Taming the internet

Facebook, Twitter, and news websites can be a dreadful drag on productivity. The temptation is always there to see if someone has posted something somewhere. Checking websites kills productivity because you interrupt what you are doing, and requires you to try and remember if the site has changed since you last looked five minutes ago. Most of the time there’s nothing new, but it can still easily take a minute or two to check a few sites.

One solution is to decide to be disciplined and not check. I find that impossible, and besides, I actually really enjoy Twitter and so forth — it seems overkill to completely give up something enjoyable that in theory only requires a few minutes a day of attention. What is more, I can’t actually concentrate on one task for several hours at a time. I need regular breaks in my work. The real problem is making the breaks (& distractions) regular and widely spaced enough that they help my productivity, instead of destroying it.

The great thing is that computers are really good at checking websites and seeing if they have changed. There’s no reason for me to do it. Even better, you can tell computer software to only check occasionally. That way, you never miss anything, and at the same time you can schedule your interruptions to fit your pattern of working.

To do that, I use four apps. One important feature is that most of them live in the menu bar, meaning the the windows visible in Spaces are all work-related:

  1. Fantastical — I no longer have to keep iCal open to see my upcoming schedule, and I can easily add and edit new appointments. As a bonus, adding new appointments can be done by just typing in a description of the appointment in (fairly) normal English. As I get more into using Siri, the adding of appointments is less necessary, but it’s still great when I’m reading an email to add an appointment without leaving the email app.
  2. Sparrow — this is my main email client. It has a very small main window that looks more like a Twitter client than a conventional email program. It also lives mostly in the menu bar, lighting up (and giving me a Growl notification) when new mail arrives. It also has simple & quick archive support: even though I don’t use GMail, I like the model of an empty inbox, with incoming mail either being dealt with or archived. Full-text search means that there’s no need to use folders any more (I have over 10,000 archived messages, and it’s easier to find messages with search than it used to be with a huge folder hierarchy; I tried using tags/labels but found it too tedious trying to manage them, and ended up searching most of the time anyway).
  3. Reeder — this is what I use for RSS feeds, so that I never need to check news websites. I used to just have only those websites I often read full articles from in my RSS feed reader. But recently I have added the high-volume news websites like BBC News into Reeder, because it stops me checking the BBC website. I keep high-volume general news in a separate folder, so that I can quickly skim through the headlines, only occasionally reading an article. I have found that I read fewer articles this way, and the BBC web site was the last one I used to regularly check during the day. Reeder has a built-in option to clip an article to Evernote, which I use to save and search interesting articles. The only downside with Reeder is that you can’t hide its window/make it live in the menu bar.
  4. Socialite — this is how I follow Twitter and Facebook. In theory, I could use this for RSS feeds too, but it’s not as good a feed reader as Reeder. In fact, it’s not a brilliant client for either Twitter or Facebook, but it does the job for both of them. I get notifications for both Twitter and Facebook on my phone, so I only need Socialite for new posts.

I set Reeder and Socialite to only update every 30 minutes, which is what I find works for me. That way, I don’t get interrupted too often, but I get to take regular short breaks from real work. Plus I know I’ve not missed anything.