Trying the digital declutter from Cal Newport’s bestselling book, _Digital Minimalism_

Many of us find ourselves in “digital overload” these days (with social media, instant messaging, texting, emails, calls, to name but a few media that intrude on our daily lives). In his latest book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (Penguin, 2019),  American academic Cal Newport (whose breakout book, Deep Work, I reviewed in 2018),  describes and suggests a “digital declutter.” 

This week I’m excited to share a guest blog posting from my colleague, freelance journalist and entrepreneur,  Ashleigh Mattern (please see her bio at the bottom of this posting). This posting describes Ashleigh’s own experience of digital decluttering after she read Newport’s latest book.

Her posting starts here . . . .

 Most people don’t take the time to be mindful of the technology they use or how they use it, and before I read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, I would have included myself in those ranks.

This book is a worthwhile read for just about anyone with a smartphone. Cal Newport delves into the psychological impacts of the technology that surrounds us, tackling the topic with a clear and engaging voice.

Digital declutter

Digital Minimalism centres around the idea of trying a “digital declutter,” and as soon as I started reading this book, I started the process of removing optional technologies from my life.

“Optional” is a key word here — Newport recognizes that these technologies have so invaded our lives that some of them are no longer entirely optional, particularly those that are required for us to complete our work.

As the owner of a website design and online marketing company, there is quite a bit of technology that I was unable to completely remove.

This digital declutter is not prescriptive. There’s no step-by-step guide that you follow. Instead, he discusses the ideas and then encourages you to make your own rules.

I took some time to think about which technologies in my life I considered to be optional or required, I made a list of digital declutter rules for myself.

Ashleigh’s personal digital declutter rules:

• No iPad unless playing games with someone else or using for research or recipes.
• Leave your phone at home whenever feasible.
• Don’t bring your phone out when with other people.
• Leave your phone away from you and check it at regular intervals.
• Apply the Minimalist Technology Screen to any apps you add.
• Don’t post on social media, comment on posts, or like posts.
• No audiobooks or other audio entertainment when walking or biking or running.

Your list of declutter rules would likely look entirely different from mine because they’d be suited to your life.

The most obvious technology to ban was the iPad. It’s an optional technology that I sometimes worry I overuse. How to manage my cell phone was harder because I use it for work. I deleted as many apps as I could, including health tracking apps, and I turned it on silent.

I also limited the times I could listen to audio, whether that be podcasts or audiobooks or radio. Newport argues if you’re always plugging your ears with information, then you’re never giving yourself time to think.

TV wasn’t as much of an issue for me, though I understand how it could be challenging for some people. Despite being less worried about the amount of time I spend on the television, I did make a rule that I could only watch TV or movies or play video games if I were with someone else.

In general, Newport argues that many of these technologies rob you of your own idle mind space, which is integral to both mental health and, surprisingly, our social lives. He says when people let their minds wander, they spend much of that time thinking of their interactions with other people, and running those imaginary scenarios helps us understand the people around us better.

The benefits

The declutter was pretty uncomfortable for the first few days. I had to change all my habits. I had to remind myself that it was only for one month. It was tempting to fall back on old habits, especially because I didn’t always have new habits in place yet.

But only a few days in, I began to see benefits.

More time to do what I enjoy

First and foremost, I felt like I had more time when I wasn’t wasting so much of it mindlessly scrolling through social media.

Newport suggests finding a new hobby to fill that time, preferably a physical one that produces something tangible like woodworking. He argues your downtime doesn’t need to spent idly. In fact, he argues your hobbies should be at least somewhat demanding; to challenge you.

My choice wasn’t on his list of suggestions, but I made my new hobby cooking. I enjoy cooking but I always found myself making rushed meals because there was never enough time. Now I had more time to do something I enjoy.

Less stress

Giving myself more time to think helped me feel less stressed out. While I’m walking or biking or running now, I use that time to work out problems or to practice mindful meditation.

Social media has also been a source of stress for me, stemming from comparing my life to others or wondering why a post didn’t get much attention (or too much of the wrong kind of attention). Disconnecting was an immediate relief.

Newport explains how social media is designed to work like a slot machine, and only after stepping away from it could I see how true that was.

Being more present

I’m more present when I’m out with friends or at a business meeting because I’m not constantly checking my cellphone. If I really feel the need to check it, I go away, like I’m smoking a cigarette (the analogy to an addiction is apt).

Instead of thinking about how I could turn an experience into a social media post, I’m simply enjoying my time. If I’m inspired to take a photo for the beauty or enjoyment in the moment, I do, but my mind isn’t constantly spinning on crafting a story for social feeds.

Better relationships

Social media is a particular problem for many people, and Newport argues that’s because our ape brains can’t differentiate between the digital connections on the screens and the far higher quality connections we make in person. When you cut social media from your life, you will lose many low-quality connections, but Newport argues you’ll strengthen the ones that really matter.

During the digital declutter, I could no longer like or comment on the posts of one of my best friends, which encouraged me to connect with her in real life — a much higher quality connection.

Additionally, because I wasn’t allowed to comment on posts, I instead sent a personal message when someone tagged me in a post, which opened up a conversation that led to a contract for our business.

Technology screen

Newport suggests that after the digital declutter, you apply a “screen” to any technology you add back into your life.

That screen should (paraphrased in my own words):
1. Serve something you deeply value.
2. Be the best way to use tech to serve this value.
3. Have a “standard operating procedure” that specifies when and how you use it.

For me, applying the screen meant writing this all out for each of the technologies in my life but you could just as easily simply spend some time thinking about these issues if that works for you.

I discovered the iPad wasn’t really the problem — scrolling through social media was, though, as was spending an entire evening playing mobile games. So, I’ve stopped scrolling through social media entirely, but I decided to play mobile games for an hour at the end of the day isn’t really a problem.

I’ve stopped posting on social media as well, though I’m still using groups and messages to help me connect with people in person.

It felt odd at first to be on the outside of such a huge phenomenon but I adjusted. It’s not the end of the world to not be on social media. Of course, many people have already realized this, but when you’re in the thick of it, that can be hard to see — and that’s exactly what the social media platforms want.

The result

Not all of the rules from the digital declutter stuck — I felt unsafe leaving the house without my cellphone, and I was never able to break the habit of having my phone beside me at all times — but most of the rules have turned into habits.

Being more mindful of how I use technology has been a huge benefit to me. I used to scroll and scroll on social media, e-commerce, Netflix, and news sites; mindlessly consuming — usually for a short period but sometimes for hours at a time. I plugged my ears with audiobooks and podcasts whenever I had the chance, never giving myself a break from the deluge of information.

It wasn’t until I cut these things from my life that I realized they were a problem.

Newport doesn’t suggest you cut these technologies from your life entirely; these days, that would be nearly impossible. But simply by being more mindful of how I use them, I feel as though I’ve improved the quality of my life.

*****

 Ashleigh Mattern is the co-owner of Vireo Creative,  a web design and marketing firm; and the co-owner of Play Sask Sports, an adult rec sports league. She also works part-time at CBC as a journalist and copy-editor, and as an associate producer on “Saskatoon Morning.”

And now it’s your turn: Will you consider digitally decluttering  your life? Please weigh in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.

 

 

Don’t have enough good clients (as a freelancer)? On self-limiting beliefs and how to upend them (with Ed Gandia)

Freelance creatives routinely complain about the difficulty we have finding quality, high-paying clients: In the American “Freelance Industry Report” (published in 2012), 37% of creatives named it as the greatest challenge we face.

Other surveys since then have shown that 53% of US freelancers struggle to find good clients. The numbers are not much different in Canada—and may clock in higher, especially in less populous and affluent parts of the country.

Or so we tend to say. But American copywriter and coach Ed Gandia,  co-author of The Wealthy Freelancer [2010])  and of training programs at AWAI (American Writers and Artists, Inc), wants to turn those concerns on their heads. Instead, he says, we should consider how freelance creatives can be our own greatest liabilities in the process of securing good clients.

Ed suggests that “the common view and attitudes about attracting and landing quality clients are simply misguided. They’re based on a limited view of reality, and they’re destroying freelance businesses every day” (podcast, June 20, 2013).

He recognizes the “vicious cycle”—a “downward spiral that’s VERY difficult to escape from”— when freelancers have little or no work and so accept projects beneath their abilities just to “pay the bills.” When we’re desperate, we often quote fees that devalue our work, which in turn feeds (underpaying) clients’ expectations that we’ll do more such work and at that low rate. What Canadians call a “poverty mentality” takes hold.

Yes, there are cheap clients, and there are regions of the country (and continent) where clients with deeper pockets are harder to find. But Ed says that equally–if not more so–the problem is that freelancers subscribe to “self-limiting beliefs and assumptions,” that he describes as “dangerous”:

(1) We assume that there is just “too much competition,” because the market is flooded with self-employed creatives who bring down fees and that this challenge cannot be countered.

(2) Self-employed creatives also assume that a “difficult economy” makes it very hard to secure good projects with good fees.

(3) Content mills (e.g. Upwork, etc.) create an “ultra-competitive market” because they undercut proper pay for freelance creatives.

(4) Freelancers believe that the quality of clients is receding, because it seems that clients simply don’t value our work.

Ed doesn’t deny that there are legitimate kernels with these concerns, but that they’re based on “a very limited view of reality” that can destroy even the most gifted and committed freelancer. (We can become our own businesses’ greatest liabilities, if we unthinkingly accept our own limiting beliefs.) 

He counters these common concerns, thus:
Even a poor economy doesn’t have to undermine a freelance business, because of the “diversification principle.” That principle tells us that only a “sample size of 30 or larger will give you statistically valid results.” Because we can usually take on only about three to six clients as freelancers at one time, our financial success does not depend on overall economic conditions or forces.

Freelancers can thus create their own “micro economy,” by developing a system of prospecting for clients that “yields enough clients every year to keep yourself booked to capacity.” So the overall economy won’t be relevant.

Ed also stresses that freelancers who think they must diversify should realize that it can hurt, not help us. Why?  Because narrowing our sites on a niche can help us to become a “trusted expert” in our fields, instead of pandering to the “bargain basement” crowd. As a “trusted expert,” the ratio of clients to available freelancers diminishes, the higher one’s fees rise. (For example, Upwork may have as much as a 10: 1 ratio between the number of jobs versus number of contractors, whereby no freelancer can win.)

What he says is key is to change our strategy, approach and effort to that of a “Trusted Expert” level (versus the “bargain basement”), where there are more clients than freelancers. For such ideal clients, our fees are only one factor that matters, among four or five others.
Clients at this level know our value, our record and “proven expertise.”

He recommends freelancers take four steps to reach the “Trusted Expert” level (or sweet spot):

1. Become totally clear about who our ideal client(s) are. How large is their company? Do they have capacity to hire without consulting others? Do they have scope to value the freelancer and see their fees as fair for their expertise and experience? Can this client continue to funnel work down the pike to us, over time?

2. Go after “hungrier markets.” These are markets that are willing to pay for quality writing, so we can double or triple our fees for our hard work.

3. Develop a “systematic way to attract great clients.” We may need to prospect among medium-sized companies with deeper pockets. When the economy weakens, freelancers may seek projects considered urgent to their clients and whose own clients have equally important and urgent products or services that need filling. As Ed says, “Go where they’re starving!”

Freelancers need to develop a more systematic approach for such prospecting. We need to use, in Ed’s words,  “proven and reliable marketing tactics that yield disproportionately high results when compared to the effort, time and money required to execute them.” And make sure those efforts are relatively easy to commit to (e.g. strategize the value of networking, cold-calling, direct mail, social media, public speaking, article writing, blogging, eNewsletters, tapping one’s network, etc., in relation to our prospects and according to our own gifts.) Ed recommends setting aside at least 10% of one’s work week for marketing-related action. 

4. Deliver great quality service: Provide the best work we can, in the most professional and congenial way, to get more work and more referrals. As AWAI has said for years, “be easy to work with.”

Be sure to follow through on meeting deadlines and doing what we have promised.

Be flexible if some elements of a client’s contributions are not presented on time—if there are delays or if scope changes, mid-way through a contract. Freelancers need to roll with the punches and “come up with a creative win-win situation rather than complain or threaten the client.”

Ed concludes his mammoth podcast by saying that we can make ourselves a highly valued contractor to client teams by showing an interest in their businesses—asking them about what they do, what makes them outperform their competitors, meeting their people and learning about their culture and goals and so on.

Such engagement tends to make clients “loyal and not very price sensitive.”

And now it’s your turn: Do you find Ed’s tips on how to avoid our self-limiting beliefs and assumptions to be valid? How can his tips to overcome them help you? Please write in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Want to land a (better) job this year? Not getting traction with your current resume? Got the resume blues and not sure how to shake ’em?

Here’s an answer . . .

 

Storytelling Communications and NSILC Present . . . .

RESUME BASICS: A Lunch ‘n Learn Event

Tuesday January 21st, 2020

10:30 am-12:00 noon +lunch

To be held at NSILC (Northern SK Independent Living Centre)

237–5th Ave. North, Saskatoon (across from The StarPhoenix building)

Click here to buy your ticket ($20 includes 11/2 hour workshop, resource handbook and a nutritious lunch with networking opportunities):

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/84217465707

The slides are ready, resource handbooks are being printed, we’re adding numbers to our lunch and networking time . . . .

This will be the last seminar on the topic for the season.

Don’t miss out!

Facing a new year & a new decade: some 2020 vision on the feast/famine cycle (with Daphne Gray-Grant)

Freelancers everywhere, if they’re honest, know that no matter how well work may flow several of weeks or months, eventually contracts dry up for us all.

Maybe the client with whom you had a retainer decides to rebrand radically (or retire!), ending that ongoing relationship (inducing a “famine”).

Or illness strikes you or a family member so that you must scale back on contracts you’d earlier planned on earning (“famine”).

At the other end of things, maybe several prospects contact you at once, wanting work done “yesterday” (“feast”).

Or a new client causes “scope creep” so that you have less time than you originally expected to complete revisions for them, adding to an already full rota of projects (“feast”).

“Feasting” for many hard-working, introverted writers isn’t as fun as the term suggests. Usually, it’s exhausting. The pace of work also makes it difficult to plan for future projects, months away, when your current flow of work will have stopped.

“Famine” can be alarming, if you have too small profit margins and inadequate savings or no alternative sources of income. Most often, as writer and publication coach Daphne Gray-Grant argues in her blog posting from January 2019, “famine” periods are deeply, “deeply boring.” To the point that writers and creatives can descend into a morose state of mind.

Both “feast” and “famine” cycles disrupt a healthy pattern of work and rest that are vital to freelance life.

To the newbie freelancers whom I meet and for whom I occasionally present workshops, Gray-Grant has some useful ideas for preventing and then dealing with and surviving the highs and lows, as they inevitably arise.

A. Preventing the “feast/famine cycle”:

(1) She recommends that you calculate how many hours you can devote to work each week, including time for maintenance tasks (like billing, bookkeeping, marketing, etc.) that you cannot charge for. That way, you will be more conscious of your targeted hours of work.

(2) It’s also important to estimate your creative (e.g. writing and editing) speed. So keep a spreadsheet in Excel, where you pair up a unit of your work (e.g. word counts for writers) with the time it takes: After two weeks, she says, you’ll be able to take the average and yield a realistic idea of your speed. This too will assist you in knowing how much work to take on, for the time you have available.

(3) Identify when you’re most productive (usually 3-4 hours out of each day) and do your client work in that time (instead of bookkeeping or filing, etc., which earn you nothing).

(4) Watch your cash flow, to save funds for emergency times. Gray-Grant suggests retaining at least three months worth of “salary” (i.e. the income you regularly expect to earn) in savings. That way, if a client reneges on a contract, you won’t sweat it.

Alternatively, if you are well paid for some work, never be a spendthrift: put money aside for a new computer, tech device or online training program, to keep your skills updated.

(5) Seek long-term clients: encourage good customers to repeat by offering special rates and “kid-glove service.” These folk allow you to build a comfortable schedule, instead of having to “hustle” and face panic over how to meet next month’s rent.

(6) Market your services perpetually. Regardless of whether you’re in “feast” or “famine,” freelancers always need to promote their services. So continue to send out that biweekly blog posting and/or newsletter. Or give presentations and talks—aim to make six new contacts who are in your niche area. Constant marketing, she writes, “is the secret to having a life free of ‘feast’ and ‘famine.’”

B. Coping with the “feasts”

(1) Don’t accept more work than you can handle, because work should not
cost you sleep, exercise or relationships with those you love. Also, when the quality of your work declines, you’ll only disappoint those clients.

(2) Delegate work to a colleague—Gray-Grant acknowledges that this can be risky, as the client may prefer your colleague’s work! But to delegate/refer to someone else is better than giving an outright “no.”

Alternatively, you can subcontract part of the work and still supervise the end product.

(3) Don’t live paycheque to paycheque: When you’re lucky to make more money than you immediately need (“feasts”), be wise and save money for the future “famine” times.

(4) Market your services perpetually—which is never easy, when you’re “feasting” and time is in short supply. But you will need to secure work for two or more months in the future. Gray-Grant recommends setting aside a bit of time, each day, before you do that day’s work, for prospecting activity.

C. Coping with “famines”:

(1) Keep your usual routine.  Don’t sleep in!  And keep your routine for daily work, so that you accomplish other, non-paying tasks, that may have gotten short-shrift when you were busy with paying clients.

(2) Update your resume and your online portfolios to save time for when another “feast” period returns.

(3) Spend more time networking, to reconnect with former clients and to meet and impress potential new ones.

Also consider returning to your healthy exercise routine (if it was earlier abandoned).

And read some current fiction (e.g. the latest novel from Margaret Atwood). The “fun” factor here will prime your mind for future creativity and keep you in touch with your creative community.

(4) Again, always market yourself, and do so, even more, when you’re in a “famine” period—try making 10 new contacts a week (instead of only six). Give more talks and/or post more intensively on your blog or social media. Update your website, if needed.

While freelance work can be joyful and liberating (to be one’s own boss), the “feast or famine” cycle endemic to it has often been seen as its major drawback.

There is no silver lining here.

But by following my summary of Gray-Grant’s tips, you can protect yourself from the ups and downs that otherwise can overtake freelance work.

I recommend reading her blog on aspects of freelancing (focusing on contract writing) at https://www.publicationcoach.com/blog/ . Her unique approach to freelancing may illuminate yours.

And now it’s your turn: if you are a freelancer, how do you cope with the “feast-famine” cycle? Please weigh in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Know how to use the apostrophe correctly? Who still cares (in today’s blog posting) . . .

On December 2nd (2019), CBC radio’s popular current events show, “As It Happens,” featured an interview with 96 year old John Richards, the UK-based founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society.

After fighting for 18 years to protect the punctuation mark from “misuse and oblivion,” chairman Richards shared that he has given up. For nearly a generation, he has urged people to use proper punctuation, but says that barbarian practices have won out, due to “a mixture of ignorance and laziness.”

He observed that “a lot of people don’t care very much about being totally correct [so] if you want an apostrophe, put it anywhere. They don’t bother to learn the right place or wrong place.”

Richards likes the English language, finding it “very expressive. And the apostrophe plays a very important part in it.” So many don’t know where to place the apostrophe, and so think “it’s best to leave it out.”

A case in point is the owner of a local café, whose owner put the sign “COFFEE’s” in the window. When Richards spoke to him about the error, the owner said, “I think it looks better with the apostrophe.” About such cases, Richards says, nothing can be done.

He says that often the apostrophe is misused to form the plural of nouns (e.g. “Iced Bun’s” or “Ladie’s Washroom”). In these cases, the apostrophe has been reduced to a mere decoration, regardless of meaning .

(Photo by picjumbo.com from Pexels.)

Richards laments that “people have decided that the apostrophe is going to disappear. It may not be immediate, but it will be in a few years . . . and most people won’t be bothered at all.”

The apostrophe is challenging, as it’s used for contractions as well as for possessives. There are rules to learn (although not many or difficult ones) that increasingly are disregarded. He says that “the English language is deteriorating in the UK, generally,” and that many people “just don’t bother about getting things right.” Imagine what he’d find in contemporary North American writing practices!

Even as John Richards retires at age 96 and closes the society, he takes heart in what victories the society has had in the past 18 years, correcting public misuses of apostrophes. He hopes that someone with “more energy” will take up his mantle.

And now it’s your turn: Do you care about correct punctuation? Do write in; I’d be delighted to extend this conversation.