Clearing Out the Clutter

I've been reading Leo Babauta's new e-book Focus. Leo is the person behind the wildly popular website The Power of Less, which is essentially about how to be more productive by doing fewer things and with a particular focus on disconnecting from technology-driven noise. Although I subscribe to his website, I've always been quite skeptical about his premise; I am someone who works and makes a living primarily in the online space. It might be fine to tell a bank manager to disconnect from technology every now and again, but how can I possibly do it when almost all of my networking and work-related activities occur online. As a small business owner, it is even more challenging to disconnect because the more I put in, the more I get back. And I want a lot back.

This all means that I spend an incredible amount of time online. Seriously, I can't even really bring myself tell you how much time because it's embarrasing. I'm talking double digits. And I am always multi-tasking. At any given time I am simultaneously checking two emails address, following about two hundred people via Tweetdeck, checking in with Facebook every 15 minutes, replying to threads and networking on LinkedIn, responding to requests through a network of travel bloggers I belong to, connecting with people on Digg, Friendfeed, following dozens of blogs and websites via my RSS feeder .... This goes on all day long and even though I enjoy a lot of it, it is exhausting. This is in addition to creating content for four plus websites and doing the occasional stint as a guest blogger, taking and editing photos for iStock, and then there's the consulting work. Contrary to how it sounds, I'm really not complaining (at least not much). This is the life I wanted and I love the incredible diversity of my job. I love that I get paid to do the things I want to do and that because of these long days I am able live a location independent lifestyle. Right now I am staying in a lovely apartment in the middle of Shinjuku in Tokyo. How cool is that?

Knowing all of this and feeling the way I do about my life and my career path, I wasn't expecting to find much of value in Focus. Last night after spending a huge chunk of my day flitting around online, I picked up my Kindle and started reading. While I read my mind wandered: had I responded to that email, did I remember to write that Alexa site review, had so-and-so responded to me on Twitter? I kept looking over at my lap top, nearly picking it up once about every two minutes but telling myself, "just get to the end of this first chapter, then you can check in..." And then I read this:
Here's a little excercise that might prove useful: as you read this chapter, how many times were you distracted or tempted to switch to another task? How many times did you think of something you wanted to do, or check your email or other favorite distractions? How many times did you want to switch, but resisted? ... In an ideal world, the answers to all those questions would be "zero" - you'd be able to read with no distractions, and completely focus on your task. Most of us, however, have distractions coming from all sides, and the answers to this little exercise will probably prove illuminating.
He was completely right. Here I was, disconnected from my media devices for all of 15 minutes and instead of focusing on the book in front of me, my brain wouldn't stop firing, wouldn't stop obsessing about checking in. It wasn't a choice; I wasn't feeling the need to check Twitter, Facebook and email out of some real business need. I wanted to check these things because I've actually become addicted to them and that's a bad thing.

A really good example of where I see this behavior in a damaging light is my absolute OCD-like relationship with my Google Reader. For those of you who don't use a feedreader, it's something that allows you to import feeds from websites. When a website you follow gets updated, it shows in your feedreader and you can read the new content right there - all your websites in one place. It's a useful tool that allows me to keep up with what's going on without having to actually visit a bunch of websites. But I've become nuts about the thing. It's grown from a few dozen sites to close to 500 and every time I see a little dark number indicating that someone has added new content, I feel like I *need* to read it immediately. Some mornings I'll sit down in front of my computer and say to myself, "Okay, you only get half an hour with the RSS," and I'll still be sifting through it hours later. In a way that I can't really account for, I feel a bit like I've failed if I've got too many unread items - and yet I keep adding sites to it so that it is virtually impossible to clear it all out. Sometimes I feel actual anxiety about this.

So yeah, something had to give. Just because my career relies on me engaging with social media and keeping on top of what's going on in the online space doesn't mean that it has to consume my life and give me nightmares. Sometimes I have anxiety dreams about Twitter - the kind I used to have when I was a waitress ... All of a suddent the restaurant was really busy and I had a hundred impatient angry patrons to serve, oh, and I was naked! But I'm not a waitress anymore and I work for myself and part of building a practice that I love and find fulfilling means learning how to balance all of these things in a way that doesn't make my heart beat wildly. And although I consider myself to be productive - I mean, some credit please, we've built a lucrative location independent business in about six months and that's no small thing - I could be so much more productive if I could only learn how to focus a bit more on the things that matter, learn how to filter out the noise and stop treating social media like its heroin.

To address some of these things, I'm going to go on an online consumption diet of sorts. I'm not going cold turkey because it's simply not realistic given my lifestyle and profession; plus I think social media is valuable and exciting and I want to remain a part of it. But here's what I am going to do/have already started doing to be less of a junky and regain some control over my time:

  • Unless we have a big launch or client need at play (this happens rarely) I am going to limit my email checking to twice a day: once when I begin my work in the morning and once in the evening. I have also already configured my email inbox to filter certain content related to a lot of the networking I do to folders so that I don't have to see it until I am ready to deal with it - once a day during that second email check in.
  • I have spent a few hours today de-cluttering my RSS reader. I've still got a lot more in there then I probably should, but I've elminated about 100 sites from my regular stream. It was strangely similar to what I've experienced when moving house - at the beginning you get rid of things you don't need with a great deal of hesitation because you imagine that you'll miss them. As the process wears on you are madly throwing things out. I've never missed anything I've gotten rid of during these kinds of cullings and I'm certain that I won't miss the sites I've removed. I've also sorted my remaining items into folders that allow me to better regiment how and when I'm allowed to look at certain content. Instead of sorting feeds by topic, they are now divided into folders called: daily, weekly, monthly, blue moon and networking-related. I will allow myself 45 minutes every day to check the daily folder, one hour once a week to check the weekly folder, one hour once a month to check the monthly folder, I will rarely check the blue moon feed but it mostly consists of sites I couldn't quite bear to part with yet (yes, I'm this crazy), and the networking feed are sites that I don't really enjoy reading but are important to keep up with for other professional reasons. I'll check these once every few weeks or so. So my new schedule will allow me to open my Google Reader for about 45 minutes once a day. That's it. When I'm not actively using my allocated time, the Google Reader will remain closed.
  • I'm going to be a little less regimented about Twitter and Facebook, because in some ways I feel like these channels are the way I connect with people in the day - in the same way that other people work in offices and get to occasionally look up from their work and chat to a colleague. I've started using this free bit of Mac software called Slife that tracks the programmes you use throughout the day and tells you how long you've spent on them. Because I use Tweetdeck for Twitter, this should give me a pretty good idea of much time I'm spending there. If it starts to look like too much, I'll come up with a plan B. Facebook isn't as easy to track because it just counts as Internet browsing, but I also don't feel like it eats up too much of my time and I don't feel the same kind of anxiety about it that I've felt about my RSS feed and other time suck activities.
  • In order to really focus when I'm writing, I've started using Ommwriter, another free bit of software for Mac. It's a very basic word processing program that fills your entire screen with just a writing background and your text. Because it covers the entire screen, there are less distractions and therefore (hopefully) I'll feel less inclined to jump inbetween programs and tasks as much as I have been. I've written this in Ommwriter and will just copy and paste it into Blogger once I'm done. So far, so good.
  • When Dan and I decided to take this journey, he bought me a Kindle so that I could surround myself with books but not have to deal with the weight of lugging them around. There's a really great tool that can be used in conjunction with my Kindle called Instapaper. I have a little button installed on my browser and when I run into a longer article that I really want to read but don't have the time or inclination to focus on, I can click on it and it gets stored away. Once a week or whenever I choose, I can visit the Instapaper site and download the articles I've saved in my queue and put them on my Kindle. Then when I actually have a block of time to read, I can lay back and focus on what I'm doing. 

Those are the biggest changes I can manage at the moment, but I'm hoping they will make a big difference in having me feel a little bit more in control of what I choose to consume and where I choose to invest my time. I want to feel connected but I want to feel like I control the impulse - not as though I'm driven by some addiction to constantly be checking in with things, most of which are probably not where my focus is best directed.

Although I'm not done reading it yet, I do recommend Leo Babauta's Focus if you're trying to gain a bit more control over the priorities in your life. So far it's not at an an airy-fairy bit of self-help but actually has some really practical suggestions for how to understand and shift negative behaviours. He also links to practical tools and programmes you can use to make all this a bit easier. It's available on his website here as a free PDF download or if you want the Premium version with a bunch of additional features you can purchase it here.

Photo by me. 

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Jennifer said...

Good luck with this - I am really interested in how many people are talking about disconnecting, and interested to see how people are going about it.

I recently changed computers and decided to switch from Firefox to Safari; upgraded my iPhone to OS4 with the folders; changed the 'theme' on my Gmail. Little things, but they've helped break a few habits, it seems. Have to make sure I don't fall into new, time-wasting ones though!

Amy said...

Thanks for the comment Jennifer. It does seem to be a trend right now. For me it's about being able to make decisions about where I'm spending my time - and it's gotten to the point where I don't feel like I'm in control of my consumption anymore and that scares me.

I totally hear you about the little things - I think those subtle changes can allow us to refocus and see things differently. At least that's what I'm hoping!

Let me know how it goes for you and if you uncover into any tips that have helped. :)

Erin said...

Great post. I have actually been planning a little series on the same issue, after moving abroad and being forced into a digital diet of my own.

It wasn't pretty..

I started reading Leo's book last week as well, after Felicia Day tweeted about it (she is pretty good about sharing time management/organizational articles, I dig it). But I got distracted... will have to get back to that, eh?

Let us know how your diet goes!

Amy said...

Thanks Erin! So far so good ... although my schedule really only works if I can follow it. I'm kind of an all or nothing kind of gal. We've had family visiting in town for the past week and as a result I'll often have completely media free days. This might sound like a good thing, but it leaves me feeling behind and then the following day I kind of 'binge'. Looking at getting back on the wagon within the next few days once the family has returned home.