Organization for the Distracted Information Junkie

Posted on December 16, 2020
Tags: learning skills 100DaysToOffload

Tim Lavoie

Sipping from the Information Firehose

or, how to not get anything done


I find many, many things totally fascinating, and mostly, I’m pretty happy with that. There is a strong appeal to novelty, an always-on connection, and never an end to it all. The problem is that this forever stream of new news, internet cats and such is that it can take away from the ability to complete a task, a thought, or a coherent sentence. It took long enough to find just the right graphic above, never mind writing down a few short words.

Sometimes, there is a place for random, fluffy content ingestion. Shitty things happen in the world, and some cute critter pics can be wonderfully relaxing. Like the rats in the “pleasure center” experiment in the 1950s though, we are all too prone to clicking over, and over, and over again.

On its own though, reading things that you find er, stimulating, isn’t bad in its own right. I may find myself reminded that I’m channeling Cliff from the Cheers bar, but it might be harmless enough to fill up on junk tidbits. Really though, it is more satisfying if you can apply what you’ve read to some purpose.

In the interest of responsible disclosure, I’ll admit that this is something I find to be a work in progress.

I’m sure there are many schools of time management I don’t find those that are too strict to be especially helpful, like “no distractions until the end of the day.” Still, guidelines are quite helpful. One such that I’ve tried out some is the Pomodoro Technique, where you use a timer to break the day up into bite-sized pieces. Instead of grinding away for hours on something without end, the idea is to remind yourself to take short breaks with a timer, then get back to work. I find the idea great, but perhaps a bit inflexible when the work day is partly decided by other people’s demands and schedules.

Rather than using a timer that might actually degrade productivity by interrupting the flow I’m in when making progress, I let the flow itself guide when I need a short break, walk around, whateer. That is, if things are not going well, and I’m not on a phone call, I’ll feel free to switch gears and maybe go clear my head a bit. If you need a timer to remind you to get back to work though, that could be helpful.

Minimizing Distractions

The world is full of distractions, many of our own creation. This should also mean that we have some element of control over them, should we make a conscious choice to do so.

Most of us carry personal distraction devices, which will chirp, whirr, buzz or ding at the slightest provocation. Browsers now prompt us to allow notifications because the site we’re on wants to be able to ping us at will.

The benchmark I use is, "how important is it to me that I am aware of something, right now? Default settings for phone apps in particular seem to be especially egregious, but then their masters have different motivators than us. I take a few steps:

  • Start with an app in its default state.
  • See how much it irritates me, or demands my attention for something that I don’t find important.
  • A message type that is usually personal, and with some expectation of immediacy, can make a a sound.
    • Phone calls can ring until answered, silenced, or they hit voice mail.
    • Text or directed chat messages can make a brief noise, once.
    • Emails are always silent.
    • Reminders of the above may leave a flag on the home screen icon. Ditto for a count of unread emails, but I’m also ruthless at purging useless emails quicikly when I do check them. Flag, delete, maybe ignore, in that order. I don’t permit things like icons for counts of unread stories, because there is no real attention demand.
    • Web sites asking if I’ll allow notifications, almost never do. There are a few, but they’re definitely in the matters-to-me-now bucket.

I find it helpful to be aware of the idea of dark patterns, in that manipulative choices or actions in a web site or mobile app reflect badly on their value to me. Like the “important to me” carrot, there is the “this bothers me” stick. Facebook is probably the reigning king of self-serving, doom-scrolling, click-bait bullshit; I cut it out of my life entirely, as a clean break is more effective than trying to moderate the beast.

Some people use web browser add-ons to limit screen time for sites that are known time sinks. I haven’t tried them, but one example is Limit for Firefox. Ad-blockers are vital to a sane web experience, I recommend uBlock Origin.

Curated Sources

Part of the issue with so much information out there, from so many sources, is that the largest content platforms are not working for you. That is, a site like Facebook has its own user-opaque algorithms that decide what stories to show you. You won’t necessarily see the ones you want, or in sequential order, because there is some other factor messing with the results.

Maybe someone paid more, trumping your free post that your own FB friends might be interested in. Perhaps jiggling the timeline adds some random element that keeps people scrolling in case they missed something from last time.

RSS, short for “RDF Site Summary” or “Really Simple Syndication”, is a summary format file that can be imported into a feed reader application or service. Like it says in the linked article, the file is displayed using some sort of aggregator. Most keep track of which stories you’ve read, or at least are no longer interested in. Clicking a link takes you to the full story, on the original site. There is a similar format called Atom, but many apps support both.

This allows you to quickly skim a list of new stuff (still feeding that itch), but in a way that allows you to pick out the bits that look interesting, than go, “nah, I’m done” and clear the rest off.

A few things make this more powerful.

  • You can export that feed list, taking it to a new service (like when Google shut down their popular Reader site), or just to try out a new tool. This set of feeds is yours to use. The file is exported into yet another XML format called OPML, standardized like RSS itself.

  • The basic ideas allow for many unique interfaces, according to your preference. Some give you a newspaper-like feel. Others are very minimal, text-only, but can incorporate a search-oriented view instead of site-oriented.

  • The standardized formats make it easy for a site to support. (cough Yeah, I haven’t quite done it here yet. Soon.) Add a site’s RSS feed link to your reader, and you’re set. You won’t miss stories, and neither will you have to trawl through all your fave haunts to find them.

  • This feed aggregator system can be run locally, self-hosted, or let someone else do it all. You can take as much control as you’re comfortable with. I run an instance of TT-RSS, but have subscribed to Newsblur and like it as well. Both provide a means to use a standard web browser, but apps are available for mobile use.

Anyway, try out a few feed readers, add some sites that have content that interests you, and see what works. Oh, and back that feed OPML file up now and then.

Note taking: So many options, find one that works for you

For now, I won’t get into much detail, as this is already too long. Basically, you will want to find a method of taking notes, and make it an easy task so that you can start and maintain the habit. A few thoughts:

  • Make it something portable. That is, be sure you can export your data to some other format if you need to, because the chosen app, service or computer may go away some day.

  • Ensure that repetitive tasks are easy. Technology can help, or make it too complicated.

  • Think of how you will look for information you recorded before. Do you use categories, tags, perhaps full-text search? It’s no good if it becomes a one-way black hole for you.

Note: This is post #3 for #100DaysToOffload. Yeah, I’m a bit behind.

Update 2020-12-17: Just noticed that the tags at the top were still copied from the previous post I’d opened as a half-assed template. The TODO then is to create a whole-assed post template for the future.

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