforts to help individuals track time spent on apps, all with what they hope will improve the quality of the consumer experience. Why do you think this isn’t enough?
These are just acts of trying to raise awareness and to help people manage tech time, but in no way are they helping curb addiction. The addiction is built into their device and their favorite apps. If anything, these alerts glorify the amount of time spent, which isn’t helping. Years before they took these positive recent steps, some of these tech firms worked hard to refine ways to get us addicted. Maybe I’ll be happy when Instagram or FaceTime come with warnings from the Surgeon General.
What advice would you give to developers and entrepreneurs as they’re balancing stickiness of their app versus ensuring the health of their users?
There comes a point where we have to look at stickiness versus value. Is there value in the user experience or is it just superficial? If all the value is on the side of the developer, there’s a problem. I don’t want to be sanctimonious. Not all apps need to serve some greater good. Some can just be fun. But developers should at least ask themselves if the apps they’re creating are more than just addictive. Were they designed with a slot-machine mentality to get the user hooked, or do they provide some genuine value or enjoyment?
I also think they should buy a copy of “Lifescale” and skip to chapter 7, “The Value of Values.” It walks the reader through the process of defining what their values are and why they’re important. The exercises will help them identify what’s right for them long-term, what’s ‘right for right now,’ and what’s extraneous or even toxic in their lives that can be dumped immediately.
What are some warning signs you’d say indicate we’re becoming too distracted in our work by technology?
First, let me add that multi-tasking is a problem that ties in with most of the issues of distraction I cover in “Lifescale”. It’s a major problem in the tech industry, but really in all industries. Some of the facts I learned while researching the book are especially alarming. For one, distractibility/multi-tasking reduces our productivity by 40%, while making us irritable and mistake-prone.
To get down to warning signs — if you’re seriously distracted, you’ll seem distracted to others. By that, I mean that you’ll forget things, even lose your train of thought mid-sentence. You’ll find that normally easy tasks become more challenging and you’ll often catch yourself (or worse, not catch yourself ) making dumb mistakes you never would have made before. Procrastination is a big warning sign too. We all get distracted when we have a light workload, but if you have a serious problem, your mind will wander off when you’re working on an important deadline. You’ll find yourself unable to focus for 20 minutes, even 10, without checking email, YouTube, whatever.
In general, you’ll feel like you’re working long, stressful days, but at the end of the week won’t be able to put your finger on any real, major accomplishments. Just small tasks ticked off a list. Meanwhile, you’ll feel mentally and physically exhausted for no apparent reason, especially since you were too busy to hit the gym or even take a 30-minute walk. Finally, on an even sadder note, all this distraction and multitasking is lowering our I.Q.s and, probably, our E.Q.s. It’s making us dumb and lacking in empathy, never a great combination.
In “Lifescale”, you guide readers towards living “a more creative, productive, and happy life” in which we are not slaves to our devices, but society is moving towards a “Jetsons”, “Wall-E”, or “Star Trek” world, one filled with an abundance of technology…how does “Lifescale” reconcile against that future?
The thing about most of those shows is that they glorify the future. But “Wall-E” is actually prescient in that it serves as a warning of what tech will do to our bodies and minds if we grant it dictatorship over our lives.
I still think a lot of the tech we’ve developed over the past few decades is amazing. It’s all in how we use it. Social apps can help us reconnect with long-lost friends and develop new friends who are more than just online connections. Online learning can put affordable education in the hands of people who are too busy or budget-conscious to attend a brick and mortar university full-time. Devices can help people living with physical challenges live more independent lives and help our elders stay in their homes longer. I’ll quote someone I think we both admire, Tristan Harris: “We have the power of gods without the wisdom, prudence, and compassion of gods.” I think if we apply the wisdom we’ve earned (or should have earned) and develop a stronger, industry-wide code of ethics, we’ll be on our way back to a positive future.
All I’m proposing is that we manage what the future promises without letting go of who we are and who we want to become. If you envision your future as being a piece of JELLO floating on a sonic chair, then you do you, Boo!
Are there significant milestones in tech’s evolution that have impacted how distracted we’ve become by technology? Did it start with the mobile device? The internet?
Without sharing a precise timeline, I do think the introduction of notifications and instant access were important milestones, as was the deliberate introduction of persuasive design as a way to manipulate our behavior and addiction.
Our tech use has grown exponentially over the years. That’s the point. It’s everywhere, all the time. No days off. Tech has been an integral part of our lives now going on for three decades. We work with plenty of folks who don’t remember the analog era. I think that’s important to remember. Tech has evolved from a novelty, to essential for certain tasks in certain industries, to an integral part of virtually all industries. Now it’s part of our lives 24/7. We lose sleep because of it.
As the tech has improved and the number of apps mushroomed, we’ve just gotten buried. It’s such a ubiquitous presence that we’ve lost the ability to separate necessary tech use from all the distractions that steal our time. Quantity has overtaken Quality. It’s time we learn the difference.
What are some key takeaways you’d like readers to walk away with?
I’d love for them to walk away with a better understanding of how persuasive design has helped addict us (and our kids) to tech, apps, social media, etc. I’d also like them to really work the Pomodoro, kitchen timer technique and some of the other exercises that help us regain focus for set periods of time.
But I’m ambitious. So if that’s all they get, I’ll be disappointed. I want readers to finish “Lifescale” with a better understanding of their core values, of the finite nature of time and what they want to achieve with however many remaining sunsets their lives hold. I also hope they’ll do more than put “Lifescale” on the shelf. I hope they buy the old-fashioned print version, mark it up, underline passages, bend the pages back, even spill coffee on it, because they’re using it as a reference, going back to it again and again as they work and rework exercises and keep looking for solutions.
A big-picture takeaway is that, for today’s younger generation, the future is theirs to create because it wasn’t defined for them by their parents or grandparents, who never anticipated a world like this. A new generation of leaders needs to emerge.
Explain the design of your book and why it’s different from the past several ones you’ve written.
My first seven books covered topics I’d been researching for years, in a sector where I was an expert. I think “Lifescale” is more important and took more courage to write because I’m not an expert in this field. No mistake, I did a lot of research for this book, but in many ways, I’m a few jumps ahead of people reading it. I’m sharing my journey of recovery, what worked for me and what I hope and plan to get out of this experience.
“Lifescale” is written as a manual. It includes lots of pull quotes, illustrations by my friend Nathan Wright, photos, and exercises for recovering focus, sharpening our vision and getting back in touch with our goals and visions. I wasn’t an expert, but I was put in a situation where I had to become one. No one was fighting for my life and I realized that I wasn’t alone. My only way out was to find a way out, and the book became a pathway for others who were struggling like I was.
Do you intend for readers to walk away with a solution/action plan or is “Lifescale” intended to raise awareness of digital distractions? It seems to take readers on a psychological journey to reset their minds so when they’re done reading, they’re in a higher plane of existence, almost like if you were in a support group.
Sounds like you read the book! Yes, this is a psychological journey. There are a lot of books out now that tell us how to “unplug” or offer effective exercises for regaining our productivity and focus. “Lifescale” includes these features too, but it digs deeper. It explores not only why we’re distracted and how to address the symptoms, but also explores how to take this knowledge and use it to build our real best lives, ones that nourish our core values and not just make us look good on Instagram.
So, yes, I do want readers to walk away with “some answers.” If they walk away thinking they have “all the answers” then they’ve probably missed the point. This is a journey. It’s one we’re going on together. I also want to make it clear that this isn’t a book I wrote and will now put aside and move on. I’m continuing this work, exploring the topic in greater depth and working to build a lifescaling movement to share this knowledge and training with more people. I definitely see Lifescale coaching and support groups in the near future.
Others have been vocal about their concern about excessive digital distractions, but how do you view yourself in this space?
Lately people have been vocal about the trend of distraction, but there’s a difference between just managing distraction and finding your way around it. Most solutions are superficial. We don’t have a life manual of what these things are doing to us, about living a life no one groomed us for. Overcoming tech distractions is the first step to designing a life where we can heal ourselves.
Again, I make it clear that I’m not a guru or thought leader in this sector. I guess you could say I’m a recovering victim of distraction working to build a movement that helps us put distractions in their place. I still work in Silicon Valley and I’m still a believer in the promise of tech. So I see myself as a tech industry veteran, wiser and somewhat wary, but generally optimistic. I don’t dream of a tech-free future, but of one where “Fake News” is contained, kids cross the street with their devices in their backpacks and all of us put tech to better use most of the time. I say “most of the time” because I’m an optimist, but not a blind optimist.
Special thanks go out to Brian Solis for participating in this discussion. “10 Questions” is a project designed to learn more from the people in tech and how it relates to businesses. If you’d like to be interviewed, I’d love to hear from you — send me a note on Twitter (@thekenyeung), Facebook, or here on LinkedIn. You can also find this entire series shared on Flipboard and also on Medium.
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