Tweet if you like to procrastinate

I am always amazed at how much I get done on my focused writing days — the days when I leave the office and camp in one of the cafés or restaurants where ambient noise helps me concentrate and write, write, write.

But it’s not my word count that amazes me: it’s all the other stuff I get done while desperately trying to avoid the blank screen, daunting paragraph or elusive synonym. Here’s what a typical hour looks like:

10:00: Check email. Reply to four messages.
10:10:  Check Twitter. Retweet something.
10:12    Look at the document I’m working on. Read three paragraphs from my last writing day.
10:16   Check Facebook. Like something.
10:20   Check email. Reply to a message. Remember a related task, and add it to my task manager. Decide it’s easier to just write that memo memo right now, so quickly knock it off.
10:28   Look at my document again. Read another paragraph. Write two more.
10:42   Check email. Reply to a meeting invitation. Google to see if I can find a solution for the calendar syncing issue that’s been bugging me, and fix the problem.
10:48   Write another paragraph
10:57   Brainwave while writing inspires me to tweet something. Look at other tweets while I’m in HootSuite. See a few things to retweet, and schedule them to retweet later.

And so on. OK, so maybe this isn’t the textbook version of “focused” writing, but I am getting a good page written every hour. And while I’m at it I’m also catching up on email, restocking my Twitter queue, and troubleshooting my tech.

I’m such a productive procrastinator, in fact, that it makes me wonder why I schedule any other kin dog work day. If I can get all my tasks done on the days that I’m writing, why don’t I make most days writing days, and fit my tasks into these interstitial moments?

If it weren’t for meetings, I would. So if you have any thoughts on how to make meetings work in 5 minute, between-paragraph increments, please let me know.

Focus on your priorities with O.M.F.T.

Last night I was delighted to participate in a panel hosted by Canadian Women in Communications, speaking alongside Rebecca Bollwitt (aka Miss 604) and Gillian Shaw of the Vancouver Sun. CWC President Stephanie MacKendrick did a terrific job of eliciting our respective stories on how we got into social media, and really homed in on the question of how we were each inspired to make careers in the digital realm.

One of the questions that came up in the ensuing discussion was how we each maintain balance between our on- and offline lives, or between work and personal life. Did any of us have personal mantras that helped us stay grounded?

I shared the mantra that’s helped keep our house sane(r) for the past 8 years: O.M.F.T.  We discovered O.M.F.T. when our daughter was 6 months old, and I was trying to finish my dissertation, and we only had child care about 15 hours a week, and Rob went on the road for six weeks to serve as Jack Layton’s speechwriter during the 2004 election campaign. I was beyond stressed out, and as I found myself sitting in the garage one afternoon drinking an emergency glass of wine (I’d already gone through all the wine in the house, but had some kosher-for-Passover wine stashed away), I had to admit that we were trying to live and work beyond our actual capacity. Thus was born our acronym for clearly declaring a personal or professional commitment out-of-scope: if it was just One More Fucking Thing, O.M.F.T.

You know a commitment is O.M.F.T. if you’ve had a cold for two weeks, have a kid home sick with strep, and are behind on five crucial, looming deadlines. (This is just hypothetical, of course.) At that point, anything that isn’t related to meeting one of those deadlines, or keeping you and your family alive, has to be designated O.M.F.T.  Say no to it, or if it’s already on your plate, take it off.

O.M.F.T. can help you keep your online life in order, too. Are you already running too hard, just keeping your Twitter feed, blog and Facebook profile alive? Well, maybe Google+ is O.M.F.T.  Do you have 45 unanswered client e-mails? Well, maybe the RFP that just landed in your inbox is O.M.F.P., and you don’t actually have to submit a proposal…you’ve got plenty of work already.  Is your iPhone refusing to sync with your computer? Well, maybe fixing it is just O.M.F.T. and for now, you’re going to have to live un-synced.

The truth is that if you live online, you don’t have One More Fucking Thing — you probably have dozens. The Internet generates a constant stream of demands for your attention, input and work. The only way to keep from being totally overwhelmed by those demands is to develop a reflexive way of separating out what’s essential from what’s optional, and to recognize whenever you’re in a moment of stress or activity that necessarily limits you to only the essentials.

O.M.F.T. is the tool that works for me. Start asking yourself whether the latest demand to hit your inbox is O.M.F.T., and it could work for you too.

10 ways spam taught us to focus our attention


You’ve just read the very first spam message. Sent by Carl Gartley on behalf of Gary Thuerk, this message went to several hundred ARPANET members on May 3, 1978. The message violated the until-then standard practice of e-mailing people individually (ah, those were the days!) and annoyed a whole lot of ARPANET users. It also sold some computers. And thus, the era of spam marketing was born.

It’s customary to curse the name of Thuerk, though Thuerk himself uses fatherespam as his LinkedIn profile URL, and prominently cites his role in creating spam as a professional credential. (Guess he decided to embrace it sometime after this interview.) But I think that Gary Thuerk is owed more than a sarcastic thank you.

After all, spam — now estimated at more than 75% of e-mail traffic — has been one of the major drivers of online innovation. To cope with “Pandora’s Inbox”, we’ve had to develop attention and information-management systems that prove crucial for surviving today’s communications-rich environment.

Spam is the vaccine for your attention span. It’s the toxin that has stimulated our immunity system’s defenses. Thanks to spam, we’ve had to find technical, social and personal ways of keeping our eyes on the 22% of e-mail that isn’t pure junk, and to avoid the 78% that is.

Those tools and tactics turn out to serve us very well in the era of social media. Now that people generate content and communications in ways that go well beyond e-mail, we need to focus in ways that go far beyond a spam filter. We can thank Gary Thuerk and the spammers of the universe for helping us develop the following ways to focus our attention:

  1. Email filtering: Email filters, which were first created to deal with spam, have since turned into powerful tools for managing and organizing incoming email. I’m utterly dependent on Gmail filters in ways that go way beyond spam elimination. Without spam I might have to read and file my e-mails by hand (shudder).
  2. Attention filtering: Email filters have inspired analogous tools on other platforms. Twitter lists, the Facebook “hide” option and the entire idea of PATH are all about filtering out extraneous content so we can focus our attention on a more limited circle of relationships or a more limited sphere of information.
  3. Texting and messaging: Spam made us impatient about the process of plowing through our inboxes. Texting, chat and Twitter are all instant communications tools that sidestep the whole inbox nightmare by coming to us in real time. (And better yet, by being incredibly short.) Learning to communicate in very brief increments is one of the legacies of spam, and in a world that connects us to hundreds or thousands of people through a wide range of social networks, we can be grateful that some of those conversations happen briefly.
  4. Pull: Email did a fantastic job of teaching us about the limits of push: content that gets pushed to you. As a result many of us have shifted much of our attention onto pull: content that we pull to us by choosing what to visit or subscribe to. For instance, instead of subscribing to e-newsletters, we might subscribe to blog RSS feeds. While e-newsletters are still alive and well, the shift to pull is an essential tool for people trying to manage a very high volume of information.
  5. FOAF: The friend-of-a-friend principle has driven a wide range of social networks in which your interactions are structured around networks of trusted contacts. Relying on networks of trust is a way of getting past the spam problem, by opening communication channels only along lines that mirror pre-existing social relationships. Just think about LinkedIn, which explicitly limits your ability to contact people based on how closely you are connected. That whole model of using social networks to construct boundaries around who gets our attention is in some part thanks to the problem of ungated attention first demonstrated by spam.
  6. Marketing with value: Spam’s assault on e-mail delivery and opening rates first forced marketers to think about what they could actually offer to make an e-mail worth reading. That consciousness and skill set has served marketers well in the social media era, where the competition for attention is even fiercer. If some online marketing now delivers real value to its targets — think the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty or Dell’s Ideastorm — that’s because marketers have learned that providing tangible value is one way to earn people’s attention.
  7. Opt in, opt out: To address the spam problem, many countries have laws that require all bulk e-mails to include an opt-out link, and/or to be sent only by people who have explicitly opted into the mailing list. (Of course, these laws are ignored by all kinds of illegitimate operations, which is why spam volumes remain so high.) This has given us the idea that you don’t demand the attention of someone who hasn’t asked for your content, and that losing someone’s attention is a routine and acceptable part of our communications ecosystem. You can see that principle extended into technologies and practices like the ever-evolving policies on what appears in your Facebook news feed, and the ease of unfollowing people on Twitter.
  8. Ignoring communications: Spam taught us that it was OK to ignore a lot of e-mail. We still have a ways to go in overcoming our notion that all e-mail deserves a reply, but to the extent that we’re asserting some sense of agency over how we allocate our attention, it builds on the foundations established by spam. Once you learn how to ignore offers from Nigerian princes, it gets a lot easier to ignore irrelevant office-wide memos.
  9. Getting rich quick: In a world that delivers daily messages about how you can get rich quick, it’s understandable that we’d lose our patience for long, slow empire-building. Maybe it’s overreaching to blame (or credit) spam for a generation of social media sites built on the business model of, “let’s build something that we can get Yahoo! or Google to buy.” But some of the startups that found their quick return through early acquisition have included some great tools for managing our information and communications (hello, delicious and Radian6).
  10. Penis talk: If we weren’t so constantly deluged by spam ads promoting Viagra, Cialis and penis enlargement, we might think that the size and engorgement of one’s genitalia were strictly personal matters. Thanks to spam, we now know how much people like to think and talk about penises, information that has helped to drive some of the Internet’s most successful entertainment sites. Imagine if we’d wasted all that attention on lady parts instead!

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.