Got a light?

Some thoughts on how tech can empower us in 2021.

Rebooting is a biweekly newsletter about how we can use technology to take better care of ourselves.

Holiday season birthdays are a bit of a mixed bag. Their gift-centric nature can be yet another financial burden for folks to worry about during a notoriously expensive time of year. As a kid, it can be frustrating to get one gift in place of the normal child’s two, but as an adult, it’s easy to understand family members not wanting to buy you back-to-back presents when they have plenty of other things to worry about.

My birthdays aren’t as fueled by presents as they used to be. When I look back on what’s made my birthdays special, it’s remembering the smiles on my family’s faces as we all ate the homemade ice cream sandwiches my sister always made for me, the end-of-the-night hugs after a really good night out with my favorite people, or the twinkle in my nana’s eyes as she eagerly waited for me to unwrap her thoughtfully-picked gifts—hey, gifts are still certainly welcome!

Though it’s a small complaint in an extraordinarily terrible year, the inability to grasp and cherish those moments made ringing in the last year of my twenties especially heavy. I tried not to let this weigh me down too much, and I still had a really special day filled with love and tasty food—the room felt empty, but we managed to overlook that for at least a little while. Still, this year has taken so much from us; it’s hard not to feel a little bit robbed on the one day that you can really make about you.

I went into 2020 with pretty high hopes, eager to round out my twenties on a high note after 2019 left its mark as one of my most challenging years to date. I’d gone back to therapy to work through grieving the loss of my nana and tata, naively bought another planner I told myself could change my life, and fixed up my old bike to get on the road more often.

Aside from riding my bike more, almost none of my goals for 2020 panned out as I would’ve liked. I’m not going to be too hard on myself for struggling with adapting to the world crumbling around us, but I don’t want 29 to be a repeat of 27 or 28. I’m exhausted most days, I miss my friends and family, and I can’t seem to clear my mind of enough fog to think clearly.

Since this is going to be our reality for a while longer, I’d like to have a better game plan for 2021, and that all starts with a yearly theme. As I look back on what contributed to my moments of success this year, I keep going back to the word empowerment. Not in the cinematic sense, wherein our hero triumphs over a dreadful challenge to emerge victorious and enlightened; things haven’t been that simple lately. The effects of climate change are rapidly impacting our daily lives, racial injustices are more common than ever, and the pandemic continues to take in ways that haven’t stopped hurting.

If we’re going to take all of that on, we need to harness our tiny victories, whether they’re spurts of creativity, opportunities to help those in need, or an especially good mood we can try spreading around through small acts of kindness. So, when I think about empowerment in 2021, I imagine grabbing our small sparks of inspiration and joy, bottling them up, and letting them guide us through as much of the tragic maze we’ve all been catapulted into as far as their tiny lights can.

That can’t be found in picking out the best apps to aid you in your resolutions, nor is there a secret life hack to the best devices and services that’ll make working from home in the middle of a pandemic any less tiresome. If we’re going to use tech to help carry us through the turmoil, it’ll take a little more than that.

Hitting the high notes

As I’ve written in my last two issues, digital gardens are having a bit of a moment, and there’s a lot of power to be found within them. From reworking the way you take notes at work to adding more structure to all the hobbies and interests you dig into in your free time, the idea of building stronger connections between your ideas and the bits of information that stick with you can bring some (in my case, much-needed) structure to your life and lead to more fruitful endeavors.

There’s something to be said about the potential for digital gardens in collective growth, too. By publishing our clippings of readings, notes on ongoing projects, or lists of things we find interesting, you’d be presenting a less meticulously-crafted image of yourself in favor of a mosaic of things that are occupying your mind at any given moment. Since notes are meant to be evergreen, they can shift and evolve in ways that tweets and Instagram posts simply can’t due to their timely nature.

Beyond that, I think they could play a role in the ongoing conversations we’re having about race and other political issues on social media right now. We’re all familiar with the Instagram graphics that swept our stories this summer, but there weren’t many ways to easily collect them or build out from them. Digital gardens provide an ever-present, up-to-date hub for the resources you’ve found useful and informative. You may not always have the energy to have a serious talk with your uncle via Facebook about why his anti-mask posts are troubling, but you can say “I can’t get into this right now, but here’s where I’ve put everything I’ve learned from, and I even have some notes of my own, I hope you’ll read some of it.” It may not be much, but when so many things are dragging our attention from us, any little bit helps.

Taking a shortcut

On the note of being overwhelmed by everything vying for our attention these days, it’s worth considering adding a bit of automation to your life. Though many of us are still stuck at home most of the time, it’s still difficult to find the time—and often the energy—to do everything that needs to get done. Automation, whether by way of Amazon Alexa, Google Home, or Siri and iOS Shortcuts, can help reduce the friction in day-to-day tasks to help save your time and energy for the bigger picture.

How you get started is going to depend on your needs, but there’s lots of excellent guides out there to point you in the right direction. Here are some of my favorites:

Crack the code

As part of our ongoing nightmare, it’s becoming increasingly clear how much of our data companies are collecting and sharing with third parties. If you’re optimistic, that’s a fair tradeoff for the free apps and services we use to power our lives and stay in touch with loved ones. But if you’re unsettled by the notion of companies tracking what you do online and selling that to others, it’s another instance of losing control over an important aspect of our lives.

I’m not here to judge where you land on that spectrum, but in any case, doing a bit of privacy upkeep can at least give your data a better chance at landing in good hands. Fortunately, it also has the upside of sending the message, no matter how small your act may be, that our collective privacy matters, and that there’s only so much we’ll hand over. Drawing that line in the sand somewhere is a good start.

Perfectly balanced

Don’t dwell on this one too much, because you’ve got a lot going on and pressuring yourself to be perfectly organized in an unorganized time is a recipe for disaster, but in moderation it may bring some peace of mind. Take some time, whether you’re on a break for the holidays, or just have a few hours to do some maintenance, to look over how all your apps, notes, folders, emails, and lists are organized. As our systems grow and we adapt to new jobs, hobbies, habits, or obligations, they become more cluttered and disheveled. Creating a space to routinely check in and see where things might be making life more difficult for you gives the opportunity to make tiny improvements that’ll give you less reasons to groan throughout your day. That adds up, and a lack of friction can help you carry that spark just a little bit further on your most trying days.

Call for help

In talking to neighbors or friends back home who may not agree with me about the importance of wearing masks, or any other heated topic, I often get frustrated when I feel like I’m not effectively communicating my point. Usually that stems from my emotional investments taking over and leading me away from my point, so it’s useful for me to take some notes on people who are better at slowing down when articulating their thoughts.

I’ve been doing more drawing lately, and have spent a lot of time watching Procreate illustration tutorials on YouTube to learn about new brushes and stylistic techniques. ADHD often makes it hard for me to grasp topics I’m unfamiliar with, but I’ve found channels like Bardot Brush and Art with Flo to be really effective at articulating what they’re doing and the impact the choices they’re making have on the overall image. I struggle with committing how different visual tools work to memory, so the casual, thoughtful tone of YouTube tutorials like these make it easy to process without feeling I’m missing anything.

This can go beyond even those more politically charged topics, too. We’ve all had frustrating conversations with partners or friends where it feels like we’re talking over or through each other, rather than to each other. The best YouTube tutorials come from people who have managed to make you feel like they’re talking directly to you without losing the thread, and that’s a useful tool to carry into a year that’s sure to be full of serious talks. So take an app you’ve not really harnessed all the power of, or a gadget you’ve been meaning to tinker with, and watch a few tutorials. Maybe you’ll even pick up a new skill or two to throw onto your tool belt.

Lean back

It’s going to sound silly, but I really think this might be the most important one: find a game to enjoy at the end of the night. Over the past few months, we’ve spent a good chunk of our evenings playing rounds of Among Us, and I like to take breaks in my writing to play a few runs of Hades to clear my mind.

Video games as escapism aren’t a new concept, but this year they’ve taken on a bigger role in my life than I’d thought they ever would. Whether it’s playing Among Us with friends to argue about who murdered who, digging into how the heck to win a game of chess, mastering the New York Times crossword, or just building a delightful home in Animal Crossing, games can serve as an outlet for frustration, a chance to build a world away from the bleakness of our own, or just make you think in a way that doesn’t induce loads of anxiety.

It doesn’t have to be a video game, either. You could take up puzzles, coloring books, or word games that won’t draw you in too much while still providing a space away from it all to clear your mind. There’s going to be plenty of anxiety to go around; having that space for yourself will go a long way in enduring it all.

Unrelated to the above section on tutorials, I’ve been thinking a lot about How to with John Wilson since finishing it a few weeks ago. In all its hilarity, there’s a beauty to Wilson’s commitment to capturing the pleasure and meaning in the small moments that fill our lives. Wilson collects footage of New Yorkers, out and about, doing both wacky and mundane things, to serve as a backdrop to his musings on what brings us all together. Without spoiling anything, the show wraps beautifully, reflecting on how we can hold onto and strengthen bonds with those around us, even in what every press release since March has called “these uncertain times.”

Things may not get easier for the foreseeable future, but we can still find ways to better harness our moments of strength, hope, and joy to make the most of them. By removing bits of friction in our day-to-day lives, building more space for us to relax and breathe, and displaying more authentic versions of ourselves, we can head into 2021 ready to adapt to whatever it may throw at us. It may not be easy, but at least we know we’re all figuring it out together.

📚 Good Reads:

Quick note: Keeping the links short this week! It’s been a long year, and I’m taking some time to recharge. 

The year we gave up on privacy (Recode): There was no escaping a migration to life online once the pandemic hit, but it’s worth considering how much data we’ve given up in the process. For Recode, Sara Morrison looks back at the year in privacy.

🌐 Just Browsing:

🍽️ A look at why you shouldn’t trust Google’s recipe results. 👤 Nitasha Tiku profiles Timnit Gebru for The Washington Post 🔥 WhyHadesis the best game of the year. 👨🏼‍🎨 A look at all the background art in Bojack Horseman.

💕 And now, here’s something we hope you’ll really like:

It’s a small thing, but lately I’ve been enjoying iOS’s new Photos widget. It randomly rotates through images it thinks you’ll enjoy, and it’s shockingly good at surfacing my best memories and pictures of people I haven’t been able to see since March. When I’m feeling down, it’s nice to see a picture of my best friend and I enjoying the last trip we got to go on before travel wasn’t an option. Try throwing a photos widget on your home screen, it’s nice to take a trip down memory lane from time to time. 

As always, if you have any questions, feedback, or just want to say hello, feel free to drop me a line on Twitter.

My thanks to Medea Giordano for editing this issue.