Towards a geography of digital memory

I’m in Toronto for a lightning trip, speaking tomorrow at a luncheon hosted by Women in Film & Television. Tonight I’m staying at the Sutton Place Hotel, which puts me at the epicentre of memory for my first 25 years of life. From the east-facing window of my suite I look down the barrel of Wellesley Street, which ends in the park that my childhood home adjoined. From the south-facing window I see the Ontario government office block where Rob worked when we first met, long before we got married. If I craned my head out to look west, I’d be looking at the blocks leading to my high school and all the tortured memories that are now locked away within its walls. And if I could look almost due north, I could see the former location of the ice cream cone where Rob and I ate the day we first had lunch together, across from the museum where we were later married.

The geography of memory is powerful and inescapable. There’s no way for me to sit at the corner of Wellesley and Bay Street without feeling utterly overwhelmed by the cumulative personal history that lies within these few square kilometres. At age 40, those memories bring a shocking and somewhat painful awareness of how far distant these memories mostly lie, both in years and in emotional immediacy; the very fact that they no longer hold the same heat or clarity is a reminder of how long ago these events took place. With that tangible connection to the passing of time comes the brutal, blessed awareness of what it means to make each day count, and to use well the years that lie ahead.

If walking down a once-familiar street can discipline us in the art of living fully, what happens when our memories no longer lie in streets to which we can return? Geek though I be, my memories are mostly embedded in the physical spaces that presently surround me: my childhood home (where I used my first computer); the Queen’s Park legislature (where I met my husband on the online chat network); the local pub (where a group of us convened the meeting that established Canada’s first online political network).

As our world and culture move online, it will be the digital experiences that take the foreground, and the geographic locations that fade to the back. Do you remember where you sat when you first logged onto Facebook — and would you be nostalgic to return to that same desk? Do you remember where you were when you wrote you first tweet? Which computer you were using the day you met your digital BFF?

Our digital spaces might themselves hold the same evocative power as the geographic spaces to which we now attach, but unlike physical locations, we are much less likely to revisit them. Have you used the Internet Archive to visit your old Geocities page and enjoy a whiff of nostalgia? Looked for a screen capture of the AOL login screen? Listened to a recording of the sound your 2400-baud modem made as it established its tentative connection to the net?

While our digital lives are much easier to preserve and much harder to erase than the specifics of any given cityscape, we are far less likely to discover emotional resonance through the happenstance of wandering onto the digital terrain of our youth. A website, once razed, no longer has a location to which you can feel attachment; nobody notices that the URL they are visiting represents an I.P. address that used to belong to their favorite blog. Online, what’s gone is gone, and even what remains — technically — may be just as invisible if we never visit, and it never pops up in search results.

What anchors can we create, I wonder, to provide some emotional endurance to our most meaningful digital moments? Perhaps Facebook’s Timeline is a start, giving you a way to wander down your digital memory lane and remember the funny site you once liked or shared.

But the emotional memories that have the power to shock us into recognizing the passage of time — to recognize how brief and precious today really is — are not the memories that we carefully curate. They are the memories we stumble across, or stumble into, someplace as impermanent as a one-night hotel room.

Respecting the billable hour

Can I have $500?

One of the interesting things about being a consultant or entrepreneur is that people ask you for that kind of money all the time. I was reminded of this recently while catching up with a friend who (unlike me) is still involved in the daily work of running a web company. My friend had just received what I think of as a “can I have $500?” email, by which I mean an email that asks something like:

“I’d like your advice on my project. Do you have time to meet this week?”

“Would you be part of a brainstorming meeting with our team?”

“Can I take you to lunch and pick your brain?”

When you send an email like this to someone who earns their living by the billable hour, you’re asking them to give you money. When I running Social Signal full-time, giving someone a couple of hours of my time cost me $500: the $500 I wasn’t billing during that time.

One of the delights of focusing our work on projects with an environmental or social benefit is that I usually feel like my donated time is helping make the world a better place. Many of the people who were (implicitly) asking me for $500 were doing so on behalf of organizations or projects that are largely donor funded. In giving my time, I became one more donor.

It’s in the nature of running a business that you have lots of conversations with lots of people, only some of which will turn into actual paying work. We all need to invest a certain amount of time in leads that turn cold, in developing relationshiops for their own sake, in providing other up-and-comers with the kind of advice and insight that generous business people once shared with us.

But there is a big difference between meeting with a consultant to assess whether you want to hire her, and asking her to simply give you a couple of hours to do the work you need. When you are talking to someone whose work includes analyzing problems, offering insight or making recommendations, “picking their brain” is the same as asking them to work for free.

Sometimes that is appropriate. Sometimes you really would ask someone for $500, because you are working on a worthy cause that depends on donations, and you are approaching someone who you think might share your belief in that cause. Sometimes you really would ask someone for $500 because you have a personal relationship, or think they’d be excited about your project, or because you really really need their help and just don’t have the means to pay for it.

Just be crystal clear about what you are asking. If you wouldn’t ask someone to contribute $500 in cash to your project, don’t ask for $500 of their time. And if you do want to ask for that time, make your request with the same care and courtesy you would put into asking for a cash contribution. Make it clear you realize you are asking for a favor. Locate and schedule your date at their convenience, not yours. Pay for the lunch or the coffee, as a gesture of appreciation; don’t think you are paying someone for their time. Ask how you can reciprocate, or look for an opportuity — maybe with a referral or a speaking invitation. Take the time to plan how you use this donated hour effectively, and send a thank-you email that explains the difference that time has made.

That sensitivity isn’t just a matter of being courteous or considerate of the consultants and entrepreneurs you are approaching. It’s a mental shift that will help you make the most of the time and meetings people do give you for your projects. It will change how you see an hour of your own time.

Even though I no longer live by the billable hour, the experience of earning a living as a consultant still affects how I see both my time and others’. (It probably helps that I still do enough work with Social Signal that the billable hour isn’t entirely an abstraction.)  When someone asks for an hour of my time, I think not only about whether that hour would be genuinely useful to them (usually, though not always, I think it would) but abut the opportunity costs that hour represents. Who else could I help with that time? What projects could I move forward? Will that hour require me to move other work into my evening hours, in a way that affects my family? All these questions help to focus my time on the meetings and projects where I can help remove a bottleneck or solve a problem for someone in a way that saves hours or days of their time.

The billable hour isn’t a tyrant that should keep us from helping one another. It’s a discipline that ensures we all appreciate the pro bono help that so many consultants and entrepreneurs generously provide.

Do you have trouble saying no to requests for your time? Read 4 ways your computer can help you protect your time.

Making time for creative expression online

Creative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.

[T]he bad news: You have to make time to do this.

This means you have to grasp that your manic forms of connectivity—cell phone, email, text, Twitter—steal most chances of lasting connection or amazement.

So Anne Lamott writes in a wonderful piece for Sunset Magazine, Time lost and found. (Thanks to Britt Bravo for pointing me to it!) It’s no accident that her article initially points to all the online activities that steal our time — though she eventually gets around to acknowledging lots of other time sinks. But the go-go, non-stop web is the distraction that so many of us notice (and resent) the most, if only because it’s the newest and fastest-growing source of interruption in our lives.  And our unease with the interruption reflects the fact that what we’re interrupting, so often, are those pursuits that are most likely to make us truly happy: The time to connect with friends. The opportunity for self-expression. Simple quiet.

But our time online doesn’t have to pull us away from what really matters. The irony of Lamott’s piece is that the very joy she urges her readers to make time for — the pursuit of creative self-expression — is one that the web makes vastly more accessible. Yes, the satisfactions of writing (among other forms of expression) are available even if you never get published — as Lamott points out in her excellent book, Bird by Bird. But for a lot of us mere mortals, the possibility that someone could read your words (or see your photographs, or listen to your music) is a useful motivation, a source of sustenance during those moments when we wonder exactly why we’ve skipped the gym five days in a row in order to write.

The same online tools that can distract us from self-expression also serve as a gateway to the possibility that yes, someone will see what you’ve taken the time to create. Whether you’re a published author or a first-time writer, you can write a blog that gives you an audience not in six months (when that magazine finally hits the stands) but today. You can post your photos to Flickr and add them to a collctively-curated collection of related images. You can record your song in Garage Band and share it on Jamendo. You can make your brilliant movie and distribute it on YouTube or Vimeo. In fact, it’s hard to think of a form of creative expression that can’t be somehow produced and shared online.

And the web offers more than a distribution channel: it can be a powerful source of inspiration and support, as I described in my recent post on 9 ways social media can support your creativity. You can maintain an always-accessible inspiration file with a tool like Evernote, which lets you access your notes via computer, web or smartphone. If you can’t find another local artist to critique your work — or the time to get together — you can get support, feedback and encouragement online. You can ferret out the facts for your historical novel using YouTube and Wikipedia, or find  the right palette for your next painting at ColourLovers.

But the web’s creative riches and possibilities remain elusive as long as you relate to it in the manner that Lamott describes: as the always-on, non-negotiable distraction that demands your attention and dictates how you spend your time. If you want to take her advice to “fight tooth and nail” for the time to pursue your creative expression, you’ll need to turn the web into an ally rather than an enemy in that fight. That means thinking about your top priorities before you sit down at the keyboard (or pick up that iPhone) and directing your online minutes towards the sites, activities and relationships that help you pursue what matters.

What matters most, as Lamott points out, are those creative outlets that make us feel truly alive. Before you click another link, join another network or send another text message, I highly recommend reading her excellent article. It will reinforce your resolve to make the most of your time — online and off.

5 ways social media can help you learn to say no (for HBR)

Subject: Join our new working group?

Subject: Time to meet for coffee?

Subject: Beta invitation for new web app

Subject: Sign up for 2010 lecture series?

If your January inbox looks like mine, it’s full of requests and invitations. The problem with the New Year’s holiday is that everyone resolves to do more at the same time. So each January brings a new batch of eager clients, exciting projects and easy-to-make commitments. It’s when we resolve to try new technologies, commit to new communications channels, and become regulars at new web sites.

You can look forward to the stimulation and excitement that comes with all of this, but it’s a fine line. If you’re not careful, you’ll hit Groundhog day facing information overload and exhaustion. You have to be selective about what you take on — and disciplined about retiring longstanding activities to make room for new ones. In other words, you have to be able to say, No. Frequently, politely and effectively.

The good news is that the same technologies that threaten to overload you with to-dos and appointments can also help you to say no. Here’s how I use my computer and the social web as allies in the discipline of saying no:

Set your intentions. Before you start saying no, make it clear to yourself what you want to say yes to. Sites like 43Things.com and SuperViva.com invite users to make a list of goals they want to achieve and experiences they want to have. Taking the time to write down your dreams can help you clarify what’s important to you, identify what you want to cross off this year, and get the community support to achieve it.

Prioritize your commitments. Use a spreadsheet to capture every single project you’re working on — even projects you’ve only started in your mind but know you want to attack. Create a second column to assign a priority level to each project, ranking items from 1-5 based on your gut level response. Then create a third column to jot down the name of anyone who could take over or help with each project on the list. Sort your projects according to priority, and set aside all but the top-priority items that can only be handled by you personally.

Make it easy to say no. When my e-mail inbox piles up with unanswered messages, you can bet that it’s full of e-mails that require a no — ones that I can’t bring myself to write. To make the process easier, I have created a few different signature files in my e-mail client, with polite “no” messages for different circumstances. I’d love to join you, but my schedule is really booked for the next month; or Thanks for thinking of us, but we’re only taking on a certain type of client right now; or That sounds like a great project, but my pro bono work is already committed for this quarter. Using these removes the burden of working up the energy to say no so often.

Streamline your online communications. Between e-mail, text messages, social networks and voicemail, and others, you may have ten different communications channels you need to process on a daily (if not hourly) basis. Consider a digital cleanse to help you evaluate the footprint that all these channels have on your productivity and happiness. Take a week in which you limit your online communications to a bare minimum. At the end of the week, close down your accounts on any networks that take more time than they’re worth, or edit your profile on those networks to tell people you prefer to be contacted by other means.

Make “no” your default answer. Plan on saying no to all new social network invitations, projects, and events. Say yes only if the invitation or opportunity meets a short set of criteria. For example, I look for conferences that combine business development (getting clients), professional development (improving skills or knowledge) and personal development (regeneration or personal growth) and only attend events that promise meaningful value on at least two out of three of those fronts. Write your criteria down and stick them to your screen, or put them on a digital stickie note. Soon, you’ll be saying yes to only those opportunities that meet the criteria staring you in the face.

None of these practices eliminates the anxiety that comes from saying no, or the fear that you may be passing up a fantastic opportunity. But it’s precisely because saying no is so difficult that we need tools and systems to help make it a little easier, and a little more habitual. The more you say no, the better you’ll perform when dealing with the important few projects or tasks that get a big yes.

This post originally appeared on the site of the Harvard Business Review.

My ten online vices

There are online activities I never get around to — like organizing my photo library — and then there are the activities that are my eternal time sucks. To qualify for my top ten list, an online vice has to:

  • Be something that I have spent 2+ hours on in the course of a single evening, for at least 3 evenings, going back at least a year. (Some absorb me for 5 hours at least once a month and go back as far as a decade.)
  • Have no significant impact except on my Visa bill.
  • Be fun.
  • Have no Ultimate Answer.

Here are my ten worst offenses:

  1. Trying out project management and task management software.
  2. Finding more people to follow on my secret alter ego Twitter account.
  3. Finding and downloading (but not necessarily trying) new iPhone apps.
  4. Trying out new WordPress plugins.
  5. Virtual window shopping for (and occasionally actually buying) Wonder Woman stuff.
  6. Registering domain names.
  7. Finding new hip hop or R&B artists on iTunes and making playlists from their music.
  8. Searching for the perfect red patent leather shoes and purse.
  9. Finding, downloading and trying out new Mac system-tweaking utilities
  10. Setting up aggregation on Drupal sites that I never actually turn on.

But there is hope! I’ve now fully recovered from past vices like trying out new social bookmarking sites, and shopping for wall decals.

What are your online vices?