Every so often, I get somewhat dissatisfied with an aspect of how I’m spending my time; these days, it generally involves rethinking the way small actions fill time. I’m in the middle of one of those periods right now; it was kicked off by me running into a thought-provoking article about (temporarily) quitting Twitter right before I was about to have rather more free time than I was used to because of a hiatus I took from work.
I didn’t follow the article’s advice, but I’ve been thinking about what it said, because I think it’s pointing out something true and relevant to me that I wasn’t aware of before. It starts in a relatively familiar place, that
Twitter has done a lot of really great things for me. I’ve met a huge number of people I care about because of it, and a good number of those have become coworkers and colleagues—even closest friends. In fact, I’d say that outside of my family, most of “my people” in real life are folks I met on Twitter.
Which is a little stronger than I would phrase it myself, but at the core I agree with that point: Twitter leads to real friendships, real connections. It then moves on to a discussion of empathy:
The level of candor people often share on Twitter, particularly over time, has given me a strong sense of who some of the people I follow are, how they think, and what they value. I end up including many of the people on my Twitter list in the somewhat fuzzy set of people I empathize with.
As a result, I’ve actually been able to predict with frightening accuracy how well I’d get along and work with people I’ve followed on Twitter longer than a few months.
And that’s great, it really is. But the article then points out something that I hadn’t thought about as much:
But the problem that occurs is that it can be a huge mental lease we’re signing when we invite a few hundred people into our Twitter life. To some degree, it is choosing to subject ourselves to thousands of ads throughout the day, but ones that come from trusted sources we care about, so they’re actually impactful.
Even if the people we know aren’t explicitly selling things (not that there’s anything wrong with that) or Promoting their Personal Brand™ (there is everything wrong with that), we’re still choosing to accept their stream of one-second ads with *some* kind of message all day.
We’ve surrendered a massive amount of mental and emotional energy without making the explicit choice to do so—it’s simply imposed on us by subscribing to the channel and checking it.
This is also true. I need to care about people, I do care about people. But that doesn’t mean that I need to care about hundreds of people on an hour-by-hour basis, or that it’s healthy for me to do so.
The author of that article recommends taking an extended break from Twitter. I thought about doing that, and I still might do that; his reasons for that seem pretty good. But I have too many friends where I want to know what and how they’re doing on a week-by-week basis (if not necessarily an hour-basis), and where I won’t learn that any way other than Twitter. And Twitter serves an information role similar to blogs for me as well. I didn’t want to give either of those up; but I did want to acknowledge that spreading my empathy too thin was arguably unhealthy, and that while my life improves by having random input from interesting people, that doesn’t mean that it keeps on improving as much or, indeed, at all if I continue to add more interesting people into the bucket.
So I started unfollowing people. At first, that was easy enough, once I’d accepted the basic premise that the mere fact that somebody is nice isn’t enough of a connection. Basically, I unfollowed people whom I hadn’t met in person or had conversations through other mediums (e-mail, voice chat), whom I didn’t have regular conversations with over Twitter, and who didn’t have blogs that caused me to think enough to get me curious about what they said in other mediums. Nice people all, I’m sure, and people whom I would be happy to meet in person; but I hadn’t.
That seemed like an improvement, and I appreciated the small but noticeable time savings it gave me. (For better or for worse, I’m a “read your entire feed” kind of person, in both my Twitter consumption and my blog consumption.) What I wasn’t expecting was what this revealed about the tweeting habits of other people I followed: with my Twitter traffic cut approximately in half, that gave a lot more room for more prolific tweeters to make their presence felt. (And more prolific retweeters—this noticeably increased the density of retweets in my feed, though I got that back under control by turning off retweets from a few people.)
This is where things got painful: there were several people who unquestionably fell in the bucket of “interesting people whom I’ve met in person, whom I care about, and who I wanted to see how they were doing on a week-by-week basis”. The problem is: some such people tweet on a minute-by-minute basis. And they’re at the center of conversations, which means that by seeing them I also see replies to them from other people I follow.
For better or for worse, I don’t have a good way to control that volume. (Maybe I should switch to a list-centric Twitter client?) Instead, though, I unfollowed a few more people. This time, it hurt—I can think of three people in particular whom I miss in my Twitter feed, I just don’t miss them quite enough to want my phone to be filled with page after page of their tweets. (So, to anybody who goes from this article to check whether I’m following them on Twitter and discovers to their surprise that I’m not anymore: that doubtless means that you’re one of those three people, and I miss you!)
I’m mostly over that hump; the gradual weeding-down continues, though. Results will vary, but: I’m happy both with my choice of following fewer people on Twitter and my choice to not take a vacation from Twitter. No promises that either of those will continue, but for now they seem like a reasonable place to be.
That’s Twitter; can/should I apply those lessons elsewhere? Blogs and podcasts are two potential analogues; and, in both places, I’ve been trying to reduce my volume of consumption as well.
Though those two play out differently, from each other and from Twitter. I’d already pared down my blog reading enough that I don’t have to carve out time to read blogs every day. Or at least I don’t have to catch up every day: I group my blogs into lists, and two of those lists I do catch up on most days. Those lists are short, though, and I haven’t particularly pruned them.
But I have pruned outside of them: ideally, I’d like my blog subscriptions to be at a level where I can read them one or two evenings a week and be caught up. (There’s certainly likely to be one or two evenings a week when I’m too tired to write here or concentrate on a game, and blogs can be good for that, though I will have to save a few of the more thoughtful pieces to read on a day when I’m less tired.) I ended up unsubscribing from a few prolific, generally more newsy feeds, and that’s brought the blogs relatively under control.
Podcasts are different: for a while, I’ve had the list of podcasts that I subscribe to in order to listen to every episode at a manageable level. But I find myself more and more often adding single episodes of podcasts that catch my eye somewhere to the queue, and that list is building up.
Contrary to my normal habits, though, I’m relatively comfortable with letting those build up. I’ve flagged those individual episodes as potentially interesting, but my brain seems relatively comfortable not treating that flagging as a commitment to listen to those episodes, so they sit in my podcast client for a while. And eventually I do listen to them or I delete them; I’m treating their volume as feedback that I should slightly raise my bar for what to save, but it’s not a big deal.
There is one thing that’s going on with my brain and podcasts that I’m not entirely comfortable with and that comes back to the empathy issue I mentioned above: the number of podcasts that I listen to that are by people who I generally consider interesting people but whom I don’t have an active reason to really feel I’m learning huge amounts from. I’m actually pretty good at not listening to every episode of such podcasts, but still: I’ll dip into episodes when they talk about something that catches my interest.
In particular, I do this with several of the shows on the 5by5 podcast network. (Or shows by people who used to be on it but aren’t any more, like John Gruber.) And what I’m realizing by observing myself is that I’m giving them access to an hour or two of my attention every week, and by doing that causing myself to care about things that, honestly, I don’t really want to care about. So I’m trying to be more careful about that now; I’m still listening to Horace Dediu regularly, because he talks about stuff that I really do want to think about, but I’m trying to raise my bar with other shows from that circle.
So, that’s Twitter, blogs, and podcasts: in all three, I’m slimming down, driven in part by time limitations and in part by a desire to not cede my choice in attention to other people. Which raises two questions: 1) What is the balance of those two drives? 2) What about other ways in which I’m spending my time?
Fortunately, I had a good test case for both of those questions recently: I had an unplanned vacation from work for a little more than a week of December. So I ended up having free time during the days, and asking the question of: how do I want to fill it?
The answer turned out not to be: by reading Twitter and blogs more. Instead, the single thing that I wanted to do the most was practice guitar; second on the list was catching up on blog posts; and the other two things that I spent significant amounts of time doing were programming and singing. (Playing games would doubtless have been on that list if I hadn’t been starting a Rocksmith binge and winding down a Rock Band 3 binge.)
Which is a list that I’m pretty comfortable with: if I run a thought experiment of what I would do if I were taking a year or two off of work instead of a week or two off, that’s still a plausible guess as to what I would do. Though I think I would try to make room for a larger-scale creative project in that situation; something that I’m open to now, actually, I’d be happy to carve out time for game development with the right collaborators.
I certainly wouldn’t try to find time to, say, listen to more podcasts—I was, in fact, going to say that I’d probably listen to fewer podcasts, but that’s probably not true, because I would still carve out time to walk, and I’d listen to podcasts during that time. (Or at least during some of that time: I should probably spend more of my walking time listening to music than I currently do.) I’m actually going to have another related experiment soon, when my employer moves to Redwood City: that will add a train commute to my day, and I think I’m going to fill that time with reading books instead of with podcasts.
(Side note that I’ll bring up now since I’m slipping into making lists: GTD, when done right, is not about having your life ruled by lists: it’s about feeling that, at any moment, you’re doing what you’ll find most satisfying. The lists, instead, are for two purposes: one is to provide a place for your long-term satisfaction and short-term satisfaction to negotiate with each other; and the other is to get you to take commitments seriously, so if you’re not sure if you want to do something, you don’t put it on your Next Actions list, you put it on your Someday/Maybe list. As I get better with GTD, my Next Actions list gets shorter, and I get more and more comfortable with doing whatever catches my fancy without worrying that I’m missing anything by doing that.)
(Side note two: if I had more free time, I quite possible would carve out more of it to play board games. Which I’m actually doing frequently at work over lunch, but that puts a cap on how long a game can be: I’d like to play longer games and play games more often with a wider group of people. Not that I don’t enjoy playing games with my coworkers, they’re a great group of people, but my family and non-coworkers friends are also great people!)
The other thing that I’m spending a lot of time on is learning Japanese. During the weekdays, that mostly consists of going through memory review (and that’s at the edge of taking noticeable amounts of time); and my weekends are getting more and more Japanese projects in them. (The current list is lessons with a teacher (about which I’ll blog soon), reading a children’s magazine, reading Hikaru no Go, and reading a grammar book.)
This is a little out of whack. Having said that, what is not out of whack is that I’m spending significant amounts of time learning Japanese: it’s still something I want to do, and I want to do well.
But the balance is off. I’m spending too much time memorizing stuff, both in terms of percentage and total volume. For the latter, it’s arguably a mistake that I started listening to Chinese-language podcasts; maybe I should stop adding new Chinese vocabulary words, maybe I should even delete existing ones from my memorization program. And for the former, I should spend more time reading and talking Japanese; aside from that being the ultimate goal of what I’m doing, I bet it will help my memorization (as long as I don’t get too uptight about entering new words), because I’ll have run into a lot more words in other contexts, so I’ll be more likely to remember them and hence my program will throw them at me less often. And I should try to carve out some reading time outside of weekends, too, so my weekend Japanese practice doesn’t start to feel like a chore.
So, that’s where things are. I want to keep on writing on this blog; I want to keep on playing guitar; I want to keep on programming (but work gives me a good amount of that); I want to spend an hour or so most days walking. I want to spend a little more time studying Japanese; I want to spend a little more time reading books, and a change in commute will make that easier. I want to continue playing games, but I’m okay with Rocksmith taking a fair amount (but certainly not all) of my video game playing time; I would like to have a little more of that time spent on board games. I want to immerse myself fairly deeply into the activities I’ve listed above, and that involves a real time commitment; that tradeoff means spending less time reading blogs and Twitter.
That seems like a pretty good plan for 2013.
This post has not been revised since publication.