information overload

Distracted Living

Now here’s a concept: “I am here” days

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I love the spirit behind an article in the New York Times, ostensibly about “Exploring Red Hook, Brooklyn, Unplugged and with Friends.” The writer and his wife started to explore a section of the city on weekend days, and used the opportunity to unplug. Soon their friends joined in:

They joined us in what grew into a kind of anti-modern communal experiment: giving our gadgets a secular Sabbath; reveling in friendship and conversation of a kind that Facebook doesn’t do; being thickly in one place, not thinly everywhere. We began to call them “I am here” days.

I love that phrase “thickly in one place, not thinly everywhere.” More and more, I long to return to — to seek out — those experiences where you’re “thickly in one place” (that is, when you’re trying to have one experience, and not many). Running does that for me, or a long, wandering walk in the city, but so does playing poker, writing fiction, cooking, being in the pool with the kids. It’s an antidote to distracted living.

Distracted Living, Tech

My efforts to get control of my email through filters

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gmailI get too much email. Yes, I’m not alone in this — many of us are deluged by email. But over the past several years, I’ve becoming increasingly fed up with the email cramming my inbox. I either avoid it, or I stare at it and think, “How can I ever get through this?” It feels like a to-do list that I never created. It just happened.

My solution? Filter messages. Ruthlessly.

There’s nothing novel about creating filters to get a handle on email. People have done this for years. I even wrote a column on email filters and how to use them, back in 2006. And while I created filters for myself years ago, within Gmail, I decided about a month ago to take my filters even further — much, much further — in an effort to avoid having anything other than personal messages in my inbox.

That’s right: I want only email from people, preferably friends and colleagues, in my inbox. No bills. No appointment reminders. Nothing but personal messages in my inbox.

To do this, I used Gmail’s filtering tools (and its labels) to filter messages into folders (well, Gmail calls them labels) with names like “meetups,” “events,” “linked-in,” “facebook,” “reminders-etc,” and so forth.

This is, admittedly, a way to ignore things by avoiding looking at them.

And it’s working for me.

It’s relatively simple to do, especially if you decide, over the course of a month or so, to filter any and every message that comes into your inbox that is not a personal message. That means you don’t avoid the message. You don’t delete it. You filter it. Yes, that’s right: Leave it in your inbox until you’ve created a filter for it.

And Gmail makes creating filters quite easy. I usually filter things by the sender, but sometimes I do it by content appearing in the message. There’s one feature I really like: If you go to Gmail’s settings, and then to Labels, you’ll see that you’re able to set things up so that you only see the folders on your Gmail homepage when you have new/unread email (just select the “show if unread” option for the label from Settings > Labels). I like that quite a bit, largely because it allows me to ignore things unless there are unread messages. And I don’t even see the messages unless I select the folder. What’s more, when I look at email on my iPhone, I don’t see any of those messages — that is, the messages in folders — because I just look at my inbox.

The upshot? My email is under control. Right now, it’s got just three messages in there — two from my wife, another from a photography publication looking for writers.

Distracted Living, Tech

The benefits of quitting Twitter

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I’m on Twitter. I post to Twitter, but not a whole lot. It’s not really my thing. And it’s partly not my thing because, like a lot of social media, it seems to put me in front of other people’s agendas and take me away from my own.

I’m not quitting Twitter (I don’t need to, as I don’t use it all that much), but another writer, Adam Brault, did just that, and he reported on the effects.

The first evening off Twitter, I felt a level of peace I hadn’t known in some time. I just hung out with Kristi, danced with the kids, and read a book to myself for a very long time. Even though I found it surprisingly easy to give it up, it truly was an addiction, to be honest: until that night, I felt obligated to check it—and often, despite whatever I was in the midst of being more important in terms of my stated priorities.

Twitter is a distraction machine. If you ever want to read something interesting, you’ll find it there. We’re awash in interesting stuff. But the real challenge? Tuning it out. Or, really, being willing to tune it out. Because if you want to do something meaningful, whether it’s be with your kids or write a book, you’ve got to tune out the incessant drumbeat of “You must read this, and this, and this.”

As Brault later writes: “I used to believe that time was the most important thing I have, but I’ve come to believe differently. The single most valuable resource I have is uninterrupted thought.”

Distracted Living, Tech

Do I send a text? An email? Make a phone call? Coping with Appropriate Communication Syndrome (ACS)

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I recently wrote a column about what I labeled Appropriate Communication Syndrome (ACS). Here’s my definition:

It is the condition of being uncertain about the appropriate way to contact and communicate with another individual. The condition is sometimes accompanied by confusion, social anxiety, an inability to act and self-questioning. Certain individuals appear immune from the syndrome, and consequently communicate with excessive frequency.

I’m sure you’re familiar with this phenomenon. (By definition, blog readers suffer from ACS.) You want to contact someone, but then you start to think: Should I send email? A text? Or would Facebook be better? Right now, I’m waiting to hear back from a high school friend — I sent her an email about getting together — and I’m realizing a phone call might be better. But it’s hard to keep track of this, what with our communications preferences shifting all the time. As I say in the column, “Before the internet, there was the phone. The main issue was whether or not to leave a message on someone’s answering machine. That was it.”

Things sure have gotten a lot more complicated.


I love the way Priority Inbox hides my email


I’ve been using a recently introduced Gmail feature, Priority Inbox, to help me sort my email, and I’m really into it. Here’s the thing: I get a lot of email, like everyone else, and I’m often distracted by it. I hate to admit it, but sometimes I feel like email’s running me life. Rather than deciding I need to do X, Y, or Z, I check my email, and let my email dictate what I’ve got to do. Of course, deadlines drag me out of my inbox and into the much more enjoyable world of actual writing, but you probably know what I mean: It’s very, very easy to use your email as a sort of shadow to-do list.

And so, the beauty of Priority Inbox: It hides email that’s not important. Now, it’s not a complete solution to being inundated with email (or feeling like you are), but it’s a step in the right direction in the way it makes it easier (at least for me) to ignore some of my email, in a productive way, and do the things I really need or want to do.

Here’s a video with more info:

Distracted Living

Is a technology diet in order?

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That’s the gist of a Fortune piece Patricia Sellers. It’s a fun read, thought I’m not wild about the headline: “2010 Resolution: Slow Down for Success.” Does everything have to be about “success”? How about contentment, enjoying yourself, being happy?

In any case, she’s decided her New Year’s resolution isn’t about cramming more into her life. As she puts it: “Instead of resolving to do more this year, I’m aiming to do less. To slow down.”


Distracted Living

Crime writer on info-overload

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At the Murderati blog, crime writer J.T. Ellison takes in the topic of information overload. The post includes some interesting thoughts/musings on the topic—in particular, how to control your info-consumption and also tackle creative projects:

Late last year I adopted a minimalist lifestyle, which included trying to have a more minimalist experience on the Internet. I just realized that in my quest to learn about minimalism, I ended up subscribed to 12 minimalism/productivity blogs, all of which basically repeat the same information over and over again. Not very minimalist. It was ridiculous, really. Anyone can talk the talk. It’s walking the walk that’s the hard part. There’s one blogger (who shall remain nameless) that I used to love. When I realized that he spent all his time talking about creativity, yet never creating, I deleted him from my feeds.