There’s no doubt that for most people who do a lot of online work (and play), the numerous amounts of web tools, blogs, social media, incoming messages, files stored and just general information can be quite overwhelming.
Sure, we’ve learned to cope with it all, but there is a simpler way.
If we focus on simplifying our online lives, we can drastically reduce the amount of time we spend online, the amount of time we spend working, the amount of information we have to consume, and the amount of stuff we have to keep track of.
Just like simplifying a room, removing the distractions and detritus of your online life can bring calm and focus, two things that are sorely missing from many people’s online lives these days.
1. Choose a few essentials. This step is the key to simplifying your online life. Take a step back and think about everything you do online: from email to RSS to IM to forums to blogs to games to social media to social bookmarking to organizing tools to web apps and more. What do you check regularly? Where do you spend most of your time? Now give a little thought to what you think is most essential: what gives you the most benefit for your time? What is most important to your life and career? Put an asterisk next to those things — they are your essentials. Try to focus on them and eliminate the rest as much as possible.
2. Limit your inboxes. We often have many more inboxes than we realize. Here, we’re going to define inboxes as all the ways that we receive messages or information — the stuff we need to check daily or weekly. If you partake in multiple email accounts, IM and Twitter, forums and newsgroups, social networking and more, chances are that you have 5-10 different inboxes. But do you have the time to check all of them regularly? Find ways to either forward messages to a central inbox (through RSS or email forwarding) or eliminate as many inboxes as possible. The fewer you have, the less time and energy you’ll spend checking messages.
3. Keep your inbox empty. If you could get your inboxes down to just one or two or even three, keeping them empty would be a much easier task. The key is to take a three-pronged approach: 1) reduce the amount of messages you receive by unsubscribing from newsletters and mailing lists and more, and setting up “delete” filters for people who send you junk; 2) check your email only once or twice a day, to limit interruptions; and 3) processing to empty each time, making decisions and taking actions on each email, and then deleting them or archiving them out of your inbox. Process to empty!
4. Simplify your RSS feeds. If you’re like me, you might have more than 100 feeds (or at least dozens of them). That’s a lot to read each day. I’ve recently simplified my feeds from more than 100 down to 10 essential ones, and now I only have a dozen or so items to read through each day — and even then, I only scan through them and read a few of them in depth.
5. Create routines. This is key to simplifying your online life. Most people go through their online day haphazardly, checking this or that as the whim comes to them. That’s normal, given the nature of the web. But it doesn’t have to be that way (at least, not completely) … you can designate certain hours of the day for doing certain tasks. For example, a daily routine could include: 1) an hour of actual work before checking on anything; 2) an hour of processing email, reading RSS feeds and checking other inboxes; 3) another hour of online work without distractions; 4) an hour of interacting with online colleagues through IM or group chat; 5) another hour of work; 6) an hour of processing email and checking other routine sites; and 7) an hour of planning using online tools.
6. Purge files. If you store a lot of files, either on your hard drive, on your desktop, in your email, or in other online storage areas, it’s a good idea to regularly purge them, perhaps once a month. Too many unnecessary files leads to clutter, stress, disorganization. If you want to purge weekly, that’s even better, but once a month will suffice for most people. Get yourself cleaned up and organized, ready for action.
7. Set limits. As implied in the “create routines” step above, it’s important to have limits to what you do online. For example, you don’t want to be notified of email all day long. Whether you check email once a day, twice a day, or at the top of the hour, set limits to when you do it. Same thing with chatting or connecting with others — only make yourself available at certain times of the day, so you can work without interruption. And, of course, you need to set limits for when you’re online. If you do it all of your waking hours, you won’t have a life outside of the web.
8. Know when to disconnect and focus. There are times you need to clear all distractions, such as when you’re writing an article or a report. You can’t have people pinging you and inboxes calling for your attention. Sure, we said you should create routines and set limits, but during these times that require focus, we can’t take the chance that the siren’s call of online attention-grabbers will steal that focus from you. So during these times, disconnect completely, and focus. Learn to stop yourself from pulling away, and work in bursts, so that you can concentrate completely and actually get things done.