Creating Balance and Digital Mindfulness with Dr. Lawrence Ampofo
On digital mindfulness, creating balance between work and personal self, and the importance of data in creating strategies to thrive in the city.
Today’s guest is Dr. Lawrence Ampofo. He’s a digital strategy and foreign policy professional who has been an advisor on strategic digital change for more than a decade. As the founder and director of Digital Mindfulness and Semantica Research, Lawrence focuses on increasing the capacities of companies to implement digital strategy across major transformation programmes by promoting new ways of working and collaboration in an age of digital distraction and information overload.
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Lawrence, welcome to the show.
Thank you. Nice to be here, Clare.
I’m so excited to learn more about your work. You’re a fellow Londoner, born and bred like me. First, I just want to find out a little bit about how where you live influences the work that you do. Then I want to dive in to all the juicy work that you’re doing and the research that you’re sharing with the world.
You’re right. I’m born and bred in London. I was born right the way down the road in Westminster. How does London affect my work or how does it influence my work? London is a city of contrast. I’ve lived all over the world, I’ve travelled all over the world. London really is unique at the same time as it’s transient, there are lots of people coming and going. The same friends who I grew up with, the same core of people still remain in London. All of us get the same energy from London. I think just with London being on the forefront of design, technology, digital, the top foreign policy and politics, it’s just so many different things. I think being on the bleeding edge of so many intellectual and technological and political pursuits, it just allows you to think five years into the future, ten years into the future. That’s really what’s driving my work and my research.
What is digital mindfulness according to your research?
It really helps if I give you a little bit of context in terms of how it came about. I worked in digital strategy for a really long time, and analytics. My whole career has been about getting people online and working with people and companies to get eyeballs and to better engage people so that you can do things, so that you can either communicate with them more meaningfully or you can sell them more products. I started to think, once you look around you and you can see scores of people just looking at their phones as they’re walking on the street or while they’re on a train. I know that we all read books and we all read newspapers when we’re on the train or whatever, but there was something different about the smart phone in particular. That was different to the way we behaved with desktop computers. It started me off thinking actually, what is the quality of our lives? Do these devices actually improve the quality of our lives or not? I just wanted to explore that.
Once you start asking those questions, you come across the huge influencers in this space, like Sherry Turkle with Alone Together or Reclaiming Conversation. These are amazing books by the way to your audience. You should really take a scan of them. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. You’ve got Alex Soojung-Kim Pang talking about being addicted to distraction. These books are just fabulous, just telling you this is the effect of being connected all day every day and being constantly connected 24/7. This is the effect it has on you, your relationships and your brain. I really wanted the next phase. I wanted to know what I could do about it. I’m sure the companies reading about this wanted to know what we could do next. There was nothing really forthcoming. That’s what started me off thinking about mindfulness.
If you take all of the spirituality and the religious dogmatism out of it, mindfulness really is just about being really aware of your present moment as it comes, without judgment. I just thought, “What if you could overlay that description to our digital moment? What would it look like if we were to just be aware of our present digital moment?” I just thought, “It would actually be incredibly noisy and chaotic and extremely stressful.” I don’t think we really gave enough thought to the notifications that come in, the blinking lights on our phones, the noises, the different messages that we come into contact with. When I talk to people and they would say, “Lawrence, you know this is London. It’s a bit of a bubble here. London isn’t the rest of the world.” But on my travels, you would see smart phone penetration is so high that the same behaviours that we are going through in London are the same things that other people face as well.
I came up with this idea that as the digital landscape is changing, we’re being encouraged, I wouldn’t say forced, but we’re definitely being strongly pushed in the direction that we have to digitize. Not just our phones and our relationships in terms of our social networks, but as we go to work, everything’s becoming more digital. The whole talk now is about digitalization and how AI is going to take over lots of our jobs and render lots of people unemployed. In all of this rhetoric, I think we’re forgetting the most important thing.
We’re forgetting there’s a gap that we’re creating, an intellectual and the real world gap between this technology and the humans, the actual number one creator and also that the technology is there to serve. That’s why I think digital mindfulness really addresses that gap. I think we need to humanize digital transformation the way that we integrate digital into our lives and not just think in terms of quantification and performance metrics. We shouldn’t just think, “How many likes did I get? How many shares did I get? How many friends do I have?” Rather be thinking in a more meaningful way. When we do that, the quality of our lives, of our work, of our businesses, increase manifold.
In terms of work-life balance and boundaries between your working self and your digital self, and the self that hangs out with friends and family at the weekend, what kinds of things do you do and choose not to do in the day–to-day in order to strike as much of a balance as possible that feels good for you personally?
I’ll preface this answer by saying that it’s really hard to have boundaries at all. I don’t know if you have this, Clare, but as soon as my phone buzzes or I see an email come in, I can feel the physical response to it. My heart raise a little bit and I just feel that I have to answer it, no matter if it’s spam or whatever. I actually did a conference about this last year, the whole thing about work-life balance. I’m really keen to make sure that my work life doesn’t bleed into my personal life. It’s really hard to do that. When you’re using the same device to act as your work emails, as your personal emails, it’s really hard. It’s really easy to say, “I’ll just check work very, very quickly.”
I just try and make sure that I am as intentional or as deliberate as possible with the way that I use tech. If I’m actually talking to someone, I’ll put my phone either on airplane mode or completely on silent so that it doesn’t bother me and I can give that person my full attention. If I’m at home, it’s not always possible, but I try and make that my personal space. Even if I’m working on a personal project and it would seem to someone else like work, I’m quite clear in the boundaries that I set up. I don’t mandate it of everyone that I meet, so I have it when I talk to people. They won’t even excuse themselves, they just take their phone out and start talking. I try to be as intentional with my digital use as possible.
Do you recognize familiar things coming through when you’re working with clients around challenges that their teams face in terms of striking a good and healthy work-life balance with digital life?
Yes, I do. I think that companies now, basically they’re all digital companies to varying degrees. It’s really hard to say to a CEO or a CMO or just employees and companies to say, “Actually, we need to be thinking about not just that we connect with people, but we need to think about the way we connect with people.” That actually might mean less devices or less programmes or less content going out. Basically, the whole economy is based on this. People missing emails might have a direct correlation to some kind of performance review or salary expectation or actually just revenue coming into the company. It’s really, really difficult that our lives now, to a large extent, mandate that we are constantly available. The first thing that people do when they wake up in the morning, in general, when their phone wakes them up is to answer their emails. This was one of the challenges that I had because I just sounded like a revisionist. I sounded like the classic old person, “In my day, when there was one phone and it was in the kitchen and we had to plan to use it.”
It was my job then to get some numbers and some data behind this. Is there any data-driven benefit to improving the way that we build technology, the way that we build digital experiences, and really looking for human-driven quality connections? It turns out that this is the case and that there are some huge enterprises taking this approach on board. People say employees are happier when they don’t feel distressed that they’ve got to keep producing stuff all the time, just meaningless drivel. Actually, by understanding, by being able to cultivate empathy, by focusing more on quality digital connections, they feel better. It’s more aligned with their values. The people that they’re trying to reach have much better experiences. This is all super high level stuff, it sounds quite wishy-washy.
It doesn’t. In fact, I’d love you to expand a little bit on what that looks like in practice.
One of the people that I’ve read a lot about and I really admire is Steve Selzer and he works at Airbnb in San Francisco. One of the great things in digital that a lot of companies try to do is to make things frictionless. They try and get the person using the service from A to B as quickly as possible. They want to get rid of obstacles and people having to do more things than they absolutely have to. That’s fine but it’s a process-driven approach. It turns out that a lot of services online treat you like a machine, treat you as if you were on a conveyor belt. Airbnb thought differently about this.
If you’re going to stay in someone’s house or if you’re the host and a stranger is going to come and stay at your house, what is the thing that actually bothers you the most? What’s the biggest challenge? Of course, it’s interacting with that stranger. What they decided to do was to place more human interactions, more friction in their programme. What they found was that when the host and the guest were forced to interact more before the trip, the actual trip and the experience itself was way better. It was just night and day experience of the host and the guest just by increasing those interactions.
Those interactions would come, for example, if a guest, before going somewhere, had a question, Airbnb themselves would answer that question. They will say, “The area is like this. The house is going to be like this. Here’s a response to insurance,” or whatever. Instead they give that customer service duty to the host. They found that once they basically started to build rapport, hearing from both sides is much better. It was such a striking example because I was thinking that actually makes a lot of sense. What if there was greater human interaction, say, for an Uber? At the moment, you can do the whole thing silently. You don’t have to ask the driver. You just get out and it’s really mechanistic that way. It’s efficient but it’s mechanistic.
What if there was more human interaction? What if there was more empathy? What if the driver knew what kind of mood I was in and was able to speak accordingly or not speak, as the case may be. We’re finding a growing ecosystem of designers, entrepreneurs, investors, that are thinking differently about how we build digital experiences from the ground up that we can incorporate this kind of digitally mindful thinking. This has such an impact from the bottom line, both personally and from a business perspective, we’re finding that the communities are really growing out and this is really a global thing.
I’m not surprised that you mentioned the bottom line. I’m really curious to see how things unfold in the next year or two with large corporates in terms of really truly honouring the well-being of their workforces and understanding that cultural change is necessary in many cases with regards to how employees are expected to engage with remote access options when they’re not on the clock in many cases. It’s one thing if you’re a senior leader, but for many, many people, they are lower down the food chain. They’re not being paid for answering those emails when they’re still in their pajamas in the morning and they haven’t even put their feet on the floor next to their bed. That’s something that I’m interested to see develop and emerge in a more meaningful way. I know some companies are doing it. To me, it’s the interesting thing when something is going to impact the bottom line, business will pivot accordingly. It’s somewhat slower when it comes to their own human resources in many cases. I don’t know what your experience of that has been.
I absolutely 100% think you’re right, Clare. I think that we need to start having really serious conversations about this. These kinds of conversations lump together in what’s called the future of work. If anyone types that into Google, you’ll find a lot of different blogs and articles. There are a couple of really big conferences about this. Humanizing digital transformation basically is what this is all called. I know that sounds like corporate speak, but it’s actually really important. As you mentioned, for example, the person who’s working remotely or in their pajamas answering emails before they go to work, a large measure of how this even happened is not technical, because that is almost by the by. It’s trust. Do you trust this person is going to work without you having to see them face to face? That’s a really big challenge.
One of the things I’m working on, Clare, is that in the same way that we have corporate social responsibility, in the 90s with the whole no logo thing and the protest that came about from globalisation, we found that companies, with the way they operate in the world, they have a social responsibility, because they have a social footprint. What I’m finding through my research is that companies also now, because of the way they deploy different technologies into the workplace, actually have a digital responsibility. The technologies that we use have a direct impact on our health, well-being and productivity. I spoke to people from so many different companies that they have so many email clients, instant messaging and phones, and there’ll be so many things that people use, but nobody is responsible and nobody understands the impact this has on health, well-being or productivity.
I think that very soon you’re going to see the emergence of what I think are these corporate digital responsibility offices. I think not only does it have an effect on employees but also on the customers, on the people you are trying to reach. If you have a super-stressed, genuinely unwell customer service person and they’re treating the customer like garbage, and you found that actually, “If I reduced massively the number of notifications this person gets, or if I trusted them to work at home or whatever,” again it would have a huge effect on the bottom line. To answer your question definitely, I’m saying that corporations or big businesses are starting to really think about this, but it’s such a minefield. People really don’t know where to turn.
That’s where your hard, concrete data is going to be really valuable for helping to shape those strategies.
When I first started, I started much like yourself. I thought it’d be really amazing to speak to knowledgeable heroes in this field. It was really inspiring. What I found I needed more was I needed to speak the language of data. Everything needed to be data-driven. Once you start to see that, it’s just experts comparing smart phones. When we take our smart phones out, it’s like literally lighting up a cigarette. In our brain, the same mechanism activates. It’s extraordinary just how addictive and how damaging prolonged use of these devices can be. Also, we can create really incredible meaningful digital experiences. For example, using virtual reality to build empathy and understanding. For example, like someone across the world could understand what it would be like to live in London and how hectic it might be. It’s really, really extraordinary. It’s almost like we can do better and we need to start working towards that.
It’s amazing technology. I think these changes and developments have occurred in such a relatively short concentrated period of time that we as humans haven’t quite figured out the best way to interact with them. Changes are happening all the time, as the next generation of devices and software reach us and reach the workplace.
I was watching the World Economic Forum, their annual meeting in 2017. They were talking about the role of digital in general, how it’s going to impact life and work. They had the CEOs of these incredible companies and heads of government talking about this for an hour. The overriding message is you’ve got to innovate and disrupt and you’ve got to move faster. That was the overarching message. Not once did they actually talk about people or humans, where do people fit in this? You’re telling people to connect all the time, but actually how do you humanize this? What effect does this have on people? How can you make that better? That’s something they’re not thinking about. The people thinking about this, it’s emerging from the ground up and there’s some really fabulous work being done.
I look forward to learning more about it. One of the areas that I know you do a lot of work in and in helping people with is their strategies for improving focus and creativity. I’d love you to talk a little bit about that.
Basically, the things that we do with regards to strategies for focus and concentration and also productivity and creativity, there’s a tool box of different approaches that we use. It’s really useful to be able to give people those different strategies to be able to use that. What we’re finding is that people have almost attention and concentration personalities. They have their own unique takes on how they cultivate that. From using a mindfulness practice to be able to bring your mind back to what it is and what you should be doing, to using breath work, both of what you can find on the app store and stuff to help decrease your levels of stress and bring you to that calm, very focused, very alert state.
We also experimented with really interesting things like, for example, Deep Play. That’s a really incredible way to draw out people’s creativity. His name is Cal Newport. He wrote Deep Work. We use deep work strategies to help people, in a very nice way, block out all of the notifications, the distractions that might come in and to produce way more in a very short period of time. This is the way that we tend to work with people. Those are just a few of the different strategies that we use. What we do find is that people are able to transcend the noise of the digital as it were and really become way more attentive and alert and awake, like the brain fog tends to lift. That’s when we can focus much more on things like how do we communicate as a team? As a team, what type of personality are we when we’re focused on a specific task. Even when we’re at home, what type of people are we at home when I’m with my partner or when I’m with my family?
I heard this amazing analogy very recently that overriding focus on digital does hurt us to the degree that it hurts our relationships. If when we go home and the house just works, if we go in and we can say, “Alexa, turn the lights on and set the temperature to 37 degrees or whatever,” that’s all fine. If there’s discord between you and your partner or your children, then it doesn’t matter because the home might work, but the energy in the home is just terrible. If you get along with your partner and your family life is great, then you can fix everything. You can fix anything. You can configure Alexa to do whatever it is you want to do.
I think that if we take that tiny little micro-level example and pan it out to the rest of our work and personal lives, that focus on what does this technology need to do. What are we asking this tech or this digital experience to do? What is it that I’m trying to do and what is the best thing for it to help me do that? I think we start to get different answers. The first thing isn’t necessarily then to reach for a smart phone. It’s not necessarily to have lots and lots of different instant messaging applications open. These are different strategies that we use. This is the kind of level that we want people to start thinking about how they can improve their digitized lives.
Certainly, Carl Newport’s work is really inspiring. The man is prolific. That is not unrelated to the fact that he has very deliberately reduced the amount of time that he spends, not just online, but doing stuff that can be viewed as busy work potentially. Lawrence, I know that you have an upcoming article on social media. I would love to hear a little bit about what those findings are that you shared.
I gave a talk very recently to a roomful of social media professionals and digital professionals. What I was talking about there was the whole idea that we use social media to connect, that’s really the overriding purpose; to connect with friends and stay in touch with our friends. My whole point from this article was that I think that we think a lot about the number of connections we have, but we don’t think about the way we connect. We don’t think about the quality of our connections as much. If that takes precedence, then we find that the quality of our lives and the quality of our businesses improve.
Some symptoms of people and companies prioritising the number of connections over the quality of connections, what we’re finding is that people are looking more for what we call Digital Blue Zones. A Blue Zone are areas in the world which have the highest concentration of centenarians, like Okinawa in Japan. You find these populations share certain characteristics. For example, the people living there, they have purpose. Even after a time, they have purpose, they go to work, they have natural movement, they eat a really good diet and they also think positively.
What we’re finding is that people, in increasing numbers, are looking for Digital Blue Zones, “Where are these places that actually my life is going to be improved by being digitized?” Of course, the knee-jerk reactions, these people are looking for things like digital detoxes, “How can I unplug as quickly as possible?” That’s fine. That is natural but of course it’s not sustainable. You’re finding that people are increasingly creating these digital experiences that don’t rely necessarily on the amount of time spent. Time spent on an app isn’t necessarily a good metric for success. The quality of time we spent on an app is actually much better.
A really quick example of this is Hinge app, which is a dating app. Tinder records something like half a million swipes an hour. That’s the key metric. That’s what Tinder wants you to do. How long are people engaged with the site? How many swipes can you make? Whereas actually the people using the site want a date. That’s the main thing. This is what Hinge, which I think is for iOS only, that’s what it really focuses on, “How can we get people to have dates as quickly and as meaningfully as possible?” The key metric of success is the number of successful dates that people have, rather than the time they spend on the site looking for a date.
If we start to think in terms of social media about the quality of our connection, then what actually goes out then on social media is vastly different. It’s much more quality-driven. People would then be able to tell the difference between real and fake news. I think that level of content that elicits negative emotions would decrease, not eliminate but definitely decrease. This is what I was trying to talk about and of course, at the same time, no one ever thinks of the people that create social media. No one ever thinks of the actual creators themselves who are under tremendous pressure to create great content all the time. We’re finding that if you produce less content that’s better in quality, then you have more meaningful connections with people.
I can’t wait for the article to come out, so we will share that with our listeners. Lawrence, I’d love to know what you’re curious about right now.
I am really curious, honest to goodness, about digital mindfulness. When I started four years ago, this really was just an idea and it was a curiosity. Now, I’m being contacted by people all over the world, different types of people, designers, management consultants, digital marketers, startups, entrepreneurs, people all over the world. They’re really interested in the ideas and data that’s coming out. People really want to meet to create a better digitized world where our attention isn’t assailed all the time. I’m really just excited to see where it goes. I just think, from my part, just even a 10 per cent increase in my energy to connect companies and people that want this future is going to yield a really noticeable significant impact on the earth. In terms of purpose, this is what my purpose is right now.
Lawrence Ampofo, thank you so much for being a guest on Urban Curiosity Podcast today.
Thank you for having me, Clare. It’s a pleasure being here.