How I Took Back Control from my Smartphone

There was a time when I felt phantom phone vibrations. That’s when you feel a notification vibration on your smartphone, pull it out to check what notified you, and realize that it never vibrated – there is no notification. If this has ever happened to you, it might be time to scale back your use of your smartphone. Here is how I did it.

First, I turned off all the notifications on my phone. All of them – email, social media, games. Anything that pings you to look at your phone. All of these apps install with notifications turned on. The currency of these apps is our attention and they are all vying for it. So I took it away. When I want to look at these app, I will decide when I look at my phone, not the programmer of these apps.

Next, I removed all of the unused apps on my phone. There were a lot of apps that I downloaded to try out but didn’t use anymore. So I simply removed them from my phone. If they aren’t there, they cannot distract me or take up space on my phone.

I don’t use social media very much. When I do, it seems to suck me in like one of those bad movies that you just can’t stop watching. Wanting to gain some more control over my time and attention, I decided to remove all social media apps from my phone. If I want to look at Facebook or Twitter on my phone, I still can. I just need to do it in a browser. That little bit of extra work means that I really need to want to do it.

I also removed all the games from my phone. I realized that, like social media, they were just another time suck. When I was bored or didn’t know what to do, they would call to me mentally, drawing my hand to my phone and turning on the screen. Again, if the app isn’t there, it can’t distract me.

It’s amazing the freedom this has brought me. I am reading many more books now. I committed on Goodreads to reading forty books this year. I am ahead of schedule and expect to finish more than that by the end of the year. I no longer feel like a slave to my phone nor do I feel those phantom vibrations. My smartphone feels more like the tool it is – a tool that serves me rather than the other way around.

I got some of the ideas for this digital detox from a fantastic podcast called Note to Self, particularly the series called Bored and Brilliant which is also a book that is coming out soon. I recommend you check out the podcast and consider pre-ordering the book. Another great series from that podcast is the Privacy Paradox. And in the sidebar to the right is a list of other podcasts I listen to that you might find interesting, entertaining, or helpful.

Let me know in the comments if you find any of this helpful. I really appreciate feedback. It helps me get better.


P.S. Last week I ended my post by telling you that I would explain why you might want to use open source software. In preparing to write this week’s post I realized something important – nobody would care because it isn’t very easy to take action on for the average user. Since my goal on this blog is to empower the average user, I decided to skip it. If you are interested in learning more about open source software, take a look at Ubuntu or Libre Office. You can also contact me to ask me a specific question, if you’d like.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Windows XP

You shouldn’t use Windows XP. If you do, your computer could be being used by criminals to send spam and hack other sites. Let me explain.

All software is imperfect and has flaws. These flaws are called bugs (Read this to see why). Updates are released periodically by the makers of software to fix these bugs, making the software work better.

Some of the bugs in software are simply annoying, kind of like a typo in a novel you might read. It makes you pause while your are reading, but it doesn’t prevent you from understanding the story.

Other bugs are security threats. This is more like when you lose your keys or your wallet. It’s a real pain if you don’t find them because then you need to change your locks or get new credit cards.

Software companies only support their software for a limited period of time. As they release new versions of their software, it becomes harder to support multiple versions. So they eventually stop supporting the older versions.

An operating system is the software that runs your computer. If you use a Mac, your operating system (OS) is likely Apple OS X. If you are using a PC, you are most likely using some version of Windows. Windows has gone through many versions over the years. The latest version is Windows 10.

Windows XP was released in 2001. It was supported for over 12 years (that is a very long time!). Support and security patches ended on April 8, 2014. That means that any bugs, including security bugs, that were found after that date will no longer be fixed. So if you are currently running Windows XP on your computer, your computer is at a high risk of being compromised in some way (e.g. getting a virus or becoming part of a botnet).

If your are currently using Windows XP, there are two things you can do to use your computer more safely:

  1. Upgrade your computer to a version of Windows that is supported, like Windows 7 or Windows 8 or Windows 10 (there is no Windows 9)
  2. Install a free open source operating system like Ubuntu, a flavor of the Linux operating system

If you are looking to choose number 1, you will most likely need to buy a newer computer. It is very likely that your computer hardware is too old and slow to run a newer version of Windows. To determine if this is your situation, you can go to Best Buy and ask the Geek Squad or call your local computer tech guy for help. You can also contact me. I’d be happy to help you.

If you choose to go with choice 2, you can almost certainly use the computer hardware you currently have. You will still likely need help installing the new operating system without losing any of your data. You can go to the same sources as choice 1 for help, including me.

Next week I will go over why you might want to consider using open source software even if you don’t need to upgrade from Windows XP.

Lots of Questions!

Framingham Public Library

The presentation on Friday went extremely well. Even before the presentation started, audience members were asking questions. We started on time, and it wasn’t very long before my prepared remarks became reference notes for answering questions. Everyone was very interested and took notes. Everything I prepared to cover is in the outline on this page. In addition we covered the following:

  • Don’t ever access sensitive financial information while you are on public wifi
  • How to avoid phishing scams where emails seem to come from a reputable sort but they are really from hackers
  • How to avoid “social engineering” attacks; for example, when you receive an unexpected call from your bank, do NOT verify your PIN or password as your bank will never ask for it

I also found some appropriate library books on security and privacy, displaying them at the front of the room. After the talk, many attendees came up to ask for help with individual questions. I even helped one person to put a new more secure password on his iPhone.

All in all, it was a very successful and well-received event. The library may be interested in a similar evening talk. I am also looking for other venues to present at. If you know of anyone who would like a similar presentation, please contact me. And I am also available to help individuals on a one-on-one basis.

Live Presentation

Every year my local library has a summers series of lunch presentations on Fridays. Last year they invited me to present on the topic of passwords. I am doing a similar presentation this Friday at noon about Password Security and Privacy. See the details in the flyer below. Next week, I will review the experience here on my blog.

In preparation for the event, I have been reading a recent book about privacy and security called The Art of Invisibility by Kevin Mitnick. The author is a hacker who explains a bit how technology works and a lot about how it affects you and your privacy and security. One of the most important points he makes is to make sure that you have a password on your smartphone. This will be one my first points in my presentation on Friday. If you are in the area, I hope to see you there!

Take a Tech Break!

Yesterday I just couldn’t bring myself to sit down at my computer… at all. I schedule Sunday afternoons to write for this blog. But yesterday, I just couldn’t do it. I love technology, but sometimes I have had enough. Especially on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. So, I took a tech break!

I went to a local wildlife sanctuary and just walked through the woods for about an hour and a half by myself. The paths were beautiful. I saw a young deer and four turkeys. I thought about taking pictures. I even pulled my phone from my pocket to take one. But then I realized… I’m taking a tech break! I wanted to experience the woods and the wildlife, not view it from the screen of my phone.

I continued through the woods until I reached the river on the edge of the sanctuary. As I walked along the river bank it started to lightly rain. I stayed mostly dry as I walked due to the canopy of leaves overhead, and I enjoyed the sound of the rain on those leaves as I continued down the path. On my return to the entrance I passed many waterfalls and listened to the birds sing across the marshy pond.

It was a wonderful afternoon. Our modern world is filled with gadgets and screens, but sometimes I need to leave them home or in my pocket and just get out there and connect with the real world. I encourage you to do the same. I’m glad I did!

Why I Won’t Just “Give You the Steps”

Often when I help someone with learning to use their tech, they want me to just “give them the steps”. I almost always refuse to do this. It’s like giving directions that simply say, “Go 2 miles and turn left. Go another 3/4 of a mile and turn right. My house is a mile and half down on the left.” While these may be accurate, they aren’t particularly helpful if I get lost on the way or miss a turn.

But add a little context to the instructions and not only does it help in case I get lost, it helps prevent me front getting lost in the first place. “Go straight for 2 miles and turn left at the light by the Dairy Queen. At the third light, make a right onto Oak Street. Our driveway is the first on the left after you cross over the creek. It’s the one with the blue mailbox. If you get to a stop sign, you have gone too far.” (By the way, these are completely fictitious directions. If you follow them and get somewhere, it definitely won’t be my house.)

The context here is the little details that help you stay oriented as you go. The Dairy Queen. How many light to go through. The color of my mailbox. How to tell if you have passed my driveway. Without these little signposts, the directions are much harder to follow. And if you strayed from them, getting back on track would be very difficult if not impossible.

This also applies to technical instructions. The little extras I give you in addition to the step-by-step instructions are almost more important than the steps themselves because they help keep you oriented in the new, unfamiliar tech space. And if something goes a little wrong, you have a better chance of getting back on track and being successful.

It does take a bit longer to receive these types of instructions and internalize them, but it is worth it. It’s a bit like getting a map to go along with your turn-by-turn instructions. Imagine if all your GPS did was tell you where to turn and didn’t show you on that little map on the screen. Would it work? Sure, but that little line showing you how to go makes it so much easier. And that’s what I do for the people I work with. My job is to provide the step-by-step instructions together with what the surroundings look like as you go.

So the next time someone gives you instructions for how to do something new, if they don’t give you any context be sure to ask for some, just in case you get lost along the way.

What Makes Technology So Challenging?

Car Steering Wheel

In my experience training people on how to use their technology, I have noticed a recurring pattern. No matter how accomplished or experienced they are, at some level they are intimidated and made to feel incapable in the face of their tech. This puzzled me at first. How can such accomplished and successful people feel so out of sorts around their digital tools? Some even go so far as to try to give them up altogether. What were they finding so difficult?

Whenever we start learning something new, we are complete novices. We don’t even know what we don’t know. We are essentially helpless. For anyone who prides themselves on their successes and knowledge, this is a very challenging feeling to live with. And with technology, there is so much to learn, right? But what if there wasn’t so much to learn?

We often learn best through metaphor and stories. Let me share one with you. When I learned to drive a car, I learned on my family car. I don’t recall what make it was, but let’s just say it was a Ford. At first I gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles and everyone in my family was afraid to ride with me. Slowly, I got better and more confident until others felt safe whenever I was driving. This felt good. But then I had to drive another make – my grandmother’s Mercedes. While I was nervous about driving her really nice car, I wasn’t nervous that I would know how to drive it even though it was a brand new and different car to me. Why? Because all cars (in the US) work the same. The steering wheel is on the left. The gas pedal is on the right, the brake on the left. The gear shift is generally on the floor to the right of the driver. Sure, how you turn the headlights on and adjust the temperature of the inside of the car are different but the essentials for actually driving the car are the same.

Now, the same is true of any software you use. In fact, I would go so far as to say that once you learn how to use one program, you are about 70% of the way to learning how to use any other. Just like the car, most of what you know in one program works the same way in all the others. Sure the settings might be in a different place, but how you open the program, close the program, and use the menus are the same for all.

The source of much anxiety in learning to use software, then, is feeling overwhelmed by how much there seems to be learn. But with this idea, you can see that there isn’t quite so much as at first seems. In fact, if you can browse the web to read this post, then you are most of the way to knowing how to use any program on your smartphone or computer. Now you just need to learn to play with it!

You Can’t Break It, So Play With It!

Kids play with tablet

I’m referring to your smartphone. Or your tablet. Or your laptop. Or that latest program or app you installed or updated. You can’t break it simply by using it. In fact, modern software is designed for you to learn by using it. And it is pretty easy to do. Don’t believe me? Give whatever you are struggling with to anyone between the ages of two and twelve. They won’t ask you how to use it or look for a help file or video. They will just dive in and start using it. And you can, too. You may feel like you can’t or that it is simply too difficult. And that may in fact be part of why you can’t. You’ve “psyched” yourself out and frozen your natural playfulness. Here is a story from my family to illustrate my point (sorry, Dad!).

My dad is an incredible mechanic. The smell of oil and gasoline surrounded him when he came home from work. Every time I get my car serviced is a trip down memory lane. The last place my dad worked before he retired, he completely rebuilt a service truck. I mean he stripped it down to the frame and rebuilt it, improving each system on it. It was an incredible achievement of engineering. This brilliant man tells me that he just can’t get the computer. I lovingly tease him that it isn’t an inability but rather a lack of desire. You see, my dad loves to tinker with and build stuff – in the physical world, anything he can put his hands on, figure out how it works, and then make it better. Because computer software is a black box that he can’t see into or wrap his hands around, he has convinced himself that he can’t learn it. But we can all find a way out of our struggle struggle to learn if we decide to bring a sense of play to the experience.

Children have this innate desire to play and have fun. When kids are most focused on something they are enjoying, adults often mistake this for “getting serious” about something. For the child, they are just immersed in their world of play. As a toddler, I bet my dad sat on the floor playing with Tinker Toys/Lincoln Logs/Legos. His work as a mechanic was just an extension of what for him was play. And that childlike sense of play is the approach we all need in learning how to use our electronic doodads.

Here are some tips for turning that phone in your pocket (or other gadget) into a source of fun instead of frustration.

  • Treat your technology like a toy or a puzzle. Find something about it that you enjoy and play with it. Feel free to ask your family or friends for help.
  • Be patient with yourself. Few of us are very good at something the first time we do it. It takes time to learn. So be kind to yourself.
  • Share your victories. When you figure something out or discover something new, share it with someone close to you. Play is for enjoying and sharing with others.

Let me know how implementing these ideas helps you by leaving a note in the comments. And have fun!

Managing Passwords

Bad Password

There are a lot of recommendations out there about how to create secure passwords.

  • Use a unique password on each site
  • Make them hard to guess
  • Use numbers and special characters (like *~$#@)
  • Don’t write them down any where

If we do all that, how are we supposed to remember the seemingly zillions of passwords we need to remember? It seems an impossible task.

One highly recommended solution is to use a password manager. I use one every day. The most popular ones even include a password generator to help you create better passwords. Essentially, a password manager is a place to create and store your passwords. You secure access to it with a password, but this password becomes the only password you need to remember. All of your other passwords are locked in your password manager. When you need to enter a password, you simply open up your password manager to find the password for the site and copy and paste it into the login screen. Many managers even have browser plugins that will do this for you automatically!

There are many password managers out there. Most of them have a free version as well as a premium version. The premium versions are generally inexpensive (I know of one that is $12/month). The one that is best for you will depend on how you use passwords and what digital tools you use (smartphone, tablet, computer). Here is a list (in alphabetical order) of some of the most popular ones.

Finally, here are a few recent articles reviewing password managers.

So, don’t wait. It will take a little bit of work and time. But it will be worth it to protect your data and information from all the hackers and security breaches that seem to fill the news today. And if you have any questions, let me know in the comments.