Don’t Shit Where You Eat

There’s a reason why offices don’t have gigantic screens blasting 24-hour cable news all day. No one would get anything done, fist fights would break out, and there’d be an uptick in the number of heart attacks happening around the office. For a whole lot of reasons, it makes sense to create separation between the professional workspace and whatever’s happening outside the walls of the office.

The digital world provides no such separation. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter serve up a never-ending jambalaya of professional, personal, and newsworthy posts. The design of these services make it extraordinarily difficult to compartmentalize the information we’re exposed to, which leads to constant distractions and split attention.

I rely on Facebook to keep up to speed with my IRL friends and family. I rely on Twitter to participate in the latest goings on in my professional field. Lately, I’ve found it next to impossible to go about my professional life as usual. I’m not the only one.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely critical to be a well-informed citizen and have a solid understanding of the important (and oftentimes terrible) events that are going on in world. But there’s a difference between being informed and being completely waterlogged with information. For the sake of your health and sanity, it’s important to be aware of what information you’re consuming, how you’re consuming it, and how often you’re consuming it. The Information Diet dives into this topic in detail.

It’s true you can exert some effort to take control of how you receive information. Doing this requires awareness, discipline, and dedication. Personally, here are some steps I’m taking to try to take control of how and when I receive information:

  • Add news sources to a dedicated list and unfollow news accounts on Twitter.
  • Unsubscribe from all news-related email newsletters, with the exception of the fantastic Eat That, Read This that covers local Pittsburgh news.
  • Turn off news notifications on my phone (both iOS and Android have recently snuck news updates into your notification screens, meaning that you get a blast of news simply by looking at your phone)
  • Dust off my RSS reader (I use Feedly) and make that the primary way I consume the news.
  • Use tools like Focus to wall out distractions for large portions of the work day.
  • Try to schedule times for reading the news rather than having it continuously bombard me throughout the day. This will be tough, especially since I’m not going to the extreme of unfollowing friends who are primarily discussing current events. When friends tweet or post something, I’m typically quick to stop what I’m doing to investigate what they shared. I’ll try to be more mindful of that knee-jerk reaction.

I’m sure there’s more I can do to take control, but I’m hoping this will be a good start.

As for the design of social networks, I’m struggling to find ways for Facebook and Twitter to address this issue. Say what you will about Google+, but they do a good job at giving people the opportunity to follow along with someone’s posts on a certain topic without being exposed to their other interests. Of course this curation requires a bit more effort on everyone’s part (which may be why it’s not as popular as it could be), but mentally I keep coming back to it as a smart way of solving this problem.

Again, I’ll stress that the idea is not to stick my head in the sand and become ignorant to the world around me, but rather take control of how and when I consume information in an effort to stay sane.