Distraction Is Hurting Your Career

[Updated September 18, 2015.]

Yes, Virginia, advertising is hurting your career. Well, not just ads, but also crap content. You know, the Twinkies of text. Empty mental calories. It’s all serving to dull your edge and tarnish your chances of getting a promotion and that new BMW.

I know. It’s almost un-American to publicly proclaim one’s hatred for advertising. Maybe I’m weird. Or difficult to please. But I simply hate ads. In Don Draper’s world, he would have already paid someone to snuff me.

About ten years ago, my wife and I did the cord cutter thing, before anyone was familiar with the term or it was a trending topic. Removing Time Warner Cable from our home saved us $95 a month (which has added up to about $11,000 at this point, more than enough to pay for my fancy British speakers). More important, it also eliminated the obnoxious ads that used to emanate from our TV and derail our thoughts.

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Next, I quit playing the radio in my car. In fact, I’ve never played the radio in my current vehicle. As a music lover, it was easy to fall back on compact discs or plugging in my iPod. This freed time to think about career strategies and current projects or listen to educational podcasts, leveraging that valuable and quickly accumulating commute time…as opposed to being mentally jostled by mediocre voice actors trying to sell me carpeting or tires.

But what about those pesky web-based ads, like the stuff you see on Facebook and other sites? For a long time, I simply tolerated them. Crap about online games, celebrity cosmetic surgery blunders, and impossibly low insurance rates dominates the ads of many sites. They’re ugly, obnoxious, and—most significantly—distracting.

This advertising is very carefully crafted to appeal to basic human psychology and steal our attention. I’m typically not the smartest guy in the room, but I try to remember to plug in my brain each morning. I find these ads to be almost surrealistically insulting to my intelligence.

Everyone uses the web differently. Personally, I use it mostly for research. Sure, a bit of social interaction and certainly some entertainment (Netflix, HBO Now, and YouTube are always a click away). But most of my activity is doing research for my freelance writing and books. In this capacity, ads are especially painful because of their distraction.

I’m trying to get work done that directly impacts my career, not have my retinas barraged by frivolous promotions for products or services that in no way help me reach my goals. It’s highly ironic that my laptop and broadband connection, the “work truck” without which I simply can’t do my job, are laced with ADD-inducing ads designed, nay engineered, to derail me from my daily thoughts and work.

It’s as if I’m on a diet and, on every work commute, I lose control of the Ford F-250 I’m driving to the job site as it autonomously pulls into a Dunkin’ Donuts and someone at the drive-thru shoves a double glazed into my yap.

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Thus, last year, I installed an ad blocker in my browser. The particular one I use is fast, effective, and doesn’t slow my computer to a crawl (like some products). But, most importantly, it eliminates hundreds of ads from reaching my eyes every week. No matter how subtly, those ads are very carefully orchestrated distractions designed to suck away my focus from the task at hand (in my case, research for writing projects). If I’m investigating solar energy, for example, I don’t care about Toyota’s latest subcompact or, worse, celebrity dieting tips.

Before you cry foul and accuse me of undermining American democracy or being anti-capitalistic, realize that I’m willing to pay for information services instead of receiving a slew of ads. After all, these companies have to pay the bills somehow—and I’ve never believed in the theft of intellectual property. Often, however, service providers don’t offer an ad-free, paid option.

Take Flipboard, for example. This popular media aggregation app for mobile devices is available free. Unfortunately, there’s no subscription option or method for avoiding advertising. However, the full-page national ads it features are tasteful and professional. There’s no creepy caffeinated car salesman screaming “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday…Everything must GO!!!” at the top of his lungs or the “10 Biggest Celebrity Bikini Disasters” lurking in wait to put me into an epileptic fit.

For those of you unfamiliar, Flipboard displays your hand-picked media sources (from a large collection, in categories like News, Sports, and Tech & Science) in a collage of square tiles that “flip” when they’re automatically updated. I’m pretty picky about my news sources; most are related to consumer tech (like Engadget, Ars Technica, and Gigaom).

But then I noticed something funny: Articles were appearing from an undesired business news outlet I hadn’t selected (which I’ll leave unnamed, because it pays promotional fees to LinkedIn, the gracious home for my Pulse posts). Let’s just say I’m not a big fan of this news source and its use of click bait headlines, hyperbolistic language, and shoddy editing (and no, it’s not the Huffington Post).

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In fact, respected tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist Jason Calacanis called this news organization “the masters of linkbait,” adding, “That’s what the link-baiting press does today: They literally make shit up to get you to click the headline.”

It’s this type of trash content that blurs our vision, steals our focus, and doesn’t plant intelligent thoughts. You don’t need to have a journalism degree to find such media sources a waste of mental bandwidth, many of which don’t even try to edit their content (do you hear me, Gizmodo?). Few would disagree that, intellectually, we are what we eat. Doesn’t the quality of our thoughts, spurred by what we read and hear, heavily influence our careers and livelihoods?

I’m not one to tell a business how to run itself. As I’m always preaching, I can easily dump Flipboard and adopt a competing service. The stealthy appearance of these unwanted, smarmy articles in my Cover Stories most likely means that Flipboard is receiving promotional fees from this media outlet. I didn’t select them. But they’re also not ads.

Very sneaky, guys.

Some media outlets get it, though, offering consumers the option of paying more for fewer ads or their complete absence. Hulu Plus, for example, the popular video streaming service that delivers current-run television shows to one’s living room or mobile device, recently rolled out a premium level that eliminates all ads. Customers content with commercial interruptions pay $8 a month, while those like me who value our mental liberation pay a measly $4 per month more to rid our entertainment of them. Now Parks & Rec is interruption-free. Ahhh, sweet bliss.

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Pandora is another example of a service that provides consumers with an option. The free version of this uber-popular internet-based music discovery service delivers obnoxious local ads for dating services and car dealerships, but for a mere $36 per year, these ads can be eliminated entirely. A cheap price indeed to keep the music flowing and avoid the distraction and frustration of those obnoxious ads.

The combination of my ad blockers, Hulu Plus, and the fact that my other media and entertainment sources are already ad-free (like Netflix, iTunes, and HBO Now), means I now have a completely ad-free life, both professionally and personally. I have finally reached an ad-free nirvana.

Despite small setbacks like Flipboard (and the fact that my wife always leaves the radio on an obnoxious FM radio station whenever she drives my car), I’m happy that, in the year 2015, we’re able to so thoroughly eliminate ads from our lives. All while improving our work productivity, enhancing our home lives, and boosting our household budgets by cutting the cord.

Try to rid your life of distraction, in the form of ads and worthless click bait media content. You’ll be surprised how it allows you to focus on the things that really matter—like your work, career, and family.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Back to Apple

Everyone loves to take sides in the religious war between mobile platforms. Like trying to walk away from a Spanish soap opera, it’s a drama from which millions of fanboys on both sides of the fence seemingly can’t disengage. “Mine is great, yours sucks” is the tone we so often hear. Platform preachers and mobile zealots love to tout the superiorities of their particular corporate religion. Like Republican versus Democrat or Christian versus atheist, you’re either one of us or you’re one of them.

My first tablet was an iPad. It was a great experience. But when my daughter began stealing the device to use high-end drawing apps like Procreate with an increasing frequency, I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone and simply purchase a new tablet for myself, relinquishing the iPad for my artist-in-residence 14-year-old. I was curious about Android and the hype surrounding the then-anticipated Nexus 7 tablet with the Kit Kat operating system, scheduled for release in August 2013. So I watched the product announcement online, got excited, and purchased one on Amazon.

Objectively, of course, the stock version of Google’s Android OS installed on the Nexus 7 was superior to Apple’s iOS in some ways, but couldn’t live up to it in others. We all have different sensitivities, so which is “better” overall is truly a matter of personal opinion. However, because of those subjective sensitivities, there is a right tablet for you. And, as I’ve learned, there’s definitely a right tablet for me.

apple logo for blogThe proof was delivered by a single app: Flipboard. This tremendously popular news aggregator boasts more than 90 million users. As its name implies, Flipboard provides a tiled layout, with each square on your screen representing a different media source of your choice. Because my 2013 Nexus 7 tablet featured the latest generation software and hardware, I anticipated even better graphics performance than I was getting from my older iPad. Or at least equal. This was a logical assumption, right?

Flipboard, delivered via the Android app on the Nexus 7, seemed half-baked. The tile pages stuttered and briefly froze as I swiped through them when checking my media sources. The pages typically never moved smoothly from one side of my tablet to the other. It was as if the GPU (graphics processing unit) had narcolepsy, falling asleep briefly at the times I needed it most. After the smooth Flipboard performance on the iPad, the Nexus 7 delivered a herky jerky user experience that was the mental equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. It was as if the iPad was a graceful ballerina, while the Nexus 7 was a drunken frat boy.

Then, after only 10 months of use, the Nexus 7 died. One morning I awoke to the colored balls of the Google startup logo spinning incessantly. Three attempts later, the unit continued to refuse to boot up. I was forced to call Google’s tech support. After identifying that the problem wasn’t with its operating system, Google forwarded me to Asus tech support. Asus arranged an in-warranty return of the device for repair or replacement. I was now going to be out-of-pocket with a device that was an important part of my daily workflow. Doing business with Google and Asus was becoming a pain.

In the meantime, I began using the iPad again (my daughter won’t be “liking” this blog post, trust me). Despite being older generation hardware, Flipboard’s pages turned smoothly and elegantly. The stutters and moments of micro-hesitation exhibited by the Nexus 7 were nowhere to be found. It took only a couple of days for me to realize that I really wasn’t looking forward to the return of the Nexus 7. I had been spoiled by Apple and it’s buttery smooth graphics processing. It was as if I had driven the fast and silent Tesla Model S and, in migrating to the Nexus 7, was being forced to downgrade to a loud, slow Chevy.

ipadLater, I happened to be in a Verizon store in my community and, while waiting for a customer service rep, was playing with some of the display devices. I approached an iPad Mini. Low and behold, it just happened to have Flipboard installed. I began swiping on the screen, noting the perfectly smooth action of the pages as they turned under my finger. I began swiping faster, trying to force the Mini to stutter or somehow show weakness in its processing and display of the highly graphical, ever-changing tiled pages. But alas, I couldn’t. The Mini running Flipboard was perfect in its graphics prowess. Stuttering Porky Pig had left the building.

Like it or not, Apple’s tight integration of hardware and software—combined with the adoration and efforts of so many of its third-party software developers (like Flipboard)—results in the best user experience available. Period.

I’m sure this stance seems trivial to many. It’s just a few chokes, locks, and stutters, after all. While I fully respect the admiration that Android fanboys and users have toward their devices, I, personally, am returning to Apple for my tablet fix. It’s not only the smooth operation of Flipboard and similar apps that is beckoning to me. It’s also the mere fact that the iPad, having logged many more hours and tons more abuse (under the hands of my teenagers) than my Nexus 7, has never died. My wife has an even older second generation iPad. Again, no headaches, no problems; just a smooth user experience in any app. Yet after a significantly shorter period of use (not even a year)—and being babied and never dropped—the Google/Asus Nexus 7 croaked.

Before lashing out in the comments, realize that I’m not a blatant fanboy of either platform. It’s why I have open-mindedly tried both. But the proof is in the pudding. Yes, Apple is more expensive. But now I have a strong, “been there, done that” understanding of what that extra money delivers in terms of value, reliability, and overall user experience. Regardless of price point or specific features, Apple’s smartphones and tablets are now the assumed standard in my home.

Anybody want to buy a slightly used Nexus 7 tablet?

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Curt Robbins

[Also see my related blog posts Apple vs. Google: Where Focus Meets Buckshot, Need a Computer? Think Apple, and Apple: The Myth of Too Expensive.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

The Efficiency of Flipboard

flipboard logoWhen I got my first iPad, the third iteration and first model sporting a high-resolution “Retina” display, there was an app I was really psyched to install: Flipboard. Flipboard is a highly customizable news aggregator, or “newsreading” app, that has become an indispensable part of my daily news gathering, reading, and social media consumption. This media aggregator can also be leveraged for targeted research (which I commonly do for my consumer tech books). Flipboard is the pinnacle “go to” app for tens of millions of mobile technology consumers. I’m obviously a big fan.

Flipboard is one of those great apps/media services that is not only super-easy to configure and use, but could even become a part of your obsessive daily regiment of screen tapping. With more than 100 million users, it’s one of the most popular news aggregators to land on a smartphone or tablet (you can now also access it from its website). You can connect your Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and Facebook feeds to the service, keeping you uber up-to-date and embracing the one-stop shopping philosophy and efficiency that top-shelf news aggregators so capably deliver.

Minimal, Attractive Ads

I don’t typically like advertising-supported apps, but Flipboard features professionally designed national ads sprinkled on just lightly enough that they never seem to get in the way. However, this volume will surely increase; Flipboard’s ad burden could become unacceptable, especially to overly sensitive fans of ad-free subscription pricing models (like me).

Now you know why Netflix is so popular; it’s not the semi-stale selection of movies, but rather the lack of commercials. It’s currently impossible to rid your Flipboard feed of ads. Unfortunately, paid subscriptions aren’t available. It would be nice if, in the future, the service offered both a free, ad-supported version and also a feature-enhanced, ad-free paid variety (like the Pandora music streaming service).

I rely on Flipboard to such a great extend that I began using one of the neater features of this service, its magazines. A “magazine” is basically just a collection of articles found via any Flipboard media source. Magazines are available to everyone on Flipboard. You simply tag an article for inclusion in one of your magazines (you can maintain several) and it instantaneously appears within its pages, or boards (thus the name of the company).

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Even nicer, there’s a few Flipboard extensions for the Chrome browser that allow you to add virtually any web-based article or content to a magazine (I use + Flip It; also check out Add to Flipboard). Simply click the Flipboard icon on the Chrome toolbar, choose the destination magazine, and viola! It’s there until you choose to remove it. This can be done from both the desktop and mobile devices, like your iPad.

Magazines Are Great

A Flipboard magazine can be updated as frequently—or infrequently—as the owner prefers. Magazines don’t cost anything to create or maintain and provide a wonderful service to the Flipboard community: Member-curated content. Articles found in magazines often touch on eccentric niche interests and major trending topics alike, providing a very filtered view of the millions of highly dynamic articles offered by Flipboard.

We get enough content curated by corporations; it’s a refreshing change to consume what a peer of mine, i.e. another member of Flipboard and probably just some middle class shlep like me, has collected. One of my Flipboard magazines, Middle Class Tech, is a collection of a few hundred articles from news sources like Ars TechnicaThe Atlantic, Transport Evolved, GigaOM, CarNewsCafeEngadget, Teslarati, and many others. It focuses on affordable technology that touches the lives of middle class consumers, especially early adopters and cord cutting nuclear families.

Check It Out

If you’re not familiar with Flipboard, but a user of mobile tech, I recommend checking it out. Then again, I’m a Netflix-addicted cord cutter who doesn’t watch the local newscast or read a newspaper (I want it all on my tablet or smartphone). Beyond the basic ability to choose the media outlets from which you want to receive articles, Flipboard’s magazines provide you with a look inside the hobbies, interests, and passions of fellow users of this service. This is the next generation of the RSS reader, and so slick you’ll never look back.

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I even use Flipboard for article and book research. In fact, I’ve created six different Flipboard magazines for topics ranging from SpaceX to hydrogen fuel cell cars. It allows me to easily collect and archive articles about these topics so I can conveniently access them on any mobile device in the future—like when I’m writing a freelance article or developing a book related to those topics. You may find similar uses for magazines that you, or others, create.

Be Self-Centered

Typically, Flipboard  promotes its magazines as a way to act as a curator and make your collections available to others. Which is certainly true and the primary purpose. However, these magazines are so easy to create and maintain, you should seriously consider creating some soley for your own use. The fact that others can check them out is just icing on the cake.

Regardless of whether you latch onto Flipboard’s magazines as either a curator or consumer, I encourage you to check out this 21st century method for collecting up-to-the-minute news from dozens of media sources, including long-form articles and your social media accounts.

[This article was originally published on August 27, 2014 and updated on September 18, 2015.]

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his automotive articles on CarNewsCafe, his AV-related posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.