Social Media is Optional, Not Mandatory with Alexandra Franzen
On life in Portland, Oregon, surviving a commute and how deleting all her social media accounts positively impacted her wellbeing and business.
Alexandra Franzen is an author, writing coach, and communication consultant who works with companies in the health and wellness, fitness, and personal development industries. Alex is based in Portland, Oregon where she lives with her partner, Brandon, and her pet fish named RuPaul. She talks about how she stays inspired and healthy in her city, how it’s possible to create an energising commute and why digital mindfulness matters. Alex shares her best tips for handling overwhelm and rejection. She explains why taking a step back from social media helped her business rather than damage it and tells us about what she is curious about right now.
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Hi, Alex. How are you doing today?
I’m doing really good. Thank you so much for inviting me to do this.
Tell us about Portland, Oregon. Why do you love it so much?
Portland, Oregon is a very creative, artistic town. There are a lot of people who are running interesting kinds of businesses, doing art projects, things like that. I love it because it really is a center of creativity in the United States and maybe even the world. As far as medium to large sized American cities go, it’s still pretty laid back. We don’t have a lot of traffic. There’s not a lot of hustle and bustle. It’s a nice little pocket of the world. It feels lively but not insanely congested and busy. That’s a really nice balance.
One of the things that the listeners of this show are interested in is how to thrive in the city. How do you carve out moments of stillness and quiet in your Portland life?
Something that actually you have inspired me to do more of, Clare, is taking walks with no particular destination in mind. I’ve been doing much more of that since we first met actually. I always think of you when I go. Sometimes I’ll put on a podcast or some music and I’ll just wander around. Sometimes I’ll go for a jog, but often I’ll just walk. I’ve also been making more of an effort to walk to somewhere that I do need to be rather than driving or taking an Uber or whatever even if it takes me a bit longer. Sometimes I look at that as my exercise for the day. Sometimes it’s just a way to clear my head at the end of a work day. Walking has been lovely. Other ways to create more stillness in the city, in Portland, we’re very blessed because even though it’s an urban environment, there’s so much nature all around. We have rivers. We have a 5,000 acre urban forest called Forest Park. We have all kinds of walking trails and hiking trails. While I don’t do it as much maybe I would like, I do try to get to the forest when I can, at least once or twice, a month and just take a long stroll there. It always feels so good. I never, ever regret going for a walk in the woods.
Is there any particular walk that you like doing that’s more in the urban setting of Portland? Is there a favorite walk that you do just to make yourself feel inspired or to feel good?
There’s a lovely walk. I live on the east side of Portland. Portland is divided into the west side and then the east side. The Willamette River runs north to south dividing both sides. There’s this big, big street called Burnside Street, which basically crosses the entire city practically. It crosses all the way from the west side to the far east side. I like to walk down Burnside. It’s a really interesting street. It changes as you walk along. It goes on for a couple of miles. Midway through, you cross over this wonderful bridge over the river. Sometimes, if I want to walk into downtown Portland, I’ll just walk all the way down Burnside, over the bridge, take a moment to pause on the bridge and look at the view, which is beautiful, and then that carries you into downtown. Altogether, it’s not that far. From where I live, over the bridge and beyond, it’s really only about a 40-minute walk maybe, but it feels big and you see so much of the city as you go.
How do you feel about walking slowly rather than power walking to a destination? Does that feel good or feel strange?
I would say that I have a fairly slow-ish gait normally, although I have been told that I take very, very long, big steps. People have commented on my stride. Apparently, it’s very bouncy as well. I typically am not rushing when I walk. If I’m taking a walk then I want to really walk. If I’m going for a run then I want to run. I’m happy going at a slower pace when I feel like it.
How about in your neighborhood, have you found it easy since you moved to that part of town to connect with your community and make new friends?
Yes and no. I will be honest. I was in a unique situation when I moved to Portland because I already had a few friends who lived there, mainly people that I had connected with on the internet. I had a few clients who were based there. I had a few other people that I knew from the writing and blogging world. When I arrived, I had a built-in community already, which was very cool. Of course I’ve made some new friends since I got there. I will say though that one thing that I wish I did more often is make an effort to really get to know my neighbours. It’s funny but the people who live right across the courtyard from me I barely know at all, even though there are other people in the city that I know very, very well. That’s really just on me being a little bit of a hermit and an introvert sometimes and not reaching out. In general, I would say that people in Portland are quite open and friendly. They may not initiate or make the first move but if you strike up a chat, people will usually be pretty happy to chat with you back.
What about your daily commute? Do you have one?
My daily commute is basically getting out of bed, walking into the other room, making a coffee, and then walking back into my bedroom and setting up my desk and starting my work. That’s pretty much it.
I know that a commute is such a feature for many, many urbanites. My personal experience and certainly in talking to other podcast guests who’ve been on the show before you, the commute is such a source of energy drain potentially. It doesn’t have to be and that’s not the case for everybody. Have you any tips that you could recommend to those people that do have a longer commute than yours?
I have lived in other large urban cities. I’ve lived in Los Angeles, which is of course notorious for its traffic and terrible commute. I’ve dealt with all of that. I’ve also lived in Minneapolis, which while it’s not a particularly traffic-y city, it has horrific weather in the winter and snow pileups and other things that can make travel pretty stressful. My advice, which honestly I was not always that great at taking myself, is just be prepared. You’ve got to look at your daily commute almost as a little mini road trip or adventure or even vacation that you’re taking. You want to have the right music on your iPod. You want to have a podcast already downloaded and loaded up. You want to have a snack in your purse or your bag. You’ve got to start to prepare yourself for the journey so that it can be enjoyable instead of boring and stressful. For me, whenever I’m stuck in the car for a long while or riding a metro or whatever, I really love having an audiobook or a podcast or something that can feed my mind and fill the time in an entertaining way. For me, that’s a small thing but it makes a really big difference.
One of the other things that I’m interested in is how we can embrace more the moments in between, the quieter moments in our day that we often tend to fill with entertainment. We reach for our mobile phone and we want the endorphin hit of a new email or a new like or a ping or a ding. Sometimes embracing those boring moments, whether it’s on a commute, whether it’s in the coffee shop queue or elsewhere, sometimes can really be great opportunities for connection; either making connections and sparking ideas in your head or connecting with a human being and having a brief or extended moment of beautiful human connection. In order to embrace this, I believe we have to accept and welcome boredom more than most of us are comfortable with. What do you think about boredom? How does it make you feel?
This is so true, Clare. I actually read an article recently that used a phrase that I hadn’t heard before but that totally resonated with me. The phrase is, “Action addiction.” It’s the idea that, just like the phrase says, we’re all a little bit addicted to the busy-ness and the activity and the constant feeling that we’re either absorbing something or doing something or sending something or texting something or there’s some action happening at all times. Because we’re all a little bit addicted to this, it can feel a little weird to just be somewhere without any kind of activity. I have a push-pull feeling with this because on the one hand, I love listening to music while I walk and listening to inspiring podcasts and feeding my mind and my soul. That’s great. Then on the other hand, you’re right, we do need sometimes to just be quiet and not have a constant influx of voices or music or beeps or whatever.
One thing that I’ve actually started to really pay attention to is when I go to a restaurant or a coffee shop, I’ve noticed that when people sit down, it’s mere seconds before they whip out their phone typically, even if they’re having a meal with other people. I’ve really made an effort to not do that and to really pay attention and stop myself if I feel the impulse to reach for my phone out of boredom or loneliness or awkwardness or whatever, especially if I’m having a meal with other people, to actually turn my phone off or just leave it in my car or just not have it around at all or even if I’m having a meal by myself. I find that’s a nice little moment where I can take in the restaurant, look at the people around, have a real interaction with the server or barista, make them smile maybe and really engage with my meal and enjoy the meal more. You could look at it as a walking meditation, like an eating meditation where you’re really, really present in that moment and appreciating it rather than munching something while you’re scrolling through whatever on your screen.
Also, it can make you feel more satisfied or more aware of what your body is telling you about how much more food you may need to eat or not and how much you enjoyed all of the flavours and just the experience. Certainly with sitting in a group with others who have their mobile devices out, statistically there’s a much higher chance that within a relatively short period of time everyone around the table is going to have their phone out and be connecting with people who are elsewhere. It’s that together alone thing, which looks frankly ridiculous and yet we’re often guilty of it, I have to admit. I try and do exactly what you’ve said, which is to just actually not have that device available, have it switched off in my handbag or not even have it on my person, whether that’s in company or whether it’s just my own company. That leads me on to social media. What do you think about social media, both from a business perspective and a life perspective and, before you answer, as somebody who lives in an urban setting where speed can be the default setting that many of us live by?
Several years ago, I actually decided to deactivate all of my social media profiles. I don’t use any social media. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, no LinkedIn, no Snapchat, no nothing anymore. My reasons for doing that were I took a hard look at my life. I was looking at where my time and energy was going. I was looking at what felt meaningful to me versus what felt fun but maybe a little bit of a distraction or a little bit of mental clutter or noise. I just decided to temporarily stop using social media for one summer to see if it made a difference in my life, to see if I felt better. I discovered that I really did. I decided to make it a more permanent hiatus. I’m a never-say-never type of person so maybe someday I’ll decide to use it again in some way or another, but for now I don’t.
My general perspective on social media is that it’s an incredible miraculous technological tool that we have. It can be used in so many beautiful ways. We’ve all heard stories of long lost friends connecting through Facebook, people finding relatives, people falling in love, people sharing incredible art projects, people starting political movements. There are so many great things that we can use social media to do. However, we forget sometimes that it is optional, not mandatory to participate. A lot of us have just become so sucked into it that we almost can’t imagine a life without it. I can tell you, it is possible to have a life without it. It might be worth trying even just temporarily, even just for a week or two, to see if it creates a shift in the way that you feel and the noise level in your mind. It certainly did for me, to step away.
That’s a really inspiring story. Just tell our listeners how that impacted your business, making that decision.
That was actually quite a big concern of mine was, if I stop tweeting, if I stop doing Instagram, etc. because I had built up not a massive following but a sizeable following, I worried that if I wasn’t present on social media that everyone would forget about me or no one would hire me again or no one would want to come to my workshops or whatever. I can’t speak for every type of business of course, I can only speak for my own, but what I found was that nothing bad happened. I still had my core group of clients who love me and hire me regularly and sent referrals to me through word of mouth, which has always happened. I still maintain my newsletter, which is pretty much the primary way that I communicate with my clients and customers and other people who enjoy my writing. I kept that alive.
I just switched to more of just emails and things like that. Everything just carried along. In fact, my mailing list audience has actually grown quite a bit since I went off social media. What ended up happening was I shifted the energy. Rather than connecting with people on four or five different places, I invited everyone to gather in one place, which was my mailing list. I focused my energy there. So far, it seems to be working out just fine. I haven’t really experienced any negative impact with my own business.
Speaking about energy, I’m really curious about what you do in those moments, those days that we all have where you’re struggling with overwhelm. Apart from maybe going out to your beautiful wooded area for a lovely stroll, what other tips and techniques can you recommend that work for you to help you come back to the present moment and feel calm and less overwhelmed?
I had a moment like this earlier this week. It was bleak. I was very overwhelmed. For me, overwhelm is usually around my work. It’s a feeling of I just have a few too many products going on or I’m feeling like everything’s taking a bit longer than I thought it would and I feel like I’m falling behind. Those kinds of feelings feel so stressful for me. I like to really go back to basics when I feel that heavy suffocating feeling coming in. Getting back to basics for me means making sure that I’m making time to at least eat a nutritious meal a couple of times a day, drinking plenty of water. I also love to look at my calendar and just really eliminate everything that doesn’t absolutely need to be there and strip things down to give myself a little more breathing room, as much as I can.
One thing I’ve started doing pretty regularly is at night, and this isn’t a revolutionary idea but it really helps me, before I go to bed, I make a list of two or three important things that I definitely need to handle or achieve the next day. That way, I can go to sleep, I have peace of mind, I wake up, and I see my list and I don’t have that morning fog moment of, “What am I doing today?” That really helps me to stay in a creative, flowing, productive state rather than wasting time trying to remember what it is that I was supposed to do first and second and whatnot. You could look at it as self-care in a way, it really does help to lift that fog of overwhelm a bit for me.
I really, really think those are some great tips for people to use. Do you meditate, Alex?
I don’t meditate in the sense of sitting on a pillow, cross-legged and closing my eyes and whatnot. However, I look at meditation as really just doing any kind of activity where you are fully engaged in that activity. This sounds funny but when I’m cleaning my apartment or tidying up or making the bed or doing laundry or whatever, I actually look at that as a form of meditation because that’s usually a time when things are very quiet, my partner is out of the house, and I can really just move from room to room and breathe and do something that’s sort of active but sort of pleasantly mindless in a way too and just really be there in that moment. Walking can be a form of meditation of course. Cooking can be a form of meditation. Anything where you’re just really there instead of divided into three different places at once.
Coming back to Portland, is there a favorite hidden gem that you would be prepared to share with our audience when they are next in Portland?
Yes. I know the perfect spot. A place just opened fairly recently actually called Knot Springs. This is basically an urban spa thing. What’s really cool about it is that you can buy a day pass and then you have access to these amazing showers and changing rooms with all these delicious, yummy exfoliating products and what not. You can soak in their mineral soaking pools. They have a really hot pool, a medium pool, a cold pool, a sauna, a dry sauna, wet sauna, etc. You can really just spend hours dipping from pool to pool. What’s really lovely about this space is that it’s located right in the center of the city. You wouldn’t expect it. You look at this big building and you’d think, “There are mineral pools in there? What?” Once you’re inside, you have this beautiful view of downtown Portland and the river. It’s this very urban-looking space and yet once you’re inside you feel just transported. It’s so peaceful and blissful and it’s a lovely place to soak and watch the sunset. If you’re ever in Portland, I would say go to Knot Springs. You can take a yoga class and then you can soak in all the pools and you will feel amazing.
That sounds absolutely delicious. Alex, tell us a bit more about your upcoming book, You’re Going to Survive.
You’re Going to Survive was actually born out of an experience that I had about a year and a half ago where, in addition to being a writer and writing teacher, I also helped my partner Brandon to open a restaurant. That was a very exciting and also tumultuous and challenging experience, as anyone who’s worked in the restaurant industry knows. It’s a little bit crazy to pull something like that together.
We had this experience, now looking back it feels very funny but at the time was not very funny. We got our very first really, really harshly negative Yelp review. We had a customer come in and she just hated it. For whatever reason, she didn’t like the food. She thought it was too rich. She didn’t like the flavours. Her kids didn’t like it. She just had all kinds of complaints. Up until that point, we had really only gotten very positive feedback. I remember reading that harsh, harsh review and I just really felt heartbroken about it. As much as I try to have a sense of equanimity and I try not to take anything too personally, for some reason, this really hit my gut. It bothered me. It also bothered me because I wondered, “Why is this affecting me so much? Why can’t I just shake this off and move on? This one little review shouldn’t be rattling my self-esteem like this.” I began, because of that experience, to get really curious about criticism and rejection and discouragement, especially as it relates to our careers and our businesses.
I started to interview people and I asked every single person that I interviewed, “Can you tell me a story about a time when you felt so criticized and discouraged? What happened? How did you deal with it? What did you learn? How did you survive?” I ended up gathering together about 40 different stories from my own career and from many other people’s. I compiled them into a book. The message is really baked into the title. I want to make people laugh and breathe and remember that all of the setbacks that we experience in our careers and in our lives are, for the most part, survivable. You’re not going to die. You are going to be okay. Often these experiences that feel so awful in the moment can wind up really being a wonderful lesson or a gift or an opportunity later down the line. That’s what the book is about.
I can’t wait to read it. Really inspiring. One last question that I ask all of our guests is, what are you most curious about right now and why?
The very first thing that popped into my mind is Miami because I’ve always wanted, for whatever reason, to visit the city of Miami. I have a fantasy or vision of what I think it is in my mind, palm trees and margaritas and rollerblading and tiny shorts or something. I’ve recently gotten really, really into Latin Pop music. There’s obviously a ton of that happening over there. I want to learn more about Miami and maybe book a trip there at some point this year, maybe to celebrate my birthday. We’ll see.
Alex, thanks so much for being on the Urban Curiosity podcast today. Where can people find out more about your work and your upcoming book?
My work is all at my website which is AlexandraFranzen.com. There’s info about my various books there. There’s a newsletter. There are lots of articles to read and cool things. Pop by and check it out.
Alex, thanks so much. Have a great day.