Value Constrains Us. At Least, It Should.

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A friend of mine asked me, “How do you manage the billions of chat messages, chat apps, social media, etc.? I’m becoming so inefficient it isn’t funny.”

TL;DR

The short answer is that I don’t manage them. I mostly ignore them. I don’t view most of these apps, especially social media, as something to be kept up with. I declared permanent amnesty (some would say bankruptcy) some time ago. I have a different viewpoint on these tools than I once did.

See also the post I wrote on Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work in May 2016.

I limit active participation.

I only take part in a few services, and I’m not consistently active on any of them. Despite however many followers I might have on a given platform, the world doesn’t care what I have to say on those services so much that my contributions especially matter. Therefore, stepping back isn’t harming anyone, nor is it disappointing someone that I’m not saying something or participating in every conversation that I might. No one notices.

Conversely, I don’t pay attention to everything everyone else is saying on all the platforms where things are being said. The Internet allows everyone to talk to everyone else in a multitude of ways, making it impossible to keep up with all conversations that I might be engaged in.

Chats and social media conversations are ephemeral, often (not always) with little ultimate benefit. This is not where I am going to have my biggest impact. Therefore, my primary uses of these channels are to be available to people who wish to direct message me, to observe trends and news that will impact my research, writing and podcasting, and to share things I create with anyone following me, presuming they might be interested.

I am selective about which networks to take part in.

Right now, I keep an eye on the #packetpushers IRC channel on Freenode, but do not chat in there very much. I sporadically monitor a specific group I created in Twitter, and interact now and then. I check LinkedIn occasionally. Sometimes, I rage tweet because it amuses me. Frequently, I use Buffer to schedule tweets and LinkedIn posts, as that’s a hands-off method of posting to social media over time. Sometimes, I delete my Twitter history, which feels rather like taking out the garbage.

I’m in several Slack groups, but only participate actively in the one we use to run our company. I am a redditor, but never during the parts of my day where I am focused on productivity. I am on Skype, but only when I am recording a podcast with remote guests. I do not belong to Facebook, SnapChat, or any other network.

I disable almost all notifications.

I have disabled notifications for almost everything. My phone auto-sets “do not disturb” mode for the evenings through the mornings, and I could be even more aggressive with DnD. I do not receive notifications for my inbox, Twitter, or LinkedIn on my phone, tablet, or desktop at any time, ever.

I do get notifications for direct messages and mentions in Slack, and for Apple iMessage. That’s it. I choose to allow the disruption of these few notifications because there aren’t that many of them, and they are often from someone that might require a timely response from me.

That perspective frees up my brain. If I find my brain is still not freed up when I need it to be, I use an app called Anti-Social for the Mac to keep me focused. There are other apps like Anti-Social I am looking into that might be more flexible and helpful.

I view social media as a tool that can serve my interests, but does so badly.

I have become increasingly aware that social media platforms are purposefully designed to keep my attention. Armed with this awareness, I resist by opting to play the game less and less. Even so, being engaged with social media and chat is a hard habit to break, especially if you get lonely working in an isolated office, as I sometimes do.

Listen to this podcast where Tristan Harris is interviewed for a frank insider’s view of how we are manipulated to spend our time poorly by clicking and scrolling. This is not “time well spent,” a phrase Tristan uses frequently in the interview.

If I don’t wish my time to be wasted and my brain manipulated by social media, chat, etc., then of what use is it to me? I view social media as a tool to foster community. Community-minded people create for one another and interact with one another about those creations. Social media & chat can be used as a platform to discuss and exchange ideas.

The trick is that social media platforms aren’t designed for community as such. They are designed to mete out influence and hold attention, frequently through sensationalism or, as Tristan puts it, “outrage.” Those goals are antithetical to considered, intellectual discussions and a meaningful exchange of ideas.

It is possible for social media to host these sorts of conversations, but often the ultimate value is masked by the platform itself. For example, Twitter is a difficult platform upon which to have deep discourse. Why? Nuance and subtlely are lost in the 140 character limit, and conversation threads fracture as different users step in at different times to contribute. LinkedIn has become a minefield of trite memes and feel-good stories that bury useful content–of which there is some–in a waterfall of pablum.

Whenever I find myself on LinkedIn, Twitter, or a Slack channel, I have to continually ask myself, “Why am I here?” When I don’t have a good answer, I acknowledge that I’ve been fooled again, and do my best to get back to work, with the help of the aforementioned Anti-Social if necessary.

I consider the value of content I consume or create.

When I want to share thoughts with people, the best way for me is through writing and podcasting. In other words, I prefer to engage through long-form content where I am free to fully explore ideas. Lots of folks follow my blog, subscribe to my newsletter, or listen to one or more of the podcasts I co-host. Therefore, it is for those folks that I exert most of my creative energy, and how I anticipate having the most effective impact.

Sidebar. For those wondering how this would work for you if you don’t have an audience, consider that sticky audiences are built on the foundation of valuable information you create and share. This takes time and persistence. Limit social media’s role to that of marketing ally to help raise awareness of your valuable creativity–a topic for another day.

Tweets and LinkedIn posts are shouting into the wind, even if you have a lot of followers. So much is being said on those platforms that targeting is lost. You aren’t as likely to be heard if you’re just one account of dozens or hundreds that someone is following. Your interjection is lost in the noise of everyone else’s. Therefore, I don’t perceive significant value in creating (or consuming) in those noisy spaces.

Looking at it another way, I focus on saying meaningful things in the places where people have purposely signed up to hear me. I don’t try to compete in the noisy spaces where everyone is competing with everyone else. I especially don’t want to use a platform that competes for attention in ways that make people less able to comprehend deeper information.

This is a roundabout way to explain how I think of information overload. I lump all podcasts, blogs, tweets, waterfalls, feeds, inbox, chat, etc. together. It’s all information I need to take in and react to in some way.

As a creator, I am contributing to this overload problem Internet participants have. Therefore, when I’m acting in my most grown up and responsible way, I subject both what I’m creating (for the sanity of others) and what I’m consuming (for the sanity of self) to the constraint of value. By this standard, my track record isn’t perfect, but value as a constraint is increasingly on my mind.

When I create something (whether an impromptu tweet that took seconds to conjure or a podcast that took hours), is it valuable for others to consume? The hope is that the created work rises above the average Internet expulsion, and is a worthwhile expenditure of someone’s time.

Time is a non-renewable resource. Asking someone for their time is a weighty matter. Your creation should be worth what you’re asking for.

Whether creating or consuming, the end game is focus.

When we purge our screens of distractions, we enter into a zone of potential productivity.

When we let go of Internet obligation and the fear of missing out, we are free to create and accomplish.

When the mind can focus, serious work can be efficiently achieved.

When we are focused on valuable things, time is well spent.

By Ethan Banks

Ethan Banks is a podcaster and writer with a BSCS and 20+ years in enterprise IT. He's operated data centers with a special focus on infrastructure — especially networking. He's been a CNE, MCSE, CEH, CCNA, CCNP, CCSP, and CCIE R&S #20655. He's the co-founder of Packet Pushers Interactive, LLC where he creates content for humans in the hot aisle.

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