by Mike Shea on 8 November 2010
Our attention is finite and thousands people are trying to take it from us. So why do we constantly seek out new ways to apply our attention to things that don't matter? Something in us makes us constantly seek out information even though there is far more than we can ever digest. We accept every friend invite. We load up our feed reader with every RSS feed we can find. We can't stand an unanswered ringing phone.
Accept the fact that you can't know it all. Step away from the ocean of information and pick out only the few little streams that actually make a positive difference in your life. Let the phone go to voice mail. Step away from Twitter and Facebook to go make something instead.
My phone rang the other day. It was late and even if it wasn't, I have a personal policy not to answer the phone unless I know who it is. But it rang and I stared at it anyway. Even now I wonder what that call was about. Was someone in need? Was an opportunity missed? I'll never know. And you know what? That's ok.
Why do corporate executives stand staring at a Fox news monitor that pushes nothing but the same tired political agendas it has for the past ten years? Is it really important that a bus overturned in Topeka? What are we looking for?
Why do we spend so much time surfing for news about gadgets that let us surf? Why do we spend so much time watching what the weather is like two countries away? What answer are we really seeking?
I'm a big-time Twitter addict. Worse, I'm a Twitter addict that has Getting Things Done now completely wired into my brain. That means I can't just dip into a stream, I have to process it. I have to take in every Tweet that flows by and examine it for anything actionable. I'm the worst sort of dysfunctional Twitter user. While many Twitter users can follow 300 people and just dip into the well once in a while, I have to keep the number of people I follow small enough that I can read every tweet that rolls by. This is a terrible way to use it but one from which I can't seem to break away.
What do I think I'll miss? Why not just dip in and see what's going on once a day, maybe take a look at mentions and move on?
Instead of selectively reading tweets that go by, I'm selective of the people I follow. I follow and unfollow people all the time. If someone posts too many tweets or any number of tweets that aren't relevant to my interests, out they go. They could be the nicest kindest person walking on the planet but I don't care unless their tweets are useful and careful.
Even with these draconian selfish rules in place, I still have to spend about an hour to two hours a day surfing through tweets. Would I be writing the great American novel in that time were I off of it? Probably not, but that doesn't mean it's where my attention should stay.
Maybe one day I will be strong like Neal Stephenson, but it is not this day.
Following the sage-like teachings of the Heath brothers, what can we do to help us break our addiction to useless information? First, we accept that we know and understand the problem. If you don't, consider actually calculating how much time you spend surfing instead of making things.
Next we can take some small steps. Start by removing three feeds from your RSS reader. Unfollow five people you see regularly pop up on Twitter. Hide the status updates from three people who post updates that you don't really care about or are leeching off of your emotions. Let your phone go to voice mail. Shut off the CNN monitor near your desk. Close your browser for two hours each day. Disconnect from the net. Walk the dog without your stupid iPhone pumping podcasts into your brain. Any of these get you in the right direction.
Now we can alter our environment to avoid the constant influx of useless information. Delete your Twitter client. Delete bookmarks to general news sites. Make it hard to open your browser or connect your computer to the net. Avoid any source of information that doesn't make you happy or teach you something you actually value in your life.
In case you haven't figured it out, this isn't preaching from a pulpit, no matter how it sounds. This is self scouring. I suck at all of the things above. I'm a twitter addict. I seek out vacation spots with high-speed internet access. I live on Gmail and Google Reader and podcasts. Yes, I've done a good job eliminating sources of negativity from my incoming news. Yes, I deleted my Facebook account. I still have a long way to go, though, and this long rant is my attempt to get there.