Reclaiming my fragmented attention-stream

Internet, Productivity, Technology, Web, Work 9 Comments

I love the Internet. It is a fundamental part of my daily life — my work, my hobbies, my interests, my news, my entertainment, and my communication streams all involve computers, the Internet, and/or the Web in some way. Recently there has been an explosion in the number of applications I use to get information and to communicate with people online: email (Google, Zimbra), IRC, IM (jabber, AIM, ichat), Twitter, web feeds (back up to over 350 now), a host of forums, an even larger host of websites (both social and non), and so forth.

Unfortunately, the result is that my attention is utterly fractured. If it’s not a conversation in one of my dozen IRC channels it’s an IM message; if not an IM message then it’s a Twitter update, or an email, or my feed reader has new items, or I’m flipping through my dozens of browser tabs, or my calendar is reminding me of one or another meetings or other appointments. I am becoming overwhelmed by this firehose of information, and it’s destroying my ability to focus, to read and think deeply, and, fundamentally, to get work done.

It needs to stop. At very least, it needs to be reduced to a trickle. Thus, I am going on an information diet. The changes I will be working towards are outlined below. “Working towards” means that while I doubt I will stick strictly to this regimen, it is the disciplined ideal towards which I strive.

1) During the work day I will only be checking personal email twice — once at the beginning of the day, and once at lunch (“lunch” can range from 11am to 2pm Eastern Time). After hours, I’ll check when I happen to think of it.

2) During the non-work day I will only be checking work mail once — sometime between dinner and bed. No guarantees what time that will be or whether I’ll be doing anything more than flagging items of interest to deal with the next work day.

3) Over the weekend I will be checking both personal and work mail only twice per day — once in the morning and once before bed.

4) Scheduled meetings are sacred. If I’m scheduled and expected to attend a meeting, I will. If it’s an optional meeting, I will make the decision whether or not to attend when my iCal reminder pops up. If there’s an optional meeting you think I should definitely attend, let me know. I don’t mind meetings, I just want to keep them to a useful minimum.

5) Twitter, while entertaining, has not yet proven to be useful. It will be getting shut off during work hours from here on out. Bummer because it’s invariably good for a laugh, but it’s just too distracting.

6) I will be reducing my IRC channels to the bare minimum during work days. Outside of work hours, all bets are off. If you need to contact me try instant message first, calling my work extension second, or calling my cell third. If I respond to none of these, please email me at my work address if it’s work-related or my personal address if it’s not-work-related.

7) I’ve organized my web feeds into two major groups: “Work” and “Everything Else”. I am reducing the update frequency from every 15 mins to every 2 hours. I will only be checking the “Everything Else” group outside of work hours. Oh lolcats, I will miss you so.

8) When I’m in a phone meeting I will be minimizing all windows except those directly involved with the meeting (agenda, notes, backchannel). Harsh, but necessary. I sat through two phone meetings today and realized that I didn’t hear a single word because I was too busy yammering away in unrelated IRC channels and scanning my web feeds. This is both rude and a complete waste of time, and I apologize for it.

9) I will be unplugging for at least one work hour per day. This means I will simply go offline. During that time I will either be reading, thinking, or working on proposals/documentation/etc. If it turns out that I’m getting solid work done, I reserve the right to extend my unplugged time indefinitely. Turns out a lot of my job is thinking, reading, and writing. If I appear to be offline and you need to contact me, call my extension or my cell.

10) Kinhin. Ok, not technically kinhin, but a very distant personal approximation thereof. Kinhin is a walking form of Zen meditation. Real Zen practitioners do kinhin between periods of zazen (sitting meditation), and it is a very rigorous, formal practice. For me it just means “walking for an hour every day and trying to get my mojo back”.

9 Responses to “Reclaiming my fragmented attention-stream”

  1. Stephanie Daugherty Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 9:42 am

    Sounds like an ADHD nightmare… the human brain just isn’t meant to context switch that fast :)

    Good luck :)

  2. graydon Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    Good luck. More hints:

    You don’t need to reply to most things, and shouldn’t. The virtuous thing to do is to let most threads die. Propagate only what really needs it.

    You don’t need to monitor most things. Reading news is a compulsive behavior that just begets more of itself, along with confusion and paralysis. News is a drug in business attire.

    You don’t need to attend every meeting (unless you scheduled yourself to attend). De-schedule yourself from as many as possible. Most meetings have nothing worthwhile happen at them, they just pad out time with the illusion of activity. Better to go for a walk.

    Destroying information is good. The world produces information on its own, as noise. Your job is to extract (and compress) the important parts and destroy the unimportant parts. Zero it out. Destroying information is hard work, but it’s actually part of the job.

  3. rebron Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    I did this a long time ago. http://www.rebron.org/toolbox/email.html

    I still kind of follow it.

    Good luck. There’s a lot of information to parse through on a daily basis.

  4. dria Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 6:24 pm

    Graydon: very good points. Thanks :)

  5. dria Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    Graydon: very good points. Thanks :)

  6. Sohail Mirza Says:
    June 13th, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    Well, well, looks like someone read the “Low-Information Diet”, ChangeThis manifesto (http://www.changethis.com/34.04.LowInfo).

    Of course, if you haven’t read it, give it a read. Then subscribe to the ChangeThis RSS feed, and sign up for instant email notifications. ;)

  7. Sohail Mirza Says:
    June 13th, 2007 at 3:40 pm

    Well, well, looks like someone read the “Low-Information Diet”, ChangeThis manifesto (http://www.changethis.com/34.04.LowInfo).

    Of course, if you haven’t read it, give it a read. Then subscribe to the ChangeThis RSS feed, and sign up for instant email notifications. ;)

  8. Colin Barrett Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 10:52 am

    Having two laptops is absolutely essential for me. The psychological benefits are amazing too — it’s so much easier to switch to “work mode” when you’re using an entirely different machine!

  9. Colin Barrett Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 11:52 am

    Having two laptops is absolutely essential for me. The psychological benefits are amazing too — it’s so much easier to switch to “work mode” when you’re using an entirely different machine!

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