About a year ago, I thought about making some predictions for the year ahead, though I never got round to writing much down. That is just as well, as 2020 took a turn that I certainly would not have predicted – it has been a very unusual year.
I’m not sure how useful it is to focus on this specific butterfly effect, when countless viruses are transferred between species without causing worldwide pandemonium. Except as a reminder that in a world of billions, one in a million chances are actually reasonable odds. We have always lived in an exceptional world; perhaps, in 2021, we shouldn’t be so surprised.
We are approaching the end of December, which (in the UK) means short days, cold weather and a ubiquitous festive season as the year comes to an end. While it seems in many ways a strange time to think about new beginnings (in the dead of winter, during the coldest, darkest days), a new year is often cause for resolution and reflection.
I once worked in a lab that was researching circadian rhythms, the twenty-four hour intrinsic cycles present in every one of our bodily cells, as the earth spins on its axis. I have thought quite a lot this year about the importance of rhythm for human beings, above and beyond that physiological clock. The power of daily habits, and the higher level weekly and monthly cadences required to really get things done. The magic of music, or the beautiful beat intrinsic to swimming, or running.
The turning of the seasons, and the passing of the years is the earth’s higher rhythm, and it feels just right. A year is short enough to grasp, but long enough to see change in yourself and in the world (whether you like it or not). As we hurtle around the sun, we dance to its cosmic beat.
A lot is made of the Like button, of the societalimpact of the dopamine-inducing blue thumbs-up. But as a generally reserved social-media poster, and only sporadic “liker”, I am relatively indifferent.
Far more sinister, in my mind, is the infinite scroll, and its auto-play video cousin – on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and friends.
Not because of the clear connection with the culprits’ business models – where eyeballs and time spent drive ad impressions, which drive revenue. That much is understandable – these are publicly listed companies.
I think the problem I have is that it is playing on a particularly human vulnerability, evolving as we did in a world of scarcity, rather than abundance. Where evolutionary pressures favoured repetitive behaviours, as in general things would run out. Make hay while the sun shines, because at some point autumn will come.
But on the endless tracts of social media the sun is always shining, without respite. And instead of introducing patches of shade, where travellers might rest, or step away from their smartphones, our social media overlords have built a desert, where users stagger towards an imagined oasis that never comes.
Meanwhile the new demi-gods of TikTok have learned their predecessors’ worst habits, as video after snack-size video plays off into the distance.
We are in the dog days of the digital summer. The onus is on us as users to find shelter, or to escape the desert altogether.
In February this year I read an article about Elephants. Not about the large mammals, but about a system of the same name, concocted by four friends ten years ago or so, and articulated by one of them in a blog post in 2013. It’s a collective system for planning, reviewing and improving one’s life. It piqued my interest, I shared it with a couple of friends, and we actually got round to giving it a try.
After struggling initially to find time to do the required kick-off (The Start), we are now three months in, and so I have had a bit of room for reflection.
The Start, where you spend quite a concentrated period of time with your fellow Elephants talking about your strengths and weaknesses, and hopes for the future, is worth doing regardless of whether you are interested in the long haul process. We spent a couple of days together, during which we were much more candid, vulnerable and open than we had been in the ten or more years we have known one another. And it has been a one-way door – we have been more open and honest ever since. It is funny that it took some random blog post on the internet to let us make that step. But whatever works.
The Start also includes a process of goal-setting, over quite hard to imagine timeframes (up to ten years!) Planning on that timescale isn’t something that I do naturally, so I found it quite difficult. But it was useful to see what I eventually came up with, and to highlight things I should maybe think a little more about.
With our (iterative) goals in hand, we are now in business-as-usual Elephants.
The Weekly Reporting was something which we didn’t necessarily commit to, but which I have managed to keep up. It is now part of my weekly ritual, and I am happy for it. It gives me an opportunity to check in with myself, to reflect back on the week that was, and how I felt about it. I am not sure it always makes interesting reading for my fellow Elephants, but it is always interesting writing for me.
And we have also had our first Quarterly Review, which first and foremost was a great excuse to see my friends after a busy summer. It also highlighted how long ago The Start felt, how much can happen in three months of time. Which is helpful as we look ahead to the next three months or so, as we continue with our Elephants into 2020. We’re not necessarily following the system to the letter, but we have made it work for us so far, and I am glad we are doing it.
One of the few daily newsletters I almost always skim is Product Hunt‘s Daily email. Pretty short, digestible and themed (hello Harry Potter), it generally fits quite nicely into a commute or equivalent. The other day the theme was “10 Apps for your mood“. As well as the usual heavyweights (Headspace, Calm), it featured a fewer up-and-comers that launched on Product Hunt in the last year.
The one which caught my eye was Siempo, which promises to “turn your phone into a healthier digital experience 📱” (emoji theirs). That sounded pretty good, so I downloaded it to give it a try.
Off the bat the user experience is quite intimidating, as it pretty immediately asks you for every phone permission under the sun, making me instantly suspicious. Perhaps it’s on me – I didn’t know initially that Siempo was a “Launcher” app, effectively replacing your phone’s Home screen and App catalogue. Now I do know that, it makes sense that it would need pretty invasive permissions, but it still feels weird. Whatever the weather I think Siempo could do a better job explaining what is going on before you give it permission to view your blood type, and could also maybe reassure you of the robust privacy of that information. Rant over.
Once you have done all that, you are presented with a basic black and white UI instead of your normal home screen.
Siempo aims to “put you back in control of your apps and protect you from overuse”, and it is surprising how effective a nondescript home screen is. Colourful branded icons are gone, and most non-core apps require you to search for them, rather than your thumb’s muscle memory taking you there. Introducing this minor friction acts as a reminder, and more than once I find myself putting my phone down to focus on what I was doing as a result.
There is also the concept of “Flagged” apps, which you don’t want to spend time on. Siempo had a few pre-populated – Twitter (guilty), Snapchat (not guilty), YouTube (not guilty) and LinkedIn (on the odd weird occasion). I left them in as they were. These apps don’t show up in the main search results, requiring you to go to a separate taboo section, another simple segregation which is actually quite effective. You can also opt to be reminded when you have spent too much time on a “Flagged” app (if you hand over yet more permissions), some gentle prompts and a counting clock showing up at the top or bottom of your screen.
Siempo lets you batch up notifications, so they only arrive periodically or at a certain time. My phone (a OnePlus) treats the batches kind of strangely (they are all Siempo notifications when they come through), so I haven’t gone for this one yet, but I do see the utility during periods of focused time.
I could think of some additional potential features. Analytics is one, given all the data I know the app has – it would be interesting to know where I am spending all my time, and I have always thought that notification analytics would be cool to see. I would also be interested in Time of day controls or switches, so I can be “at work” or “at home” and have different experiences accordingly. I think there is a trick missed integrating something like Unsplash in the name of lovely photos for people to look at (value-add stuff I know). On a more serious note, the lack of a payment option for the service is a bit unnerving, particularly for a product that has quite so much of your personal information. Everyone’s got to eat, I am happy to pay for digital services I value, and I feel like lots of people are increasingly of that view. If anything, finding a Patreon page with only 5 backers made me all the more anxious, but maybe there is a business model underneath it all that I am unaware of (and happy to update this to reflect that if anyone is in the know).
Overall though I am pretty impressed with Siempo, and at the very least it made me think quite a bit about my phone usage. I have friends who have contemplated ditching their smartphone altogether in favour of a less distracting brick phone – I think this software-based approach is a less drastic middle ground.
It made me think about trust – in giving access to Siempo, I was reminded of how much my smartphone knows or could know about me. Having worked in a couple of tech companies, I actually think the extent to which that data is actively used right now is less than one might suspect (or fear), but things could certainly go in that direction. You are also trusting them to keep your information safe, which is probably actually the bigger concern.
It made me wonder why smartphone makers don’t give you more control over their inbuilt Launcher apps, instead letting addictive apps run amok across your home screen and attention span. Controlling that experience, or at least giving people tools to do so if they want, is something I hope phone companies are thinking about.
So quite a lot taken away from a random app downloaded on a whim, but that is probably because Siempo strikes a very current nerve. Phones at their best are magical devices that create wonderful experiences and foster global connection, phones at their worst are attention slot machines. Siempo is focused on (preventing) the latter, which is certainly a noble cause.
I used to work with a man called Michael who changed the way I think about time. It was the first day of the second week of January 2014, and he observed that we were 2 percent through the year.
I had never thought of one week in those terms. A year is obviously a significant amount of time, while weeks seem to come and go. Two percent is little enough to make sense with how weeks feel, but large enough to make each week very meaningful and precious. It is daunting to think about a fortnight as nearly five percent (!), and I now can’t plan a long weekend without thinking about it as one percent of my days this year.
I think a decent amount about time (it is the only thing we have, but that is a topic for another day). Wait But Why‘s bits on the subject are particularly thought-provoking and terrifying, while my cousin’s edict to “max your days” is always ringing in my ears.
If I told Mike how often I thought about two percent, and by extension about him, I think he would probably find it kind of strange.