(MONEY Magazine) -- Recently the number of options for wasting time on my computer reached a critical mass of craziness. E-mail. Blogs. Social networks. Podcasts. E-books. Three full seasons of Lou Grant on streaming video.
When work got stressful -- pretty often in this economy -- it was all too easy to click over to Facebook. I found myself blowing deadlines and growing irritable and jumpy. It was taking more and more effort to shut off the noise and think. I needed to reclaim my time.
I checked out David Allen's popular Getting Things Done system and dived into Merlin Mann's entertaining 43folders.com blog. They're about clearing away distraction to become an office ninja. Frankly, some of this stuff strikes me as harder to master than my actual job, and I doubt that I can change that much.
If you've always had the attention span of a puppy, does it help if you're a puppy fussing over a to-do list? But I do think I've settled on a few simple ways to cope better. They may help you too.
For a week I swore off social-networking sites like Facebook. I'm embarrassed to admit how difficult it was -- I sneaked peeks at my wife's account -- but it helped. It gave part of my brain a needed rest. And after I got out of the loop, the sites didn't feel as urgent or compelling when I came back.
E-mail is distracting and easily abused. So use it less. In his book The Tyranny of E-mail, literary critic John Freeman lays down the first law: Don't send. The fewer messages you send, the fewer you'll get. Whenever possible, call or talk in person. And when you do e-mail, do what you can to cut down on the effort of opening, reading, and replying. Mike Song, who gives corporate seminars on e-mail efficiency, recommends packing info into the subject line (e.g., "Let's have lunch at 12 at Tony's" instead of "Lunch?") and tagging messages with "No reply needed."
Freeman suggests checking e-mail just twice a day. But logging off for even an hour is scary if your manager is always BlackBerrying. It may help to recall that, contrary to appearances, e-mail isn't your job. This is a valuable insight from 43 Folders. One of Mann's best lines: "People give you money because you know how to solve problems. Not because you move e-mail around and respond to things that go ding!"
Finally, I'm making it a rule to stay offline when my children are in the room. It's hard to avoid bringing work home, but this preserves one last bright line between my job and my family life. I hope it also makes me a better role model. I recently saw my 3-year-old playing "checking e-mail"; it felt a little like seeing a kid pretend to smoke. This habit is one I hope not to pass on.
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