Some weeks ago I decided to put a lot of effort in eliminating distractions and cut my informational queues. Every day I was seeing a huge number of unread RSS items, Gmail messages, and all of my sites getting rusty because of under-maintenance. This was a very sad picture, and the most important thing about it is that I understood my “luck of time” apologies being completely wrong and naive. Time and money are the things that are never enough before you know how to cut down your appetite.
So, I started from bringing count of unread RSS items below 1000. In one week I managed to do that, and then I successfully organized my Google Reader to be a place to get newest information in contrast of earlier times, when some items left unread for weeks before I found a possibility to view them. After so much success, I can give an advice or two about this. The most important thing is to cut down the number of subscriptions. Just show no mercy and unsubscribe everything that you rarely read, even if it’s something you would like to spend more time on. If you don’t pay much attention now, it is not worth keeping it. It only steals your time and blurs your attention on more important things. Come back to it, when you are ready to embrace this new thing completely and check the news every single day. Second step is continuing cutting down the number of subscriptions. After eliminating those which are rarely read by you, eliminate those who have less than 50% of interesting content, because remaining 50% are stealing your time and blurring your focus. If you absolutely need the information in first 50%, find another feed that has much better percentage of good posts.
After this is done, you can breathe more freely, but you still should change your habits to regular reading of subscriptions that survived the cleansing. This number can still be quite high. In order not to get stressed with quickly increasing number of items to read, do the following (the advice is based on using Google Reader, but I believe most of RSS readers have very similar feature set):
- sort feeds to groups and prioritize the groups
- learn to skim through the headers without reading the entire item - just press N to go to the next item when header does not seem to be attractive enough.
Skimming through the groups with highest priorities lets you quickly work through the most important information that can distract you from more important tasks. If you still have a large number of unread items, but it is mostly because of low-priority groups, you still feel better, and this also gives you ideas about further eliminations of subscriptions you rarely read.
Another threat to your time is your friend feed in social network of your choice, notifications sent by the sites you frequently visit, trackbacks on the comments and so on. This is a bit harder to give any advice, because it’s very personal. But anyway, some of your ‘friends’ on Facebook are closer than the others. For example, I have about 50 or so ‘friends’ I never met in person, and some of them weren’t even virtual friends before meeting them on Facebook. However, their wall posts appear in my feed. I guess that many people have the same problem. The best solution is again to group contacts into different groups, and read feed from the group you are interested in. Thankfully, it’s very easily done with Facebook, and after Twitter introduced lists, it became much easier with Twitter, too. Also, Facebook allows you to block wall posts on personal and application level, which greatly helps to get rid of those Farmville-like notifications.
Also, another great way to fight time distractors is to offload your working time by moving task of cutting down informational queues to some idle time. It happens - you might be commuting to your office, waiting for a girlfriend who is always late, killing time in a queue in a shop or hospital - you name it. The rise of the smartphone makes it easy not to worry about having a book/magazine/sudoku/etc with you - you take it out of your pocket, and in no time you are reading, playing or watching something. Google Reader, Facebook, Twitter, mailbox, instant messaging - they all are looking great on your iPhone, Android, and even Symbian. I quit reading RSS at home, because I cut down the informational queue with my iPhone at the idle time.
Finally, I wanted to emphasize one thing that I myself am not very familiar with. Eliminating distractions is not the only thing that improves working time. You always need to find good ways to motivate yourself doing useful things, and to organize your day so that you remember about useful things. I am very bad in planning my time. I tried so many times to use a calendar, and every time I fail. I guess many of you having the same problem. There are lot of notebooks and todo lists spread all over the desks, offices, apartments, and websites, and most of them are abandoned after first use, because lack of inner organization and numerous distractions make to forget about them. Once a year they are re-discovered, just to be abandoned a day later.
All this is wrong, of course. And if this happens, you will hardly ever change your habits. What to do?
Suddenly, I’ve got an answer and I will try hard to follow it. Stop multiplying your calendars-to-be-abandoned. Select just one web service that is available from all the locations where you have ever started your previous failed todo lists. Write everything in one file, just to get a habit to check out just one place. Access this place in all possible ways. I think the best choices to achieve that is to have a private notebook at Evernote, text document at Google Docs, or just a text file in Dropbox. All three are living in the cloud, and accessible from any device. Do not write many things in this one file, because otherwise you will get overwhelmed and stressed by the number of thing you need to do. Cut down low-priority todos by throwing them out of the list. Try to get all items visible on one screen.
If you have some small things to do during a working day, just write them down on a sticky note and put it on your monitor, but do not forget to throw it away in the end of the day, otherwise you will be flooded by sticky notes after a couple of weeks. This might help you to figure out what is the right number of tasks you can plan for yourself for one day. If too many tasks were planned for the day, summarize them in one short sentence and write it down to your file in the cloud.