Saturday, March 26, 2011

You Have a Disease. Here’s the Cure.

I have a disease. No, not life threatening, luckily; but one that does hinder my ability to be both productive and well-rounded. And you know what? It’s quite possible that you have it too. Disagree with me? Well sure you do, but admitting you have a problem is the first step!

It’s not like we’re content with monthly publications any longer.

The disease I’m referring to is one that I’ve spoken about numerous times in recent years: the “always on” effect. Particularly as web developers, we’re consumed by media and gadgets. You finish up a day of coding, and how do you prop up your feet to relax? Probably with a visit to Engadget to catch up on the “news.” But who’s to blame you? It’s not like we’re content with monthly publications any longer. Heck, we’re not even content with weekly, or even daily news! You — and by “you,” I mean “I” — probably check in on the site, or one of its siblings (Mashable, TechCrunch, etc.) twice a day. It’s admittedly a waste of time, yet we don’t stop.

At first, in the late nineties, all was well. How amazing that we have access to up-to-the-minute news at all times?
Sure, we had to dial in, and pray that the phone didn’t ring, but, even so, the accessibility of endless information was well worth the effort.
But then, this developing illness became a bit more extreme with the introduction of a new generation of smart phones with non-kill-the-person-sitting-next-to-you-while-waiting-for-the-page-to-load browsers! This introduced a whole new level of availability. Not content to access the web only via a wired desktop computer, we can now do so on the go (some taking the “on the go” idea a bit too far…think Tweeting while driving).

So what’s wrong with reading gadget sites twice a day? Well certainly there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing just that, but it’s rarely “just that.” In fact, it’s a symptom of a much bigger problem: information/media/gadget overload. Combine your daily workload with web browsing, social media and RSS feeds, and you get a lot of eye strain.

We all know that feeling; it’s the evening, and you find that, for the last twenty minutes or so, you’ve been mindlessly browsing the web, accomplishing absolutely nothing. During the course of that twenty minutes, it’s likely that you visited more than one site multiple times! Because hey, the refresh button could reveal all sorts of new information.

Buzz: Social Media

What’s a “viral” video?
I remember the day I was introduced to Facebook — way back in 2003. I think, at that point, the term “social media” had no meaning. Little did I know that, in a few short years, the term would not only exist, but also fuel thousands of jobs in the world, which required “experts” in the field. As I write this, I’m reminded of when I was twenty years old, and was asked by a marketing person at a publishing company if I knew what “viral marketing” meant. “What’s a viral video?” How funny.

Fast forward a few years, and Twitter is now the defacto communication standard for most web professionals, in particular. It’s the perfect medium for psuedo-water-cooler-chatter. But then, once again, something happened to many of us. It became a sort of addiction — at least in the lightest sense of the word. Whether you’ll admit it or not, it’s likely that you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you don’t, more power to you. Good job.

Take the Test

You’re officially a social media addict if you identity with any of the following actions.

  • Research: You not only have a desktop Twitter client, but you also researched all of the available options before making your choice. (I chose Echofon).
  • Industry Awareness: You were decidedly pissed when Twitter recently announced the changes to their terms and conditions, which limit the availability of third party applications.
  • Efficiency: Your Twitter client also incorporates other social media sites, like Facebook. If you’re going to waste time, you might as well be efficient at it!
  • Updates: You made at least one tweet about the recent Twitter redesign, and are familiar with some of the technologies used to create the site.
  • Options: You’ve installed more than one Twitter client on your mobile phone.
  • Brightness: You turn the brightness on your phone all the way down in movie theaters, because you fully anticipate checking your email at least once during the movie.
  • Always On: Your desktop Twitter client is, more or less, open all day.
  • Chirps: Between push notifications on your phone, and alerts on your desktop and laptop computers, you hear multiple chirps for every unimportant Twitter update.
  • Engagement: You’re reading this article, and have every intention of commenting with your thoughts!
  • TV: You enjoy the show, “Big Bang Theory.” This is the surest dead ringer for an internet addict. :)

Joking aside, if you’ve felt your leg buzzing in a movie theater, and couldn’t keep yourself from checking your phone, you probably have a problem — a first-world problem, nonetheless, but still a problem! So what’s the solution? Disavow all technology, email, and social media? Of course not. But I would argue that it’s time to implement some barriers. Over the last several months, I’ve begun doing just that.

1 — No Phone On Date Night

Rule number one. If you have a drinking problem, don’t drink. Equally true, if you have trouble ignoring push notifications, turn the phone off. My wife-in-training, Allie, and I have a weekly “date night” tradition. I’m sure you and your significant other have something similar. Under no circumstances should the phone be on during these designated hours.

Rule: Turn the phone off, and keep it out of sight for the entire evening. No exceptions — and trust me, you will try to make exceptions. Your spouse can help you with this.

2 — Close the Twitter Client

If you’re similar to myself, your social media app of choice tends to remain open through out the entire day. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you’re actively participating in the feed at all times; in fact, you’ve probably become quite skilled at ignoring the endless new message chirps. Yet, nonetheless, it’s a needless distraction. 
Rule: Twitter can be accessed three times a day only. Morning, lunch time, and before you finish up for the day. To some, this may still seem excessive. Why Use Twitter at all? The reason is because it absolutely serves a purpose in the web dev community, if used correctly. Other than these designated times, the app should be closed.

3 –A Full Day Off

Even though most have the weekend off, web developers still tend to work in some fashion on Saturday and Sunday. Some use the free time to work on side projects. Others may use it to catch up on industry news and developments. The reason is simple: we enjoy what we do, and like building stuff! But, this still falls under the information overload umbrella. If you’re not careful, you’ll burn out.

Rule: At the very least, you mustn’t touch the computer for an entire 24-hour period each weekend. No email. No status updates. No power.

4 –Designated RSS Time

It’s intimidating to see how much incredible (and free) content is released every single day. Is your RSS list massive? Probably so! If not, then you’re falling behind the rest of the wolf pack. By no means should you ignore this content, though. Instead, the key is to manage it effectively, and designate specific portions of the week to review the feed.

Rule: Use services like Instapaper or Read it Later to create reading lists. Then, choose 1-3 days each week to filter through all of the information.

5 – Seek Help

All of these “rules” are only effective if they’re followed; and I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s really, really hard. For example, during the process of writing this editorial, I’ve checked my email a few times, and refreshed my Twitter feed a couple as well. The amazing thing is that these sorts of mindless “refresh” button activities have a way of becoming less planned, and more instinctual. Before you even realize what you’re doing, you’ve somehow created a new tab and accessed Gmail.

To combat these tendencies, we can use a variety of desktop tools to limit certain applications/websites/etc. As a Mac user, I’m a big fan of Concentrate.

Rule: Use tools like Concentrate to “help you work and study more productively.”


Before I wrap this editorial in a bow, it’s important for me to note that I’m using the word “addiction” and “disease” in jest. While I’m willing to concede that I’ve wasted too much time in the past pressing the refresh button, that’s the extent of it. When I use these words, they’re meant to be interpreted in the lightest sense possible, and in a manner that’s applicable to most of us. I’m not referring to actual internet addiction, which is a very real thing.

If I can manage to follow these steps, I’ll be a happier person with more free time to spend outdoors, and with my family. And the best part? The phone will be off.

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