About a year and half ago, a colleague recommended the book “The Shallows” to me, but my reading queue is so backlogged that I haven’t gotten to it. Honestly, this backlog is due in part to the percentage of time I spend each day consuming information via the Internet, favoring that over books and long-form papers…

…which is ironic.

So here’s a version of the message of the book, complete with quotes from the author:

I recognize that there is a lot of bite-sized-information-hating going around these days, and the knee-jerk reaction here could be the Luddite “Down with Twitter!” / “Throw away your smartphone!” / “Move to the Northwest Territories!”, but I believe there has to be a middle ground. These new streams of information bring to us new perspectives, new ideas, and with the right tools, the ability to curate the information.

So how can we give ourselves the space and time to do higher-order thinking, allowing our minds to process the corpus of new ideas and inspiration we’ve accumulated from Internet-based information streams?

I’m writing a blog post series (one; two; more to come over the next few weeks) for work about our love / hate relationship with email. There’s an experiment I have been running that wasn’t appropriate to go into on the GHD blog, but I wanted to write about it: unsyncing email from my smartphone.

I’ve been giving this a try, and I’ve made it almost five months now. “But why?!” you ask. “What’s the point of having a smartphone at all if you’re not going to use it to check your email?” Well, there are plenty of other things I can do on the phone to consume mobile bandwidth and keep myself occupied. The issue that I was having was with my own behavior. Prior to this experiment, in having my email linked to my phone–which I’ve had enabled since I first got the Droid 1 in 2009–I noticed the following effects on my behavior:

  • Compulsively checking my email account in every spare moment, often without thinking about it.
  • Opening an email and being unable to properly respond to it, either due to a lack of time to fully think through a response or the inconvenience of typing out a long reply on a phone.
  • Being stressed out by incoming email at a time where I was unable or ill-equipped to deal with the issue within the email. Filing the email away, both physically and mentally, didn’t remove the stress but rather pushed it out to my subconscious, where it festered. Imagine I’m in the middle of doing something enjoyable — now the experience has been ruined.
  • Spending more time in a “reactive” mode, waiting for emails to come in versus doing real work. I don’t know the source, but a while ago I read and have co-opted a phrase: “No one ever got a promotion or raise based on the speed of their response to emails.” Of course, if you’re in sales or you’re a CEO, this might not apply to you, but the principle holds: be proactive and do the work that generates the most value. Emails add minimal value at best, and I’d argue they often decrease value because they distract you from what’s important.
  • Being *less* responsive to email because the phone encouraged me to push off until later (when I was at a computer) longer responses. This habit carried over to email on the computer as well, and emails went a long time without a response (which increases stress).

On the flip-side, the supposed benefits–being more connected and responsive–are minimal, and there’s really only a few hours a day that I’m not on or near a computer. Very rarely does someone need an answer *right that minute*, and if they do, they’re likely someone who knows me well enough to text or call.

Honestly, though, I didn’t notice many of these until I started to reflect on my stress level, my phone use, and my lack of responsiveness to emails. At first, I thought the solution was to schedule email syncing for certain hours (not straightforward to do on the Android Gmail client, BTW). However, I was spurred on by this fantastic, reflective post by Harj Taggar of YC, and decided to give complete disconnection a try. With a few lapses, it’s been nearly five months now, and here are my observations:

  • It took me a solid two weeks to undo the muscle memory of checking the email accounts.
  • Complete removal of the accounts from the phone doesn’t work for me, because I still want my contacts and calendars. Unfortunately, though I can un-sync Gmail on Android, I can’t remove the accounts from the list in the Gmail app, so I still have a stale view of my account at the time I un-synced. Not a huge issue, but I’d rather not even see the account.
  • I’m finally starting to reclaim my inbox and get back to being a better emailer, partially because I’m more focused when I sit down to hash through my inbox.

Un-syncing email from the devices we have next to us 24-7 is just one component of dealing with the issues of email, but it’s a big step.

(I also removed Facebook from my phone, but that’s worthy of a separate blog post.)

what’s your go-to music for productivity?

if you’re like me, it depends heavily on the task at hand. the appropriate music seems to enhance my focus on the task and my ability to accomplish it more quickly. (N.B. observance of this effect is purely anecdotal and has not been scientifically proven.)

misc: jam (e.g. Phish)
coding: ambient / chiptunes (e.g. Orbital, Groove Salad, Anamanaguchi)
lifting: prog / metal (e.g. DT, Opeth)
cardio: punk (e.g. NOFX)
driving: jam or classic rock (e.g. Zep)

occasionally, there can be some crossover. for instance, right now i’m writing code with the help of some live Dead.

so i’ll ask again: what genre of music enhances your work?

tech topics on my mind : 4

August 11th, 2008

surviving the email onslaught
my inbox is far less crowded (with actionable items, specifically) than it was when i was doing full-time product management, but i still struggle to manage my inbox properly. there have been countless sites dedicated to management techniques (a great example), but i haven’t yet found one that works well for me. perhaps it’s a matter of discipline. i can tell you one thing, though — i don’t miss my blackberry. i thought i did at first, but after a few weeks of sweet freedom, i realized that the value added by constant access to email and the web was far outweighed by the crushing burden of having to deal with constant interruption.

ideally, i’d like to switch to a email management model where i say “i read/answer emails from 9am to 9:30am and 5pm to 6pm daily; if it’s more urgent, call or IM me.”

my favorite new take on email, courtesy of one of my favorite authors: bad correspondence. (thanks to Melissa Leffler for the link)

starting off, as so many web 2.0 addicts do, with Gmail, i slowly started to gather more and more web-based-applications, and now i have a core group that i use regularly:

  1. Gmail (personal)
  2. Gmail (work)
  3. Google Calendar
  4. Google Docs
  5. Google Groups
  6. Facebook
  7. LinkedIn
  8. Google Reader
  9. Remember The Milk
  10. Joes Goals

for a long time, i used Firefox’s tabbed interface to manage multiple applications at once. on the plus side, all of my webapps were in one convenient location. unfortunately, this also meant that one application could dominate/crash the browser (i’m looking at you, google docs). i also like to alt-tab through my list of applications. the one flaw that really sent me searching for a solution was how difficult it was to log into two Gmail accounts at one time. the ietab plugin worked well while i was in Windows (ietab uses a separate set of cookies), but i’m running Kubuntu full-time at work, so that option became less practical.

eventually, i found an under-hyped offering by Mozilla Labs: Prism. web 2.0 applications have removed the need for many of the typical “web” features — link bars, navigation buttons, etc — and have started to look more and more like desktop applications. the goal of Prism is to start bridging that gap, and to achieve that goal they have provided a “browserless” browser interface in which you can run your webapps. it’s ultra-fast, clean, and each Prism instance provides its own cookies/cache/etc. the only vestige of a web browser that remains is the status bar at the bottom, but that’s just a good idea, as you’d like to see where you’re heading when you click on that link.

pretty much everything you need to know to get going with Prism is in their wiki (and there’s not much to know). give it a try and let me know what you think.

i stumbled across this article on the habits of productive, creative people, and found it inspiring: 10 ways history’s finest kept focused at work. how are you spending your afternoons?

doing things is what i like to do

February 27th, 2008

over the years, i’ve tried many (many) different ways of keeping track of the things i need or want to do. personally, i’m a huge fan of the list, which can take many forms: paper, emails, tasks in Outlook, tasks on a Palm Pilot, etc. however, what usually ends up happening is that my brain manages to circumvent the current method of task tracking, forcing me to switch tactics. finally, i believe i have found a method that works consistently because it’s right in front of me most of the day — rather than using individual emails to track to-do items (those emails scroll away as new ones appear), i have a to-do list that sits right next to the emails.

my to-do list of choice is Remember the Milk. unlike other web-2.0-ish online to-do lists, they don’t require you to visit their site to check your list (though you can if you’d like). they have built a Firefox plug-in that modifies the layout of your Gmail page to insert a collapsible to-do list right next to your email. you can add, edit, and complete tasks right from the interface — pretty much anything you need to do — and it’s all very seamless. if you’re in the habit of starring important emails, you can even automatically generate tasks for them.

anyhow, give it a try. it’s certainly helping me (until my brain finds a way around it, anyhow).