Reset

I spent the last month more-or-less disconnected.

I’ve done this sort of thing before, but never for this long. It’s been a rare opportunity to take half a step back and think a bit about how I use technology, and consider some changes.

Disconnected in this context didn’t mean offline. I still had access to the internet. I still used the web to search, teach myself new things, book tickets and rent cars etc. I just made myself unavailable to inbound things that would take attention and went cold-turkey on some negative browsing habits.

Email

It took me about a week to stop the tide on new messages, before I could put an out-of-office notification in place without interrupting anything mid-conversation. That, by itself, was pretty depressing. I went back into my inbox a couple of times during the month, to get in touch with people I was arranging to meet and also one time when delayed at an airport and the temptation to use the downtime productively was too great. But, otherwise, ignoring email was probably the easiest change to make.

I discovered that the badges that show a count of unread messages on the app icon and dock had at some time been re-enabled on both my laptop and my phone (presumably as part of operating system upgrades?) and that was triggering me to automatically check whenever I used my computer or phone for other reasons.

After a few days I didn’t give my inbox much more thought.

I did return to a large backlog, which will take a while to trawl through. It highlights how much noise I normally filter out using Triage (although it’s even easier to do it in one click). It’s slightly surprising how many of the threads are still relevant a few weeks later, although does show how little is as urgent as I otherwise treat it.

I realise it’s a privileged thing to be able to just say “nope, not looking” for as long as I did. Those I work with were very patient, which I appreciate. Towards the end I started getting a few txt messages from them suggesting I take a look at something urgent, but by then I wasn’t able to do much either way.

I really don’t enjoy the deteriorating relationship I have with my inbox. The anxiety it generates seems completely unnecessary. It got even worse in the second half of last year. After this clean break I’m keen to be much more strict about where and when I check for new messages and try and better batch my responses.

News

It’s a few years since we cancelled our newspaper subscriptions and stopped watching television news. Since then I’ve relied on online news sites. But, especially with Stuff and NZ Herald, I’m no longer convinced that I’m a customer of these services, rather than the product being sold by them to advertisers, and have found the signal-to-noise ratio to be getting lower and lower (with the exception of the celebrity gossip, of course). All it takes to lose confidence in the quality of what you’re reading is one story on a topic you know a lot about. You can extrapolate from there.

I need to be careful here since I’ve been warned by somebody whose opinion I respect (and normally follow) that the way I talk about this is boring. I’m not being superior. But, honestly, it was a relief to stop reading these sites, literally, first thing every morning. It’s hard to see myself re-establishing that habit.

I switched to using the Radio NZ Timeline to quickly scan the headlines, and went looking for more details on the rare occasion when that was warranted (e.g. following the Charlie Hebdo bombings) but otherwise don’t feel I missed anything.

No news is still good news.

Social Media

Lastly, I stopped using Twitter. This was hard. I knew I was a bit addicted, but didn’t realise quite how deep it ran. It didn’t help that I was doing cool things, and I constantly found myself wanting to broadcast the details.

I basically failed completely for the first week. I continued to reflexively check whenever using my phone or laptop, and, worse, when I was otherwise in the company of others. I aspire to be more Amish than that.

Even after I said goodbye and stopped tweeting I had classic withdrawal symptoms. I caught myself sending links to tweets I wanted to remember via email, rather than favouriting them, so that people wouldn’t be able to tell I was still secretly online.

I eventually got away, by deleting the account details from the apps, so I couldn’t easily check without having to login each time.

I discovered that there are basically three things I get from Twitter:

1. A place to brag.

It’s obviously important you know all about the great things that I’m doing and you are not (and vice versa), right? Otherwise how will we know who is winning?

Towards the end of the time away I dabbled with Facebook, as a substitute (the quantity of shameless bragging there is even greater than on Twitter, I found) but I just couldn’t get into it. It’s fun to share photos or videos and get comments or “likes” from people you haven’t seen in person for ages, but my problem is that the “friends” I have there are a slightly incomplete snapshot from about 2008, and I think I lack the enthusiasm at the moment to curate that list much better.

2. A place to talk shit.

It was a bit chilling to go back over a whole years worth of tweets and discover how many of them were just junk. Visiting the water cooler is fine, but somebody who spends all day there has no right to talk of being full.

I don’t think many of the just over 3000 people who follow me on Twitter will miss random tweeted song lyrics out of context, or silly arguments about incubators and accelerators, and I’ll find something much more useful and interesting to do with that time.

3. A source of interesting links.

I really missed this. As a result I started using Nuzzel, which aggregates links based on things tweeted by the people you follow, and found that in some ways even better than the real thing. I think this is going to fundamentally change the way I use “follows” on Twitter – in the past I’ve limited myself to 100 people, and generally had a bias for those I know in real life (i.e. Q: “would I stop on the street to talk to this person?”) but now I think I’m going to change that to preference those that share the most interesting things and people I aspire to maybe meet one day.

Next?

I have no idea how well these changes are going to stick.

As Andy Lark pointed out in his first post for the year:

“One of the downsides of working in tech isn’t just that you are surrounded by seriously distracted people, but you become one over time”

That’s dark. But accurate.

Maybe publishing about this reset makes me slightly less so?

Either way, if you can convince yourself to try it, I throughly recommend some disconnected time.

4 thoughts on “Reset”

  1. Thanks for this. Pretty much the post I’ve had bouncing around my head since before Christmas, but not formulated enough to write down. Nuzzel looks interesting, and like you, I think that might solve my twitter “addiction”.

    I unfollowed all but a few people on Facebook recently, and it’s a much nicer place for it. now only follow (ie, shows up in my feed) a few people who are travelling (turn on/off when they leave/get back) and a few others who post stuff I need to know about (where the weekend’s bootcamp session is for eg). Defn worth doing for people who otherwise want to stay on facebook, but…. not be on facebook.

  2. Thanks Rowan. I went through a very similar process over the summer—I actually deleted the Twitter and Tweetbot apps off my phone. It was refreshing.

    But I probably could have been a bit stauncher about checking the news and I definitely could have waited another week before getting back into the emails.

    What did we do with ourselves before we had these devices? What did we do in our mornings and evenings—and our spare moments between other things?

    I recall one of the speakers sharing some wisdom at Webstock a few years ago. The gist is basically that we need to realise we are really only seeing (let alone absorbing) a tiny (tiny!) fraction of the information that is out there.

    Once we realise we’re missing most of it, no matter what we do, perhaps we can relax a little.

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