As someone who makes digital content for a living (websites, blogs, etc), it is easy to believe that consuming digital content is just as important as creating it. But is it?
For the record, I’m not a big “productivity” guy who feels the need to optimize every aspect of his life. Instead, I weigh every task against my desire to spend time with my wife or play legos with my daughters. If I’m sitting in front of a computer or on my phone, I’d better have a really good reason. I want to be sure that I’m using my time efficiently so that I can get back to my family as soon as possible.
Recently, I started to pay more attention to the strong pull of mindless web surfing. Even as I write this article, there’s a voice in my head that says Check the news, you know the President did something crazy today and Opening another browser tab couldn’t hurt and Did I hear an email come in? The urge to stray away from working is only heightened by the immediate access to literally any piece of information I can think of. Why work when I have other pressing matters to attend to, like when the next episode or Last Man on Earth comes on or that Paul Shaffer released a new album featuring Jenny Lewis, Shaggy, and Hootie (of Blowfish fame)?
It’s so easy to watch an entire afternoon slip away as your attention is overtaken by the digital noise. Here’s a few thoughts I have on how to spring clean your digital media consumption.
In the most simple terms, I try to think of my professional life as a ratio between consuming and creating. In an eight hour workday, do I spend a disproportionate amount of time reading news articles, design tips, and hot takes on Silicon Valley drama? Have I created anything of value (to myself or to others) yet?
I find myself using the word inspiration as a justification for mindlessly surfing the web. I come across a new idea, a beautiful design style, or an emerging technology that fits right into place with a new project I’m working on. These serendipitous match-ups, a brief ten seconds of time, may make us feel good about the three unproductive hours spent reading webcomics, but at the end of the day, inspiration always finds us, whether we’re zoning out in front of Pinterest or not.
Pay attention to your consuming-creating ratio. Decide what’s right for you and stick to it.
Beware of Algorithmic Aggregators
Late in 2016, I deleted Facebook. Then I realized I had a few business pages and developer accounts I still had to manage, so I made a fake Facebook page (a Fakebook?) that has zero friends. Zero friends means zero news feed. There is literally no reason to log in, unless I need to do something work-related.
I had spent some time before that trying to measure the amount of value I was getting from Facebook. It didn’t take long to realize that there wasn’t any value. At all. I wasn’t using it to connect with friends or follow their lives, I was using it to absorb advertisements and cringe at distant relatives’ obnoxious opinions on current events.
Every time I scrolled through my feed, I felt vaguely uneasy and disappointed. I’d close the app only to find myself opening it again five minutes later.
One problem with social media platforms is that they function as algorithmic aggregators of content, they don’t actually create it themselves. I think Instagram has done a slightly better job of showcasing creativity over commerce, but we’re already seeing that slip away (I’m talking to you “girl who sells makeup and posts her damn promo codes every five minutes”).
What social media platforms offer is discovery, the ability to find things that feel like they’re new. We feel like we’re growing as a person, learning new ideas, new styles, new recipes. Tyler Cowen does a great job, however, at showing how modern technology may be leading us to more segration and less diversity overall.
Aggregators are victims of the algorithm: they only show you what they think you already like. Don’t buy into the discovery myth.
Clean out Your Feeds
For Facebook, I just threw the baby out with the bathwater. And in the last six months, I haven’t felt a single twinge of regret.
But I do have other feeds I tend to. The main difference is that these are feeds that I mostly control. Facebook really lost value to me when it started injecting articles and posts from friends of friends into your stream, ultimately taking away the ability to filter what shows up.
That’s a main reason I’m still a fan of old school RSS. I love the ability to subscribe to my favorite writers and see all their latests posts without any fluff- no sidebar ads, no comments, no popups. Pure textual healing.
But sometimes I find myself ignoring the bulk of what shows up in my feed reader, so I take a minute every few weeks to delete anything I generally skip over, in my RSS reader but also in Instagram and other feeds. If I haven’t been reading your articles or looking at your photos recently, I just delete you.
Cleaning out feeds means that you’ll inherently spend less time in the app or on the website overall. Less time giving your attention to something you were just going to scroll right past anyway.
Intermittent Media Fasting
I generally don’t eat anything until ten or eleven AM. Before that, it’s just coffee. There’s no scientific reasoning behind this, I don’t even know that it’s very good for you. I’m just typically not hungry yet. The technical term for extended periods of not-eating is called intermittent fasting. I think we can use the same idea in our digital media consumption.
Do you wake up and check your Instagram? Do you scroll through Facebook on the toilet or in the elevator? I used to spend the first hour or two at my desk catching up on ‘work-related’ blog articles. It was work-related, so it felt like I was being productive. The truth is, I didn’t have any part of the day that lasted more than thirty minutes where I didn’t pause my creativity to consume.
Now, I try (and sometimes fail) to avoid any digital input for the first few hours of the day. The morning is typically when my brain is freshest and my desire to work is strongest. Not strong, per se, but at least stronger than the late afternoon when I’m yelling at my fifth cup of coffee for not doing it’s job.
Set some time that belongs to you and your creativity and guard it with your life. I mean, it is your life.
Track Your Time
Of course, this whole overconsumption of bullshit media may be a problem unique to me (I doubt it, but it could be). The best way to find out for sure is to monitor where my attention goes by monitoring where my time goes. I use simple time tracking software to keep myself focused on one task at a time. At the end of the day, I like to see that I’ve spent a decent amount of time creating value for myself or my clients, instead of reading the news and browsing Twitter.
Here’s a few of the things I’ve been reading that have helped me stay inspired to clean out my digital media consumption:
- Tyler Cowen’s Complacent Class series
- Neil Postman’s seminal book Amusing Ourselves to Death
- Cal Newport’s blog, specifically his recent posts on Digital Minimalism
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