Initially this was supposed to be a story about how to bother people less with instant messages that are not worded properly. As I started going down to the roots, I realized that I was dealing with an iceberg - the problem was much more complex than I initially thought.
Information overload is real, and today I understand that it is a serious condition that I have. If the lion's share of your day consists of Alt+tabbing, looking at the "new messages" icon, checking the RSS feeds every other minute, and so on - this story is for you.
The first step is to acknowledge that you have this problem.
Note: wherever the term "cost" is used, it means "the effort one has to invest in order to do something".
Using a dedicated RSS feed reader
My browser is Opera, it has a built-in feed reader. In the past I caught myself switching to the list of RSS feeds while browsing, in order to check out what was going on. Since the cost of checking the status of the RSS reader was small (I was already in the browser's window, no need to Alt+Tab), I could afford to check it very often.
Not only that this is a "physical" context switch (even if it is in the same application), but it was also a "logical" context switch - I was reading one page, and then I switched to an entirely different article. And as it usually happens, you click one link, then another one - and you get so far away from the starting point that by the time you check the clock it's been half an hour.
Note: logical context switches are most more expensive than physical ones.
I decided to deal with this by installing a separate feed reader, to keep my browsing and my RSS'ing separate. [Un]fortunately I failed to find a good feed reader for Windows, so I installed Liferea on my home computer, and migrated all my feeds there. Now my feeds are there, so I can't read them at work anymore.
The disadvantage is that I can't use Opera's easy mechanism, just click on the feed icon to subscribe to the feed. Now I have to memorize the URL and add it to the list of feeds when I get home.
The efficiency of this method is limited. With time, I managed to subscribe to another load of RSS feeds, so now my browser is almost "back to normal". The difference is that I try to subscribe only to work-related feeds. If the feed is not work-related, I send an email to myself so that I can not forget to do this at home. The cost of writing an email is "not zero", thus I think twice before actually deciding to subscribe to a feed; my filter got more strict and now the speed of adding new feeds went down.
Using two monitors
Lately I've been experimenting with a dual-screen setup, hoping that it would help me minimize the seriousness of the problem by handling my tasks the following way:
- current task - on my primary monitor; ex: the document I type right now;
- secondary tasks - on the other monitor; ex: the email client with the list of accounts, the IM list and the chat windows, the web-browser.
The idea is that I don't have to switch windows with Alt+Tab every now and then, because all the stuff is already there, on the other screen. I resized the windows in a way that allowed me to see them all at once. As a result, the time of each distraction was minimized, because I only had to turn my head a bit to the left (where the other monitor was) in order to obtain a snapshot of my system's state (state: number of new messages, where each message came, from whom, current time, etc).
Note: Windows has a drawback, its window manager does not offer an "always on top" feature, so it makes it difficult to place all the needed items on the screen.
Initially things were great, I noticed a small increase in productivity, but that did not last long. Eventually I just kept turning my head to the left too often (because now the price of an interruption was small, thus I could afford more of those).
One day I've had enough, I moved all the secondary windows to the secondary screen and turned it off. To my surprise, it worked. I was able to work in peace. When I got back, a couple of people complained that I wasn't reacting to their messages. Well, if their inquiries were that important, they would give me a call. But they did not, because the cost of making a call was higher than the cost of sending a message via ICQ (or another instant messenger). They either dropped the question or found an answer themselves.
Of course, having two screens in order not to use one of them is a not a luxury most people can afford. Besides, it is totally against the spirit of "save the planet" or "resources are finite". This is where I think that Windows is to blame for not having a virtual desktop feature, like most window managers on Linux do. This is not certain though; if all the secondary windows are on another desktop, and the cost of switching from one desktop to another is small - people will simply keep switching between desktops like they did between windows (so it boils down to "Ctrl+Alt+Left|Right vs Alt+Tab"). However, the fact that productivity increased when I turned off the other monitor tells me that the multiple virtual desktops approach has potential.
I tried the same thing on Windows, using a third party virtual desktop tool, but none of them offered a flawless experience (the details are beyond the scope of this story).
I think that anyone who has been experimenting with productivity measurements has long since turned off all the system sounds. I see no point in hearing a click when I open a folder, or empty the trash.
Most modern offices have a problem - noise generated by:
- people who type
- colleagues discussing
- running servers
- phone rings
I got myself new headphones (Panasonic RP-HT360) which are large enough to cover the ears entirely. Even if I don't play anything, they manage to suppress a great deal of the noise in the office. If I play some music I can isolate myself from the office matters entirely. Sure, too much music can damage my ears, so this approach must be used with care.
- sometimes you don't hear it when your colleagues call you; since the cost of attracting your attention increased, people won't give up unless it is something important;
- when they do interrupt you - they see that you have to go through all that trouble to remove the headphones; maybe they'll spare you next time :-)
Quick tips on reducing the number of interruptions
- Turn off sounds
- Turn off user status change popup notifications
- Turn off message pop-ups when not willing to lose focus
- Turn the whole thing off
If you answer, you lose time "context switching" and become annoyed; give a 'bad' answer and you're screwed. Don't answer and you're probably just as screwed. The only way to win is not to play.
- Use programs in full-screen mode to cover the taskbar and everything else
- Hide tray-icons that are not needed
- Force yourself not to see the "new email" tray icon
- Block the background noise: get a pair of big headphones that cover your ears entirely
- When "pinged" by the colleagues, make sure they see that it is not easy for you to remove the headphones - hopefully they will realize they should only attract your attention when they have something important to say. The idea is to make sure others won't distract you when it can be avoided
- When a door opens you might want to be tempted to see who came in or who went out; try not to face the door
- When people move behind you - they can see your screen, thus a bit of privacy is lost, so you will often find yourself switching windows (even if there is nothing wrong in doing what you are doing at the time); try not to let the door be behind you
I really think I'm sick, information overload is a serious condition, so it requires a serious solution. To be continued...
This is very good advice; of course I have this disease as well.
Some of my own workarounds:
* get more instrumental music to use as background noise when the TV is on in the other room and I can’t focus without my big headphones;
* configure the mail client to display a notification only if I receive mail in the inbox folder (I receive ~100 per day in various mailing lists and before this, I opened the mail client every time I received one, even though I rarely read more than the subject line);
Do you know of any app that works on Linux and counts the seconds spent which each window active? (offline wakoopa)
Comment from: gr8dude [Member]
Thanks for the feedback. I am not aware of such a tool, but I already have a good name for it: tasktop :-) If you find anything, let me know (and I will do the same).
I use a similar technique with the email client. First of all I turned off the animated tray icon for new emails. This thing is only good for people who sometimes don’t receive any emails, but for folks in my position this is useless (in the past, I had at least 300 emails per day). At work we have different meta-mailboxes, such as firstname.lastname@example.org, and incoming messages are forwarded to email@example.com; so not only that I get the spam for firstname.lastname@example.org, but I also get the spam that came to each of the other accounts that are forwarded to me. This is insane!
The solution is a better spam filter and then simple filters such as the one you described. Now I only have a system sound when an email from a human arrives (anyone who is in my address book in the “friends and family” category). Such emails are rare :-( but at least I don’t hear that damned bell every other minute :-)
After posting this story I found this paper, it is interesting [and only 8 pages long]: http://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/CHI2004.pdf
I’m using Feed Demon on Windows, try it out, it a good RSS Reader…
P.S. One cool thing about Feed Demon is that it auto sync all your feeds and subscriptions automatically, so you’ll never end reading the same post twice (home/work), or do the same thing twice.
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