Phillip Smith

Does "living open" increase positive personal motivation?


I was out on a run this morning once again reflecting on the transformational power of “Open”.

Let me just state for the record: I hate running in the mornings – in fact, I hate getting up early – but it’s the only time to run these days because the weather in Oaxaca quickly gets up above 30 ºC between April and July. And, if I wait until the evening when things start to cool off, there’s an ever-increasing chance that I’ll succumb to the urge to have a beer or glass of wine, which tends to prevent me from running at all. But, alas, this post is not about running, so I will digress.

What I was thinking about this morning is: What would it look like to incorporate more “open” into my work and personal life, and what is the motivation? Looking at the various “quantified selftools and apps that many friends have started using, I’m curious about the psychological effect that putting this information online has. For example, does it in fact keep me honest and motivated if anyone can see when I skip a run or a workout? Or is it about ego? Or is it a bit of both? From my side of the experience, I have to admit that I get a feeling of pride when I see my friends post their latest run and it inspires me to get my ass out the door in the morning; so maybe there is something to the peer-to-peer motivation that these little pieces of the “living open” puzzle provide.

But how far could these ideas be pushed? Taken to their extreme, would the benefits continue, or break down? For example, I’ve been wondering about the following:

  • On the sillier side, I wonder what effect publishing my iTunes and other online entertainment purchases would have on my pre-purchase decisions? For example, if I knew that every movie rental would be public and possible seen by someone, somewhere, would it work as a positive motivator to rent that documentary I’ve been meaning to see instead of the latest ridiculous action movie that I regret watching immediately after? Books are not as much of an issue, as my reading time tends to be more serious, but – again – I wonder if I would trend toward a more diverse set of reads if the information was public (I tend to read business books, but would like read more fiction and history).

  • At the more challenging end of the spectrum, I’ve been wondering about publishing the information I collect about the hours I’ve worked every day. I use a little time tracking application on all of my devices so that I can bill my clients accurately for the time I’ve invested in their projects, and also so that they don’t get billed for time that I spend doing other things. I’ve been doing this since 2005. In January, I opened up that data to the clients themselves so they can log-in and see what I’ve been working on and the notes associated with the work. I wonder what, if any, motivation would come from putting this information online? To my friends and peers I’ve tried to cultivate the image of a “slacker” over the last few years, and I have no idea if this information would prove or disprove that. :)

  • Most radically, I wonder what it means to put one’s finances in public view? It’s something that so many of us hold so closely and personally. It’s used as a (often ineffective) measure of success, and it’s used to assess a person’s “worth” and “stability,” i.e., people who can manage their own finances effectively are seen as more “together” than those who struggle with the financial aspects of life. However, I suspect that many of us know how broken these conceptions are, and how thin a picture of a person we would get if we could only see their finances. That said, I do wonder what effect putting my revenue, expenses, assets, and liabilities online would have on me? Would it motivate me to become more focused on financial goals, or would it free me from being concerned with them? It’s an interesting question.

Of course, there are many points in between these points on a spectrum of “living open:” data about consumption – food, alcohol, energy, water – and data about where we are, how we use our time, who we’re with, how we look every day, and so on. As I ponder each of these, I ask: Which are digital-age vanity, and which could actually be effective motivators of positive self behavior? Which are a fad, and which ones will prove to be interesting over the long haul? It takes time and effort to capture data and to publish it, no matter how simple the process is, so how does one measure a return on that investment, how do we know that a change has happened?

I believe that “Open” has the potential to be transformational, but it also has the potential to be a huge distraction and wasted effort (and potentially a big mess!) if not applied thoughtfully. Open is not a magic bullet, obviously, and – like any philosophy or principle – it needs to be used appropriately to have the most impact.

I’m not really any closer to an answer on any of the above. Perhaps some experimentation is in order. Until then, I’ll just keep pondering the question How can I further apply the principles of “Open” to my work and personal life? and looking for examples of other people doing the same.

(Full disclosure, my last movie rental was Shame and the book I’m currently reading is What is the What.)


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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