I’m trying an experiment this week. I’m turning off all non-essential alerts in my life. I want to see just how much time and focus I free up when the steady stream of urgent attention-grabbers gets suspended for seven days. My theory is that I, and perhaps many others, unknowingly hand over precious personal power to our computers and mobile devices in the name of productivity and efficiency. Or at the very least, we’ve set ourselves up to be interrupted with information that certainly could have waited. Productivity is as much about knowing when to digest info as it is about how to get it. And there was definitely a moment where the information network I created to serve me started showing signs of mutiny. That shift of control from us to our reminders occurs so quietly and innocently that we don’t even know it’s happening.
Monday, October 13, 2008
Like most folks in the tech industry, I’ve got an army of notifications, alerts and RSS feeds set up to make sure nothing happens in my orbiting universe without me knowing about it. They come from Google, Filtrbox, iCal, my blog, Linked-In, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, my political party’s campaign, Blockbuster, and a host of favorite bands. United Airlines lets me know when fares to Mexico drop and Mint.com scolds me the moment I go over my entertainment budget.
So how do you know when you have become a slave to your own information network? I say it’s the point at which the urgency to read something is disproportionate to its relevance to the task at hand. Yes, there are lots of things we’d like to stay informed about but its arrogant to think that we have to be the first to hear about everything and then be the first to pass it along. I knew something was awry when the news that Sarah Palin couldn’t name any publications she reads came barreling through my network with such aggressiveness it almost knocked down the notice that a strategic social network platform just opened its API to developers. And not only did the Palin news arrive with such grandeur, it was escorted past my “importance filter” by a motorcade of well-meaning friends and colleagues with back-stage passes to the room where my brain hands out attention.
Want another litmus test for gauging how distracting digital info might be in your life? Ask your kids. Ask your spouse. Ask your friends. If you’re really brave, ask your boss. They’ll be honest. You might be surprised to find how reluctantly they’ve resigned themselves to sharing you with your cell phone or laptop. It’s like having People Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and a parade of friends all following you around shouting headlines into your ear. The Law of Diminishing Returns rapidly takes over. Getting fifty alerts is not fifty times more valuable than getting one.
I’ve been a marketer my entire career and turning “want” into “need” and “someday” into “now” is what I do for a living. You’d think that I’d have some radar for seeing when the HAL-like information system I created started taking over the ship and bossing me around. But I didn’t see it coming. I was gleefully going about my business, so proud of my digital savvy-ness. Thankfully, the most powerful notification mechanism I’ve got, common sense, kicked in right when I needed it the most. I’ve stopped all tweets (and tracking) from forwarding to my iPhone and set up a separate gmail account for all non-essential alerts that I check once a day. I’m down to one integrated IM (Adium) and lord knows I don’t need meeting reminders sent to me three different ways. I can already sense the hounds of distraction are retreating but its still not enough. All I’ve done is reduce the volume of traffic demanding my attention when what I really want is for the information to be filtered, sorted and delivered according to what is most important in my life. I want to be able to fill the pipeline with all possible channels of relevant info and let technology sort it for me and feed me what is most valuable at the time. I do want to get tweets about Tina Fey’s latest Palin bit, I just don’t want it to be louder than the announcement that my competitor just got funding. And a text from my son at school should come in above that.
The access to control in the information age is fantastic but we are not yet masters of our domain if it requires more personal availability instead of less. So for now, I’m giving my hard-working alert system the week off and seeing which ones I can do without. How do you reign in the distraction of information overload?