Avoiding The Shallows

I recently returned from vacation down South, which included two nights camping with a good friend along the Chattooga River on the border between Georgia and South Carolina. During that time, I was reminded of how important quiet and solitude are to achieving balance in our lives. Before I left, I had spent two months teaching courses at the local university and getting my business off the ground, and all work days and most weekends were spent with my nose in a computer screen chasing information around the Web.

Needless to say, all of that intense online work caused a lot of stress to accumulate in my brain and in the muscles of my face and shoulders. Luckily, they were no match for two days of fishing and good conversation around a campfire. Now that I’m back in the saddle again, I’m determined to strike a better balance in the demands of my online work, and so I thought I’d talk about the apps and tools I use to manage my time and balance my workload.

First of all, whether or not you work online a lot, just about anyone can benefit from the time management and productivity techniques of David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. Though originally designed without software in mind, GTD has spawned a slew of apps that support its proven methods for following through on tasks in a timely and efficient manner. For the Mac, I use OmniFocus, but there are several other apps for both Windows and Mac that produce excellent results as well. Any of these can help you implement GTD so you can keep track of your responsibilities and sleep better at night.

Freedom from The Shallows

Book cover of The Shallows

What they can’t do, however, is keep you off Facebook, Twitter, and other social media websites when you should be focusing on imminent tasks you’ve already identified. As Nicholas Carr argues in his recent book, The Shallows, the internet, by encouraging rapid skimming and sampling of information, is eroding our ability to concentrate and reflect deeply. So when I need to focus on a piece of writing or code a specific site, I often fire up a program called Freedom, which blocks all internet access for the period of time I set. The only way I can get back access is to reboot my machine, and what kind of loser would I be if I did that? Try it sometime, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you finish your project by focusing intensely on the task at hand. Don’t get me wrong; the internet is a great invention that makes research a breeze, but when you get tired of drinking water from a fire hose and want to forge your research into a coherent whole, give Freedom a try.

Minimal, Distraction-Free Writing

Speaking of writing, like many, I’ve used Microsoft Word for a number of years to compose letters, reports, and entire book chapters, and it’s been a great tool for creating documents that range from the simple to the complex. But most everyone who uses it complains that it has too many features that stand in the way of producing a good first draft. For that reason, I’ve begun composing early drafts of most everything I write using what is known as a minimal, distraction-free word processor.

A number of these, such as WriteRoom and Dark Room, have cropped up in the past few years to counter the feature creep of Microsoft Word. I’ve tried lots of them, but I’ve recently settled on one I really like called iA Writer, which offers versions for both the Mac and for the iPad and iPhone. What I like about Writer is that you can do basic formatting—such as headers, lists, bold, and block quotes—without touching a mouse, and you can fill your screen with a blank page, blocking out all other applications. In fact, I used Writer to compose the first draft of this very blog post.

iA Writer, a minimal, distraction-free writing app for the Mac

IA Writer writing application

Technology’s a wonderful thing, and I wouldn’t go back to the days before the Internet for all the money in the world, but I do think we need to leverage technology to keep us focused on the most important things in our lives, such as family, friends, and business associates. For me, a face-to-face conversation always takes precedent over an incoming cell phone call, and I always try to make the world around me more important than what’s on the screen (though my wife might disagree with me on this one).

So if you have any personal routines or computer applications that make your life easier and more focused, please let me know about them. I’m always looking for new tools to keep me out of The Shallows.