Taking back your life and enjoying it

Rajasthan

Photo by Brajeshwar

Break FreePlugged in but disconnected.

Like you, I like my computer and I find it hard to survive without it. I love the Internet too and I like being totally connected. However, few years back, I began to realize that I’m addicted to it — the computer, the Internet and my work. You’ll say, “That’s with everybody. What’s the problem?”

The “No Problem” Problem

Well, there are no problems at all. I just wanted to stay plugged but be able to remain disconnected. I wanted to reduce the time spent shuffling between Emails, Instant Messaging, the Internet, work and everything else in between. I also wanted to maintain a sane state of connection where I’m not digitally Cast Away. I’ve been experimenting with various disciplines with my digital life and I’m at a stage where I’m at peace and happy with my life, computers and the Internet.

The Siddhattha Gotama saga

Let me tell you a story of my addiction to being in “constant connection” with the Internet. Way back in 2004, during the prime days of my freelance career, I attended a week-long Wedding ceremony for a good friend. That disconnected me from the connected world for almost a week. I was enjoying my time with old friends, chilling out in the hot desert but I was agitated, confused and got the “disconnected” feeling from the 2nd day. I was helpless and felt that I needed to be ‘always connected’. I had always been in constant search for a balance in my digital life ever since.

The Buddha moment

That urge and the need to stay connected remained with me for long. It was only few years back that I started embracing minimalism, started feeling OK to be disconnected, not the first-one-to-know, not be a beta tester. Somewhere in summer 2007 I got myself totally disconnected for about 15 days with no Internet and I survived gracefully. That pushed me forward in my new found strength and discipline to be more productive in work and life without the trivial and distracting pursuits.

Self Discipline

I’ve developed a rather strong discipline of following very few things in my day-to-day activities that proved to be working effectively for me. I’m more productive without spending too much time. I’m able to spend enough time with my daughter. Yes, I play, talk and spend a lot of my evening time with my daughter.

I’ll try to profile some of my own activities, the tools/utilities I use and my ways of getting things done. I hope they will help you decide coming up with your own ways of being more productive and more sane. They are not yet perfect and I’ll push the envelope to becoming more precise, more productive and have more free time in between.

Emails

For today, let’s talk about emails (others will come soon). Like you, I had the habit of constantly monitoring my emails. My email client was set to check emails every 5 minutes and at times wished I can set it to 1 minute. Well, I applied my new-found discipline and rules to it. Btw, I use Apple Mail on Mac OS X but the ways I’m suggesting should be applicable to any email client easily albeit their own respective options.

No Notifications what-so-ever

Mail Preferences

The idea is to not allow your tools to disturb you while you’re working. They’re means to an end and should not hamper your normal flow, the tools should not sideline you while you’re in the zone. I’ve set my email client

  • To check emails hourly. The day Apple Mail allow longer duration, I’ll try 3 hours.
  • To NOT disturb me with any form of sound. (Anyway, sound alerts was never my type.)
  • NOT show the count when new emails arrive. The dock-count indication will always tempt you to check your mail.

Smart but no need to push it to me

IMAP IDLE Command

This is an awesome feature if your email server supports it (Gmail and Google Apps for domains does). When enabled, the IDLE command will get your new emails even if you’ve set your email client to check at some interval (hourly) or even manual.

I’ve disabled it. I’m OK with the hourly monitoring routine of my email client.

Side Effects

Well, if you seriously look at the above simple steps/settings/changes, they’re not just some checkbox and optional selection but serious decisions that will implicate and complicate your life drastically. Some might even scream, revolt and may even go wild and mad. I almost did. I got frustrated, irritated, agitated and was in constant fight with myself and I got defeated more than once.

Yes, I did changed back to the ‘normal’ settings, visual indicators to show new mails, check regularly at 5 minutes interval and never miss a mail with the IDLE command. It was only after the fifth or the sixth attempt that my withdrawal symptoms began to subside enough to be able to stay at the current state of totally non-disturbance with emails.

Nonetheless, I allow myself to send-out emails anytime I need to. And with all the notifications turn off, I’m now acclimatized to the idea of not checking emails at all. So, it’s only when I’m free or works lighten up that I ‘remember’ to check my emails.

I think I’ve won my war with emails. I’ll continue to experiment with better and more efficient methods to stay plugged but not disturbed. Don’t get it wrong, the idea is not to disable emails but allow it to be dormant, be there just when you need it.

What about Productivity?

Well, what will happen if I don’t respond quick enough to my client, my colleagues and to other offers? That was the constant nagging feeling that I felt too. Some of the glaring ones being

  • I should be the first to reply to that forum/list question. What if someone answers it quicker than me. (I had that problem during my early Flash days.)
  • What if I missed a freelance offer? What if someone gets the project when I’m late with my reply?
  • I wanted to be omni-present, always-online and always-replying to my client’s question. Giving them feedback as soon as I get them. Wanted to proof that I’m super-efficient.

Well, if you ponder and look closely, it’s not at all correct. It is OK to be the second person to know something, to reply after sometime, you’ll always get the client if you are good with your work. Your client will still be happy if you reply within couple of hours. You can even try the vacation settings while you’re vacationing. Some wise-men have rightly said, “It is OK to be last in the line.”

Productivity Practices

Mail Filters

I’ve tried many tools, utilities and options and have settled with a very minimal set of rules for my email. Productivity is not in using many tools but reducing it and getting to the task faster, finishing it quickly.

In my email client, whenever I’m checking my emails, I focus only on the two filters “New” and “Flag”.

New

Of course all new emails that I should read or scan. I usually reply right then and there whenever possible. If an email need more attention and cannot be replied instantly in few lines, then I just ‘flag’ it. So, the primary and most common actions need to do with the “New” filter (or label or folder) is to (i) reply quickly or (ii) flag it for future action.

Flag

This is the place where I come back in my free time to re-read, reply or keep it ‘flagged’ till I’m ready to reply.

Note

You can ignore the other labels in the image. They are seldom visited and attended to. You can have your own depending on your requirements. I have them so I can quickly access regularly contacted people and either initiate an email or see our last conversation.

So, the idea is to stay disconnected but plugged in. Reduce distractions and be productive so you can spend more time with your friends, family and the people around you. The ideas mentioned here nurtured after learning from other zen gurus and productivity masters. One should try, experiment and formulate a discipline of your own to getting things done without taking a toll on your time.

I’ll try to write more as soon as possible about my time management, getting work done and be able to continue being productive despite throttling the time spend in front of the computer.

  • vedang

    @brajeshwar
    excellent write-up! I agree with you that seeing the count of unread emails is extremely distracting. I use gmail (web interface) primarily, and I find it near impossible to not check my mail if something new has arrived. I avoid the problem by checking my mail hourly and closing the tab when I'm done. Looking forward to your way of combating IM and RSS.

    @prajwalit
    I defeat IM by not logging in unless I have something specific to discuss with someone. Even in this case, I always keep my status Idle so that I can safely ignore people who steal my attention away from my work. The argument against this is "I want to stay in touch with people and not be anti-social", but I think I'm "in touch" enough what with Twitter and Facebook and Buzz.

  • vedang

    @brajeshwar
    excellent write-up! I agree with you that seeing the count of unread emails is extremely distracting. I use gmail (web interface) primarily, and I find it near impossible to not check my mail if something new has arrived. I avoid the problem by checking my mail hourly and closing the tab when I'm done. Looking forward to your way of combating IM and RSS.

    @prajwalit
    I defeat IM by not logging in unless I have something specific to discuss with someone. Even in this case, I always keep my status Idle so that I can safely ignore people who steal my attention away from my work. The argument against this is "I want to stay in touch with people and not be anti-social", but I think I'm "in touch" enough what with Twitter and Facebook and Buzz.

  • http://prajwalit.com Prajwalit

    Nice read..
    I'm going to try these.. at least, one at a time :)

    What do you do about Instant Messaging?
    Just keeping 'away' status is not enough these days..

    Also, rss feeds... any suggestions?

  • http://prajwalit.com Prajwalit

    Nice read..
    I'm going to try these.. at least, one at a time :)

    What do you do about Instant Messaging?
    Just keeping 'away' status is not enough these days..

    Also, rss feeds... any suggestions?

  • http://brajeshwar.com Brajeshwar

    I believe I've good success with IM and RSS too. Will chronicle it soon.

  • http://brajeshwar.com Brajeshwar

    I believe I've good success with IM and RSS too. Will chronicle it soon.

  • http://www.liftchairguide.net HedbergS

    It has been a really long time since I have been unplugged, but it really is a liberating feeling to be able to relax and not worry about checking your mail every thirty minutes. Hopefully, someday I will have some time where I can go spend a few weeks in nature, away from it all, but to be honest, it simply isn't practical for me now.

    @Vedang,

    That is basically how I do IM for the most part too. I don't typically leave it on for extended periods of time, instead only using it when necessary. Of course, the only reason that works so well is most of the people I communicate with leave it on all day...

  • http://www.liftchairguide.net HedbergS

    It has been a really long time since I have been unplugged, but it really is a liberating feeling to be able to relax and not worry about checking your mail every thirty minutes. Hopefully, someday I will have some time where I can go spend a few weeks in nature, away from it all, but to be honest, it simply isn't practical for me now.

    @Vedang,

    That is basically how I do IM for the most part too. I don't typically leave it on for extended periods of time, instead only using it when necessary. Of course, the only reason that works so well is most of the people I communicate with leave it on all day...

  • http://praval.com Praval

    Worth it! Truly worth a read. Appreciate that. Would love to share my experiences as well. Soon!

  • http://praval.com Praval

    Worth it! Truly worth a read. Appreciate that. Would love to share my experiences as well. Soon!