January 28, 2013
When I got back from a vacation in October, I turned down the volume of information in my life for a few months. Things were a little less exciting, but I sure could get a lot more done.
Information stopped being fun and turned into a little bit of an obsession and a lot of time suck somewhere between the introduction of Growl and the Notification Center to my life. So the simple assumption that I made was that less information—less email, Twitter, reading, blogs, news, whatever—would translate into more professional focus and more, I don’t know, inner peace or something.
What I tried was a little bit of 4 Hour Workweek and a little bit of improvisation. I indefinitely turned off always-on apps, so no more Twitter For Mac or iPhone Twitter clients, no mail apps or notifications on my laptop and definitely no push email on my phone. I stopped reading the Internet which meant no more Reeder (my primary source of consuming content) and no more Hacker News. And I took it as far as shutting off current events in the form of trading NPR for the Stern show, a new habit that just cost me $95 for a year of Sirius.
If it was really important, I found out anyway
I’m primarily a primarily passive observer on social networks. I really use them, and Twitter in particular, as one big collaborative information filter. Without that, I thought that I might fall out of touch a little bit.
Luckily there’s also a lot of curation that happens in the form of, like, hundreds of IRL interactions a day. Obviously I didn’t miss out on what happened in the election, but even more nuanced niche-y industry stuff like some new video analytics startup coming out of beta or YouTube previewing a redesign didn’t slip past me.
I did miss the feeling of being really on top of my game that comes with being the first guy to “discover” something. Most of the time, though, all that meant is that I read it on TechCrunch ten minutes before my colleagues and who cares, really.
Pushing back on push notifications
Simply turning off “push” information flow had the biggest net positive effect on focus and productivity. I will never, ever go back to push email. Never. Ever. Seriously, fuck push email unless you have the willpower of a thousand men and can resist with impunity the siren song of the new mail notification.
If you are even a little bit on a maker’s schedule, push email is a mortal enemy of flow state and is part of a conspiracy to prevent you from solving any remotely complex problems. Checking email should be a conscious decision, done when it makes sense as part of your individual schedule, rather than a motor reflex in response to the rest of the world’s perceived urgencies. A lot further down the list but still noteworthy was the freedom that came from not feeling like I had to respond to every tweet or Facebook mention at a moment’s notice.
Less news is good news
So it’s pretty obvious that a constant stream of fragmented information is going to end up fragmenting focus. Less information consumed equals less “wow, that’s interesting but what about this” equals less unscheduled tours that take me down into the far reaches of the Internet and back again.
Less expected was the calm that came from my self-imposed ignorance. And yeah, this says more about my general level of angstiness compared to the average person than it does the benefits of an information vacation. But turning off information actually helped me turn off a little bit of self-doubt and second-guessing. Clearly it’s good to stay humble and hungry for knowledge, and good to stay up on your competition, but it’s also sometimes an advantage to just think about what’s in front of you instead of getting caught up in what others are doing. It helped me to focus on the things that I can immediately control.
So why not quit forever?
For all those productivity wins, my little information hiatus had a really subtle but cumulatively negative effect on my actual for-real-for-real social life, especially as it relates to the tech community. I attended just one meetup in the last three months. I’m someone who really enjoys this stuff and the friendships that come out of being active in my community. But I can also be incredibly introverted when I want to be. I’m guessing it was a lot easier for me to go home and watch four seasons of Sons Of Anarchy on Netflix straight up back-to-back because I wasn’t hearing about these events and didn’t have any external pressure to get my ass up and out.
And over time, not having access to the information flow that enables little day-to-day interactions that cumulatively strengthen casual and developing friendships starts having an effect. It wasn’t just meetups I was missing; it was the bullshitting around on Twitter that leads to getting invited to some random afternoon BBQ.
So, although moderation’s never really been my thing, I’m going to try a measured approach. This past week I fired up that Twitter client for the first time in a long time, but turned off the Growl notifications. I’m narrowing my RSS feeds down from, like 212 to 21. And I’m really enjoying it now that I know I can do just fine without.