The rush of the real. Facebook’s effect on my brain, senses and social ability.

My friend Murray and I were talking on the way to the airport about this time last week. It was an early 4.30am drive, the freeway quiet, the orange glow of hot air balloons gently bobbing above the city like chinese lanterns.

The stretch of time laid out like the open road before us. One uninterrupted hour with an old friend, conditions to incite the type of flow in conversations where one idea bounces easily to the next.

The exhilaration of having a fresh, meaningful conversation wasn’t something I used to think about. Definitely wasn’t something which motivated me to write it down and describe it. Yet now, here it is.

After two weeks in Melbourne, the town I grew up in, I was heading back to New York, my home for the past two years. Murray waved goodbye. Until the next time we were face-to-face, we typically would piece together each other’s lives through Facebook, buoy our friendship through likes of baby pictures and Brooklyn, and scrawl quick messages on the social network’s walls.

That’s when I decided it was time for me to deactivate. Sounds so dramatic. Not really, and not like it was anything new or progressive, friends had dropped out of the Facebook world a few years back, blogs have been written, books even, people coming to this point a lot earlier than I did.

I wanted to share the thoughts around switching off Facey  as a post here as much to record the experiment and my own state of mind at this point, as to stimulate thinking and opinion about why individuals are increasingly moving away from Facebook. Group effects of Facebook aside (which is far more interesting but harder for me to write), here’s a diary of what I’ve noticed happening to me personally. So bail out from the post now if you don’t want to get personal :)

The creeping desire to deactivate Facebook (and it was a slow, creeping feeling) was not just because I felt it had robbed me of the commune of real conversation. It wasn’t Facebook’s fault I didn’t pick up a phone to maintain a friendship between visits home. That was on me. Facebook has had a profound effect on my desire to engage in these moments of genuine friendship when there was an “easier” option.

Troubling as that behaviour was, it was the general (mental) space invasion of a social network  I’d never anticipated that really put ants in my pants. When faced with an “empty” moment like riding the subway, laying in bed, sitting on the toilet (yes, really and true for 86% of the population), even walking down the street, it had started to seem unproductive if I didn’t do something else. Distraction is the new normal state of being. Giving my undivided attention to someone, including my own mind wasn’t enough. These empty spaces of time and thought now wanted to be filled!  The perfect oxygen for Facebook.

Basically over the past year I noticed my ability to turn over ideas, to wander alone and together in conversation, particularly deeply, has been impaired. And worse, I didn’t really care.

This is my first blog post in over a year. A slightly awkward ramble but it is another reminder of how I’ve become a digital sloth. While Facebook has been steering me away from making things and connections deeper than likes on pretty photos, the net effect is a divot in personal development.

As Sheryl Turkle said in an interview last year “We are letting technology take us places we don’t want to go.”

And instead of dissing technology, I’m hoping by switching off for a bit I can better understand how technology like Facebook can lead us back to our real lives instead of away from it.

Shaving the yak.

Steve Hopkins taught me a funny saying the other day.

We were working together as he was going through his inbox, when he threw his hands up in despair,

“uh…we’re yak-shaving”.

Yak-shaving is that time when you set out to do something and end up completely off-track – bogged by little details, that actually seem crucial and dependent on the goal at the time, but later turn out to be irrelevant.

We’ve all been there.

When you realise you are so far obscured from the original goal you set out to achieve …you may as well be shaving a yak.

Merlin Mann and Danny O’Brien give this example in MAKE Magazine:

You start out deciding to tidy your room and you realize that in order to do that you’ll need some more trash bags, so you need to go to the shops, which will involve you getting out the car, but the car needs gas, so you’ll need to go to the gas station first, which means you should probably find your gas discount card, which involves finding your keys, which are in the room somewhere…

It is such a good term, and makes me think about areas in my life where I might need to pause, reevaluate and adjust the course to get back on with the task at hand.

Some common yak-shave situations I stumble on in daily life

- Anything with A LOT of stakeholders in a project

- Running an event or party

- Making a creative decision

Does what you are doing square with your goals? Or do you find yourself off in some fiddly task that actually bears no relation to what you are meant to be doing…and…hang on a second….it looks like it is in fact creating dominoes of dependent tasks to finish in order to reach the end goal?!

Well, when you find yourself shaving a yak, proclaim it! and then refer to Merlin Mann’s handy post and give yourself a mini-review.

“I think that lavishing yourself with 10 or 15 minutes of mini-review doesn’t just get your head in order. It also causes you to consider seriously for a moment whether a given, seemingly important yak is really worth shaving at all.”

Focus. Saying ‘no’.

Today someone at work shared a video of Steve Jobs explaining the importance of saying ‘no’.

For Jobs ‘no’ is the key to remaining focused.

Apple suffered for several years from lousy engineering management, there were people going off in 18 different directions…the total becomes less than the sum of the parts. Micro-cosmically they might have made sense, macro-cosmically they didn’t.’

It is hard and often counterintuitive to say ‘no’ when you have a ton of good stuff going on. You’re not just killing off the obvious, bad things – though they should definitely go – it’s likely you’re pressing pause on some really fun things. In my case I really enjoy writing this blog  but needed to pare back for a few days in order to kick up a few gears in other areas of my life.

If you master the art of saying ‘no’ you’ll soon be freed you up to move ahead with the bigger picture.

Often we are not saying ‘no’ to a company or another person, but to ourselves.

It’s empowering, by making a decision not to do something, you are instinctively saying ‘yes’ to something else.

Ditch perfection.

Tonight I joined a panel to discuss how social media impacts learning in an organisation.

In my experience, one of the biggest challenges L&D professionals face has less to do with technology and more to do with planning and managing ‘the change’.

Adding social to workplace education introduces a new concept: rapid iteration. Information is constantly refreshed. Anyone can add to it. Learning spills outside the classroom walls. Education doesn’t have to ever stop at a scheduled time.

These consequences require a major shift in thinking and attitude.

Primarily, no more perfection and control.

Previously, these sort of traits were well-matched to rolling-out workplace learning programs. Boxes were ticked. Competency evaluation forms were completed.

A+, 100%, 10 out of 10.

These are qualities we strive for in most areas of life.

As years of schooling will testify, to achieve a perfect score in anything requires an enormous amount of discipline. You have to lay out – in advance – all the parts necessary to fill the ideal whole.

But what about when you can’t control or foresee all the moving parts?

Earlier this week Sarah wrote about the advantages of not knowing where you are going. Joe Robens wrote about letting go and cherishing moments. Last week I learnt a lot about the constant tension in chasing harmony.

Our world is in a constant state of flux – thanks in part to a revolution in technology.

As we become more connected, we create more opportunities, we add complexity and fluidity.

This mirrors the fundamental shift in the way that learning is happening in organisations. Social media means that everyone can access a range of people and services to support their own learning, and knowledge is forever in ‘beta’ – live and constantly updating.

Any efforts to maintain a rigid grip on our lives and learning experiences go against the grain.

In order to make sense of where we are now, we need start loosening the old anchors.

Ditch perfection.

Instead, stay nimble.

And don’t let all those blind spots get in the way, just get on with it.