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10 Ways to Stop Wasting Time Online

I’m fascinated by the sheer volume of information on the Web.

Many of us are at least partly familiar with the “Wikipedia effect” (captured succinctly below by xkcd’s Randall Munroe). You start off on one, well-intentioned search, and minutes (or is it hours? or is it days?) later you’ve found yourself reading up on something completely unrelated. It’s hard to say what causes such scattered thinking: part of it is interest, certainly, but there’s more to it than that.

There seems to be something intrinsic about the nature of Web-based information that allows for such a freeform approach to learning new things. Decades ago, when television allowed us to flip channels and potentially explore new (and unrelated) things, we remained hooked in to the whims of the channel operators. We might discover something new on the cooking channel, but it was dictated largely by whatever the cooking channel happened to have on. For those of us who grew up without cable– wow!– that cooking channel might not even exist.

Now, of course, things are radically different from the various forms of entertainment and knowledge accessibility our parents and grandparents enjoyed. Virtually all information online is put on equal footing (though it might be filtered and condensed by blogs and Google) and there are no barriers to discovering content that might previously have been hidden for nationalist, cultural, lawful or ideological reasons. This is an open ocean, and we rely far more on others to direct our attention.

Ahh. That’s the problem, isn’t it? As Nick Carr wrote in his (now-famous) column for the Atlantic, “Google is making us stupid“. But Gary Small, director of the Memory and Aging Center at UCLA, has found that “digital natives” — those who have grown up with technology and spend 9 or more hours per day online (that’s me!) are superior at complex reasoning and decisionmaking, as well as being able to quickly parse new information.

“The next generation, as (Charles) Darwin suggests, will adapt to this environment. Those who become really good at technology will have a survival advantage – they will have a higher level of economic success and their progeny will be better off.”

All this brainpower comes, naturally, at the expense of interpersonal skills– which take place in a slower, more ambiguous and more “intuitive” realm. As Generation Y 2.0 asks, “Will the future stars be capable of knowing when to respond by email or phone?”

One can make the point that perhaps these skills are not as relevant as they once were, due to the increasing demand for skilled work from remote locations, but it would be hard to deny that we are losing something by trying to attend to so many incoming datastreams. As a report in the UK’s Telegraph writes, “Internet use could improve brain function and speed up decision-making, but it comes at the expense of empathy and the ability to think in abstract terms.” There’s only so much we can handle. I was struck by a quote from Marc Garnaut, whom I just started reading:

I can feel my system straining at the edges though, and I’m intensely interested in what happens when the seams burst. Does our head expand and expand until it pops, splattering all over the cubicle walls? (via)

Let’s not blame Google for our inability to focus, folks: we’ve forced this on ourselves by trying to take in more information than we can possibly digest. We need those filters, and we need to balance our rapidly-shrinking attention spans with the processing of timely and relevant information. While Small’s “digital natives” are clearly more adept at doing so than their parents, the volume of information–the noise crowding around the signal– will only increase. We, on the other hand, are already operating at or relatively close to our capacity.

As a self-confessed “internet junkie”, this is a lot scarier to me than it probably is to you (though if you’re reading this, I count you among the unsaved). Despite all this, I’ve found ten valuable ways to cut down on unproductive time online, while retaining the benefits of access to such incredible volumes of information.

This is one of the longest posts I’ve written to date, so be warned.

1. Decide ahead of time which questions you want addressed.

Easier said than done. My favorite technique here is to keep a note near my desk (or on my Mac) that lists all the specific questions I intend to look up in the near future. By writing them down and crossing them off just like any other to-do list, I am reinforcing that these are one-shot deals. My instinct to continue investigating is calmed immensely by doing this.

2. Use “real-world” information and resources as much as possible.

This includes making phone calls instead of sending emails, asking people at work or school before turning your question to “the masses”, or–and I can’t believe I’m advocating this– turn to direct communication systems such as Facebook or Twitter and get in touch with people first, before trying to conduct your own online research. More things are done through one-on-one communication than through any online system. Even if you don’t get the information you wanted immediately, you have involved other human beings in your quest–which they will remember, and continue thinking about–and often, the results are far better. Don’t use the Web as an excuse to stay stuck in your head–often, the real solutions present themselves through other people. As I wrote in an article for my last internship, “no one has ever gotten hired by using their computer to talk to other computers.” If your information/request/idea/resume doesn’t end up eventually making its way to a person, it’s as though you never put the time in.

3. Get your “info-fix” from sources you already know, not “novelty” aggregators. You’ll never escape them.

An article in the Wall Street Journal details the neuroscience behind our “novelty-seeking” web browsing. “When you find new information, you get an opioid hit, and we are junkies for those. You might call us ‘infovores’”, says Dr. Irving Biederman. The article goes on to demonstrate the problem:

For most of human history, there was little chance of overdosing on information, because any one day in the Olduvai Gorge was a lot like any other. Today, though, we can find in the course of a few hours online more information than our ancient ancestors could in their whole lives … technology is playing a trick on us. We are programmed for scarcity and can’t dial back when something is abundant.

I maintain that the biggest waste of time online is stumbling onto some heavily-hyperlinked, content-rich, brand-new site that appeals to you. I’m not telling you to stop exploring, but you should know that these types of sites (wikipedia, oddee, flickr, arts & letters daily, et cetera) are about the worst thing you can do for any kind of productivity. Give yourself a time limit. Bookmark it and come back to it later. Do anything that will keep you moving away from the computer (put the kettle on for some tea!) As Tupac said, “resist the temptation.”

4. STOP READING ONLINE NEWS.

You’d be amazed at how little you actually need to know about what’s going on in the world. News that matters will travel fast, through all the other communications channels you already use– you don’t need to actively seek it. If your job requires you to keep up-to-date on all the most recent happenings, then check the news as infrequently as you can– no more than once a day, and ideally less than three times a week. Cutting back on television is the single smartest thing you can do with your time, but cutting back on online news is almost as good.

5. And if you must read news, use RSS.

RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, lets you get the “stories” you want beamed directly to you, rather than having to search them out. It’s very useful, especially in taming the deluge of information. However, there are issues with using RSS. As Slate’s Paul Boutin wrote,

If I don’t check in every few hours, my RSS reader fills with unread blog posts. Rather than feel relieved that I can catch up on my missed surfing, that long list of bold headlines gives me the sensation that I’m hopelessly behind and won’t ever catch up. I’ve got enough to do at home and at work that I don’t need Web surfing to seem like a chore.

The best solution is to use RSS only for news that you know you’ll be interested in reading as text. RSS rapidly forces you to consider everything as a task (like email), so save the fancy, beautiful webpages for real browsing sessions; you’ll enjoy them more that way.

6. If you have an obsession, stop reading news about it and buy books instead.

Stop mooning over the specs on Apple’s new laptop, Nikon’s new lens, or what-have-you. Stop reading “pro tips”. Stop reading what people think of the new gadget or gossip. If you’re interested in something–whether anthropology, fashion, design, or tea– buy some quality books and spend some quality time with them. It makes all the difference in the world. You’ll remember more, you’ll feel better about the time you’ve spent, and you’ll stay away from the timesink of online debate and discussion.

7. Use the absolute best online sources for the information you need, and ignore the others.

Trendwatching– way back in 2006– called it “Infolust“. We want the power that comes from knowing we found the best deal, that we’re insiders, that we’re players.

Experienced consumers are lusting after detailed information on where to get the best of the best, the cheapest of the cheapest, the first of the first, the healthiest of the healthiest, the coolest of the coolest, or on how to become the smartest of the smartest. Instant information gratification is upon us.

If you use online sources for your information– and who doesn’t? — it pays to use the absolute best, most relevant, and most restrictive.

In the interests of putting everyone on something of a level playing field (with regard to perceived coolness), I’ll mention a few of the areas I think this advice is particularly relevant for.

  • Airfare – use kayak.
  • Local food / restaurant reviews - use yelp. (US and UK)
  • Comparison shopping – I still use pricegrabber, though if there are better (more complete) offerings out there, I’d love to know about them!
  • Cool things to do in your town - for many US cities, there’s flavorpill. I don’t particularly like citysearch but it has far more content (some of dubious value). For San Francisco, there’s the fairly-awesome SFStation.
  • Online music – create your own radio station (and hear new recommendations) on pandora, then buy music on amazon mp3. DRM-free, high-quality, cheap music in standard formats make this the best deal around for (legally) acquiring your music. Some is even free! Sign up for their twitter deal feed for even more kick-ass bargains– especially on older or more popular stuff.
  • Personal Development / help and advice with life problemsSteve Pavlina’s blog is the best there is. No need to go anywhere else!– his articles are lengthy, complete, and thoughtful.
  • Direct answers to your questions – forget Yahoo Answers, it’s garbage. Try Ask Metafilter for virtually anything from help picking a moving company to “what’s that movie with the dog and the bear in Alaska?” You can only ask one question per week, but the answers are absolutely top-notch.
  • Knowing about something awesome your co-workers don’t – there’s always the cool hunter.

8. Avoid debates in comments whenever possible.

This rules out the majority of slashdot, etc. Comments are a timesink if ever there was one. Not only do you read an article, but you read what everyone else thinks about it — and then argue with them? There’s a profound difference between commenting on a lone blog post and getting into a flame war with some nut in Thailand. (No offense to Thais, of course!)

9. Find your “digital curators” and stick to them.

For every field, there are people dedicated to separating the wheat from the chaff. It’s an important job, more so all the time, and I hope to do this for the emerging fields of holistic psychology, integrative neuroscience, radical sustainability and organic technology.

A good way to start is by finding what others in your niche are reading, then seeing what they link to (it’s almost always of higher quality). People don’t link to things unless they like them, and usually that means liking them more than their own work (ooooh, I just gave away the blogger’s secret, didn’t I?) Only problem is, you may be bored if your digital curator doesn’t update frequently enough. If that happens, you know you’re addicted. Get some fresh air, get a good book about your niche, and realize that curators exist for a reason: to put good content in front of your eyes. If you’re not seeing any new content, that means that a) there might not be more good content, and b) there’s no reason to replace the careful curation with inferior, lesser-quality news in order to have something to do. Embrace your boredom. Do something positive!

10. Keep track of how much time you spend online and for what initial reasons.

Did you go online to check someone’s last name, but end up playing poker with six random people in Europe? Did the last six hours pass by in minutes? Keeping a simple log — even just noting the time you went online today — is a great reminder of the passage of time. Optionally, you can note your reason for doing something (”email”, “twitter”, “wikipedia on JFK”) and see how far from the target you stray over the course of a day or night. Doing this is probably the most mindful way to stay in control of your late-night browsing sessions, and has helped me the most of all.

I hope this has been useful in curbing unwanted web surfing. These suggestions have certainly helped me (even though 95% of what I do involves Web technologies), and I hope they work for you. I’d really appreciate it if you passed on these tips to others you think might find them beneficial– and if you have any other suggestions, feel free to leave a comment. Now get off the Web!

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