Taking the red pill
August 6, 2009 1:20 PM   Subscribe

I'm finding out that years of obsessive RSS reading, Twittering and 24-hour news broadcast watching have turned me into someone with a very low attention span when it comes to other, long-form media (movies and books). I'd like to divorce myself, to a degree, from the world of instantaneous news and commentary - partly to relax a little, and partly to devote more time to reading literature, philosophy, religious books, etc. Problem: my career is in political social media strategy.

So basically, I read upwards of 130 RSS feeds - mostly political/policy oriented, from the progressive and libertarian parts of the spectrum, with a good bit of technology, straight news and aggregator/curators thrown in. My twitter feed is similar. My breadth of reading is enjoyable for me and has been an incredible asset to my career. When things bubble up on the internet, I'm usually the first on my team to know, and regardless of whether those things are related to our clients, its important to keep abreast of things because priorities and focus areas change rapidly in my business. And obviously, the mechanics of doing my job (web technologies) change all the time, with big implications for my clients and our ongoing strategies.

That said, I don't envision doing this for the rest of my career. Even if I decide to stay in the media consulting world, I'll ultimately (and may soon) be responsible for more high-level things than monitoring blogs - there will be plenty of people like me, fresh out of college, for that sort of thing. On the other hand, knowledge of "big things" is undoubtedly an asset for someone doing higher-level things in this field, and it's something I feel I lack.

So if you've decided to spend less time with the internet, how did you do it without unplugging so much that you became less informed? I'm open to any and all suggestions.
posted by downing street memo to Work & Money (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You're clearly oriented towards efficiency already, but of the three broad categories you mention, the broadcast news seems least efficient to me. Eyeballing is faster and more self-directed than listening to people talk, no matter how concise the stories / chunks of talking are. Are there Twitter accounts or RSS feeds that duplicate at least the breaking-news content of the networks you pay attention to?
posted by kalapierson at 1:27 PM on August 6, 2009

(To be more clear about the 'self-directed' aspect, I think broadcasts steal not only disproportionate time [in terms of reduced efficiency] but also disproportionate focus [because they require your attention on their terms, at their pace].)
posted by kalapierson at 1:29 PM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: I don't generally rely on broadcast news for actual knowledge - it's the meta level of "how is this being covered" that is of particular interest. I actually don't spend much time watching TV at all - just another example of the immediate over the long-term, I guess.
posted by downing street memo at 1:29 PM on August 6, 2009

Wow! I am in the same boat as you, except on the financial PR side. One thing I have done that has been given me a lot of relief is to unplug on the weekends. I literally do not use the internet from when I leave work on Friday until when I come in on Monday. The weekend is when I spend time reading books, longer form magazines, and unrelated stuff to work like the Arts section of the FT. This may not be possible for you as more things tend to happen in politics on the weekend than they do in finance, but perhaps you can take baby steps, even just blocking off certain chunks of space where you unplug. Good luck!
posted by the foreground at 1:39 PM on August 6, 2009

Forgot to add, you should check out "The Black Swan" by Nicholas Nassim Taleb who recommends exactly the course of action you want to take as you look to progress. Stop focusing on the "noise" (like reading newspapers and blogs) and instead focus on reading more books, where the real ideas come from.
posted by the foreground at 1:45 PM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Since we're both short of both time and attention, I'll keep it quick.
  • About six months ago, I pulled many of my RSS feeds off of Google Reader and put their URLs in a static HTML file, as links. At any point I have 5 minutes to spare, I can open up the HTML file, click on a link or two, and catch up on what that blog / site has been posting. The benefit is that I can check in with them on my time and not on their posting schedule.
  • I took my Twitter client off my computer, making it harder to check in there.
  • I blocked a number of domains from my computer (facebook, youtube, etc.), meaning I'm effectively cut off from them. I'm working on a web app that would offer more granular controls, to help you manage your attention, but I'll hold off from linking to it here. If you're really interested in that idea, the address is in my profile. In the meantime, there are a few other options available. macfreedom.com is probably the best-known Mac app; Leechblock is probably the best-known Firefox extension. I'm not trying to pimp it here, but I do think the project I'm working on would be useful to you, once we launch.
  • I've started taking "digital fasts," where I don't use my computer on Sundays, with the goals being 1. more time spent with my family; 2. more time spent puttering around the house, working on projects that I'd normally put off; 3. intentional disengagement from the digital world. I haven't been 100% off, but my time on the computer / online has been much reduced, and I really value the things that "time off" has allowed me to do.
Here's the key thing about all of that: the important stuff bubbles up to the top. You'll hear about it. You'll miss out on some stuff, surely. But, in general, there's little that you need to know that only crosses your consciousness stream once. Usually — if it's something that will directly affect your business, your perspective on the world, or your friends' perspective that you're the "go-to guy" (or girl?) for all things digital and current — you'll still hear about it before most of the people in your circles.

That didn't end up being as quick as I intended. Hopefully something in there was helpful, though. Not trying to add to the noise.
posted by Alt F4 at 1:55 PM on August 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't have this problem to the same degree as you, but I have made a conscious effort to free up time for more reading of books, which is what I want to be doing. I do this by:

1. Being okay with clicking the 'mark all as read' button for my RSS feeds, and marking certain articles to be read in full later, while skimming the headlines of other posts.

2. No longer taking the laptop to bed.

3. Turning off the laptop/TV several hours before I want to sleep and reading for an hour or two- more of a 'no screen' time.

4. Asking my friends what books they are reading, and telling them about what I'm reading. Letting someone else know you're trying to read more and that they should ask you about books and your thoughts on them will give you more motivation, and hopefully lead to other book suggestions.

5. Keeping a record of what books you read, whether it's a list for the year, or by month. This way you'll be able to tell that you actually are reading more.

6. Remembering what Alt F4 says: there's never going to be only one post about something really important.

7. Be really conscious of the moments when you've finished going through your feeds and you're just messing around- and make yourself log off then and deliberately go do something else.
posted by questionsandanchors at 4:44 PM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love the idea of "digital fasts" on Sundays (or whatever day(s) of the week work best) as Alt F4 suggested. I'm going to adopt it.
posted by aniola at 11:29 PM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

downing street memo: My breadth of reading is enjoyable for me and has been an incredible asset to my career. When things bubble up on the internet, I'm usually the first on my team to know, and regardless of whether those things are related to our clients, its important to keep abreast of things because priorities and focus areas change rapidly in my business. And obviously, the mechanics of doing my job (web technologies) change all the time, with big implications for my clients and our ongoing strategies.

I have a hard time understanding what you're really getting at here—maybe I'm just too ‘old-media,’ but several of your terms don't make sense to me. In fact, I hate to say this, but I've reread your question four times now, and I really have absolutely no idea what it is you do. It sounds distinctly like marketing or PR or something, but the words you use are foreign enough to me (even though I've known people in those fields) that I can't really tell what you're describing. I wouldn't mention this if I didn't think it had something to do with the problem you're talking about.

I studied Political Science in graduate school, but—‘political social media strategy’?

Anyhow, I can't be exact or precise, given that I don't know what career you're in, but I can nearly guarantee that your ability to be a responsive and knowledgeable employee will not decrease as a result of a cutting-back of your constant media input. Even in fields like PR, marketing, and social media, my experience is that people constantly overestimate the positive effect that being ‘plugged in’ has on their lives. I think you may have an inkling of this, else you may not have posted the question: if you feel as though you've lost some of your ability to maintain focus, then you can surely see a certain effect that's had on your short-term ability to evaluate situations and solve problems, right?

But even beyond the positive impact I think it'll have on your career, I want to urge you to think somewhat selfishly about your own thought processes and how much they mean to you. The world today is a seething mass of humming, buzzing wires which transfer loads of so-called ‘information’ but no knowledge whatsoever—that's the nature of the beast. It is best described in the phrase of Shakespeare's from Macbeth:
……a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Think about this: there are a number of books, records, and films that mean the world to me that have never even been mentioned on the internet. I don't doubt some of them never will. Yet we constantly presume that everything is in here; it's only a conglomeration of information which we seem to think is necessary. It's very important to draw yourself out of your own time if you want to be able to see it for what it is and think straight.

In other words, even if it has a detrimental effect upon your work performance, I abjure you to have the rebelliousness and pride to step away from the onslaught of media and take some time with yourself. You may notice in my words the hint of experience; I've been addicted (it is indeed an addiction) to various media inputs over the years, and it always takes a noble selfishness and strength of will to step away. Here are some things that have helped me:

  • Set aside a 24-hour period once a week during which you will not look at the internet, watch television, watch a movie, or pay any attention whatsoever to any electronic device or media beyond reading a book and answering your phone. Really, doing just this one thing has improved my life immensely.

  • Take two half-hour walks every day: one in the morning, and one as the sun is setting. Leave your cell phone and every other electronic device at home. When you begin to wonder if you've gotten any email, or if there are any new posts to that blog you enjoy so much, or if there's a new twitter tweet about that thing that happened yesterday—that is, when you start to feel that nervous panic creep over you which feels as though you've suddenly been deprived of air or water—breathe deeply and walk slower. Nietzsche once said that you've never really thought about anything until you've thought about it while you're walking.

  • Choose your media more carefully. Cut the number of blogs you read regularly by 50%; ration the amount of time you spend with them to an hour every day. Get used to scrolling down your RSS feeds quickly and skimming, looking for similar topics and getting a general idea without entering blogs to post comments or read entire articles.

  • While you're cutting your new-media time down to something more manageable, choose more quality books and movies to watch. They can improve your viewing habits, open your mind, and make you a happier and more thoughtful person. Read books from more than 200 years ago. I recommend you read classics like Don Quijote and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. There are also better movies for you to watch; at the top of my list would be a few films by Andrei Tarkovsky: first and foremost The Sacrifice, a film about an old man with a young son facing the apocalypse. I mention Tarkovsky because his films move very slowly—this was a kind of honesty to him, letting the viewer spend five minutes looking at this backdrop or that setting, rather than flashing on it and moving on. If you get used to that, you will notice more, and the modern schizophrenic shiftiness will become more and more transparent to you.

  • Learning to play a musical instrument can work wonders on the mind and open you up in fantastic ways when you've become turned in on yourself by constant input.

  • Be constantly willing to entertain the notion that the billion buzzing brains of the internet are wrong, and that the solution lies rather in peace, stillness and contemplation.

  • posted by koeselitz at 12:49 AM on August 7, 2009 [4 favorites]

    Oh, and:

  • Consider taking a class in meditation.

  • posted by koeselitz at 12:54 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

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