I love connecting with nonprofit technology colleagues who are also promoting work/life balance and how to avoid digital distractions. Meet my colleague, Meico Marquette Whitlock, who is the Founder and CEO of Mindful Techie. I’m honored to be included on a panel proposed by him, along with Carrie Rice, called “How to Conquer Technology Distraction and Burnout and Be More Present for Yourself, Team, and Organization for the 2018 Nonprofit Technology Conference. (If you’re interested in the topic, please vote.)
I had an opportunity to interview Meico about being a Mindful Techie. Here’s what I learned:
How did you get started working in the nonprofit sector?
I’ve been involved in the sector in one form or another since I was a young kid. I landed my first “real” job in the sector when I graduated from college. I was seeking a way to combine my interest in technology and helping people. I came across a posting for an internship at TechBridge, an organization based in Atlanta that provides affordable technology solutions to non-profits and applied. The interview went so well that I was offered a full-time web developer position on the spot. Since that time, I’ve been involved in the sector helping organizations with a wide range of communications and technology challenges.
You have now moved into the area of “Mindfulness and Technology,” what inspired the move from nonprofit techie into mindfulness?
I would say that I’m still a non-profit techie. However, now I’m bringing a new tool to my work in the form of mindfulness. I’ve always been a very spiritual person, and mindfulness has played an increasingly important part of my path since I was a young adult. But I reached a point a few years ago where I felt frustrated by the separation between my personal spiritual journey and my professional work. I wanted to figure out a way to marry the two and bring my full self to my work. Simultaneously, I was struggling with burnout related to work-life imbalance and feeling overwhelmed by all the digital technology in my personal life and professional work. I realized that mindfulness was a powerful tool for me in my personal journey, so I started thinking about how I could make it work in a professional context. When I gave a talk about my challenges at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference, the response was and continues to be overwhelming. Based, in part, on the responses to that talk, I saw there was a great need for tools and resources in the sector around mindfulness and technology and shifted my work to focus on it full-time.
Describe some of your mindfulness work with nonprofit organizations.
I work with organizations primarily in four different areas: tackling technology distraction, managing information overload, achieving greater work-life balance in a digital world, and mindful leadership. My work consists of interactive talks, workshops, trainings, and coaching. This year, I’ll also be offering online courses and programs.
Can you share some tips about for dealing with the stress that results from using technology, like email. I noticed that when I emailed you, you had an interesting bounce message. Can you share the strategy around that and other ways to keep mindful while using tech?
Sure. So one of the keys to managing technology-related stress is to have a clear sense of what our intentions are and what we’re trying to accomplish in a given moment. If you don’t have clear priorities, your attention is more likely to be hijacked by your email or some other distraction.
For example, with email, I think many people check it reflexively because of their device notifications, boredom, or having the false notion that busyness (e.g. checking and responding to email) equates to being productive. One simple way to manage this, in addition to having clear priorities, is to turn off the push notifications on your devices. Or if you’re using a desktop client, disable the pop-up alerts and sound effects and close or minimize the application until you’re ready to focus on email. Since I use Gmail, there’s a cool Chrome browser plug-in called Inbox When Ready that allows me to protect my focus and minimize the amount of time I spend on email by hiding my inbox when I’m not using it. That way I’m not distracted by new messages or other things when focusing on other tasks.
I also find it helpful to set healthy boundaries around my tech use. So for me, I don’t check my email first thing in the morning or before going to bed at night. And each day, I work on at least one important task I want to accomplish before opening my inbox or social media. I also carve out time to read articles or newsletters I find interesting. I use Evernote to bookmark those items to look at later. This helps me not to feel too distracted or overwhelmed by all the interesting things I want to read since I know I’ve already set aside time in my schedule to come back to them.
The last thing I’ll say here is that I encourage folks to be mindful about whether email is always the best action to take. All tech tools aren’t alike. For example, I don’t think email isn’t the best tool for instant messaging or project management. Sometimes a phone call or a quick walk down the hall to speak in person is more effective.
Many people who work for nonprofits feel overwhelmed because there is so much to do, but so little time and capacity to do it. Add to that what’s happening in our world today, and you have a recipe for stress. What’s your advice to nonprofit professionals?
In the non-profit space, I think we often feel overwhelmed because we don’t have a clear set of intentions that match with a realistic assessment of our capacity and bandwidth. So one of the first steps I take to reduce anxiety is just to get clear about my vision or what I’m trying to achieve and then identify priorities that align with that. Second, I assess how I’m investing my time. In other words, when I look at my calendar, do I actually have enough hours in a week to accomplish the priorities I’ve identified or am I’m trying to do too much at one time? Am I spending too much time on things that aren’t aligned with my priorities and vision? Someone explained this to me by sharing the analogy of the one-stop-shop Chinese restaurant. You know the one that has hamburgers, chicken wings, pizza, and a host of other things on the menu in addition to Chinese food? While the restaurant offers tons of options, what’s the quality like? Is it doing anything well? Compare that example to a taco stand that just has a handful of taco selections on the menu. That’s it.
So I tell people that you can do it all and you can have it all. But you can’t do it all at the same time. I don’t believe we can be effective over the long-term if we operate under the illusion that we can multitask and do everything at the same time and do it well. Science is showing us that the brain can really only do one thing at a time. When we are engaged in what we think is multitasking, what we’re really doing is we’re forcing the brain to switch back and forth really rapidly and creating feelings of anxiety and stress in our physical body. So I recommend folks do one task at a time and do that one thing well before moving on to something else.
For folks that are interested, I have a free Mastering the Art of Work/Life Balance in a Digital World starter kit that walks through this process in more detail.
One final thought on this point. I share with clients that the emails, projects, and other work will never stop or slow down enough for you to catch up. There will never be a perfect time to take time for you. But you can take time for yourself and the world around won’t come to an end. And, yes, it’s possible to be committed to your work and have a fulfilling personal life too. At one point, I was depressed, had gained a ton of weight, and wasn’t eating or sleeping right. My personal life was non-existent. But I had a powerful realization that even if I worked myself to death, the emails would keep rolling in and the projects would keep moving ahead. My colleagues might have had a lot of great things to say at my memorial service, but eventually, I would have been replaced and the work would have carried on like business as usual. I realized I needed to take to time re-fill regularly because I couldn’t continue to pour into my colleagues and our members from an empty cup. If I wanted to make a positive impact over the long-term, I needed to start investing as much in myself as I was investing in my work.
Given what is going in the news and our country over the past few weeks, it is very hard for us to shut it out and tune out, perhaps because we feel urgency to do something. What is your advice about consuming the news these days and how to be an activist but also balance self-care.
Wow, this is such an important question. And I think you’re right in terms of just the sheer volume of news and information that is being thrown at us every day.
The first thing I would offer is to realize that we have the power to control how we’re receiving and consuming news and other information. For me, this means that I don’t own a TV or watch the local news. When it comes to my devices, I turn off all push notifications so I’m not constantly bombarded with updates from the news or social media. I also don’t engage with my devices first thing in the morning or the last thing at night before I go to bed. I prioritize my morning routine first before I enter the world each day and my evening routine before heading to bed. I also don’t follow breaking news. I have a handful of news sources that I trust. So I listen to weekly summaries or read news roundups about important news items to stay in the loop about what’s happening in the world.
I also reflect regularly through meditation and other mindfulness practices on what are my gifts and talents and how I’ve been called to use them to be of service. In many cases, folks in the non-profit space are working for organizations that serve a cause that’s really important to them. And being aligned with the work of your organization can be an asset when you might feel helpless about what’s happening in the news because you can remind yourself that you’re making a positive impact on the world. That you are already using your gifts and talents to serve your organization and the communities it supports. It’s really important to acknowledge this.
Folks can also engage in what I call planned giving and activism. What I mean is that every so often there’s a natural disaster like Harvey and the fundraising teams for organizations like the Red Cross kick in high gear. So you give money and volunteer. Or maybe you buy Girl Scout Cookies or make a one time donation to the canvasser outside your office building raising money to save the whales or feed children in Africa. How much money and time does that add up to over the course of a year? What if you selected one or two organizations you really cared about and then donated your time and money to them on a consistent basis? While organizations like one-time donations or volunteers, consistent givers and volunteers help make their work more sustainable. Even if it’s just $5-10 or a few hours each month. My point here is that if you’re regularly using your gifts, talents, and resources to make an impact (even if it’s “small” or incremental), you can be grounded in knowing you’re making a difference and not feel as helpless when the latest batch of “bad” news comes your way. I may not be able to do it all, but I can do something.
Finally, even when time and money are limited, you can always offer loving-kindness to any person, place, thing, or situation. So, one of the things I do when I find myself feeling helpless or in judgement is to offer this silent affirmation: “May you be wellness, wholeness, happiness, and freedom from all manner of suffering.”
What are your favorite podcasts and blogs that you read that are on mindfulness?
I also love Kyle Cease’s Youtube channel. I guess it’s technically not a podcast. Kyle’s a transformational speaker and comedian and posts several times a week.
For blogs, I like Self-care by Aisha, Mindful Magazine, Thrive Global, and Harvard Business Review. I know some people might be surprised by the last one, but the Harvard Business Review has a ton of great resources on the topic, particularly for folks looking at the intersection of mindfulness and organizational leadership.
Anything else you want to share?
For folks that are interested, I have a free Mastering the Art of Work/Life Balance in a Digital World starter kit. You can get a copy here and I’m teaching the Master the Art of Work/Life Balance in a Digital World online course that starts on September 7. The course is essentially FREE and you can pay what you can if you sign-up by August 31. After that time, the price will be the suggested value of $97.