Saturday, May 20, 2017

You Are What You Write

Don’t let the keyboard get in your way.

With summer approaching and tax season behind us, this is the time of year when many of you start to catch your breath and think about FINALLY sitting down to pen your memoirs or write a thought leadership book (or eBook).

Great goal, but like New Year’s resolutions, more easily said than done.
Nevertheless, we’re all for it since studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory. Just don’t let the writing process get in the way of your writing.

Earlier this week, The New York Times republished  Tara Parker-Pope’s 2015 column, Writing Your Way to Happiness.  “The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right,” wrote Pope. She added that some researchers believe writing and editing your own stories can change your perceptions about yourself and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.

Our Take: The writing, editing and introspection process is highly valuable. But most people—even experienced journalists and authors—need a coach, confidant or editor to push them along, help them separate the wheat from the chaff and get their inner voice out.
Think of your editor or writing coach as a trusted advisor who can provide you with a “second opinion” about your inner thoughts.

Also, don’t let the keyboard get in the way of clarifying your own thoughts and sharing them with your audience. Just tell a story by using any “thought-capturing” means you prefer.

Some of you are more comfortable with a legal pad and a pencil than a computer, and prefer to “write” on a favorite deck chair than at your desk. Others are more comfortable dictating into a voice recorder while stuck in traffic. Some of you are great presenters, but freeze up at the site of a blank computer screen. If so, try recording yourself on video, or having a colleague or close family member record you.
We’ve used all of the above techniques and more to help our clients clarify and codify their thoughts into the written word.

The key is to tell your story in your natural voice so your passion and energy for your subject—even if the subject is yourself—comes through loud and clear.

Most of you are established professionals who have a personal story—and business philosophy—that’s a lot more interesting than you give yourself credit for. But if you don’t sound like you believe your own story when you tell it, then how do you expect your readers and followers to buy it?
I’d love to tell you we have “6 Easy Steps” or a proprietary magic formula for making your writing better. We don’t. The writing process isn’t easy and don’t believe anyone who tells you it is. More often than not it’s a battle between you and your subconscious. To win that battle you have to be brutally honest with yourself and must have some trusted lieutenants on your side.

As French philosopher Voltaire famously said, “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.” In other words, be yourself and the words will eventually come. Just be prepared to revise, revise and revise.


TAGS: Voltaire, Memoirs, Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good, health benefits of writing, Tara Parker-Pope, thought leadership

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Markets Too Calm? Time to Fix the VIX

As many of you know, The Chicago Board Option Exchange’s Volatility Index (better known as the VIX) is at a record low level. Long the market’s gold standard for measuring investor fear and paranoia, the VIX has been hibernating all year. This week the VIX fell below 10, its lowest closing level since December 1993 and its longest sustained stretch of calmness in 27 years. Did someone at the CBOE accidentally unplug the VIX or are we really entering an extended period of calm seas?

Most analysts and pundits expected that the inauguration of President Trump, the political neophyte and tempermental tweeter, would trigger significant volatility in the markets. Yet U.S. markets remain at or near their all-time highs. Despite the revolving door or hirings and firings in Trump’s inner circle, the markets have generally ignored Washington’s real-life reality show, North Korea nukes and a huge amount of uncertainty around global trade, tax reform, health care  reform and elections in Holland and France.

Is the VIX still relevant?

The Financial Times recently asked readers: “Should investors worry that stock market ‘fear gauge’ is so low?” According to FT, the VIX is a clean, simple gauge that tends to “follow markets rather than lead them, and does a poor job of capturing more ephemeral but very real investor worries.”

As our client, Kyle Walters, founder of Dallas-based Atlas Wealth Advisors told me, “Many investors, over the last several years, have forgotten that the VIX, and the volatility associated with the VIX, is the reason we are compensated to invest in the stock market.” Walters said we should anticipate more volatility, and know it’s a good thing.  “Over the short run, the market is unknowable; over the long run, market economics are inevitable,” Walters added.
The New York Times’ Neil Irwin recently wrote that The Stock Market Is Weirdly Calm and explained why (sort of). If the last few years have taught investors anything, Irwin argued that investors are getting smarter about jumping to conclusions: “Those with a hair-trigger reaction to political news stand to lose, while those who bet on a continued steady and unexceptional expansion will win,” wrote Irwin. “Investors learned a lesson that it’s easy to overreact to political developments, and the same seems to have happened globally in the last several months,” added Irwin.

Maybe we’re not even measuring the right thing when it comes to investor fear?
Our take: Just as today’s low jobless rate does not really account for the millions of working age Americans who have dropped out of the workforce or who are working at jobs that pay much less than they used to, the VIX may no longer be measuring the right elements of fear and uncertainty.

As Barrons’ Ben Levisohn recently wrote, Hold On! The VIX Isn’t as Low as It Looks?!?! “First of all, the so-called Fear Index isn’t measured the same was that it used to be,” noted Levisohn. “In 2014, the CBOE changed the rules for the VIX index by including weekly options in the mix. One could argue that by taking that change out of the equation, the old VIX would have been lower in 2007 and possibly 2014,” Levisohn added.
Bill Schultheis, Principal, Investment Advisor of our client Soundmark Wealth Management in Kirkland, Washington told me that the VIX, by its very nature of measuring the magnitude of the options premium on the S&P 500, “continues to be a reliable measure of investors’ expectations of market volatility, not of volatility itself. Although the financial media continues to highlight VIX, for the average investor this tradeable security is irrelevant from a portfolio and financial planning perspective,” added Schulteis.

Michael R. Gold, a Senior Private Client Advisor of New York-based Gertsein Fisher, agreed. “The VIX simply gauges the psychological state of the investor. It’s interesting that we need an indicator like the VIX to tell us investors are nervous whenever the equity markets experience any unwelcome volatility. It is pretty obvious when our screens are flashing red that people will be anxious and the VIX will spike. Sure you can look at the VIX, but you can also turn on CNBC--if the Dow is off by triple digits, then there is going to be some fear out there. Keep it simple; if it’s not simple then you are asking the wrong questions,” noted Gold.
Are investors becoming too complacent?

According to Irwin,Low volatility could make banks, hedge funds and other institutions more comfortable taking on extra leverage, paradoxically making the financial system less stable and more subject to large swings over time.” Soundmark’s Schultheis observed that we’re now experiencing the second-longest bull market on record. “There is a tendency for investors to become complacent and fearful. They may sell out of stocks even when minor corrections occur. Most recently this occurred during the market downturn at the start of 2016, and the subsequent sell-off when Britain voted to leave the European Union.” 

Opportunities for investors in a low-volatility climate
According to Schultheis, the current market climate of low volatility is an excellent time to review one’s financial plan, and specifically asset allocation between stocks and bonds for two reasons. “First, it provides a degree of comfort that one is financially able to weather the next market correction or bear market.  Second, it generates confidence that they are prepared to take advantage of a market downturn and to purchase (reallocate) from fixed income to stocks at an opportune time.” According to Schulthies, this is the opposite of what unfolds for most investors, as they sell stock positions throughout market declines due to heightened pessimism, fear and volatility attached to the VIX,” added Schultheis.

Gold believes now is an “incredible time” for investors to really take a look at where they are now, where they want to go and to determine if there are any gaps or obstacles that may be standing in their way. “When investors are not bombarded with headlines that the financial world is ending due to the apocalypse de jour, they have an opportunity to look at everything from a holistic standpoint and to be in even stronger financial position before the next storm inevitably comes.” Irwin, a renowned media pundit, believes the biggest risk of this period of ultralow volatility is that “by looking past the latest headlines out of world capitals, investors won’t send the signals that might prevent political leaders from making a mistake in the first place.”
However, as Schultheis cautioned, Soundmark tries to educate its clients about the importance of embracing market volatility and understanding that it is integral to the asset class that drives its premium return above riskless assets over time. Schultheis said many of his clients are aware of the extended nature of the current bull market and “voice their anxiousness” about the inevitable correction that comes with it.


“We remind clients that their current allocation between stocks and bonds reflects their ability to withstand market downturns.  These discussions are especially important for folks who are retired and drawing income from portfolios,”  said Schultheis. 


TAGS: Kyle Walters, Atlas Wealth Advisors,
Bill Schultheis, Soundmark Wealth Management, Michael Gold, Gertsein Fisher,VIX, market volatility

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Upside of Taking a Break

About three weeks ago, we discussed the benefits of the 90-minute lunch break and the 5-4-1 principle of “interval training” for office workers. A number of you agreed with us that it’s better to do short bursts of hard concentrated effort than to grind it out hour after hour, day after day. With all due respect to our CPA and attorney friends, the hourly billing model is going away and you’re increasingly paid for results—not for how long it took you to get those results.

Sorry to hit you with that just as you’re recovering from busy season.

Our client Kyle Walters, founder of Dallas-based Atlas Tax Advisors, LLC told me last week that the CPA profession—long based on billable hours--is governed by an “effort-based” business model rather than on a “results-based business” model. “It’s a system that tells workers it doesn’t matter how well you are doing; it only matters how much time you spend doing it,” said Walters. “Why would CPA firms promote and encourage ingenuity when they can create systems and processes that cuts the amount of time it takes to get the client the kind of results they’re paying for?  Isn’t that kind of efficiency only going to reduce fees?” asked Walters.

Attorneys, are you listening?

Walters, who is writing a series of articles about disruption in the accounting profession, was interviewed on NBC News last week about the Trump tax plan.
Just last week, The New York Times dusted off an op-ed piece by Jason Fried called Be More Productive. Take Time Off. Fried, who is the co-founder and C.E.O. of the collaborative work software company 37signals (now Basecamp), is a huge advocate of working smarter not longer.

For example, from May through October, Basecamp switches to a four-day workweek. And not 40 hours crammed into four days, but 32 hours comfortably fit into four days. “We don’t work the same amount of time, we work less,” Fried wrote.

At Basecamp, most staff workers take Fridays off, but some choose a different day. Nearly all of us enjoy three-day weekends. Work ends Thursday, the weekend starts Friday, and work starts back up on Monday. According to Fried, “the benefits of a six-month schedule with three-day weekends are obvious. But there’s one surprising effect of the changed schedule: better work gets done in four days than in five.”

A Harris Interactive study found that 57 percent of salaried workers in the U.S. don’t take all of their allotted time off. Yet, research shows that if you consistently work more than 40 hours a week and don’t take vacation, you become ill, your family is negatively impacted and your productivity goes down.

“When there’s less time to work, you waste less time,” wrote Fried. “When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time.”
As legendary comedienne, Lucille Ball famously quipped, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.”

Companies like Netflix and Evernote let employees—not the HR department—decide how much vacation time they will take as long as they get their work done. Guess what? In companies with voluntary, rather than mandatory PTO policies, employees tend to take less time off rather than more. Go figure.

We’re flipping the calendar over to a new page. Let’s have a good productive month and start planning your next vacation before the dog days of summer bite you on the you-know-what.

TAGS: recharge your batteries, Lucille Ball, the importance of vacation, Netflix, Evernote, advanced PTO policies, Jason Fried, Kyle Walters

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Your Brain Just Called—It’s Not OK to Skip Your Workout Today

Monday’s stirring Boston Marathon results--Americans taking 6 of the top 10 men’s spots and 2 of the top 10 women’s spots--sent a buzz through the running community. It wasn’t just a great showing by the elite runners under warmer than ideal conditions, it was a victory for every rank and file runner who toed the line and every spectator who showed up to cheer them on.

As we posted four years ago this week, just days after the tragic bombings at the 2013 Marathon,
Life Is  a Marathon Not a Sprint.
Runners generally don’t have super-human size, strength, blazing speed or extraordinary leaping ability,” we wrote. “They don’t slam dunk, hit home runs, do touchdown dances, hit holes-in-one or throw down 720s from the top of the half-pipe. They’ve simply found a way to get the most of the endurance gene we all have inside of us and put one foot in front of the other on days when others hit the snooze button, pull the covers over their heads, skip the gym and go out for brunch.”

Don’t wimp out—ever!

So, if you’re feeling guilty about skipping your jog, yoga session or gym workout today, we’re NOT going console you. That’s right. Even if you’re not training for a marathon, triathlon or Tough Mudder competition, wimping out is not only bad for your body; it’s bad for your brain as well. A
new study from the University of Maryland department of kinesiology finds that the benefits of exercise for brain health can diminish in as little as one or two weeks of inactivity.

The author at '97 Boston Marathon

After 18 marathons (including two Bostons), 50 triathlons and seven 24-hour relays, my competitive racing days are over. Hip, labrum and shoulder surgeries in recent years have put a permanent exclamation point on that fact. But, I still manage to get a short run, swim or bike ride in about 355 days a year and feel absolutely crummy—both mentally and physically—on those 10 days a year when I don’t. As my college track coach used to say, “anyone can run fast when they’re feeling good, we’re going to teach you to run fast when you feel like crap.”

*** QUICK TIP for beating the exercise blahs: On those days when you’re tired, stressed and just aren’t feeling it, try the 10-minute test. Assuming you’re not seriously ill or recovering from surgery, make a deal with yourself to get to the track, gym or exercise class at a pre-determined time. Just try to make it through the first 10 minutes. If you’re still feeling crummy after the first 10 minutes, call it a day. But more often than not, once you get moving, you’ll finish the full workout and come back more energized than when you arrived.

Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise—particularly endurance exercise—helps to create new neurons, blood vessels and synapses and it strengthens areas of the brain that are related to memory and higher-level thinking. Those who exercise regularly not only have more endorphins—the body’s happy chemicals—but better memories and cognitive skills than their sedentary counterparts.

Without getting into the wonky science, exercise physiologists believe that working out increases blood flow to the brain. Blood carries fuel and oxygen to brain cells, along with other substances that help to jump-start desirable biochemical processes there. In general, the more blood you have flowing into the brain, the better.

The University of Maryland study, which was published in August in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, asked a group of highly fit older men and women to stop exercising for nearly two weeks. Participants were competitive master’s runners between the ages of 50 and 80 who agreed to join the study. At the start of the experiment, the runners visited the researchers’ lab for tests of their cognitive skills. They also had a special brain M.R.I. that tracks how much blood is flowing to various parts of the brain.

Then the athletes sat around for 10 days. They did not run or otherwise exercise and were asked to engage in as little physical activity as possible. Again, these were highly fit and disciplined people, so being asked to be couch potatoes for a while was a punishment for them, not a reward. 

After 10 days of being sedentary, the itchy runners returned to the lab to repeat the earlier tests, including the M.R.I. scan of their brains. The results showed striking changes in blood flow now. Much less blood streamed to most of the areas in the runners’ brains, and the flow declined significantly to both the left and right lobes of the hippocampus. It’s not clear if the study participants performed noticeably worse on the tests of cognitive function than they had at the start. But, the results suggest that the improvements in brain blood flow because of exercise will diminish if you stop training.

The study’s message seems clear. For continued brain health, you have to keep moving. The international running community and Bostonians of all colors, ages and sizes took that to heart on Monday. For the 25,000 participants and million-plus spectators, it was a resounding victory over terrorism, self-doubt and the endless temptations we face to take the easy way out.

Regardless of how your day is going, just keep putting one foot in front of the other each and every day. Before you know it, you’ll be closer to your goals than you think.
Have a good week. Best, HB


TAGS: Benefits of exercise, exercise physiology, brain health, University of Maryland kinesiology

Sunday, April 09, 2017

More Multi-Tasking Myths

As expected, Part 1 of this post rankled a few of you, but many others agreed.

According to author and New York Times business columnist, Phyllis Korkki, you’re far better off “mono-tasking” than trying to fool yourself into thinking your brain is a true multi-processing machine. It’s not just a matter of being more productivity when you take on one task at a time, but being more creative.

For her recent article series about making the most of your workday, Korkki interviewed a number of neuroscientists and productivity experts. One key takeaway
: “Truly innovative thinking arises when we allow our brains to follow a logical path of associated thoughts and ideas, and this is more likely when we can focus on a single mental pathway for an extended period.” Earl K. Miller, a neuroscience professor at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put it more bluntly: “Multitasking is not humanly possible!”

Miller, one of several experts interviewed by Korkki, said you tend to make more mistakes when you multi-task. Sounds reasonable, but why? According to Miller, that’s because when you “toggle” back and forth from task to task, “the neural networks of your brain must backtrack to figure out where they left off and then reconfigure. That extra activity causes you to slow down, and errors become more likely,” explained Miller.

Our take--
It would help if the generations took the time to understand each other’s preferred speed of information gathering and critical thinking. For instance, seasoned professionals should understand that Millennials may be paying closer attention than you think even when the have their cell phones out. Did it ever occur to you that the 20-something in the conference room is taking notes on his cellphone, not checking Facebook and Twitter every five minutes? On the flip side, young folks should understand they don’t have a monopoly on innovation. Turns out middle-age folks (46-60) have obtained the lion’s share of the patents, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

To the best of your ability, Korkki recommended setting up a work environment that encourages you to perform just one single task at a time. While she and other experts don’t think it’s possible for most people to block off hours at a time for a single task, Korkki said that even committing yourself to monotask for five minutes can yield productivity benefits.
From personal experience, I remember my old boss calling it “time boxing” and my fourth grade teacher repeatedly shouted at us to give her our “undivided attention.” Maybe she was on to something.

A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.

Still skeptical? Korkki recommended making incremental changes like these:

1. Remove temptation:
 Actively resist the urge to check unrelated social media while you are working on a task. Some workers may need to go so far as to install anti-distraction programs like SelfControl, Freedom, StayFocusd and Anti-Social, which block access to the most addictive parts of the internet for specified periods.
2. Work on just one screen: Put away your cellphone and turn off your second monitor.

3. Move: If you find yourself losing focus – reading the same sentence over and over or if your mind continually wanders off topic – get up and briefly walk around, Dr. Miller said. A brief walk around your office can lift your mood, reduce hunger and help you refocus.

Here at HB Publishing, you can tell who the creatives are…. We’re the ones always getting up every hour to walk around the office, shoot the breeze in the coffee room or stepping outside for a few minutes of fresh air—on the other size of the plaza from the smokers.
4. Work in intervals: Set a timer for five or 10 minutes and commit to focusing on your assignment for that amount of time. Then allow yourself a minute of distraction, as long as you get back on your task for another five or 10 minutes.

A number of us here at HB are endurance athletes. Interval training—hard bursts of all out focus followed by pre-set rest periods and then hard burst of all out focus again—is part of our DNA. We also use the 5-4-1 principal. Here’s how it works
: After a good mental warmup, you go hard at your desk for 5 hours, followed by a long break of at least 60 minutes (the average “lunch break” here at HB is closer to 90). After that 60-90 minute break, you hit it hard again for 4 hours, then take another long break, resuming with 1 hour of hard focus and recap time to gather up the loose ends from your day and to prepare for the next day. Many find it useful to break up the 5-4-1 work intervals into morning, afternoon, and post-dinner time.

Works for us.

*** New Insta Poll: How many times per month are you communicating with clients? Early results show that about half of you aren’t communicating with your clients often enough. See how you stack up to your peers (Our latest Insta Poll is on the right side of our home page). Maybe it’s time you put the devices down and picked up the old fashioned phone a little more.


We know many of you can’t get away with a 90-minute lunch break, but when you’re paid to use your brain more than your brawn, it makes sense to put in the work when your brain is firing on all cylinders. As Korkki notes, “not everyone gets there the same way. It’s up to you to figure out when you are most efficient and when you’re not.”


TAGS  Journal of Experimental Psychology, Dr. Earl Miller, Phyllis Korkki, multi-tasking is a myth 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Why Multi-Tasking Is a Myth, Part 1

Thomas Edison famously said, “There is no substitute for hard work.” Most of you on this distribution list already know that. You are among the hardest working people we know and have probably never been called slackers. You’ve paid your dues, you’ve kept your nose to the grindstone and burned plenty of midnight oil to get to where you are today.  Congrats on that.
You can’t possibly log or bill any more hours than you are currently working, but deep down you sense something’s missing, right? You know you could be getting home from the office a little earlier and feeling less stress in the evenings and on weekends. You know you could be spending more quality time with your friends, family and spouse—without making any less money. But how?

The solution doesn’t require you to clone yourself or consistently hit the lottery. You just need a better understanding of what makes you tick at work.

Step 1—Realize that no two people are the same when it comes to personal productivity. So don’t look for a magic “system” or training aid to give you a 10x boost in what you already get done in a day. It’s a personal challenge that only you can solve.

Step 2—There are probably times of the day or week in which you find that you’re more productive than others. Not sure? Try going over you daily time logs, journals, diaries, CRM system or any other places in which you keep track of your work activities for clues.

The main thing is to know when you are most likely to be “in the zone” and schedule you’re heaviest mental lifting for those times. Many productivity experts suggest doing your toughest tasks of the day, first thing in the morning. But, not everyone’s a morning person. Others do their best thinking late at night, when everyone else is asleep and your household, phone and mobile devices are quiet. Others need to clear their desks and heads mentally in the morning and use the afternoon to hit it hard—often right after a vigorous walk or workout during lunch. Some don’t even bother with high-agenda items on Mondays and Fridays when they’re likely to be distracted or exhausted and use the middle days of the week to hit their stride.

Again, the key is to know when you’re most likely to be “in the zone” which is increasingly limited these days. Case in point: Four out of five of you (78%) who responded to our
recent InstaPoll said that you your work life has become more complex than it was five years ago.

In response, it’s tempting to try to cram more into the day and juggle as many responsibilities and assignments as you can. Multi-tasking has become a badge of honor in many circles. IT SHOULDN’T BE!

Multi-tasking increases errors and impedes creativity

Many professionals think they can juggle multiple projects, responsibilities and tasks simultaneously. They think they can finish a presentation while booking cross-country flights and taking urgent calls from frantic clients all at the same time.
In reality, experts say, you’re not really multi-tasking as much as you are switching back and forth very quickly from one activity to another.

Unfortunately, with all that rapid-fire switching, you’re not doing any of your activities particularly well. That’s because your brain is working extra hard to handle multiple thoughts simultaneously. It’s like what happens when you have too many windows open on your PC or too many apps running on your phone.

As Dr. Matthew MacKinnon explained in Psychology Today, “science has consistently shown that the human brain can only sustain attention on one item at a time. Our overestimation of our attentional capacity stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of multitasking and of the human attentional system as a whole,” added MacKinnon.

New York Times
columnist, Phyllis Korkki recently wrote that “Your ability to get things done depends on how well you can focus on one task at a time, whether it’s for five minutes or an hour.”

When you multitask, experts say you tend to make more mistakes. Earl K. Miller, a neuroscience professor at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory argues that when you toggle back and forth between tasks, “the neural networks of your brain must backtrack to figure out where they left off and then reconfigure.” Miller, who was interviewed for Korkki’s article series, said the extra brain activity causes you to slow down and errors become more likely. That’s why Miller believes people are much more efficient if they mono-task.

According to Miller, the brain is like a muscle that becomes stronger with use and weaker when not challenged. “As with physical exercise, the more we strengthen our mental connections by focusing on one task to the exclusion of all others, the better we can perform,” added Miller.

As far back as the 1930s, Allan F. Mogensen, the creator of work simplification, coined the phrase "work smarter, not harder." Sorry multi-taskers, but that means doing one thing well at a time, not doing many things half-ass all day long. Next week we’ll look at ways to prevent you from falling into the multi-tasking trap.

Have a good weekend. HB


TAGS: Mutli-tasking unrealistic, Matthew MacKinnon, Phyllis Korkki,
Allan F. Mogensen

Friday, March 17, 2017

Why Can’t We Look Away from Our Screens?

As parents of two teenage boys, my wife and I went to see the award-winning documentary Screenagers the other night at our local community center. We weren’t alone. If you are worried about the amount of time your tech-savvy kids or grandchildren are spending on their devices, then this film is a must-see. Since Screenagers isn’t shown in most commercial theaters, you’ll have to find it at a local school, church synagogue or community center. It’s worth the effort.

Screenagers is directed by physician Delaney Ruston who set out on a journey to see if she should be concerned about the amount of time her own teens were spending on their devices. As Ruston and other researchers discovered, the average American kid spends 6.5 hours a day looking at screens (not including time spent online doing actual homework). In short, she found that screen time is definitely affecting concentration, development and family relationships although not entirely in bad ways. If you set some reasonable boundaries, then you kids can maintain their social status without turning into one of those gamers you hear about on the news who doesn’t leave their room for weeks at a time.

Kids aren’t the only ones with screen addiction

In a new book,
Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, social psychologist Adam Alter warns that our devotion to digital devices has morphed into something very much like addiction.

As Alter described in a recent New York Times interview, addiction is no longer limited to getting hooked on chemical substances such as heroin, cocaine and nicotine. It’s really about seeking any experience that makes us feel good. That’s because when we do, our brains to release the neurotransmitter dopamine and we keep coming back for another hit of the feel-good chemical. It could be getting likes on social media or getting to the next level on your favorite online game.

“We’ll get a flood of dopamine that makes us feel wonderful in the short term, though in the long term you build a tolerance and want more,” noted Alter.
Not surprisingly, Alter found that game producers often pretest different versions of a release to see which one is hardest to resist and which will keep your attention longest. It must be working.

A Gallup poll found that half of U.S. smartphone users check their devices at least several times per hour and that 60 percent of adults
keep their cellphones next to them when they sleep. A Good Technology survey of 1,000 workers found that half of respondents check their emails during the night. Sure, some of that checking in is for work-related purposes (or work-related paranoia), but gaming companies and social media platforms know our gadgets are perfect delivery devices for addictive media. If games and social media were once confined to our home computers, portable devices permit us to engage with them everywhere.
The problem, said alter is that, “We’re checking our social media constantly, which disrupts work and everyday life. We’ve become obsessed with how many ‘likes’ our Instagram photos are getting instead of where we are walking and whom we are talking to.” If you’re on the phone for three hours a day, Alter said you’re not spending enough time on face-to-face interactions with actual people. “Smartphones give everything you need to enjoy the moment you’re in, but they don’t require much initiative. You never have to remember anything because everything is right in front of you. You don’t have to develop the ability to memorize or to come up with new ideas.”
Solutions for tech addicts (and near-addicts)
Our January post, Time for a Technology Timeout, described a number of tech detox facilities and we talked about our 24-hour weekend tech-fasts here at HB. Alter suggested being more mindful about how we are allowing tech to invade our lives. Instead of going cold turkey, Alter suggested cordoning off your tech usage. For instance, not answering email after six at night or only posting or responding to emails at selected times of the day. (We recommend 9am, lunch time and right before you go home).
Alter said, “find more time to be in natural environments, to sit face to face with someone in a long conversation without any technology in the room. There should be times of the day where it looks like the 1950s or where you are sitting in a room and you can’t tell what era you are in. You shouldn’t always be looking at screens.”

In the film Screenagers, one good strategy that Dr. Ruston suggested was drawing up a contract with your teen about how often they can use their smartphone every day. The key is not to ram the contract down your kid’s throat. Instead, present it to them as a first draft, let them make some modifications and negotiate a little. That way, they’ll feel they had some say in the rules and will be more likely to comply.

*** New Insta Poll: How many times per month are you communicating with clients? Early results show that about half of you are not communicating often enough. See how you stack up to your peers (Our latest Insta Poll is on the right side of our home page). Maybe it’s time you put the devices down and picked up the old fashioned phone a little more.


Walking out of the Screenagers showing, my wife and I couldn’t help noticing how many adults whipped out their smartphones the minute the film was over. If you want your kids, employees and co-workers to be more present in the real world, you need to start setting an example. Use mobile technology as a powerful communication and information gathering tool—don’t let it own you or define you.


TAGS: Screenagers, Delaney Ruston, Adam Alter, tech addiction