Back from the Holidays, Disconnecting from the Web

I’ve returned from my holidays, here comes the rain. Essentially, two weeks without a decent internet connection in a very warm island. All I did was exercise, read, swim, writing a little, and practice my typing (really) the whole time. I was probably on the web for only a couple hours during that period. It was a true vacation and a great time to catch up on family stuff. In this day and age there is really no vacation until you disconnect from the internet. Really.

Of course, it didn’t stop me from getting back to my old tricks the second I came home but I think it’ll be different this time. I plan on redefining and manage the way I interact with the web this time as I’ll be busy cutting my teeth as a programmer for real, essentially trying to hang on to my job and a decent salary (by no means high). I need to stop wasting time or manage my time more efficiently. It’s crucial to anyone’s survival.

Information technology has advanced so much and to the point where we have all the toys we could possibly need to have a rich, interactive life. The problem is that we have too many choices and too much information. Although there are many interesting and revolutionary applications and devices out there we just don’t have time. Why don’t we have time?

I think the reason why we run out of time is that we spend so much time managing the barrage of information the comes at us along with the various pruning tasks required of it. We know that it’s better to not check email every 5 minutes but also know the hell that ensues when we come back to an inbox filled with 500 unread messages. So we try to “keep things in order” at the expense of our concentration and productivity. This is probably the issue that most members of society struggle with to varying degrees.

Hardware advances make our computers the ultimate Swiss army knife and as a result we have all kinds of blades and doodads constantly sticking out at us beckoning our attention that it’s hard for us to focus on any single task with effectiveness. Remember the “spork” you used to use in the school cafeteria? That bastard child of a spoon and fork. The fork part was too shallow to properly stick food on it and if you use it as a spoon, you had to be careful not to crucify your tongue. That’s what I think our computers are becoming. Any artisan serious about their craft uses a million different tools, each chosen for their excellence at doing one thing and only one thing right. They do not try to exercise their craftsmanship with a Swiss knife unless out of desperation.

Computers are a tool for the digital craftsman, yet a lot of us don’t pause to think about the absurdity of say a carpenter’s hammer notifying them of new email or a chat application suddenly popping up as they try to hammer a nail. However, this is essentially what a lot of us knowledge workers struggle with whether they realize it or not. A key ingredient of getting things done is immersion and focus.

Monitoring, Communicating & Doing

I think a major problem is the fact that computers mix up three very different activities in distracting ways. At any given moment, when I’m trying to get things done in a work context I’m either monitoring, communicating, or doing something. Monitoring involves being aware of incoming emails (essentially to ensure that I don’t overlook urgent communication), server issues, news, etc. It doesn’t take much thought to stay aware but robs you of just enough concentration from being fully focused.

Communication is essentially interaction with another human being using whatever means be it email, chat or social networks. It involves a different kind of concentration that requires an awareness of the emotional context unless you wish to suffer the consequences of poor communication that might never be effectively remedied once you get on someone’s bad side or someone gets on yours.

Then there is the doing part. These are sometimes either the most demand or boring things you need to get done in order to collect your reward also known as achievement. The doing part of your day is comprised of an endless stream of tasks that require “all hands on deck”. It is also cumulative, meaning that rewards are rarely immediate. You must be consistent over time to really be rewarded for effort.

What About Entertainment?

I think that all the things screaming for our attention so easily pull us away from the “doing” part that a lot of us aren’t living up to our potential. You will notice that I left out “entertainment” as one of the things you can do on the computer. I omitted it on purpose as it was in the context of getting things done. We all know that there are so many ways to distract ourselves on computers from games (even the stupid default Windows games out of desperation), movies, to music. I think that a lot of us that spend too much time in front of a computer shy away from such overt “entertainment” out of either guilt or a desire to get things done. Yet, we use a poor substitute to entertainment that essentially distracts us even more. That’s right, monitoring and communicating.

How many time during the day do you find yourself escaping tasks or suspending thought on a difficult problem as you “take a break” surfing the web, browsing through emails, or chatting up a friend or colleague? I think it’s the “guilt-free” way a lot of white collar workers waste their time whether on purpose or inadvertently. Concentrating on tasks that are tedious (but needs to get done) or inherently hard can distort time if you don’t have the right motivation. For the obsessed uber-productive stars, it distorts time so much that they forget time while they concentrate on the task at hand while for the easily distracted it makes time pass that much more slowly, giving the illusion that they’re working more than they are.

All About Divides

I think we are seeing more divisions happening between haves and have nots even in the field of productivity. I see myself in the “have not” category right now as far as concentration and productivity go although I can confidently consider myself in the “have” category before I was exposed to the web. It’s time for me to make a change and change I will.

A while back, when I entered college, I stopped watching TV completely. Luckily we didn’t have the internet then like we do now. I focused exclusively on reading books and even limiting social interactions to focus on study. It paid off well. Then the “revolution” struck. Although I was extremely productive when push came to shove, I also found myself easily distracted under normal circumstances. It’s time to redefine our relationship with information and focus on building knowledge.

One of the things I plan to experiment with is my new iPod touch. One of the most effective strategies to increase productivity is to eliminate distractions. A strategy I’m experimenting with comes in two steps and that is to separate out distracting functions like checking emails or social networks into specialized terminals or apps (like dashboard widgets) that don’t get in the way of important stuff like writing or programming. Essentially, I want to decrease my reliance on having a constant internet connection and retraining myself to use the computer as nothing more than a glorified typewriter for most of the time I’m at the keyboard and take explicit breaks (with the iPod touch) that are guilt-free and don’t confuse my relationship with the computer to turn it into a multi-purpose distraction tool.