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Sabbatical week 6: Can #DigitalEpiphanies arise from insight into our behaviours or do we need disruption too?

Having just read a blog post by ThinkProductive’s founder Graham Allcott http://www.thinkproductive.co.uk/end-of-the-month-the-lemon/ has got me thinking about where we started from with the Digital Epiphanies project http://www.digitalepiphanies.org/.  In Graham’s blogpost he talks about epiphanies he’s experienced over the past month as a result of some personal challenges, and the changes he intends to make to both work and non-work aspects of his life. 

This has reminded me of how our ideas on the Digital Epiphanies project were inspired by Jane McGonigal’s TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_the_game_that_can_give_you_10_extra_years_of_life.html where she talks about the top 5 regrets of the dying http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/feb/01/top-five-regrets-of-the-dying:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

She also talks about the experience of post-traumatic growth.  This is a positive change that occurs in response to a highly challenging life experience.  Instead of being paralysed by stress when faced with difficulties, those who experience post-traumatic growth reflect on their priorities and change their lives. It seems that the traumatic event motivates them to live a life with fewer regrets

We wondered whether we could use digital technologies to give people the opportunity to reflect upon the way they live their lives and consider whether their actions are in line with their own values.  Could we facilitate post-traumatic growth without the trauma?

Personal informatics tools are a range of technologies that enable people to track aspects of their lives.  We’ve been investigating whether personal informatics tools can give people digital epiphanies (moments of insight about their digital habits).  Given our focus on work-life balance, we’ve been thinking a lot about work-related digital activities that seem to take up lots of our time and invade our non-work time – the most obvious candidate being email.  We’ve also considered non-work activities that people often engage in when they feel that they should be working such as social networking.   Many of the existing personal informatics tools that track how you spend your time on your digital technologies include some measure of productivity i.e. they try to make explicit whether you’re spending your time effectively.  They do this by classifying activities as productive (e.g. working on a word document), neutral (the  default setting for email and scheduling activities) or highly distracting (social networking sites). The implication is  of course that we should minimise our time on email and social networking sites so that we can spend our time doing more “real work”.  This sounds like good advice, as long as we maintain firm boundaries between work and non-work and don’t let work grow to take up more and more of our time.  And that’s not always easy, particularly with smartphones beeping with every email that lands in our inboxes.  It’s worth remembering I think that one of the top 5 regrets of the dying was “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard”.

 At the start of this post I mentioned Graham’s blogpost in which he argues that “disruptive times in your life are where you see the bigger picture from. Disruptive doesn’t  mean ‘bad’ it just means ‘different from the everyday’.” This has made me think.  For technology to really create digital epiphanies that can make us think about whether our current habits and behaviours are in line with our values, perhaps we need more than the data collection and opportunities for reflection that personal informatics tools can provide.  Perhaps we need disruption to our everyday activities to have a real epiphany. Sometimes this might be a nagging feeling that things are not quite right. Or a complaint from a family member that we’re working too much.  Could a technology provide the disruption?