Phones, Mics, and Ads (Oh My!)

“Ummm…I just saw an ad for Legos and we were just talking about them last night. My phone is definitely listening and showing ads based on what I’ve said!”

Sound familiar? It has all the facets of a modern blockbuster thriller: a big, evil technology company listening to our private conversations and using them against us to sell more widgets. Well, maybe not a blockbuster, but it’s at least a mediocre episode of Black Mirror.

This theory has been floating around for a while and has begun to draw the attention of major news outlets like the BBC and Vice.

There’s even been enough mounting pressure to garner statements from the usually tight-lipped Google and Facebook.

Google’s direct-and-to-the-point statement: “We do not use ambient sound from any device to target ads.”

Facebook’s similar statement: “Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed.”

These assurances from the tech giants who own more than 57% of the digital advertising market share aren’t overly comforting. It feels a bit like the Wizard of Oz telling us to ”pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

And from a technology standpoint, a big technology company has the capabilities and resources to put this in action.

But, alas, this is not happening. Big tech companies are not using our conversations to show us targeted ads.


“I don’t believe you. I was talking about Legos, and now I’m seeing an ad for Legos. If they’re not showing me ads based on my conversations, how did they know I’m interested in Legos?”

Even without your voice, you supply Google, Facebook, and Amazon (61.8% of all digital advertising) with a ton of data. Really, they know a lot about you. And these companies are ceaselessly using that data to figure out what you might like and show you ads for those potential interests.

Let’s look at Facebook (who also owns Instagram) as an example:

  • They know everything you’ve included on your About page (e.g. birthday, prior jobs, gender, places you’ve lived)
  • They know every picture you’ve ever liked or viewed on Instagram and Facebook
  • They know every company or page you’ve liked on Facebook
  • They know how many friends you have, who those friends are, and what your friends like
  • They know every location you’ve ever used Instagram or Facebook
  • They know many the sites you visit outside of Facebook. There are over 4 million websites that have the Facebook pixel installed. Every time you visit one of these sites, Facebook knows (and often more specific details like what items you added to your shopping cart).

With the above data readily at hand, and with a small army of data scientists, Facebook (and equally Google and Amazon) are very good at anticipating what you will like.

“OK, it makes sense that they’re probably pretty good at figuring out what I might like….but I was just talking about Legos. It can’t be a coincidence. How is that possible?”

Your mind is playing tricks on you. Well, not a trick but an illusion…

It’s known as the Frequency Illusion, and it’s “a cognitive bias which describes our tendency to see new information, names, ideas or patterns ‘everywhere’ soon after they’re first brought to our attention.”

Here’s my “explain it to my little cousin” version of the Frequency Illusion:

  • Our brains process a lot of stuff, all the time (e.g. online ads)
  • Since there’s so much being processed, our brains are selective in what stands out and is remembered (e.g. an ad for something we just talked about)
  • We’re much more likely to notice or remember something that stands out  (e.g. ‘holy moly, we were just talking about Legos’)

It’s like when you buy a new pair of shoes. Before you bought the shoes, you never really noticed anyone else wearing them. But once you slip on those new kicks, it seems like everyone is rocking a pair.

Recent data shows that the average American spends over 23 hours a week online. That number includes your grandma who checks her email once a month so I’m guessing you might be a bit higher than average. That’s a lot of scrolling through webpages and apps. And a lot of ignored ads.

Well, a lot of ignored ads until we see something we were just talking about.

And then….

“Ummm…I just saw an ad for Legos and we were just talking about them last night. My phone is definitely listening and showing ads based on what I’ve said!”

If you’re still not convinced, that’s OK. It’s just your mind playing a different trick on you.

What I’ve Learned So Far

Something changed when I turned 30. Actually, a bunch of things changed:

–My body breaks down more easily. Or as my friends joke, “my body’s 30 year warranty has expired”.

–My ability to rebound from a couple drinks the night before is non-existent.

–All of my friends started having babies (we start late out here in nyc).

But I think another change has overshadowed all the others. I now feel old enough to think that I’ve actually learned something in this crazy thing we call life.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far…

When a friend or family members is struggling, it’s not enough to say “I’m here for you, anything you need”. Because when you say that, you’re just giving them homework.  Pick anything useful, big or small, and just do it for them. Give them a random call to see how they’re doing. Write them an email telling them how much you care for them. Get pizza delivered to their house. Instead of a promise for future help, these small things show that you care right now.

Think with a purpose or intention. Without intention you’re just floating around and reacting to what’s happening around you. When you have a goal for the mind to reach, you will get there. Do the thing you want to be or become and your brain will fill in the details later.

Take full advantage of what you have. It’s easy to lose track of all the beautiful things in our lives because we get used to them. If you have a family, tell them you love them and spend time with them. If you have a job, kick ass at your job. If you have dinner on the table, savor the meal.

Traditions all start with a first time. Think about your favorite traditions from your childhood. Maybe it’s a family trip you’ve done every summer. Or an annual trip with your friends. Or a monthly dinner with your grandparents. It probably just feels like part of your normal life. But those traditions all had a first time and, more importantly, someone had to go out of their way to initiate them. Be the person who sparks the traditions you want to be a part of.  And while you’re at it tell the person who started your favorite tradition, “thanks!”. 

No one really knows what they’re doing. Seriously, everyone is just figuring it out as they go along. Your parents. The CEO of your company. Your friend with the cool job. They all second guess themselves, they all have insecurities, and they all don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. Keep this in mind when you’re looking at a goal and not sure how the heck you’ll ever get there. Remember that someone else figured it out without knowing what the hell they were doing.

You don’t have to go to an exotic location to travel. You likely live in a place that 2 billion people in this world would love to see. Actually, it’s probably more like 5 billion people. Try to bring the traveler mindset into wherever you happen to be. Even if you’re in the middle of nowhere or your boring hometown – find something cool about that place and go do it.

We get taught how to make money but we don’t get taught what to do with our money. And that’s the most important part of the equation. I’m not talking about how to setup an investment account or how to manage your 401k. I’m talking about what you’ll actually do with your money once you earn it. Money a tool and it’s important to learn how you want to put that tool into action. I think Tim O’Reilly said it best: “Money is like gasoline for your car. You don’t want to run out, but you don’t just want to do a tour of gas stations”

Remember specific details from your prior conversations. The next time you see that person, follow up on that story or offhand comment they told you. It shows people that they are special. No one does this so the bar is very low. Seriously, it blows minds.  I’m pretty bad at remembering conversation details so I’ll often jot down quick notes and give it a quick review before the next time I see the person.

The right decision at the wrong time is still the wrong decision. When evaluating your options, timing is a big part of the equation. Often times we make decisions harder than they need to be because the opportunity may have been perfect in the past or seems like it will be perfect in the future. But what about right now?

Your love is infinite. Don’t be stingy with your love. Think of a mother with 2 children. Or 8 children. Or 14 children. You would never question that mother’s ability to love every child with the same amount of force. Apply that principle to how you love your family, friends, and even people you’ve just met.  

My Productivity Cheat Sheet

I’ve experimented with dozens of tools and tricks to stay productive. Some work great and others… not so much.

Here are nine game-changing tools I use to stay productive.

 

My Inbox

There are two types of lunatics in this world: those who keep their inbox clean and those who always have 12,000 emails. Whatever camp you’re in, the other camp is insane. I’m on team “clean inbox” because I use my inbox as a to-do list.

I typically have between 3-10 emails in my inbox any given time. If an email is in my inbox, it means I have to action it. If I keep seeing the same email for a week or two, I know I’m slacking.

A real screenshot of my inbox. Bragging? Slightly…

 

My strategy is to groom my inbox a few times a day to make sure only actionable items remain in the inbox. For everything else, I do one of two things:

  1. Archive it. This removes the email from my inbox and, more importantly, my focus. I can always search for the email if I ever need to find it again.
  2. Sling it over to FollowUpThen…

 

FollowUpThen

I use FollowUpThen for emails that I know I’ll eventually need to action but just not right now. Simply put, it’s a service that allows you to schedule an email reminder. There are a bunch of similar services that all essentially do the same thing but FollowUpThen works best for me. I’m still on their free version (up to 100 monthly reminders) and they allow you to link multiple email addresses to the same account (which I use for my personal and work email accounts).

It’s pretty simple to use. Just include [date or time]@followupthen.com in the To, CC, or bcc fields, and the email will reappear in your inbox at that time.

This email will come back to me, and only me, in one week. It’s a nudge to remind me to send the document to John.

 

Some game changing ways I use FollowUpThen:

  • If I get an email invite with an RSVP deadline in two weeks, I forward the email to 2weeks@followupthen.com. The email comes back to my inbox in 2 weeks so I remember to RSVP.
  • I send myself daily motivational reminders. Just draft these daily notes in an email and send it to daily9am@followupthen.com and it pops into my inbox every day at 9 AM

And the biggest game changer of them all?

Lots of work related emails require follow ups at a certain time. Whenever I need to follow up in 3 days or next Monday, I just bcc 3days@followupthen.com or monday@followupthen.com and I know I won’t forget. This one is huge. It helps keep my projects on track and keeps my team and clients accountable. Since the follow up is in the bcc, the people on the email don’t see your little trick.

You’d be surprised how often this little trick impresses people. They think you have magical powers simply because you follow up when you say you will.

 

G Suite

G Suite (formerly Google Apps) have really stepped their game up the past few years. When Google Docs and Sheets first came out in 2006, their usefulness was very limited. Word and Excel were still light years ahead of them. That’s all changed over the past few years. I can’t point to a specific feature that’s put them over the hump…it’s just an overall level of product completeness.

These Google Apps meet 95% of my document editing needs.

 

I pay $5 per month for G Suite, which gets me an email address for my business domain (sangora.co), 30 gb of storage, and access to all the G Suite products (e.g. Docs, Sheets, Slides Drawings). 

If you run a small business, it’s 100% worth it to pay 5 bucks monthly just for the custom email domain. When you’re talking to prospects and clients, it is much more professional to communicate from yourname@yourcompany.com as opposed to yourname+yourcompany@gmail.com. You’ll look like a legitimate business and not just someone pretending to run a business. 

 

Insightly CRM

When I started my own business in 2015, I quickly realized I needed a better way to manage my business relationships and opportunities. I struggled for a year using Gmail contacts, but their features are geared towards personal email communication.

 

What I needed was a lightweight CRM (customer relationship management) system to keep all of my contacts and potential deals in one place. Salesforce is the CRM industry standard but it’s a bit pricey and overly complex for small businesses.

After some research on affordable and lightweight options, I landed on Insightly. I’m on the free version which gives you up to 2 users and 2,500 records. I’ve been using it for over 2 years and I’m still only at 32% of my max record count. It’s nothing fancy but it lets me track my potential deals and contact information for business related contacts. Exactly what I need.

 

Siri Reminders

If I’m not at my computer or don’t feel like sending an email from my phone, I’ll ask Siri to remind me. This is really helpful for things that pop into my head while I’m walking around or in transit. (it’s funny how your best ideas pop into your head when you’re not actually working)

Thanks Siri!

 

Activate Siri and tell her “remind me to email Jeff next Tuesday” or “remind me to run the pipeline report tonight at 5pm” or “remind me to buy some eggs tomorrow”. That will create reminder in your phone and a notification pops up to keep you on track.

 

Scanner Pro

I’m not a big fan of paper and I like to keep my workspace clean. So when paper comes into my life (e.g. bills, receipts, whiteboard drawings) I open up the Scanner Pro app and convert it digitally. Taking a picture with your phone’s’ camera will work too, but Scanner Pro is a cleaner experience.

Scanner Pro auto finds the edges of whatever you’re scanning

Three Scanner Pro features I love:

  1. It automatically uploads to Google Drive or Dropbox. I have a Google Drive folder to store all my receipts and Scanner Pro auto uploads to that folder. No more lost files.
  2. The scans are automatically converted to PDF
  3. The scanning process finds the edges of the document and shrinks the PDF size to match the size of the doc. This isn’t perfect but works about 80% of the time. The end result is a cleaner document scan without a weird background of your desk or floor.

 

Fancy Hands

Fancy Hands is a service that gives you access to a team of remote, United States based, virtual assistants. Just draft up a note with your request details and send it to request@fhands.com (or use their app) and a US based virtual assistant will start working on the task.

I pay $30 / month which gets me up to 5 tasks per month and unused tasks carry over into the next month. Yes, you can definitely find some cheaper options with virtual assistants based overseas. I find it valuable that Fancy Hands’ assistants are all US based for when I need them to make phone calls on my behalf.

Admittedly, I’ve thought about cancelling this service several times…but I’ve held onto it for a couple years. Why? Because when you really need it, it’s totally game changing. The image below is a screenshot of my live dashboard, showing tasks used and time saved.

A few examples of life-changing tasks:

  • Every month an assistant sorts through my receipts (scanned with Scanner Pro) and classifies them based on pre-established rules
  • When I have an issue with an airline (e.g. in-flight wifi or TV didn’t work, broken seat) I have them call the airline on my behalf. It’s not uncommon to get flight credits and airline miles for these types of issues. No waiting on hold or finding the right phone number
  • When traveling to new places, I’ll have them find local gyms that allow drop-ins and rank them by price and proximity to where I’m staying.

In general, it’s really nice to have the option to unload mental stress to someone else without feeling bad about it.

Over 1 day of phone time saved. Huge!

 

HelloSign

HelloSign is a G Suite plugin that lets you convert a Google Doc into a PDF and gather digital signatures. This is a must have when gathering signatures from a client on a new proposal. It adds a level of professionalism and removes friction from the signature process.

I create the document, open up the HelloSign add-on, and process the document for signature. HelloSign will send the document to all parties, collect their signature, and email the finalized copies when all signatures are received.

Quickly initiate HelloSign right from your Google Doc

 

Gather signatures from others or just sign yourself.

 

HelloSign is also useful for when only you need to sign an official document. I’ve had to do this a bunch on NDA’s, leases, and government forms. The process is the same, but instead of sending to other people for signature you can just sign the document yourself. This is a life saver because you no longer need to print out the doc, sign with a pen, and then rescan to send back.

HelloSign gives you up to three free processed documents per month and I rarely need to process more than two documents a month.

 

Asana

I’ve been using Asana to manage complex projects since 2013. It’s a simple tool that keeps everything organized and on-track, without a million emails flying around. It’s similar to other popular project tools like Trello and Basecamp that keep your projects on track.

Asana is intentionally simple and open-ended, which lets it satisfy a number of use cases while still remaining easy-to-use.  

 

Asana screenshot from my PrimoBooks project

 

I most recently used Asana to build a book recommendation website, PrimoBooks. I created high level tasks that corresponded to sections of the stie (e.g. general design, homepage, book page) and sub tasks that tied to specific requirements. Each sub task had a description of the requirement, screenshots, owner, and due date. As tasks were completed by the site developer, they could be assigned back to me for review and I could make comments that formed a thread for centralized communication.

If you’re every struggling to keep work projects on track, give Asana a shot.

They’re pretty generous with their free version (up to 15 team members) so I’ve never had to pay a dime for such a useful tool.

 

What tools and tricks do you use to stay productive?