In the last couple of months, I’ve been making an effort to avoid filling my spare moments with the distracting micro-tasks that have become so prevalent in the last few years. These are things like reading twitter messages while waiting in a line, checking in to foursquare when getting lunch with a friend or checking my email despite having just left my desk at work. I no longer have twitter and foursquare installed on my phone right now, though my email compulsion still needs work. My facebook usage has been quite rare for a while.
I’m not entirely sure what prompted me to start working on this. There are certainly plenty of studies that have shown little distractions like these to be unhealthy, but I think it was mostly just that I didn’t really like it when other people distracted themselves a lot around me, so I figured it was unreasonable of me to continue to act like that. If, for example, I go out to eat with a friend and sit down and tweet that I’m eating somewhere remotely interesting, the time I spend doing that is essentially a time in which I’ve decided that some group of people who aren’t present (and likely aren’t interested) is more deserving of my time than the person I’m sitting in front of.
Additionally, I’ve been working to switch to longer-form works (see my previous post on reading) and improve my signal-to-noise ratio. I’m still reading blogs, but I have pruned my subscriptions and I no longer make a strong effort to empty the queue regularly.
Making these changes wasn’t easy: I couldn’t help but wonder “what if I miss out on something valuable?” This was the same thing I wondered when I stopped using facebook regularly. Thinking a bit more about this, the thought seemed identical to that of a compulsive hoarder (I recently read Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things ). Hoarders often collect newspapers because they worry that the newspaper might have something of interest to them, so they must hold on to it in order to avoid missing out. They see the potential value without seeing the very real costs of this behavior. While I certainly don’t claim to have this compulsion, I can see some measure of commonality between their behavior and the fear of disconnecting online.
I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now, and I think it’s been a positive change. It’s a bit hard for the first few days, but I think it was worthwhile. It’s hard to really gauge the positive effects, though.