Pull the Plug on Tech Distractions
I've got mail! And my best friend is instant messaging me. Wait, I have to look up the weather in Miami before I pay my bills because maybe I'll go there on an Internet fare special. Is that the phone? Or the cellphone? Look, I have a message! Now if only I could remember my password.
OK, so maybe the electronic stuff of daily life isn't that helpful after all. As the organization expert David Allen, author of the classic Getting Things Done , points out, technology "has sped up our need to refocus, recalibrate, and reprioritize rapidly and not lose lots of details in the process." In other words, it's giving us attention deficit disorder! And the solution? Have you heard the term "life hacking"? That's the newest techno jargon, and it means coming up with ways to reclaim your time.
Ironically--and yet aptly--some of the best advice for cutting through digital clutter comes from self-described "geeks." You know, the folks who got us in this mess in the first place. Many of them have set up websites to disseminate their wisdom. For example, 39-year-old online marketing expert Adam Boettiger dispenses advice about time management on his website: "Digital Ocean Online: Managing Life in a Digital World." Like a tech-savvy Andy Rooney, Boettiger grumbles about the realities of modern life ("Whatever happened to the days when we could just focus on a handful of things during the day, not get interrupted, and actually get stuff done?"). But he goes on to offer concrete tips: "You'd be surprised at how much more you can accomplish when you're aware of how much time is passing or when you structure your tasks." He recommends using a software program that acts like an on-screen stopwatch to count down 15-minute increments. Because time is so precious, he even tells how long it takes to read his articles. "The Grinch Who Stole Time" is an estimated "4 minutes, 7 seconds (5 minutes if you're running on decaf)."
"If you're a computer user, your biggest problem is endless, endless distractions," explains Danny O'Brien, the 36-year-old "father" of the online self-help movement and a self-effacing Brit who describes himself as one of the most disorganized people you'll ever meet. "With the Web, you can click on one link after another. Rather than finding the correct spelling of 'capitalization,' you end up editing an article about Serbo-Croatian on Wikipedia, and it's 3 hours later."
Admiring the productivity of certain technical people he knew--"overprolific alpha geeks" as he calls them--O'Brien set about studying their secrets. In February 2004, he summed up his research in "Life Hacks," a presentation at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, an influential computer industry summit. O'Brien allowed himself to be interrupted from his job as an activism coordinator at the Electronic Frontier Foundation long enough to share his favorite strategies:
Check E-mail hourly. "There's almost no E-mail that must be answered within 5 minutes."
Track time. To stay on track while looking things up online, O'Brien wrote "Webelodeon," a program that "bugs you every few minutes to ask whether you should really still be surfing the Web." Although it requires special software and some setup, easier-to-use timers are available (box).
Use simple apps . Instead of investing time and money in an elaborate personal organizational system, keep contact info for your clan in a single word processing file.
(Re)consider paper. Some of the best computer programmers keep stacks of index cards (known in techie circles as the hipster's PDA) for phone numbers and to figure out a program's structure.
Think little. Don't try to become a "superhero of organization." O'Brien tries to shave off a minute here, a minute there. And now that you've spent 3 minutes, 7 seconds reading this story, perhaps you, too, can start hacking your life--as long as you aren't tempted to turn the page.
DigitalOceanOnline.com 's Adam Boettiger recommends:
TikTokToDo (tiktoktodo.com). Onscreen kitchen timer for Windows.
Chimoo Timer (chimoosoft.com). For Apple Macintosh OS X.
Timer Applet (timerapplet.sourceforget.net) For Unix and Linux.
This story appears in the December 26, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.