6 solutions to the sadness of social media

Is social media making us sad?

On the UK’s Channel 4 News website, Benjamin Cohen is concerned that social media is changing the nature of friendship, and has adjusted his use of social media in response:

I’ve stopped sharing as much, full stop….I’m not suggesting that everyone else should do the same, but I’m suggesting that quite a few people might, many have already. Mark Zuckerberg has always said the world would be a better place if it was more open. I’m suggesting that sometimes the world might be a better place if it was more private.

And on the Cunting Linguist, Steffani Cameron writes:

It’s funny, you know, how we kid ourselves about how much this online shit matters…There’s this delusion that the more followers you have, the more of a voice you have, or that you can be so much more yourself. The opposite is actually true….When people start actually reading your stuff, merely venting gets complicated.  I feel I’m less able to express myself on this blog now. I feel like I have to “watch” what I say. …Welcome to the digital paradox. You can be “yourself” to a bigger audience than ever before, but how true is it?

These two blog posts reflect a growing unease with social media, one that is most adeptly and thoroughly addressed in Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. Like Turkle, they suggest that the volume, frequency and tenor of online interaction are negatively affecting our human capacity for meaningful connection and relationship. It’s a concern I come across frequently, no doubt in large part because I go looking for it via Google searches on terms like “information overload”.

But you don’t have to dig deeply into the blogosphere to discover that lots of us are suffering over the impact of social media on our daily lives. Even those of us who are unwilling to follow Cohen in pulling back our level of online sharing may have reservations about the way that sharing plays out. We carry our smartphones everywhere, but resent the sound that indicates a new email has arrived. We celebrate the steady growth of our Twitter followers or blog traffic, then agonize when it stalls or declines. We love the ability to access the Internet anytime or anywhere, but feel insulted if the person we’re with decides to go online instead of looking us in the eye.

These are the pains of transition, but a transition to what? The transition to a world in which we accept and even embrace the 24/7 distraction and overexposure of social media as the price of at-our-fingertips information and expression? Or to a world in which we succeed in containing our time online, and setting some limits on where, when and what we share through social media?

For those who would limit the corrosive effects of social media and perpetual connectivity, solutions seem to come in 6 flavours:

  1. Policies: Families, organizations or even governments could limit the amount of time we spend online. Families could set screen time limits; businesses could (and frequently do) block employees from using Facebook or YouTube. Governments could use privacy laws to protect citizens from their own rampant oversharing, or enact labor laws that insulate workers from the pressure to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  2. Markets: Global recession, skyrocketing energy prices or the erosion of net neutrality could increase the costs of connectivity to the point at which people actually reduce usage. Conversely, an economic boom could produce a generation of affluence in which high-skill workers feel no anxiety about their economic prospects, and thus, no pressure to work online after hours.
  3. Technologies: Cell phone jammers could (and occasionally do) prevent individuals from using their phones in restaurants or other “inappropriate” public places. Timers could shut computers or Internet connections during designated hours. Better search and discovery tools could allow people to become more focused and productive in their time online, and reduce the amount of time they spend using the Internet.
  4. Services: Individuals could scan or scrub their online profiles with the help of Internet consultants, perhaps even going so far as to rename themselves to escape their online pasts. Constant Internet use or information overload could be treated with psychological counselling or a 12-step program that returns screen time to socially accepted levels.
  5. Norms: Widespread discomfort with social media and 24/7 Internet use could lead to social sanctions that inhibit public texting, computing or even phone use. Someone who takes out their computer at a coffee shop might suffer withering glares, or even be asked to leave. People who answer email after 6 pm will become social pariahs. Families who let their kids use the Internet will be regarded with the same contempt as those who feed their children a steady diet of sugar and Doritos.
  6. Choices: Individuals will realize that they are happier, more authentic and fulfilled in their offline lives, and reduce the amount of time they spend using social media.

If you think all of these scenarios sound far-fetched — or at least, unlikely to put a serious dent in our levels of Internet use — I’m with you. Pandora’s Big Box of Social Media is well and truly open, and we’re discovering a whole new repertoire of ailments the Ancient Greeks never imagined.

But don’t despair. Accepting the misery of 24/7 distraction isn’t the only alternative to limiting the growth of our time online. The transition to an always-on world may be unstoppable, but it’s a transition we’ve barely started: why assume it’s the transition to a dystopic future? We’ve only just begun experimenting with the policies, markets, technologies, services, norms and choices that focus not on stemming the transition, but harnessing it to the creation of a better world and happier lives. And most of us have lived far too long in the pre-Internet world to move immediately and fluidly into this new on/offline hybrid; we need time to adjust, to reinvent ourselves, and to let the population shift in favour of those who grew up online.

As we evolve into a society of digital natives and fluent digital immigrants, the suffering of social media will ease. We’ll become less painfully aware of its shortcomings, and more appreciative of its delights. And eventually, we’ll stop agonizing over the pain of life online, and recognize it simply as the pain of life.

11 best practices for managing your social network memberships

Between the WordPress.com hack, the Honda Canada hack and the Playstation hack, I feel like my favorite online identities have been seriously compromised. Nor am I the only one: the recent attack on PBS servers has also created potential identity risks for PBS employees.

So these seemed like a good time to revisit the advice I provided last year on how to manage your social network memberships — a key component of tackling information overload. I’ve added a note recommending the use of keychain managers like 1Password

I just got off the phone with Betsy Karetnick of Martha Stewart Living Radio, talking about how people can get the most out of social networking. We covered a lot of ground, beginning with one key point: You’ll get the most out of your time online if you are really clear about what you hope to accomplish.

From there we covered a range of practices that can help people stay on top of social media, from social media monitoring with iGoogle to e-mail triage with Gmail filters. Along the way, we covered a bunch of simple practices for staying safe online while getting the most out of your online experience. I’ve rounded up some of the key points we covered, along with a few bonus ideas for managing your social network presences.

  1. Using the same username on every site — or maybe 2, one for personal profiles & one for professional profiles — makes it a lot easier to remember how to login, and to build relationships across sites. Remember that just because you use a different username doesn’t mean you’re anonymous: your boss at Best Buy may still figure out that you’re IHateBestBuy21@yahoo.com.
  2. Be clear about what you are “about” and keep that identity consistent across all sites that you are using for professional purposes.
  3. Keep one “master” contact list on a service like Gmail (best) or Yahoo so that you can find your friends on other networks you join.
  4. Keep separate, high-security passwords for 3 types of accounts: your banking info, your web server (if you have one) and your email.
  5. Don’t use a password based on any guessable information, or based on anything you’d blog about like your birthday or your dog’s name. Twitter had its inside information exposed because someone got access to an employee’s Gmail account by guessing her password in just this way. UPDATE: Avoid the temptation to use the same password on multiple sites by using a password keychain like 1Password.
  6. Don’t friend anyone who asks.
  7. Create different lists of friends on Facebook and Twitter for different purposes, and share different amounts and kinds of information with different people.
  8. Don’t bother un-joining sites. If anything, join ASAP to get your preferred username.
  9. Don’t share any photos or identifying info about your kids (names, school, after-school classes) unless you really have a high level of knowledge about what you are doing online.
  10. Don’t share info about your travel plans if your house is empty.
  11. Don’t let fear keep you from enjoying social networks.

You can find additional tips on coping with social media here, and I hope to share more at SXSW 2011. Please take a moment to vote for my proposal, Sane + Social.

Originally published August 23, 2010.

1972: ELIZA, IANA and the search for (in)finite attention online

You could say that my marriage began with a Palm Pilot. You might remember the second-generation Palm device, best known for its handwriting-based interface. (Ooh! Aah!) I got mine in 1997, at a time when a pocket-sized digital calendar, address book and notetaker still seemed like something worth showing off. And show it off I did, most often by demonstrating ELIZA, a program that turned the Palm into a quasi-therapist. Give ELIZA a dilemma (“I can’t decide whether to finish grad school”) and ELIZA replied with a non-committal prompt (“Have you tried?”) aimed at continuing the conversation.

So ELIZA was what I used to demonstrate my Palm over a coffee with my ex-boyfriend, S., and my now-husband, Rob. That may sound like a strange kind of get-together, but at the time I was dating someone else altogether, and Rob and S. were both in the friend zone. Nonetheless I was instantly embarrassed when ELIZA popped open to the saved transcript of my most recent session, beginning with “My boyfriend is driving me crazy.”

S. might have been over me by then, but he still had a great laugh over this evidence that the “next guy” (as he called my then-boyfriend) was a less than successful match. But that moment proved even more serendipitous for me and Rob: Rob tells me it’s when he first had hope that he could successfully woo me, and 13 years later, I’m sure glad he did.

I was far from being ELIZA’s first patient. First created in 1966, ELIZA met her match in 1972, when she “treated” a fellow program, a paranoid schizophrenic personality named PARRY. Their most famous conversation took place at the first International Computer Communications Conference, an event specifically designed to introduce the ARPANET to the general public. The wow factor at ICCC wasn’t (just) the spectacle of two computers talking to one another, but of two computers talking to one another remotely over a network chat connection. You can read a transcript of ELIZA and PARRY in conversation (this transcript is actually from a month before ICCC):

ELIZA: Tell me your problems. Please terminate input with a period or a question mark.
PARRY: People get on my nerves sometimes.
ELIZA: I am not sure I understand you fully.
PARRY: You should pay more attention.
ELIZA: Suppose you should pay more attention.
PARRY: You’re entitled to your own opinion.
ELIZA: What makes you think I am entitled to my own opinion?
PARRY: It bothers me just to be around people in general.
ELIZA: Please go on.

According to Harley Hahn, among other observers, PARRY ran circles around ELIZA, much to the amusement of ICCC attendees. But ELIZA’s long-term impact may lie less in her canny demonstration of network chat than in her uncanny demonstration of simulated interaction. In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle asks

Why would we want to be in conversation with machines that cannot understand or care for us?… ELIZA’s popularity revealed more than people’s willingness to talk to machines; it revealed their reluctance to talk to other people. The idea of an attentive machine provides the fantasy that we may escape from each other. When we say we look forward to computer judges, counselors, teachers, and pastors, we comment on our disappointments with people who have not cared or who have treated us with bias or even abuse. These disappointments begin to make a machine’s performance of caring seem like caring enough. We are willing to put aside a program’s lack of understanding and, indeed, to work to make it seem to understand more than it does—all to create the fantasy that there is an alternative to people. This is the deeper “ELIZA effect.” Trust in ELIZA does not speak to what we think ELIZA will understand but to our lack of trust in the people who might understand.

Turkle’s analysis casts ELIZA as the beginning of our “robotic moment”. But the ICCC, of which ELIZA was just one part, was also the beginning of our networked moment: the moment when the ARPANET began to spread its wings beyond the narrow confines of research centres and universities. That moment was most fundamentally enabled by the 1972 creation of IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA):

IANA was responsible for assigning unique ‘addresses’ to each computer connected to the Internet. By 1973, the Internet Protocol or IP addressing system became the standard by which all networked computers could be located.

— Domain Avenue, History of the Internet Domain Name.

Those IP numbers (like 74.125.127.147) are how your computer knows which web site it’s going to visit or where it’s sending that e-mail. (Of course, you see a much prettier version – a domain name – but we won’t get there for a few more days/years.) IP numbers are so fundamental to the Internet that IANA has enjoyed controversy over its powers for many years, though most Internet users don’t even know it exists. As long as IANA had a limitless supply of IP addresses, there was no reason it would hit the average user’s radar.

But just a few weeks ago, IANA reached the end of its not-quite-limitless rope. On February 3, the authority handed over its last few blocks of IPv4 numbers (the IP numbers that the Internet has run on since 1981) to the regional domain registries that in turn allocate IP numbers to internet service providers and end users. We’ve got a while before the regional registries run out of IP addresses to assign (though just in case, Microsoft came up with $7.5 million to buy a privately-held block of more than 650,000 addresses). But the geeks and domain registrars of the world are already preparing for the transition to IPv6, which will provide us all with a de facto limitless supply of addresses: as Lincoln Spector notes,

If every one of the seven billion people in the world got their own private stash of a trillion addresses, we’d still have much more than 99.99 percent of the numbers free.

If you were feeling a little cramped or claustrophobic in the knowledge that the world had only 4.3 billion IPv4 addresses, you should be feeling much better now. IPv6 restores us to world in which the volume of IP addresses (or information, or porn) so vastly exceeds our capacity to comprehend or consume it that we should once again relate to the Internet as de facto infinite.

Instead, we are as scarcity-driven as ever. Sure, talk of abundance has caught on, whether in business circles or personal growth or in my own community of nonprofit tech. But when you look at how people behave online, we seem as scarcity-driven as ever.

We chase after the largest number of LinkedIn connections and the highest level of Klout. We obsessively measure our web site traffic, our retweets and our conversion rates. We buy Groupons we’ll never use, subscribe to blogs we’ll never read and sign up for e-newsletters we’ll never open. We fill up our virtual baskets as if it’s the last day of the Internet’s going out of business sale, and then complain about inbox overload.

The continued fascination with ELIZA and her descendants helps explain the persistence of our scarcity mindset. We fill in the gaps in ELIZA’s functionality, conspiring in the illusion that we’re talking to a “real” person, because it helps to meet our almost infinite need for the one truly finite resource: attention.

When you load up your Twitter follows in the hope of getting followed back, or send out whacks of Facebook friend requests, or post hourly updates, you’re staking your claim to as much online attention as you can get. You look to your web traffic or your retweets or your Google hegemony as an indication that you’re getting the attention you need. If that attention represents RSS-driven auto-tweets as much as actual human eyeballs, the ELIZA effect predicts that you’ll conspire with the illusion that an actual human being is checking you out.

Indeed, the ELIZA effect is the solution to the world that IANA created. IANA gave us a world of infinite connectivity, which is the same thing as a world of infinite distractions and infinite exits. A world of 4.3 billion IP addresses is a world in which there are at least 4.3 billion things someone can pay attention to – but a world in which there is no more attention to go around. It’s a world in which it’s easy to feel neglected; a world in which we can easily become as narcissistic and paranoid as poor, virtual PARRY. Thank you, 1972.

But the world you and I live in today is a world in which we get to choose between IANA and ELIZA. Do we face up to the reality of scarcity — whether it’s scarcity of attention, fuel, or IPv4 addresses — and find new ways to create abundance? Or do we create the illusion of abundance by settling for a simulation of the scarce resource we crave the most: the attention of our fellow human beings?

In the best case scenario, that simulated attention can help to meet part of our seemingly-infinite need. That’s a scenario that Turkle doesn’t seem to consider: an Internet in which we use simulated attention to meet our real needs, and embrace simulation as another kind of reality. (Warning: If you jump in here with a quote from Baudrillard, I will love you less.) For Turkle, the simulated is intrinsically inferior to the real (what I’d call the offline, since I find the distinction between online and “IRL” increasingly problematic). To Turkle, our willingness to settle for simulation — in fact, our increasing preference for simulation — is a sign of our social and emotional impoverishment.

As much as I fear that Turkle is right — and there is no shortage of signs that she is right, if you look at the Internet’s various pathologies — I’m more interested in proving her wrong. (And for both reasons, you can bet this won’t be the last you hear about Alone Together in the course of this series.). After all, I’ve hopefully got another 40 years to go, and it’s taken less than 40 to go from ELIZA’s first big demo to a culture in which simulated interaction is often preferred to human contact. At that rate I can anticipate living in a world in which simulation is the norm, and interpersonal experience is occasionally enjoyed for its novelty and (you guessed it) scarcity.

So how can we make that simulated interaction meet our deep need for attention — a need that we still experience as a need for human attention? We have to begin by recognizing that we need different kinds of attention, and that only some of those needs must be met by our fellow humans. If my goal is get social media consulting leads from my blog, then I only need my blog posts to be read and appreciated by the few dozen people who are potential clients. I don’t need five thousand people to personally read, tweet or blog it; I just need enough inbound links, ideally on keywords like social media and strategy and consulting, that this blog post will turn up in the top 10 Google results for anyone searching on something like “social media strategy consultant”. That goal can be accomplished without any human attention: it can be satisfied by receiving the computer-generated attention of a bunch of tweets that are triggered automagically by relevant search subscriptions.

But I’ll be honest: getting my blog read by a few dozen people only meets my instrumental need for attention. I want thousands of people to read this blog the same way I want thousands of people to follow me on Twitter. It’s a giant aching need for human attention that on some very basic level amounts to the desire for thousands of people to love me. I’m afraid that neither ELIZA nor a half-dozen human therapists took care of that problem.

And I’m going to go out on a limb, here, and suggest I’m not the only person on the Internet whose search for more Facebook friends or more LinkedIn connections or more retweets is driven by a similarly fundamental neurosis. We hop online with our unresolved issues and then we hope that getting enough connections or followers will make up for the fact that we were outcasts in high school. (I guess at some point the Internet stopped being made up entirely of high school outcasts, but that point was relatively recent.) But that kind of attention, if you can call it that, is almost entirely simulation. Because how much attention are you really getting from someone when you’re one of their three thousand Facebook friends?

Once we separate our emotional need for human attention from our strategic need for machine attention (of which links are only the most simplistic example), it becomes possible for us to give and get the kind of attention we need online. By all means, follow a thousand people on Twitter: just be aware that even if all one thousand notice and retweet you, it’s going to help your SEO more than your self.

If you want your time online to meet your human need for human attention, you’ll have to give out love as well as links. Focusing your online attention on a handful of people who matter deeply to you — people who want you, and not your web traffic — is the best way of ensuring you can get meaningful online (and offline) attention from them. That might look like creating a Twitter list that tracks a dozen really crucial friends and colleagues, so you interact with them more frequently than you interact with the link-sharing hordes. It might look like limiting your connections on one social network to a very small circle of personal friends. It might even look like writing an e-mail more than the prescribed 3 sentences long.

Machine attention can help us make room for that kind of interpersonal contact (am I the only person who has incoming e-mail that could be better handled by ELIZA?) By making smart use of technology to give and get link love, we can save our personal time for giving and getting human love. That’s essential if we’re going to ensure that our incessant chase after links (simulated attention) doesn’t displace our ability to seek and receive love (i.e. human attention). Because as much as we may commit to abundance as a political or spiritual philosophy, we can’t expand our scarce attention as easily as IANA expands its IP addresses.

5 life lessons you can learn from emptying your inbox

It’s day 7 of our quest for an empty inbox, and I’m now at inbox zero once again. What I’ve discovered is that while it takes me less than a week to empty my inbox, it takes more than a week to blog my methodology, so I’ll be writing further posts to clarify a few more pieces of the process. That includes a continued discussion of how to set up filters that handle the messages in your “filters needed” and “worfklows needed” folders, so if you still have some messages left there, don’t worry! Today, I’m going to help you get through those last few e-mails sitting in your inbox, and talk about next steps.

If you’ve been clearing out 20% of your inbox each day for the past 5 days, you’re down to your last 20%. You may even be further ahead. But you’ve probably got a handful of e-mails that are still in your inbox because you are, on some level, avoiding them. These e-mails, more than anything else, illuminate your core personal or professional blocks. Forcing yourself through them — the way you have to in order to empty your inbox — is not just a path to e-mail efficiency, but a very meaningful exercise in character-building. Here are some of the lessons that may lie waiting in your inbox — lessons that may help you make peace with information overload:

  1. The sushi will come around again. One type of e-mail that typically gets stuck in my inbox is what I’ll call the potential opportunity. It’s a consulting inquiry, partnership solicitation, conference invitation or other opportunity that sounds tempting but for whatever reason doesn’t feel quite right. Maybe I’m too busy to take it on, or I can’t afford to say yes, or I have a gut feeling it’s not a fit. But it sounds like the kind of thing I might regret not doing, and so even though I can’t commit to a yes, I can’t bear to deliver a “no”, either. My friend and coach Jeff Balin came up with the metaphor that has helped me come to terms with these situations. It’s the experience of sitting at one of those conveyor belt sushi places: if an awesome-looking bit of sushi comes along while your plate is really full, you may be tempted to snatch it up even though you don’t have room for it. But if you can let it float by, it may come back around once you’ve got some room on your plate…and if not, some other delicious thing will come along instead.
  2. Make no your default answer. This was one of the recommendations I made in my HBR New Year’s post last year, which talked about the importance of learning to say no. When it comes to saying no, my mostly-empty inbox has been my best teacher, since it’s forced me into the discipline of saying no to things promptly rather than letting them linger. That’s only been possible by making no my default answer; unless something is so amazing that you absolutely can’t bear to say no to it, say no. (My bet is that at least half of the hard-to-answer e-mails that currently remain in your inbox can be resolved by applying this principle, right now.) One way I’ve made it easier to say no is by writing a few all-purpose “no” messages that I’ve saved as signatures in my e-mail program, like the response that I use for “can we meet so I can pick your brain?” e-mails:

    The growing interest in social media has been great for us, but as a result I’m only able to book meetings on a consulting basis. If you’d like to schedule a consultation, I’m happy to book something; an initial ninety-minute consult is $375.

    I rarely send messages like this verbatim, but it makes it easier for me to face those awkward e-mails (I always feel rude when I decline a meeting request!) and it’s helped me learn to say no more promptly.

  3. Disappointing someone does not erase your worth as a human being. A few years into our business, we ran into the growing pains that a lot of small businesses encounter, when we suddenly found ourselves so overcommitted that we missed a number of deadlines and disappointed a number of clients. It only took a couple of months to build the systems and staff that got us out of that crunch, but they were two of the worst months of my life. The idea that I was disappointing people was completely soul-destroying, and I realized that it was because on some fundamental level I felt like my basic worth as a human being stemmed from my ability to always meet other people’s expectations. But there are moments in life when you’re going to let people down, and learning to live with that — and not letting it destroy your sense of self-worth — is crucial to performing with integrity and excellence the other 98% of the time. Once you accept that you will occasionally disappoint people, you can deal with those e-mails that require you to say no to something, to confess that you’re behind on a deadline, or even (ideally rarely) to change your mind and un-commit to a commitment you’d previously accepted. Send those painful e-mails, and you may even get a little more comfortable with your own imperfection.
  4. Don’t defer, decide. How many of the e-mails in your inbox are at least the third e-mail in a thread? You know the pattern: someone e-mails you with a request, task, idea or invitation that you can’t whole-heartedly commit to, but aren’t ready to say no to, either. So you reply with a request for more information, or ask them to e-mail you again in two weeks when your schedule is clear. Their reply comes back with the additional information or after a little time has passed, and it doesn’t fundamentally change the challenge, which is for you to make a decision and live with it. Most of the e-mails I’m tempted to defer have only about a 10 or 20% of changing my initial instinct by providing more time or move information. So if you know that you’re overwhelmingly likely to decide on a certain course — whether it’s saying no, or booking someone into your schedule, or sending someone the file they’ve asked for — just do it with your initial reply, and save yourself a lot of additional e-mail. If you can make these decisions when you first read an e-mail, rather than setting it aside for a later decision and response, you’ll become more decisive in your offline life, too.
  5. You’re not the only one with a crushing inbox. One type of e-mail I frequently avoid is the e-mail that’s been sitting in my inbox for longer than a week thanks to an e-mail pile-up. It’s so excruciating to deal with the e-mail that I’m horribly, shamefully overdue in addressing that I’d rather avoid it than send an embarrassingly overdue reply. The only solution is to grit your teeth and begin with, “I’m so sorry for this overdue reply; I’m just catching up on a terrible e-mail backlog.” If I can confess to an e-mail backlog — after writing a dozen blog posts on my commitment to inbox zero!! — so can you. And you’ll discover what I have: in a world where just about everyone is coping with e-mail overload, people understand if you’re occasionally overdue with a reply.

Almost two years into my life as a steady inbox emptier, I’ve found that the skills involved in emptying my inbox have migrated to other aspects of my life. I’m better at saying no. I’m less avoidant of difficult conversations. I’m more accepting of my own limitations.

I hope that 2011 brings you that kind of discovery. We’re living in an era of information overload: the challenge you have getting through your inbox is likely symptomatic of a larger set of challenges in keeping up with the ever-accelerating flood of tweets, messages and networks. You can let that flood carry you along, or you can focus on where you want to go, and use the challenge of filtering as a daily practice in clarifying your goals and exercising the discipline to achieve them.  Processing your e-mail to zero every day can be the core of that practice, and give you botha source of insight into your own personal and professional blocks, and a way to develop new habits that get past them.

All that, and a much, much cleaner inbox.

5 steps to emptying your e-mail inbox

You could get to inbox zero the way you probably have countless times before, by working your way through that pile one message at a time. That can be very time-consuming, and it also misses the great opportunity that an overflowing inbox provides: the opportunity to identify the message sources and message types that lead to e-mail or information overload. Today, you’re going to begin the job of processing your inbox in a way that actually reduces the volume of messages that come to your inbox in the future.

Reducing the volume of e-mail that comes to your inbox is absolutely crucial to changing charge of your life and career. If you’re anything like me — or most people I know — your volume of e-mail goes way beyond what you can process on a daily basis. With all the focus on spam control, we’ve missed a larger challenge: many of us now receive more non-spam e-mail than we can (or should) handle. This leads to one of two possible problems:

  1. We stay on top of our incoming e-mail by spending so much time on e-mail processing that it displaces other higher value activities. Those other activities might include communications activities with a higher profile or reach (like blogging or tweeting), professional activities with a greater tangible impact (like meeting with colleagues in person, or reading the latest publications in your field) or personal activities that do more to recharge and reconnect you (like having dinner with a friend, or watching a movie with your kids).
  2. We limit our total time spent on e-mail in order to make room for other activities, but without making systematic decisions about which e-mails we will or won’t respond to. As a result, we handle less than 100% of our inbox every 24 hours (often much less), and high-priority e-mails fall between the cracks.

If you want to exercise a reasonable degree of intention in how you spend your personal and professional time, you have to set limits on how much e-mail to process. And you have to do it in a structured way that ensures your e-mail time goes to the messages that have the highest priority and value. In other words, by focussing on your un-missable e-mail.

What’s an un-missable e-mail? That is up to you to define. But here’s how I define it:

  • A message sent only to me from someone inside my organization (i.e. nobody else is in the “to” field)
  • A message sent to me from someone inside my organization, and marked urgent
  • A message sent to me (i.e. not cced) from someone outside of my organization
  • A message that is not an e-newsletter

The goal of your inbox processing this week is to not only catch up on the e-mail that has piled up in your inbox, but to do it in a way that reshapes your incoming e-mail flow so that from now on, your inbox only receives un-missable e-mails. Today you’ll get underway on that processing, and you’ll set up a workflow that will turn the ongoing job of e-mail processing into an activity that continually addresses not only the messages in your inbox but the ongoing and inevitable problem of eliminating extraneous e-mail. To that end, keep one question front and centre as you’re processing your e-mail:

Was this an e-mail I needed to see the day it arrived?

Every time you answer “no” to this question, you need to make an adjustment in your e-mail system to ensure that future messages like that one will not hit your inbox.

Here’s how to process your e-mail so that it sets you up for a manageable inbox:

Step 1. Set your daily processing target.

We’ve got five days left to reach inboz zero, so write down the number of e-mails currently in your inbox, and divide by 5. The result (x) it is the number of e-mails you would have to process each day so that your inbox is empty in 5 days — if you literally don’t get a single new e-mail. But even with your auto-responder, you’ll probably get a handful of e-mails to process each day. So take a moment to write down your targets now (I’ll show you mine):

  • Day 1: Current number of e-mails – x = 239-48 =5
  • Day 2: Current number of e-mails – 2x = 143
  • Day 3: Current number of e-mails – 3x = 95
  • Day 4: Current number of e-mails – 4x = 47
  • Day 5: Current number of e-mails – 5x = 0

Write down your target number you should reach by the end of each of the next 5 days so that you can hit your target each day.

Step 2. Set up your “system needed” folders.

It takes time and thought to set up the folders, rules and systems that keep missable messages from hitting your inbox and that gets actionable items into your task list as quickly as possible. Rather than slow down the job of processing your e-mail, we will set aside any e-mail that calls for a longer-term solution by setting up three folders where you will put any message that fails the test of “Was this an e-mail I needed to see the day it arrived?”

  1. Unsubscribe needed: You’ll use this folder for any message you receive that comes from an e-mail list or marketer you don’t want to hear from. Look for an “unsubscribe” link in any newsletter you don’t want to receive, and try to unsubscribe as you’re doing your initial e-mail cull; but if the unsubscribe link is hard to find or doesn’t work, stick the unwanted newsletter in this folder for now.
  2. Filters needed: You’ll use this folder for any message that didn’t need to hit your inbox, but which you’d still want to file. Tomorrow’s post will talk about how to set up folders/labels and filters (rules) that keep these messages from going to your inbox, but still keep them available.
  3. Workflow needed: You’ll use this folder for messages you need to see, but which you think you could process in a more efficient way (for example, by sending them straight to your to-do list) or which you don’t need to process on a same-day basis. I’ll write another post that looks at alternative workflows so that you can find a better (i.e. non-inbox-cluttering) way of handling task assignments or application notifications.

Once you’ve got your e-mail management system set up, you can hang onto these folders and use them whenever you’re rushing through the job of e-mail processing; however it’s best to create your filters and rules as you go. If you keep using these folders, be sure to set a regular time (once a week or once a month) to go through these “system needed” folders and put new rules in place.

Step 3. Set up your project, archive and reference folders.

SIM folder contains multiple=

These are the folders where you file any e-mail you want to keep for future reference in an organized place. In my case, I keep all my sent mail — and my sent mail quotes any incoming e-mail it responds to — so I only need to manually file e-mails that have an attachment I want to hang onto, contain important information I need to find in a specific place (like a project update) or which I haven’t replied to but want to keep for future reference.

You may already have a system for filing e-mail, but here’s a quick summary of how my e-mail filing is set up:

  • SIM: A folder for all my work related to the SIM Centre, with subfolders set up for specific internal and external projects, as well as a couple of folders set up to track correspondence with specific colleagues.
  • Clients and Projects: A folder for all my writing, Social Signal and personal projects. Each client or project has its own subfolder, and I also have an “Archive” subfolder where I file folders for projects that are no longer active.
  • Reference: A few subfolders for e-mails that aren’t related to any specific client or project, but which I want to hang onto. I have just three subfolders: “Testimonials”, “Personal” and “Research”.

At a minimum, I recommend setting up:

  • A folder for active projects, with subfolders for each current project. If you have a couple of different jobs or wear a few different hats, you may want a separate Projects folder for each of these gigs/roles.
  • An archive folder with subfolders for older projects or other archived material.
  • A reference folder for e-mails you won’t want to delete but don’t belong to a project.

You’ll set up some additional folders once we get to setting up filters, but these should get you started.

Step 4: Sort your inbox by sender.

It’s much easier to identify recurring patterns if you’ve got your e-mail sorted by sender. You can’t do this in Gmail itself, so you’ll need to use your local e-mail client (Mail.app, Outlook, Thunderbird etc.)

Step 5: Scan and file until you reach today’s target.

Here’s what to look for, and how to handle them:

  1. Messages you’ve replied to that you can quickly delete. Before you delete any of them, ask yourself: Was this an e-mail I needed to see the day it arrived?
    • If the answer was no, file the message in “filters needed”.
    • If the answer was yes, but it was a notification or task assignment from a web application (e.g . a Basecamp notification or a blog comment notification), place it in “workflow needed”.
    • If the answer was yes, and that message is JUST the kind of thing you want to see, then feel free to delete it (or file it in one of your project, archive or reference folders).
  2. Blocks of recurring messages (e.g. blog comment notifications, e-newsletters, Basecamp notifications). Aim to file any recurring message type in one of your three “system needed” folders: unsubscribe, filters or workflow. For example, I discovered that all my blog comment notifications are coming to my inbox, and while I don’t want to leave a comment unapproved, I think I can come up with a more efficient system for managing my comment queue, so I’ve put these in “workflow needed”.

    E-mail inbox contains a backlog of comment notifications from Disqus.

    This backlog of notifications from Disqus, which I use to manage my blog's comment queue, just screams for a better workflow.

  3. People or organizations you never want to hear from. These should go in unsubscribe (if the message is from a list) or “filters needed”.  If you’re not sure whether to file something in “unsubscribe”, “filters” or “workflow”, don’t worry about it — just stick it in “filters” for now.

If your scan-and-file is going quickly, you can overshoot today’s target. You’ll be glad to be a bit ahead of the game when you get back to work tomorrow and start setting up your e-mail filters.

How Twitter lists can keep you connected to the relationships that matter most

Social media is all about being connected, we are often told. But who are you connecting with? Answering that question is crucial to using Twitter — or any social web tool — in a way that that supports your career, enriches your relationships and expands your perspective on the world around you.

It’s easy to lose sight of real connection when you’re first confronted with the firehose that is Twitter. For one thing, a lot of people initially use Twitter to follow celebrities, which offers only a very illusory (and fleeting) sense of connection. Others hit follow follow follow follow, or reciprocally follow everyone who follows them, and quickly drown in a sea of tweets that go by faster than they can track them. Lost in the tide are the tweets you actually care about…the tweets from your dearest friend or most valued colleague.

Twitter lists offer a way of solving that problem. You could follow someone else’s pre-fab Twitter list. You can find a list of must-follow tweeters on just about any topic under the sun: Crafters. Indigenous people’s rights. New York City food trucks. And following lists like these offers an easy way of quickly getting a taste of a whole bunch of different people, and finding out who you’re really interested in, without making a big commitment: unlike following people one by one (which can make it tough to prune the number of people you follow when it grows too big) you can follow and unfollow everyone on a single Twitter list with just a single click.

But the real power of Twitter lists comes from creating your own. I’m not talking, for the moment, about creating public Twitter lists: the lists you carefully compile and curate to build your own reputation, brand and empire…you know, the usual social media drill.

What I’m talking about are lists that you create just for you: private lists that help you pay attention to different people at different times of the day, or even in different moods. 18 months ago, I created; over time, I’ve pared them down to the following crucial lists:

  1. Love: People I love and want to have more of in my life; or feel I could love, if we had more connection. It even includes a handful of loveable people I know entirely online. This group would make sense to nobody except me: it’s pure, gut-level filing. There’s no “it would be useful to follow this person closely”, or “I shouldn’t file a client here”. If I get a happy warm glow from thinking about this person, they’re in. If I get an anxiety twinge, they’re out.
  2. Inspire: Feeds that feed me. Some of these are people who say things that inspire me, and some are “official” feeds that inspire me.
  3. Meet: People in Vancouver. Following locals is a good way of using Twitter to drive me to see people and participate in events in real life. For now, I’m putting every Vancouver-based feed in here, but over time I may triage so that it only has feeds from people who Twitter events and meetups. However part of what I like about having everyone is that it will prompt me to set up my own dates, too — or to notice if someone is hanging out near where I am at the moment. The key is to let the group name — “meet” — remind me of my intention with these folks.
  4. Learn: People I don’t know personally, but learn from watching.
  5. Apply: This is a group for feeds from software applications I use regularly in my work. These are feeds that contain tips I can apply in my work.
  6. Help: This is for feeds that belong to people and organizations I’m trying to help.
  7. Engage: These are people I’ve gotten to know, or know better, through Twitter. They are people who use Twitter to reach out to me, to share what I’m writing or tweeting about, or to share resources they think I’ll be interested in. They are people I want to focus a lot of attention on because they are people who it’s really, really satisfying to connect with on Twitter.
  8. Normal people: These are Twitter users who don’t work in social media. So many of my colleagues and friends — especially those who tweet a lot — are people who (like me) work in social media or communications, and so they tweet in a way that is quite different from regular folks or non-communications professionals who use Twitter, rather than tweeting about Twitter. Keeping an eye on how these folks tweet is a way of keeping my finger on the pulse of how Twitter is evolving and being adopted out there, in the real world.

By setting each of these up as lists, I can zero in on the people I want to pay attention to at any given moment. Better yet, I can set up my preferred Twitter client — these days, it’s HootSuite — so that my most crucial lists get the lion’s share of my attention.

If I’m going to look at Twitter ten times a day, I want to spend that time on the Hootsuite tab that gives me access to the Twitter pals who are most rewarding, along with the people I love, the people who inspire me, and the people I want to connect with. Yes, I dip into my “all friends” feed from time to time — I got shamed back into it after shocking an audience at Northern Voice with the news that I’d sworn off “all friends” altogether — but I find that I’m happiest, most focused and most productive when I lavish my Twitter minutes on the lists that I’ve carefully groomed to focus on key people and key goals.

You’ll notice that almost all of these lists are private: in other words, I’m the only person who can see who is on them. For these lists to work effectively, I have to be brutally honest, putting people on my love list only if I really and truly adore them, taking them off my inspire list if they get cloying, adding them to my meet list only if I actually want to meet up with them from time to time.

But the real trick to this system lies not in how carefully you build or curate your lists, or which Twitter client you use to view them. It lies in letting yourself off the hook for your dozens, hundreds or even thousands of Twitter follows; in admitting that nobody truly keeps up with the tweets of that many people. When you check your all friends feed, you’re letting an accident of timing determine who gets your attention: your attention will go to the twenty or thirty people who happen to have tweeted shortly before you dropped in.

Focus instead on your lists, and you take charge of your attention. You put your Twitter time into the relationships that matter to you, into the people you care about and most want to learn from. You’ll turn Twitter into an engine of real connection, and you’ll never again wonder just who you are trying to connect with.

5 solutions for coping with social media

Read Gillian Shaw’s story about my social media methodology in the Vancouver Sun.

Is social media something you have to cope with? Or is social media something that can help you cope?

In my talk today at the Northern Voice blogging conference, I made my best case for social media as a coping mechanism. Yes, social media can be overwhelming and crazy-making. But I was crazy long before social media came along, so I can hardly blame Twitter and Facebook for my feelings of anxiety and insecurity.

Nonetheless, social media sometimes leaves me feeling crazier than ever. So many people blogging more often I do! So many people twittering about conferences I’m not attending, parties I’m not invited to, accomplishments I’m not accomplishing. The only way to cope with the insanity of social media is to use social media to make yourself more sane.

And as it turns out,the strategies that harness social media to making yourself saner also make social media itself a hell of a lot more manageable.

Today I shared some of my greatest weaknesses, and the ways I use social media to address them.

    1. Cure anxiety with Twitter lists. I’m sure there were parties I wasn’t invited to ten years ago, but thanks to Twitter, I now know exactly which parties I’m missing. It’s easy to obsess over all that missing out — and to get so caught up in the accomplishments of the people who fill you with envy that you miss the news from people who fill you with love.  If I were a better person, I’d stop feeling so damn envious, but until I achieve that level of equanimity, I solve the problem by using Tweetdeck‘s columns to view only the tweets from a relatively small number of people I love or feel inspired by. I’ve documented this approach in a blog post about using groups in Nambu; I now use Tweetdeck and Twitter lists, but the basic approach is the same.

      The happy result: I’m less neurotic, and feel closer to the friends in my “love” list.

    2. Treat forgetfulness with Facebook lists. I meet a lot of people, and a lot of them go on to friend me on Facebook. I’m not shy about ignoring Facebook friend requests from people I’ve never heard of, but I often get friend requests from people I know I know, but can’t remember how I know. I recently created a new Facebook list to deal with the problem: if I get a friend request from someone and I can’t remember who the fuck they are, they go on my WTF list.

      And I’ve developed a related discipline for all the people I can place, but don’t necessarily want to track on an hour-by-hour basis. Twitter is my professional community; I want to use Facebook for my personal relationships. But as a social media professional I still need to be accessible and visible on Facebook, so I can’t just unfriend people. What I can do is take control of my news feed, so it only shows me news from my close friends and family. If news pops up from a colleague or someone I don’t know well, I hide them from my news feed — permanently.

      The happy result: I love Facebook again! It’s a great way to keep up on the news from the people I love moth.

    3. Stop listening with iGoogle. I like talking a lot more than I like listening. And as much as I love reading, the part of social media that most renews me is not all the reading of blog posts and tweets — it’s my own writing. So my Google Reader account is usually stuffed to the brim with unread posts, and I miss key news stories that can be downright embarrassing not to know about.

      Instead of trying to keep up with my reader and suffering from information overload, I use iGoogle as a very streamlined RSS reader. It has three columns: one for searches on me (so I know if people have blogged or tweeted about me), one for mainstream news stories, and one for professional news. It’s my browser’s default homepage so I load this page many many times every day. As a result, I’m on top of the headlines, and can read more about anything that looks important. I can also read and respond to any blog posts about my work.

      The happy result: Less listening online has produced more conversation offline, because what I do follow are those stories that are most likely to pop up at meetings or over dinner.

    4. Cure messy handwriting with Evernote. I have the world’s most terrible handwriting, which is why I made the life-changing switch to taking all my notes on my computer. And not just on my computer, but in a single program so that I can find everything in one place. That program is Evernote, which stays in sync across a Macbook Pro, a netbook, an iPad and an iPhone. I use it to take notes in every meeting and every phone call, and to keep a running file of blogging ideas and half-written blog posts. For more ideas on how to use Evernote, read my overview of Evernote here and my recent interview with Evernote CEO Phil Libin for HBR.

      The happy result: I blog more because I always have a story idea ready to go…and the more I write, the saner and happier I feel.

  1. Cure Beta Addiction Disorder with Gmail filters. I can’t resist a beta signup. What if it’s the beta for The Web App That Will Solve All My Problems?Unfortunately, the signups have become a problem in their own right. A year ago I had 2,500 emails in my inbox, many of them confirmations, notifications, updates or newsletters from one of the hundreds (thousands?) of sites I’ve now joined. Thanks to the healing powers of Gmail labels and filters, I fought my way down to an empty inbox, and over the past year, I’ve been able to get to inbox zero every 2-4 weeks. You can read my blog post about how I got there, or jump straight to the 10 steps that can get your e-mail inbox to zero.

    The happy result: The same discipline that gets me to finally answer the last handful of emails every month has also helped me become a more decisive person, on-and offline.

You can find more resources on how to cope with social media on my blog’s productivity page.

You can find more resources on how to use social media as a coping mechanism in a crazy world on my blog’s soul page.

And for more on the big picture of coping with social media, check out this recent interview with me on the Harvard Business Review IdeaCast.

What are your best tricks for coping with — and through — social media? I’d love to hear them.

5 ways social media can help you learn to say no (for HBR)

Subject: Join our new working group?

Subject: Time to meet for coffee?

Subject: Beta invitation for new web app

Subject: Sign up for 2010 lecture series?

If your January inbox looks like mine, it’s full of requests and invitations. The problem with the New Year’s holiday is that everyone resolves to do more at the same time. So each January brings a new batch of eager clients, exciting projects and easy-to-make commitments. It’s when we resolve to try new technologies, commit to new communications channels, and become regulars at new web sites.

You can look forward to the stimulation and excitement that comes with all of this, but it’s a fine line. If you’re not careful, you’ll hit Groundhog day facing information overload and exhaustion. You have to be selective about what you take on — and disciplined about retiring longstanding activities to make room for new ones. In other words, you have to be able to say, No. Frequently, politely and effectively.

The good news is that the same technologies that threaten to overload you with to-dos and appointments can also help you to say no. Here’s how I use my computer and the social web as allies in the discipline of saying no:

Set your intentions. Before you start saying no, make it clear to yourself what you want to say yes to. Sites like 43Things.com and SuperViva.com invite users to make a list of goals they want to achieve and experiences they want to have. Taking the time to write down your dreams can help you clarify what’s important to you, identify what you want to cross off this year, and get the community support to achieve it.

Prioritize your commitments. Use a spreadsheet to capture every single project you’re working on — even projects you’ve only started in your mind but know you want to attack. Create a second column to assign a priority level to each project, ranking items from 1-5 based on your gut level response. Then create a third column to jot down the name of anyone who could take over or help with each project on the list. Sort your projects according to priority, and set aside all but the top-priority items that can only be handled by you personally.

Make it easy to say no. When my e-mail inbox piles up with unanswered messages, you can bet that it’s full of e-mails that require a no — ones that I can’t bring myself to write. To make the process easier, I have created a few different signature files in my e-mail client, with polite “no” messages for different circumstances. I’d love to join you, but my schedule is really booked for the next month; or Thanks for thinking of us, but we’re only taking on a certain type of client right now; or That sounds like a great project, but my pro bono work is already committed for this quarter. Using these removes the burden of working up the energy to say no so often.

Streamline your online communications. Between e-mail, text messages, social networks and voicemail, and others, you may have ten different communications channels you need to process on a daily (if not hourly) basis. Consider a digital cleanse to help you evaluate the footprint that all these channels have on your productivity and happiness. Take a week in which you limit your online communications to a bare minimum. At the end of the week, close down your accounts on any networks that take more time than they’re worth, or edit your profile on those networks to tell people you prefer to be contacted by other means.

Make “no” your default answer. Plan on saying no to all new social network invitations, projects, and events. Say yes only if the invitation or opportunity meets a short set of criteria. For example, I look for conferences that combine business development (getting clients), professional development (improving skills or knowledge) and personal development (regeneration or personal growth) and only attend events that promise meaningful value on at least two out of three of those fronts. Write your criteria down and stick them to your screen, or put them on a digital stickie note. Soon, you’ll be saying yes to only those opportunities that meet the criteria staring you in the face.

None of these practices eliminates the anxiety that comes from saying no, or the fear that you may be passing up a fantastic opportunity. But it’s precisely because saying no is so difficult that we need tools and systems to help make it a little easier, and a little more habitual. The more you say no, the better you’ll perform when dealing with the important few projects or tasks that get a big yes.

This post originally appeared on the site of the Harvard Business Review.

On Managing Information Overload and Extremely Lame Superpowers

This blog post originally appeared on the site of the Harvard Business Review site.

We all struggle with information overload. If somebody would just push a button and turn off the Internet for a year, maybe, maybe, we’d catch up on our work, organize our contacts, and restore our sanity.

But instead of turning off the Internet, many of us, perversely, turn to it, the very thing that’s creating the pain, in hopes of relieving it.

My version of this: I use a tool called Evernote, a desktop, mobile, and web application that collates all your notes, links, and even snapshots and then uses built-in character recognition to make it all full-text searchable. For example, I could snap photos of business cards with my iPhone. Later, when I want to contact someone, I could search in Evernote on the company name in the picture of the card, and I would find the photo along with text of what’s contained in it.

The value here is the behind-the-scenes process of making any information I collect in any format text searchable. It could also match notes to location and provide context. If I got a business card from a friend who recommended a restaurant, I’d know when I search on that friend, or that restaurant, about that connection. This would free me from having to sit down after returning from a conference and type new contacts into a contact manager, for example, and it empowers me to maintain context that’s otherwise lost.

Evernote has helped me attenuate — not cure — my information overload problem. I turned to Evernote CEO Phil Libin to learn more on managing information overload. He talked about what we overwhelmed users can expect is coming to help us, why much of social media is merely entertainment, and his “extremely lame superpower.”

AS: Do you think we are suffering from information overload?

Libin: If you compare me to my 10,000-year-old caveman ancestor, pretty much every part of my body and what it can do has been magnified and amplified by technology: how much stuff I can haul around, how fast I can move, how many people I can talk to.

My ancestor had a couple of hundred facts in his head he could remember and recall easily — which berries were good to eat, which people in his tribe were trustworthy — and I’ve got the same thing. There are a couple of hundred facts I can keep in my head except instead of berries, it’s Simpsons quotes. For him the facts were the sum total of all info he was exposed to. For me, it’s a small fraction. We are exposed to far more than we can comfortably keep in our meat brains.

But how can tools like Evernote, which come from the very source of our overload, actually help? You don’t put out fires with fire?

A big part of information overload is the anxiety about information overload. For me personally, the feeling I was forgetting things was contributing to the problem. Then I started using our tool, and whenever I had something to keep track of, I would throw it in Evernote and allow myself to feel confident I’d captured it. That contributed to making me feel comfortable about all the information I was processing in my life.

Are you a GTD adherent?

I’m not. I figure five to 10 percent of the population has the “organized” gene. These are the lucky people who will be able to follow any program, GTD or anything else. The rest of us aren’t going to do it. We’re not particularly well organized or we’re lazy.

You think organizational tools like yours can actually improve your quality of life?

When I moved to California three years ago I decided to learn about wine. I’d go to a restaurant and have a bottle of wine and I wouldn’t bother writing it down because I knew that I’d never find it when I needed it.

Now I just take a picture of the wine bottle in Evernote, and I know I can find it by words in the wine label or by geotagging, meaning it will show up when I come back to the same restaurant. Or, I’ll remember I had that bottle with a certain colleague, and then when I search Evernote for his business card, the photo of the wine label will be the note next to it.

It makes me feel like I have this extremely lame superpower: the ability to remember bottles of wine.

What other techniques and solutions do you personally rely on?

Ignoring things. I used to try to keep up on Facebook and Twitter. I just completely stopped doing that. If someone tweets at me they shouldn’t expect me to see it. You have to stop caring about the random stuff on social media and treat it as entertainment, which is what it is.

What has shaped your company’s approach to the overload problem?

One of our big influences is The Long Now, a project dedicated to long-term thinking — 10,000-year long-term. We say the memories you put in Evernote will be around the rest of your life, and for your grandchildren.

What’s in your Evernote notebook that you want your grandchildren to have?

I do a lot of cooking and all my recipes are in there, plus the stuff I’m eating. I took photos of every thing I ate during my last stay in Japan and everything is geotagged. I don’t think about what I want my grandchildren to see but what I would have wanted to see of my grandfather’s. I would love to see photos of everything my grandfather ate in a given week 80 years ago.

Can we expect any technical leaps forward that will help us manage the volume of information?

The other two big influences on Evernote are Gordon Bell and Ray Kurzweil. If you want to know where this is really going, you’ve got to read Gordon Bell’s Total Recall. He recorded everything for twenty years and then wrote a book about what life like this was like. What he’s doing only one in a thousand people would do. We’re taking his ideas and dialing down to what lots of people can do.

Ray Kurzweil talks about how two hundred years ago, nobody was exposed to any technology, but right now it’s everywhere all around you. It’s never more than a few inches away from a phone, computer, pad, et cetera. The next step is on the inside, to get to things by thinking of them. But that’s still maybe 20 years away.

Would you get the Evernote brain chip?

Oh absolutely. I’d be first in line. But our marketing department doesn’t like me to talk about that.

Seven ways to break the habit of compulsive e-mail and Twitter check-ins

I was picking my daughter up from her first day of school, and I was so excited to hear how it went that got there a few minutes early. I could go in and spend a few extra minutes observing her class….or I could sneak one last peek at the day’s e-mail. Sure enough, I pulled out my iPhone, only to experience that little ping of disappointment when the hoped-for e-mail from a prospective client had yet to arrive. I headed into my daughter’s classroom, my excitement about the first day of school now dulled, ever so slightly, by the disappointment of that missing e-mail.

What is it that makes checking e-mail, checking Twitter, and checking Facebook into such constant compulsions? I’m far from the only person who can barely go an hour without looking at Outlook or Gmail. The speed of conversation on Twitter only intensifies the check, check, checking behaviour: skip your hourly glance and you might miss an interesting tweet or breaking news item. iPhones and Blackberries take it still further: you don’t even have to be at your computer to fill that empty two minutes with a quick scan of your various inboxes.

When I step back to look at my reflexive checking, I find it’s motivated by a constant, low-grade hopeful curiosity…the result of which is information overload. Even if I’m not waiting for a specific e-mail, I’m always eager to see what might drop onto my screen. Maybe I’ll have a new prospect. Maybe I’ll have an e-mail from an long-lost friend. Maybe someone will have sent me a pony!

That hopeful current of “what if” reminds me of the irrationality of buying lottery tickets. When people buy lottery tickets, they know that the chance of winning is vanishingly small. They’re not paying for the chance to win: they’re paying for the chance to hope, to dream about all the happy consequences that would flow from a windfall.

Hope is a powerful support and motivator, and dreaming about an alternate, worry-free future is a great way of connecting with the passions that would drive you in the absence of financial need. But I’ve always resisted the siren song of lotteries by pinning my “what ifs” on the lottery of life: what if I found a guy’s wallet in the street, and he turned out to be a billionaire who thanked me with a small fortune? What if that vase of my grandmother’s turns out to be a valuable antique? What if I sold a book for hundreds of thousands of dollars? Buying a lottery ticket doesn’t increase my odds of overnight millions by any significant percentage, so I might as well spend the two bucks on an Americano.

The same logic applies to the compulsive e-mail or Twitter check-in. Yes, I could discover something delightful or interesting by checking my inbox. But I might also discover something delightful or interesting by striking up a conversation with the person at the next table in a restaurant. I might experience a moment of amusement by noticing the kid toddling along in front of me, rather than looking for the latest Twitter wisecrack. Unlikely as it may seem, I might even enjoy a moment of doing and thinking nothing at all.

Finding hope outside the inbox doesn’t just require a shift in attitude; it requires a shift in behavior. To break the Pavlovian association between the ping of a new e-mail and the excitement of possibility, you have to find that excitement elsewhere. Here are some practices that can help you awaken hopefulness offline, so you can stop checking for the next online nugget:

  1. Talk to a stranger. Part of the excitement of checking your inbox comes from the possibility of a new connection. You can experience that same excitement by striking up an offline conversation with somebody you don’t know. Internet cafes are, ironically, one of the easiest places to talk to someone new: just ask someone about their laptop or for help connecting to the network.
  2. Declare a Twitter sabbath. Observant Jews go without electronics — without turning on electricity! — from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. You don’t have to keep kosher to discover the benefits of 24 hours offline each week. If a day without e-mail feels unimaginable, try a day without Twitter. I went three whole days (!) this past long-weekend, and enjoyed the opportunity to experience memorable moments without boiling them down to 140 characters.
  3. Pick up a new paper or magazine. I am slavish in my devotion to three publications: the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Entertainment Weekly. But when I picked up a copy of Craft (the arts & crafts counterpart to Make) I had my mind blown by a whole world of people sharing tips and ideas I’d never otherwise hear about. If you rely on Twitter to inject a little serendiptious information into your day, reading a publication you’ve never tried can be a great way of finding that serendipity — without the character limit.
  4. Get a POFCP: plain old-fashioned cell phone. I understand that your babysitter needs to reach you on date night: that doesn’t mean your boss needs to, as well. So pop the SIM card out of your iPhone or Blackberry, and stick it into a super cheap phone that offers nothing more than the ability to make and receive calls. You can’t check your e-mail if you can’t check your e-mail.
  5. Notice the negatives. How often do you check your inbox with a sense of hopefulness, only to be rewarded with a stab of horror? Whether it’s the e-mail asking you for that overdue report, or the tweet about how your competitor just got a big new contract, online life is full of little disappointments. Those disappointments can be a great ally in weaning you off your constant inbox-checking, if you stop to notice and absorb your frustrations. The more you reinforce your awareness of the downsides of constant check-ins, the better you’ll be able to resist your compulsion.
  6. Hop on the bus. If you live in a city with public transit, catch a bus or subway to a part of town you’ve never visited. Hop off at a random stop, and wander through residential streets or shops you didn’t know existed. Take a coffee break, and eavesdrop on a conversation. Embrace tiny discoveries — a new phrase, a different brand of soda, an unfamiliar plant. Are they any smaller than the tiny novelties you find on Facebook?
  7. Ask for gifts. One of the rewards of inbox and Twitter check-ins is the experience of receiving little gifts: The mention from someone you don’t know. The helpful message from someone who responded to your request for information. The recent online purchase that just shipped. You need to remind yourself that sudden rewards can appear offline, too — but it helps if you ask for them. Ask your son to give you the painting he made today; ask the person leaving the grocery store if she can hold the door for you; ask your sweetie to surprise you occasionally with wine or chocolates. Once you start attending to the many surprises of life offline, you’ll stop thinking of the Internet as the only place that rains goodies.

The point of these practices is not to break you of your interest in Twitter, Facebook or e-mail. It’s to help you — and me! — get off the treadmill of constant check-ins, and restore online communications to a tool rather than a compulsion.