focus: limiting the stream

‘Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.’ ~Henry David Thoreau

The stream of news, information, and messages we get these days is enough to drown us. It’s staggering in its volume.

It’s a wonder anyone can find any focus with an information stream like that.

The Stream of Distractions

The more connected a person becomes on the Internet, the more distractions they face in their day. Just a couple decades ago, most people’s distractions consisted of the phone, the fax machine, incoming memos and paperwork, solitaire, and actual people in their offices.

These days, people who work online face much more than that:

  • email (perhaps the biggest problem for most people)
  • instant messaging
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • online forums
  • blogs
  • other social networks
  • news sites
  • phones & cell phones
  • text messages
  • Skype
  • podcasts
  • Google alerts
  • mobile device notifications (iPhone, Blackberry, etc.)
  • mobile apps
  • videos
  • online music
  • online shopping
  • Internet radio
  • paperwork
  • online games
  • solitaire
  • internet TV
  • ebooks

And more.

Why and How to Limit the Stream

With so many distractions, it’s impossible to truly focus on the important. We try to drink the stream, but it’s too voluminous and neverending to take in this way.

Some people think this is just a part of their work, or their lives, and that there’s nothing wrong with being connected. It’s a part of doing business, they say.

However, there’s no one way to do business, and this book is about finding a better way. A saner way. I’m just one example of many people who have managed to do business online, have managed to stay connected, but who are able to limit the stream and make conscious decisions about how to be connected and how much information we consume.

We do it consciously, with intent. Social networks, blogs and news sites you read, different ways to communicate and consume information … these tend to build up as you spend time online. You build them up without much thought, but you end up being consumed by what you consume.

I suggest becoming more conscious of this, and choosing what you consume and how much you communicate carefully. Limit your stream to only the most essential information and communications, and you’ll free up hours of time for creating and doing amazing things.

I also suggest starting from scratch. Assume that nothing is sacred, empty your plate, and only put back on it what you absolutely need or love. Let the rest fade away.

Make an Important Admission

It’s crucial that you admit to yourself: you can’t read and consume everything. You can’t do everything, respond to everything. Not only would the attempt take up all of your waking hours, but you’d fail. There’s too much out there to read, too many people to potentially connect with and respond to, too many possible projects and tasks to actually complete.

It’s impossible. Once you admit this, the next logical argument is that if you can’t do and read and respond to everything, you must choose what you’ll do and read and respond to, and let the rest go.

Let the rest go. This is unbelievably important. You have to accept this, and be OK with it.

An Information Cleanse

If you look at information and communication as a form of mild (or sometimes not-so-mild) addiction, it can be healthy to force yourself to take a break from it.

Go on a mini-cleanse. Start with something that’s not so scary: perhaps a day, or even half a day. Do this once a week. Later, as you get used to this, try a 2-3 day cleanse, and maybe even work your way up to a week.

Here’s how to do the cleanse:

  • Don’t check email or other types of digital inboxes.
  • Don’t log into Twitter, Facebook, or other social networks or forums.
  • Don’t read news, blogs, subscriptions.
  • Don’t check your favorite websites for updates.
  • Don’t watch TV.
  • Don’t use instant messaging of any kind.
  • Do use phones for as little time as possible, only for essential calls.
  • Do send an email if necessary, but try to avoid it, and don’t check your inbox if you do.
  • Do use the Internet for absolutely necessary research. Be vigorous about this rule.
  • Do spend your time creating, working on important projects, getting outside, communicating with people in person, collaborating, exercising.
  • Do read: books, long-form articles or essays you’ve been wanting to read but haven’t had the time for.
  • Do watch informative or thought-provoking films, but not mindless popular movies.

You could make a personalized list of your dos and don’ts, but you get the general idea. Again, start with half a day or a day — something manageable. Do it once a week, and gradually expand the time you spend on the cleanse.

Reducing the Stream

If you’ve done the cleanse, you now know the value of disconnecting, and you know that you can live without having to check your streams of information and messages all day, every day.

You’ve cleaned your plate. Now it’s time to figure out what to add back on it.

Give it some thought: what are the most essential ways you communicate? Email? Skype? Twitter? Cell phone? IM?

What are the most essential information streams you consume? What blogs? What news? What other reading or watching or listening?

What can you cut out? Can you cut half of the things you read and watch? More?

Try eliminating at least one thing each day: a blog you read, an email newsletter you receive, a communication channel you don’t need anymore, a news site you check often. Take them out of your email or feed inbox, or block them using one of the blocking tools mentioned in the “Focus Tools” chapter.

Slowly reduce your stream, leaving only the essentials.

Using the Stream Wisely

Just as importantly, reduce the time you spend using the essentials. If email is essential, do you need to be notified of every new email right this second? Do you need to be in your inbox all day long?

Place limits on the time you spend reading and communicating — a small limit for each channel. Only check email for 30 minutes, twice a day, for example (or whatever limits work for you). Only read the limited number of blogs you subscribe to for 30 minutes a day. Only watch an hour of TV a day (for example).

Write these limits down, and add them up for a grand total of what you plan to spend on reading, consuming, communicating. Is this an ideal amount, given the amount of time you have available to you each day? The smaller the overall limit, the better.

Next chapter: you don’t need to respond