The problem with being constantly bombarded by information, as we web workers are, is not so much that we can’t deal with it, or that it distracts us from our work, or that it shortens our attention spans or stresses us out.
It’s that we have allowed that information to control our lives.
We’ve discussed this at length in the past. We can argue endlessly about whether a high amount of information and connectivity is good for you or not, or whether it increases or decreases productivity. The point is whether we really want to have all of this information, and whether we are in control of it, and whether consuming massive amounts of information is really how we want to spend all of our waking hours.
Who is the Master here: the information, or us?
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a growing voluntary simplicity movement based on the growing trend of many people in the workplace to feel overworked and overwhelmed. They were spending way too much time at work, and they had paper planners that were massively thick and overflowing with tasks, calls to make, projects, appointments.
But that wasn’t how many people wanted to spend their time, and they decided to focus instead on what was important to them. And thus the voluntary simplicity movement grew in popularity out of a need to take back control of our lives and get out of the mindset that we needed to do more, more, more. We are so caught up in consuming more information, responding to more emails, connecting with more people, that we have lost sight of what’s really important to us.
What follows are a number of tips, to be used together or separately, depending on your needs, that will help you become the Master of your information, and stop the onslaught of information overload, so that you can reconnect with what’s truly important in your life.
1. Decide what’s important. The first step is to take a step back. Get away from the computer, go outside to some place where you can sit down and think, and take a pen and pad and make a simple list: name the 4-5 things that are most important to you. This includes work and personal life, and all the things you do (including things online) and the things you’ve always wanted to do. This might be family, it might be aspects of your career, it might be dreams and goals, it might be hobbies or passions. It could be anything. But identify the most important things in your life, and begin to make those a priority. I would guess that most of the things you do online won’t make the list.
2. Map out your day. Much of the problem is that we go online and just submerge ourselves in the information stream. And while some have argued that that’s not such a bad thing, the problem, again, is that we allow the information and those who are vying for our attention to dictate how we spend our most precious commodity: our time. I suggest that you, and not others, decide how you want to spend your time. Again, focus on what’s important to you, decide the three things you really want to accomplish today, and plan your day so that those things happen. You can include, in your time map of your day, things like checking email or reading feeds or chatting (see below), if those are important to you or your job, but the key is to make a conscious plan to do so and carry it out.
3. Work less. Again, I submit that we get away from the mindset that we need to do more, more, more, and decide that we want to focus on the few things that are important to us. In order to do that, we have to eliminate things that are unimportant to make room for the important. And leaving some space around the things in our life (don’t schedule every minute) leaves us with a little breathing room and a little sanity. While I’m not saying you can achieve a four-hour work week, I do think you can achieve a 40-hour work week, and probably much less. I’ve been slowly reducing the hours I work, so that I now put in about 24 hours a week, and I’m planning on cutting that to 16. The key is to decide what is important, and focus on those things.
4. Take control. Get into the mindset that you are the master of your information. It’s really about the mindset, because I think we’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that when there are emails in our inbox, we HAVE to read them, and when there are RSS feeds in our reader, we have to read them, and when people are IMing us, we have to respond. We don’t. If there are emails or feeds in your inbox, that’s not your problem. Technology should serve us, not the other way around. We should not be at the beck and call of technology. Learn to realize that, and see that email and the other info technology are tools at our disposal, and that we should use them when we need them, and not be slaves to them.
5. Shut down email. Again, email is a tool that you should use when you need it. You should not be a servant to it. As such, I suggest that you shut down your email when you don’t need it. Only go to your email when you want to use it, and don’t worry about responding to the messages in it right away, or even ever. If you want to respond to some of the urgent messages, feel free to do so, but again, you should pick and choose what you want to do. Don’t feel the need to respond to every message, or even read them. I would clear out my inbox every day or two, just by archiving or deleting those messages I don’t need to read or respond to, and dealing with the others at a time that I determine.
6. Allow feeds to overload. Just because you’re subscribed to an RSS feed doesn’t mean that you should be compelled to read it. As such, you should not need to clean out your feed inbox every day. You decide when you want to read feeds, how many, how long. If you want to skip over a dozen or even hundreds of feeds and just read a couple, that’s your choice. Mark the rest as “read” or just ignore the unread count.
7. Set up a chat zone. I rarely if ever use IM or any other kind of chat, but for those of you who need to be connected at least some of the time, you should have a set period each day when you connect to IM. Put it in your time map for the day, and let your contacts know that’s when you’ll be available. Don’t connect to chat at other times of the day, unless you really need to for a specific task.
8. Disconnect once a day. In your time map, have a certain period where you’re disconnected. It’ll take some getting used to, but after awhile, you’ll probably look forward to your disconnected periods. You’ll likely get more work done, or feel more relaxed. Morning times are good for this.
9. Take mini-breaks. Even when you’re connected, you shouldn’t do it for hours at a time. Every 45 minutes or so, get up, walk away from your computer, stretch your legs, take a walk around your home or office. Or better yet, get outside, get some fresh air, and get a little perspective. It’s important.
10. Block distractions. When you’re connected but need to work, use a utility like Page Addict to track your time on different sites and block the distractions. This will allow you to do the work you need but not be tempted to check email or your feeds or your forums or what have you.
11. Learn to focus. While short attention spans and the ability to multi-task might be a feature, and not a bug, of the newer generation of web workers, there’s still value in being able to focus on one task for long enough to complete it or at least make a lot of progress on it. It’s actually a skill that can be improved with practice. To learn to focus, turn off all programs and close all tabs except what’s needed to complete the task at hand. Set a timer for 10 or 20 minutes, and try to focus on getting the task done. When you feel yourself being pulled away, stop and pull yourself back. This ability to focus can make you a lot more productive.
12. Drop out of forums. I think there are a lot of use to forums, especially in helping you achieve a goal. But if you find yourself needing to go see what the latest messages are, and spending too much time there, it’s probably not as productive as it should be. Learn how to drop out when you don’t really need a forum, and forget about it.
13. Eliminate the news. Another huge source of information overload is news channels and sites. But what I’ve come to realize is that the news is all the same, but just packaged a little differently every time so we continue to consume it every day. Politics, human interest, international events, sports, entertainment … it’s the same every year, every month, every day. And it doesn’t add much to our lives — in fact, it distracts from what’s important. The important news will find you, trust me. Let the rest go.
14. Read only 5 posts a day. If you set a certain time of day to read your RSS feeds, instead of skimming through all the posts, just put them in headline mode. Then, each day, choose only 5 posts to open in new tabs and read fully. Sure, you’ll be missing out on some other good stuff, but who cares? There is way more information out there that is of interest than you can possibly consume each day. Learn to let go. Just focus on a 5 posts, and really enjoy them. Then move on.
15. Respond to only 5 emails a day. You can take a similar approach to email. Instead of trying to respond to the flood of emails coming in, just choose 5 every day and put them in a “respond” folder. Skim through the rest, and then respond to just those 5 emails every day. Life will go on, trust me.
16. Write 5-sentence emails. This has been written about by several people, including Mike Davidson, but it’s useful to also limit the length of your emails. Five sentences is a good limit. It forces you to be concise and to the point, and limits the time you spend responding to emails.
17. Do less. Track the things you do in a day. Every time you do something, whether it’s a work-related task or responding to an email or reading something or commenting on a blog or whatever, write it down. It’s probably going to be a long list. Now see how many you can eliminate. Do the same thing to your to-do list: eliminate the non-essential tasks. Do less, not more, but focus on what’s important.
18. Have a web-free day. Set one day a week where you don’t go on the Internet at all. That’s right. No email, no feeds, no blogs, no nothin’. A radical idea, to be sure, but one that will greatly increase your sanity and allow you to do what’s really important in your life.
19. Work disconnected. An alternate strategy to having a disconnected period each day, see Tip 8, is to disconnect each time you need to work on an essential task. Pull the information you need off the web, disconnect, do the task, and the reconnect if you want. But working in a disconnected mode will help you concentrate and take control of your time.
20. Tell people your boundaries. This is an important tip, because one of the things that makes us a slave to technology is the expectations by others that we will be connected, that we will communicate, that we will respond quickly. Well, that might be true, but it doesn’t have to be. Who says that we need to respond to emails right away? Who says that we need to be connected all the time? Well, maybe your boss does. But other than that, you should learn to take control of your time and your life, and set the expectations of others by telling them, up front, that you cannot be available all the time, and that you might not respond to email right away. Explain to them that you have a full schedule, and that you have set a new policy of being disconnected most of the time in order to get your work done. People might not always like this, but they’ll get used to it.
21. Ask yourself why. When you feel the need to connect, to respond, to check messages, to consume more information, stop for one second and ask yourself why. Why do you feel that need? If there’s a good answer, then by all means, do it. But if you don’t know the answer, it’s probably best that you re-examine your priorities and decide whether this is really how you want to spend your day.