I’ve recently had a very troublesome realization about my line of work. I’m the managing editor for a few websites and a contributing editor for a few others. Websites happen to be on the Internet; a job that revolves around websites tends to require that you use the Internet.
The troublesome part is that the Internet can make it very hard to get work done. Child labor laws aside, it’s sort of like asking a six year old to work in a toy store. Don’t expect them to be doing much in the way of customer service or cashier work.
Once upon a time I used to enjoy the Internet in my spare time, but these days — due to the fact that the Internet is my place of work — you can’t get me off of it quickly enough at the end of the workday. That doesn’t mean I’m any less prone to distraction while I’m on it, though. It requires a fair bit of discipline to stay on task, and we all know that the longer you’re required to exercise discipline, the more likely it is to fail.
So my solution has been to accept that I’ll spend a considerable amount of my working time online and exercise discipline when I am, but reduce the amount of connected time as much as I can. There are plenty of tasks that can be completed without connectivity even in a job like mine — the added bonus is fewer interruptions by instant messenger or email that you’re compelled to check right away.
The concept of “contexts” as used in productivity appears again in today’s article, as it’s the thing that’ll allow us to separate tasks that require the Internet from those that do not. Anything that does not require the Internet, is best done without it.
Basically you continue to manage tasks the way you’ve always done (unless you haven’t been managing tasks properly, in which case you should read a book like Getting Things Done and start doing so), but start applying a tag to each task you enter — either online or offline. You then use the software you’re using to view only tasks from one group or the other depending on which list you’re tackling at a time, or if you’re not using software, simply make up two lists.
This approach is based on the principle: if the task doesn’t need to be done with the help of the Internet, it’s best done away from it.
Research and Fact-checking
A common criticism of this approach is that you might come across something you need to fact-check or research. The fact of the matter is there’s too much opportunity to end up exploring a rabbit hole when you’re checking a fact, and you should relegate it for later. You can keep a to-research task list that you check when you go online, or if you’re writing you can take a hint from Cory Doctorow and leave an easily searchable marker, using Find to go through the sections that need checking later. You might type, “The cliff was TK feet tall,” and when you search for TK in your document you’ll see it and can find the information you needed. There’s no need to forget, and no need to resort to using the Internet during offline time.
Start the Day Offline
An important tip: start the day with your offline list. Do not start the day with your online list, ever, if you can help it.
For the same reason you don’t check facts while writing (that is, the risk of rabbit-holing), you want to delay going online as much as possible or you just might not get to those other offline items on your task list. If you tackle offline tasks first, even if you do get distracted when you go online, at least you managed to get a considerable amount of work done first.
Put Email Last
I tend to think that email is a big distraction and it should be dealt with as late in the day as possible. If there’s no reason to reply to something, archive or delete it (while often devoid of useful, work-related content, email from friends and families doesn’t qualify for this sort of treatment — this is a way to be effective at work only). If you can’t manage staying away from email until four in the afternoon or your boss simply won’t let you, put it off until just after lunch. Your boss will eventually notice the productivity gains you made in the first few hours of the day.