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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Re-evaluating Your Online Commitments

overworked.gifThis is the time of the year for everybody to make lame, half-hearted resolutions about how they’re going to lead a better life in the new year: lose weight, stop smoking, eat less fried cheese, take a ceramics class, etc. My gym is already full of flabby, confused-looking people who spend more time adjusting their iPod cases and checking out their new track suits in the mirror than actually doing reps. I usually treat January as my month to be lazy; I stay away from the gym for a few weeks until the interlopers poop out.

But it is a new year, and it’s not a bad idea to at least try to alter some of your bad habits, pick up a new skill, or do something to make yourself happier. My suggestion for this year addresses a problem I suspect many of the people who read this site have: the sheer number of online commitments--that is, blogs, social networks, message groups, IM accounts, Flickr, Twitter, and any other online time sink that ends with an R--that we try to maintain.

Consume vs. Produce

A couple of my posts in the past few weeks dealt with the problem of trying to consume too much information. What about how much we try to produce? At one point last fall, I realized I was trying to run five blogs, two Flickr accounts, and a del.icio.us page, all the while keeping up a constant patter on Twitter, IM, and email. Only two of those things were strictly necessary for my work; the rest just made their way into my life somehow. Sure, I was doing a lot of it because it was fun, but I knew I had to scale back or else I was going to end up speaking only in 140-character, hyperlinked sentences.

I knew I had to scale back or else I was going to end up speaking only in 140-character, hyperlinked sentences.

And I fear I may be a lightweight in this arena. I won’t touch MySpace or Facebook with a ten-foot pole, mainly because I’m afraid if I do I might stop sleeping. Many of those sites and services crept into my attention span through slow accretion: first I had a blog, then another, then I started sharing photos on Flickr, then I started bookmarking at del.icio.us, etc. After a while, I just hung on to everything out of habit.

My problem, and I suspect this will resonate with many of you, is that I felt like I needed to do many of these things to keep up with the techno-jonses. “All the cool kids have a blog, and I want to be a cool online guy, so I should too. I don’t know anyone on Twitter personally, but everyone says it’s fun, so I should try it too. Hey, what’s your IM handle? Did you see that link I put up on del.icio.us?” As a self-styled writer, I also felt this constant tug to promote myself, to put my work out there for everyone to see, to network and make connections and hope I could stumble into a break (nevermind that my best opportunities have always come from good old fashioned resume passing and phone calls).

Why do we saddle ourselves with so many unnecessary commitments? It’s one thing to sign up for a bunch of accounts then never use them, but I was actively participating in all of those things. And like any time you spread yourself too thin, I was turning out half-assed, unimaginative slop most of the time. This may be a unique problem for me because I want to put a lot of care into what I write everywhere, all the time, but it’s as if constantly jabbering in all those places was using up all my words. If you can pull it off, or if you’re just doing it for fun, then more power to you. I just crossed a threshold of diminishing returns, probably not long after I branched out from a simple personal site.

Cutting Ties

Eventually, I dropped a few of the side-project blogs and toned down the bookmarking. So where do you start trimming the online fat?

  • Take baby steps - Chances are there’s one online outlet that you know you just don’t have the heart to maintain anymore, be it a blog, Twitter, Facebook, whatever. Drop one of them, then see if any other candidates fall to the bottom by attrition.
  • Don’t be sentimental - Consider it a mercy killing, you may even be relieved to let it go. Personally, I’m eyeing my eponymous blog too; it’s long past it’s expiration date, and I’ve kept it up all these years simply out of a sense of loyalty because it was my first real stake in the online ground. But I’m not really enjoying it anymore.
  • Be realistic - Not to be mean, but are there really that many people reading your blog about six-fingered chimpanzees who learned how to reprogram discarded vibrators to hum college fight songs*? Will your social life crumble if you dump MySpace? Like I said before about spreading yourself too thin, dropping a few online activities may actually improve your following elsewhere, because you’ll be more focused and do better work.

I’m not suggesting you try to make a lot of deep, metaphysical decisions about who you are and how you want to represent yourself, but if you’re doing something online that you just don’t like anymore, or can’t understand why, drop it. Just like one of those knuckle-cracking, tobacco–stained, whiskey-breath real world vices, the new year is as good a time as any to let it go.

*-On second thought, if you have a blog about this, by all means, keep it.

Walt's picture

Live to Enjoy!

I read articles like this and wonder why. Why are you in the state you are in that requires so much trimming. So much to do in your business life that you have to use some type of GTD to prioritize your time. That you have to decide which emails to throw away. That your personal life is so intertwined with your professional life that sometimes you can't tell where one stops and the other begins. I used to be there. Fearing that phone call that would keep me working all night. It was stress just wondering if that phone call was going to come.

I sometimes forget that I used to be in that same predicament. In 2003 I began a year long process of trimming my life of things I just didn't like anymore. That included everything from spouse to job. Now I'm doing a job I love to do. Come friday, I'm happy it's the weekend. Come Sunday, I'm happy it's the work week that is approaching. I work knowing that come 4:30, my day's work is done. Nobody at work has my phone number or would even have a reason to call me. I'm not checking email for work while at home. My iPhone does, and if I'm curious, I can check it out. But I don't have to. I love being with the spouse I should have been with. I love everything I do. I buy whatever I want, which kind of sucks come Christmas - the wife doesn't know what to get me.

But now, I get amused reading your articles here. If you don't like doing them, why do them at all? If you even have to think about it, maybe you should just stop. Enjoy life. It's too short not to.




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