Thinking Through Email: Turn Off Notifications

Email is tough. In the last post I wrote about why we have such a hard time with it, why we’re so often overwhelmed by it. The root of the problem is that it wasn’t built for the things we use it for. So where do we start? How do we get it under control?

I have a couple of ideas I want to talk through, though it will take us a few posts to get through them. These ideas work well for me[1] and I think they’ll be usefull to you as well. They’re not all original. Others have written about so often that they’ve become common practice these days[2].

RELAX

We need to relax when it comes to email. The email alert on our phones and PCs[3] has us so conditioned that we turn to deal with the email immediately. This impacts the quality of everything we do, including email itself.

Consider turning off noticitations. Ignore the inbox when you work on other projects or take a break from your work. Check email a few times a day rather than letting your inbox dictate your focus.

Remember, emails are memos. We don’t get a notification every time someone places a note on our desks. That sheet of paper doesn’t bring the rest of your work to a halt. It waits until you have the time to deal with it.

The more we let incoming email dictate our work, the more scattered and inefficient our work is going to be.

If It’s an Email, It’s not an Emergency

Think back on your last month or two of emails. How many times were you notified of an emergency through email? You may be in a position that invites that sort of email. But you’ll receive emergency notifications through a phone call, instant message or a text[4].

The key is that you have to convince yourself that it’s OK to not see an email the moment it arrives. If you feel you must, use priority options for your most important contacts. Both iOS and Android have a method to ensure some contacts can get through no matter what.

The Recommendation

Turn off your email notifications and deal with all your emails in bunches, rather than as they come in. You’ll be more productive as you clean out your inbox and less distracted when you work on other projects.

Our communication methods don’t own us. Email connects us to the people in our lives at home and at work. It’s a tool that we use to send information. It’s not an end, it’s a means.


  1. On the occasions that I’m disciplined in my interactions with email. I don’t have it together, I’m just trying to get there.  ↩

  2. If I need to attribute one of my suggestions here to someone in particular, let me know: machinecompatible@gmail.com.  ↩

  3. I mean in the Personal Computer sense, not the Windows Machine sense.  ↩

  4. If it’s a true emergency, you’ll probably get all four within minutes of each other.  ↩

Repurposing Someone Else’s Toolbox

Don't repurpose this tool. Unless you're going to use it as a paperweight. Or a decoration. Actually, use it for anything but writing.
Don’t repurpose this tool. Unless you’re going to use it as a paperweight. Or a decoration. Actually, use it for anything but writing.

My tools are stupid. Some are too simple. The rest are too complex. They don’t work the way they should. They look like they were designed using sidewalk chalk in a parking lot.

You’d be crazy to try to use the tools I use. But my tools are perfect for me.

What Works for Me…

I spent[1] a lot of time finding the right apps for all the jobs that I do. Any other person would look at my Applications folder or my iPad’s home-screen and just shake their head. It’s not necessarily a collection that I’m proud of, but it gets the job done.

I’ve found, and am still finding, apps that do the job that I need them to do. What I’ve found won’t work for you because you don’t work the way I do.

Don’t Copy, Learn

This is not to say that there’s something wrong with looking for suggestions on how to build, record, or write. In fact, you should find smart people and learn from them. But that’s the crucial distinction: find people to learn from, don’t just do everything those people say.

The way to do important work, meaningful work, is to make conscious decisions about the way I’m doing something. To make those decisions, I need to understand what I’m doing, not just do what someone else says.

This is something I struggle with. It’s easy to slip from looking for suggestions to implementing someone else’s workflows. It’s easy because I’m lazy. I don’t want to take the time to understand the problem and work out a solution.

The problem with the copycat approach is that we’re not all the same. We differ in both how we approach and carry out our work. My workflows won’t work for you[2], you’re workflows won’t work for me. Don’t try to force them to.

Make it Yours

The real solution is to take concepts and tools and repurpose them. I’m writing this in Byword, a plain text editor. I’m not collaborating with anyone. I need a little bit of formatting, some footnotes to unclutter my prose, and a blank page to write on.

I’m working on a book that will include some video segments. I’m using Pages because it allows me to format the book the way I need it. I can include videos and export the individual chapters to iBooks Author to do the final layout.

But you may be working on a legal document with a lot of people on different platforms. Pages and Byword would be terrible choices for that project. You’d choose Microsoft Word, or some industry-specific tool that suits your needs.

Take some time to understand your needs. Think through the problem you’re having. Find an appropriate solution. It might save you some time, it will certainly save you some frustration.

How have you repurposed a tool to use it in your workflow? Let me know in the comments.


  1. Am spending. I think about this stuff way too much.  ↩

  2. Mostly because they’re really, really bad.  ↩

How to Find Tools That Work For You

keyboard search

I wrote a piece a few days ago on the importance of choosing our tools with care. Then I linked to an article yesterday by Shawn Blanc on the tools he’s chosen to work with.  I think this a theme that’s worth developing.

Don’t Worry What Other People Are Using

We can count on one thing from the internet: flame wars[1]. I was scrolling through my feed and ran across this question: “Should I upgrade to iOS 8.0.2?”[2]

There were a few helpful answers among the 30-something responses. But the first answer to a simple “should I update?” question was “NO! Buy and LG3!”. Most of the responses were in that vain.

HUH?

That answer didn’t just ignore the question, it assumed that what works for one person will work for another. That is false. Don’t let what someone else is using determine the way you’re going to work. Think through the options. Understand what is important to you. Know what tools you enjoy using.

Use What Other People Are Using

I know, I’m not making sense. But you won’t find the tools you need without a little help. Check out review sites. Look at app recommendations from people who’s work you follow. Ask around.

There’s someone out there who has encountered the same problem and has found the solution. There’s no reason to take the long way around. If you’ve found a tool that almost works but could be better check out sites like AlternativeTo.

There’s so much great software and hardware available that there’s no excuse to keep using tools that don’t work for you[3].

Use What Works

You are the ultimate decision maker when it comes to your tools. If you love using something, nothing else matters. If you’ve found tools that make your life easier, that you couldn’t dream of working without, use them.

Be Respectful of Other People’s Workflows

This is one I’m still working on. It’s hard to get over the idea that I know what’s best. It’s difficult to imagine someone working a different way than I do. But people do work differently. They act differently. They think differently.

A lot of the arguments we get into online stem from this. We can’t understand why someone would use an “inferior” tool when the tools we use are available. Remember, someone’s choice about what they prefer to use isn’t an indictment of you or who you are. They’re just tools.

What are your favorite tools? How did you find them?


  1. Flame Wars: This is a fascinating Wikipedia entry. Of course, if you don’t often read Wikipedia for fun, you may find it less than entertaining.  ↩

  2. A reasonable question. iOS 8.0.1 caused no end of problems for iPhone 6 and 6+ users, loss of cellular connectivity and Touch ID, specifically.  ↩

  3. The companies we work for often do put a damper on this kind of thing, but try checking with your IT department. They may be more flexible than you think. Or less. It depends on the company.  ↩

Are You Sure You Want to Use That?

GearI’ve spent the evening thinking about the complications that technology introduces to our lives. The subject came to mind while trying to wrest a few months[1] of life from my parents seven year old MacBook. I’ll upgrade the RAM and install the newest version of OSX that I can[2]. I’m not optimistic.

My family purchased our first computer when I was 5. It was a Hewlett Packard[3] and ran Windows 3.1. It had less hard drive space than the phone sitting on my desk. I imagine it cost more than my car.

I’m not writing this to earn computer street cred. I’m not saying Dig Dug droping rocks on monster’s changed the course of my life[4] or that I’m the greatest family tech to walk the earth. My point is far more philosophical and pretentious than that.

My Horrible Attention Span

How often do I allow myself to get distracted from my work or family or friends? A lot of times it’s for a good reason: My mom needs help getting her computer back into working condition. But I can’t spend the whole weekend staring at a display waiting for an OS installation. I’d be wasting time that I could be spending with her[5].

Think it Through

It might be worth taking some time to examine the technology you use. Think about the kitchen gadgets cluttering your cabinets. The set-top boxes covering your TV stand. The devices you carry with you. The apps clotting your home screens.

Does the time you spend with these things add value to your life? Are they just sitting around, wasting space? I’m often distracted from the things that do add value to my own life.

Intentional

I’ve kept coming back to the word intentional over the past few weeks. It’s a popular word right now. I’m glad it’s drawn some attention. Intentional means that we do things with purpose. That we make our decisions with forethought, understanding the implications and ramifications.

Intentional means we think things through before we do them. As you sift through the tech in your life, be intentional. Understand the purpose of the technology you’re using if it doesn’t fit, cut it. I bet you’ll find a dozen worthwhile things to replace it.

Have you ever had to cut back the overgrowth of tech in your life? What things made the cut? What didn’t?


  1. Maybe years, but I doubt it.  ↩

  2. Lion, if you were curious.  ↩

  3. This was the company that would change their name to HP. Yes, it was a long time ago.  ↩

  4. It’s possible. A more likely candidate for that honor is XCOM: Terror From the Deep, though. Man, I love that game. The recent XCOM is super-good too.  ↩

  5. My parents live in Mexico, so I do have limited time. Sleep may be the loser this coming weekend. There’s a computer to work on and a parent to spend time with.  ↩

Some News in Your Tech

I still remember my Granddad sitting at the kitchen table with his oatmeal, coffee, and newspaper. When we were visiting I’d snag the “funnies” and sit with my bowl of cereal and my juice and read with him. I’m old enough to be nostalgic but not quite old enough to still “take the paper”[1].

The Change

News. It’s such a crucial part of how we form opinions. How we understand the world around us. How we interact with people we meet. And few things have changed more over the last three decades.

From newspapers to broadcast news, from 24/7 cable news to a reporter with an iPhone and a Twitter account. News isn’t just getting faster, we’re getting more of it.

The Feed

The news keeps coming these days. Go to Google News and just watch the stories stream in. Go watch your Facebook stream[2] and count the news stories that scroll by. Click a trending topic in Twitter and see if you can read fast enough to keep up. And it keeps growing.

There are myriad places to read and watch and listen to news on the internet. New sites launch all the time. Old sources shut down. Reporters change jobs like most of us change clothes.

The Controls

We need to take control of our news intake. If we just consume what comes in over Facebook or the big news organizations, we won’t learn or understand on our own. We’ll depend on others’ understanding of the world for our news.

You should be intentional about what you read and hear. Think about who you’re going to listen to. Know what they believe and what they stand for. Find sources that challenge your thinking, sources that encourage you to learn more.

So how do we cope? How do we filter the feed? How do we find sources that we trust and understand? Ones that will do their best to inform us on the import things? It’s a lot more complicated than subscribing to your local paper. It takes a little effort.

The Trusted Collection

I’m willing to bet you have at least one news source you trust already. If that’s so, then go to that sources Twitter feed and find out who they retweet. You’ll gather a collection of news sources quickly.

Remember, news isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it proposition anymore. There are always great new sources cropping up. Old sources may decline. Keep up with your sources.

Don’t be afraid to cut one that isn’t meeting your needs anymore. Or better, shoot them an email and tell them how they’re not meeting your needs. If you like them, help them improve. Sources want to meet the needs of their readers. Let them know how they can do that.

The point is, news isn’t a one way street anymore. It’s a relationship. Corral the sources that work best for you. Cull the herd. Help your sources stay strong.

My Corral

My solution has been to use a couple of different types of feed readers[3]. For blogs and articles, I use Feedly. Feedly lets me organize my different feeds into categories. It helps me stay on top of the things I care about the most.

The second reader I use is a podcast app on my phone[4]. Podcasts are a great way to keep up with news. You can listen while you work on other things like clean the house, etc. I use Beyond Pod on my Android, but there are other great options[5]. Find one that works well for you.

One final item: Google News can be a great way to keep up with stories. You can set alerts on various keywords and terms. You can set the frequency for various types of stories showing up. If you want a quick overview of what interests others, the “Top Stories” is quite useful. Spend a little time understanding the features Google News offers. It may have a place in your news reading.

Recap

News is hard. It can be overwhelming at times. There’s a huge number of topics and a whole lot of world to cover. But if we’re willing to do a little work to curate our intake, we can improve the quality of the news we read. We can learn to better understand the world we live in.

It’s important to find sources that encourage us to think. Sources that make us want to learn and understand. Ones that challenge what we believe, and in so doing, help us develop our world view.

What methods do you use to keep up with the news? What are your favorite news sources? Why?


  1. My grandmother “took the paper” till a few years ago when she moved out of her home. She get’s most of her news from the TV now.  ↩

  2. Top right of the screen. I didn’t know what that was for a while.  ↩

  3. Feed readers scan RSS feeds for updates and collect the resulting updates in a single location for you.  ↩

  4. Podcasts are episodic video or audio recordings updated through RSS feeds. I have several here.  ↩

  5. This article from lifehacker has a list of some excellent options. Give Overcast.fm some thought if you’re on iOS. I like it a lot.  ↩

The Internet, the Makers, and You

I’ve been watching and reading a lot of content on Tested. It’s a great site run from the Mythbusters guys, run by Will Smith and Norman Chan that focuses on Making. The Maker movement is an old one, but I get the sense that it’s grown over the last two decades thanks to the internet [1].

What is the Maker Movement

Maker culture encourages informal, shared social learning focused on the construction of artefacts ranging from robots and 3D-printed models to clothing and more traditional handicrafts [2].

The community surrounding Making is huge and ecclectic. If you build physical things outside the traditional manufacturing paradigm you’re a Maker. The paper goes on to say that some critics call the maker community a “rebranding of traditional hobby pursuits”. This is a criticism only when evalluating the Maker community’s value as a learning environment [3].

We won’t do that here. I want to take a look at the Maker community as empowered hobbyists. We’ll consider this movement in the context of New Media businesses and internet communities.

From Hobbyists to Community Members and Small Business Owners

People made stuff before the internet was around. For the most part, people who made stuff subscribed to the appropriate magazines. Woodworking magazines were everywhere. So were sewing, quilting and even electronics publications.

But until the internet came along, the vast majority of communication was one way. Experts and editors communicated projects and tips to hobbyists. Occasionally there were conventions or trade shows the hobbyists might get to [4]. But for the most part, the hobbyist plied his trade alone.

The internet changed everything. Like it always does. Hobbyists began to connect with each other. They began to realize they could do more, they could add electronics to their cabinets. Instead of clothing, they could sew replica costumes. Their robots were no longer limited by the software they could write themselves. The Maker now had access to other programmers interested in robotics.

It wasn’t just a hobbyist to hobbyist connection, either. Non-Makers started seeing all these amazing, hand-built items show up in forums and articles. The Makers started connecting with customers. E-Bay provided an outlet at first, but the real innovation was Etsy [5].

A Revival of Sorts

I wrote last week how the internet has made our big cities small. How we make connections so much more easily, even when we’re surrounded by an anonimyzing crowd.

The internet has done the same for hobbyists, turning them into Makers. They were always there. They have emerged from their garages and spare bedrooms to form a huge community. To teach and learn from each other. To provide those of us without the skill or time with handbuilt items that delight us.

I have a deep and growing respect for members of the Maker community. We’ve entered a new age of artisanship. We’re seeing guilds crop up again [6] to develop and train new generations of Makers. And we’re seeing some amazing projects that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago.

Where do you stand on the Maker community? What’s your favorite Maker project you’ve seen?


  1. I want to disclaim a couple of things. First, I’m not a Maker. Oh sure, I dabble. I built a desk, printer table, and a display stand for my office. I fix things around the house. I’ll watch a video on occasion and dream about someday building something cool.
    I do love the Maker community, though. I love watching the videos the community makes. I guess you could say I’m a Maker lurker.
    Second, everything I say here is just the impression I get from observing the Maker community from afar. I haven’t done any research into this and I haven’t talked to members of the community or done any kind of interviews. These are just the opinions of someone from the internet  ↩

  2. Open University Innovation Report 2  ↩

  3. The purpose of that particular paper was to evaluate non-traditional learning models, the Maker community was one of them.  ↩

  4. My mom is a quilter so I am most familiar with them. I think of the quilters as a pre-Maker community. The social side of the quilting scene was critical even before the internet. The similarities between quilt shows and modern Maker conventions and meet-ups are numerous.  ↩

  5. Etsy provides a perfect connection to the kind of customer that appreciates hand-made products. Etsy provides an outlet for everyone from the Maker that want’s to go full-time to the one that wants to make a little money on the side.  ↩

  6. Check out Pixel Corps and The Wood Whisperer to see some modern-day guilds in action.  ↩

You on Display

You Live in a Glass House.

Common knowledge, at least among the tech savvy, has dictated that we live our lives in the public eye these days. We’re advised to behave as if we’re always being live-streamed directly to the internet. Recent news about a variety of football players and some recent data breaches confirm this hypothesis.

Look Ma! I’m on TV!

Our personal lives are on display. The cameras aren’t rolling Truman Show style, but they’re ready to switch on at the drop of a…well anything, really. There’s one thing we know about internet memes: anything on this planet can be one. We don’t know what’s going to go viral. There’s a good chance it could be me doing something dumb.

There are a lot of benefits to the way the internet has opened our lives to the rest of the world. In a sense, what I do here at MC Studios is opening myself and my life to public view. As a result, I can reach readers, viewers, and listeners with my message.

It’s Happened Before

We lived for a long time in the anonymity of urbanization. We could hide away in the cities and melt into the crowd. If something happened nearby, maybe we’d get interviewed by the local news. But for the most part, we could live our lives without any concern that our klutziness might be broadcast around the world.

It wasn’t always like that. Before our massive transition to an urban nation, people mostly lived in towns. Small communities don’t allow for the kind of anonymous life that cities do. There were still secrets and some measure of privacy, but I think that was the exception, not the norm.

The internet has made our big cities small. It’s made us aware that there are people all around us. They’re watching what we do and hearing what we say. There’s a chance they’re broadcasting it to everyone else.

I Promise It’s OK

I think we’re more aware than we used to be that there is a need for privacy. I think we’re finding a balance between living lives in the public eye and creating private places in which we can relax. We have a long way to go. Smart phones have altered the way we can behave in public. Ask Jameis Winston. Or maybe not, he doesn’t seem to have figured it out.

My point is that we need to be more thoughtful in the way we live our lives than we were 20 years ago. We can’t always do or say the first thing that comes to mind. It’s not censorship, it’s learning to live again within a community. It’s understanding that it’s OK to sacrificing what’s best for us to do what’s best for the community.

How has the internet changed the way you act or speak? Do you feel trapped or empowered?

Who Owns Your Music?

I’ve been a little surprised at the internet the last couple of days. I know. It shouldn’t shock me after this long.

1. The Problem

Apple gave an album away for free this week. U2’s new album Songs of Innocence showed up in your “purchased” library last week if you have an iTunes account. I went ahead and downloaded the album on my iPad and Mac and took a listen. It was good. Exactly what you’d expect from U2.

What made the internet angry was that if auto-downloads were enabled in iTunes the album would pop up in the library of every device on that account.

This isn’t the first time this kind of behavior has resulted in a massive backlash. In 2009 Amazon recalled a version of 1984 that violated their self-publishing license agreement. Amazon angered users by pulling the book from customer’s devices without their specific permission. Customers, agreed to this in principle under the Kindle’s EULA, but that made little difference.

2. The Root of the Problem

At the moment, the companies that sell the licenses to us own the content, not us. For example, we can’t pass down our digital content when we die because the license agreement doesn’t allow it.

There are some attempts to change the way this works. Comixology sells some of their comics as DRM-free files that belong to the purchaser after the sale. These solutions don’t address the root of the problem, though.

The problem stems from the disconnect that arises from perceived ownership. We think the media we payed for belongs to us. Content providers believe the media ultimately belongs to them.

We could take this conversation in a lot of different directions, but let’s focus on our attitudes about digital media. I can think of 3 things this behavior says about us.

  • We feel about our digital libraries like we do about our persons and our homes
  • We regard any remote handling of our digital libraries like we would an invasion of our persons or our homes
  • We consider that violation as breach of faith between ourselves and the company doing the handling.

Let’s consider each of these statements in turn.

3. My Phone is Me

We’ve come to regard our digital possessions like we do our physical possessions. This is both reasonable and problematic. It’s reasonable to expect that something that we pay for, control, and treat as our own belongs to us. It’s problematic because when we buy a book, we’re buying a license to use it rather than paying for a copy of the book itself.

Amazon was acting well within the license agreement when they recalled the copies of 1984. The copies they removed from the devices didn’t belong to the user, after all.

Apple thought they were doing something nice for their customers. The company bought each of their customers a $9.99 album. But customers reacted as if Apple had come to their house, climbed through the back window, and dropped a stack of LPs on the dining room table.

This leads us to the second point.

4. Don’t Touch Without Permission

In our mind, the digital library belongs to us. We have purchased the content and curated a collection. Remote management by the companies selling the licenses feels like burglary or vandalism.

There is a disconnect between what we and content providers expect. It’s an issue that we’ll have to address as we plow forward into the digital age. We need to come to grips with transition of companies from simple retailers to content providers.

The reality is that the content providers are the content owners. We no longer own a copy of a disk, we own a license to use the copy. The difference is subtle, but crucial. Perhaps that’s not the way media should work, but that’s what we’re faced with at the moment.

This leads us to the final point.

5. Action Without Permission is Inexcusable

We perceive remote management of “our” digital libraries as a breach of our trust. We want businesses to request case-by-case permission to make changes to our library. Implicit agreement is not enough.

Consider the case of email. We sign up for newsletters and bonus deals in our inboxes left and right. But think of the last time someone sent you an unsolicited marketing email. You probably deleted the email immediately. Odds are good that you sent a rather pointed reply to leave you off that email list.

Did you ever feel as outraged by junk mail in your mailbox? I think the devices and services we use are far more personal to us than even our physical property because we carry and use them everywhere we go.

6. The Solution

There are never easy answers to these kind of questions. Who owns the digital libraries we’ve created? We could spend weeks exploring the intricacies of copyright law, but I doubt the solution lies there (that way lies madness).

But I do think we need to take a long look at what we’re paying for when we buy digital media. It’s important that we as a culture understand the benefits and rights that transaction affords us. We need to understand these benefits and rights not only on an intellectual level, but an emotional level.

If nothing changes in how our we handle digital media we’re going to have to deal with the fact that someone else has the keys to our library. Do Apple’s or Amazon’s actions bother you? What do you think we need to do about it?

A Geek Without His Devices (at night)

Do you use your devices in bed?
Do you use your devices in bed?

Let’s talk about technology. First, I love it. I love the powerful ways we can work and communicate with technology. I can record a talk show and post it online for anyone in the world to listen to. My phone has the ability to record video and take amazing pictures and communicate with anyone just about anywhere.

With that said, I started an experiment a week and a half ago ago. I decided I didn’t like my nighttime routine. I’d spend a lot of time on my iPad surfing the web (when was the last time you heard that expression?). I’d play a dumb casual game on my phone. Whatever I was doing, I’d spend an hour or two lying in bed, not doing anything particularly meaningful.

I changed three things to conduct this experiment:

  • I plug in my phone and iPad in the office downstairs (I kept my eInk Kindle upstairs as a part of the second point)
  • I make sure I have a book available by my bed (I’ve tried to make these books that will teach me something)
  • I put an empty notebook and a pen on my bedside table in case I think of a great idea

It’s been pleasant week. I’ve finished two and a half books. I filled a page and a half of the notebook with tasks that I’d like to work on, write about, or talk about. I’ve had conversations with my wife instead of staring at my iPad’s display.

It’s a strange topic for an introductory post on a blog about technology but I believe it’s an apt one. I want to deal with the way technology impacts our lives and our relationships. I want to consider the best way to use our devices and services in a thoughtful way to make our lives better. I want to learn and help others learn to break free of our technology and use it like the tool that it is.

So now for your part. What part of your life could use a little less tech in it?