Remaining more present by controlling information overload

A while back, I was made well aware of my, shall we say, un-presence. I’d be physically present with my family, but distracted the point of absence. Usually, it was due to a device stealing my time from them. The phone in my pocket was becoming a time-and-attention thief.

A Facebook message. A Twitter reply. An email.

I am still not great at this — my kids would probably say I’m terrible — but I’ve come a long way and thought I’d share some of my tactics for helping reduce social media and email overload.

The point of this is to show how I use friction and delay to help keep myself from being pulled out of the present moment when it comes to notifications that would otherwise constantly distract me.

In short:

  1. Using web apps, not native apps
  2. Turning off most email notifications
  3. Rolling up the email notifications that remain

Using web apps, not native apps

Heresy: when I can, I use web apps instead of native mobile apps. This is first and foremost a matter of principle: I believe in the browser as a platform and the ability to produce rich, accessible applications in standard technologies such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. So, in support of this principle, I will opt to use a web application over a native device application unless the native application offers compelling features that I want.

And here’s a feature I don’t want: device notifications. If I get a Facebook comment or twitter mention, I don’t care to know about it right away.

By using web apps, I am forced to go to there rather than having that information pushed to me. In other words, I use that little bit of friction to my advantage.

Disabling notifications

For nearly all social media — Twitter, Facebook, etc — I disable most email notifications. Facebook PMs and likes and comments… nope. Twitter follows… nope. I force myself to go that information; I don’t want it pushing to me.

The combination of using web apps, and disabling notifications, means that I am often hours, if not days, behind on interactions on these platforms, by choice.

Rolling up the email notifications that remain

I still get a fair amount of non-personal (i.e. person-to-person) email — newsletters, LinkedIn, GitHub, meetups, etc.

To stop those from distracting me as soon as I receive them, I use a free service called Unroll.me to manage that email. This service watches my inbox, and when it detects something that looks automated, it asks whether I want to unsubscribe, roll it up into a daily email, or keep it in the inbox.

After almost a year of using this service, I’ve unsubscribed from a lot of things I don’t care about, and rolled up many disparate communications into a daily email. I cannot recommend this service highly enough. (Caveat: it has access to all your email.)

Conclusion

How we interact with the digital world is a highly personal affair. The choices I’ve described above — to ultimately favor the present moment vs interacting with people digitally at all hours of day and night except when I explicitly choose to do so — clearly come with tradeoffs. I am slower to respond to people. I am probably not servicing certain relationships as well as I should. When I do interact on those services, it’s slightly less convenient.

But the real-time web — powerful and important as it may be — can also be a bug and not a feature, especially when it comes to interactions that, perhaps, aren’t urgent. In these cases, I give myself permission not to participate in real time.

The way I think about it is that these choices help me to favor the people I am with, right here, right now. And I cannot do that effectively if there’s a constant trickle of requests for attention coming from across the ether.

 

 

 

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