Deliberate Dandelions

Let’s get back to talking about the gravy hose for a bit.

For those of you late to the party, that’s my kind-of-gross metaphor for the constant stream of stimuli provided by our always-on media culture. Any one of the media portals – Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, E-mail – can be enough to trigger that nifty little endorphin rush of Ooh, shiny! and with high-speed fast-processing devices that also carry things like Netflix, Amazon, and Reddit, there is the potential for endless distraction eating up your precious time and your even more precious attention.

At the same time, for some people just shutting things down won’t work. I administrate websites for some of my clients, and that includes handling the occasional customer complaint. I also have social media consulting gigs on occasion, so I need to monitor the presence of the clients on various platforms, coming up with content and a strategy. Basically, these parts of my work mean that I need to monitor the flavor of the gravy hose and add or subtract to taste.

Well, to my client’s taste. And it’s rewarding; I’ve gotten many a client via social media, and once got a brand new computer delivered to my door simply because I tweeted “Damn, I would give my right arm for a better laptop!” (that’s not really as extreme as it sounds, as I’m left-handed). So when people ask me “what’s the point of twitter?” I just smile. They’ll learn. It’s much like one of my parents (I won’t embarrass her by saying which one) who once asked me why I wasted my time learning computer programs, when computers were just a fad.

She got a really nice tablet for Christmas this year. Some fad, eh? That’s social media, folks. It’s not a question of whether you should have an online presence, I’m afraid, it’s a question of when, and how much control you’re going to have over it, and how much you’re going to let it control you.

The Reading Hydra

And then there’s the writing. The reading list of research for this blog alone is over a foot high (or would be, if so much of it weren’t on my Kindle). Then there’s the reading about writing itself that I’d like to do, and the recreational reading I’d like to do. Writers write, and writers read, Stephen King said, and I believe him. Other people whose online work I would like to emulate, such as Steven Pressfield, Leo Babauta, and BeHyped, all require reading in order to examine how they both produce their content and how they manage it.

There’s an even more insidious problem with this kind of research: it is exponential. I’ve enjoyed the equivalent of a “Sunday Paper” the last few weeks by taking the time to sit down and read, from top to bottom, Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings Newsletter. Invariably that ends up with scribbled notes, additions to my Amazon Wish List, and often a new stack of articles opened in tabs on my browser. Suddenly instead of one newsletter, I have three books, five articles, and three video talks to watch.

And that’s just the productive stuff. Recreational reading? I’ve worked through sixteen of the seventeen Reacher novels in fifteen minute spurts of guilty pleasure before turning out the light at night, and when I get through seventeen I have about thirty Warhammer 40K novels to go through. These have about the same literary value of the pulp magazines of an earlier age, but what can I say: they’re fun.

Oh, and I’m also almost done listening to Feed, by Mira Paul, and that’s the first of a trilogy set in a dystopian zombie-future where social media has saved the world. How could I resist? Little do my housemates know that the real reason I have been doing dishes lately is because that’s a time I can justify listening to that kind of thing…

You see the problem, right?

For a change, though, I have a solution.

Savoring Attention

The idea is a combination of a few different conclusions drawn from various sources:

  • The idea that we are happier when we are in the present moment, rather than in daydreaming
  • The idea that monotasking is more effective than multitasking
  • The idea that slower encourages deeper understanding
  • The idea that play is as important as work, and really should be indistinguishable from

In terms of managing the social media gravy hose, it’s simply this: when I’m going to read an article, or a blog post, or watch a video, I will do just that. I won’t be chatting while you’re watching that YouTube clip, I’ll be watching it with my full attention. If I start an article, writing or reading, I will do it until it’s done, without stopping to check email halfway through.

That’s for the working stuff, at least – the lectures, the articles, the research. It means when I’m editing video, I don’t have an email tab open in the browser. It means when I’m building social media content schedules, I don’t get to click on all the interesting little tidbits Chris Brogan and JC Hutchins are putting up there. On the other hand, deliberate reading means I take notes, I pause to think about what I’ve read, I make notes in the metaphorical margins.

Kicking Virtual Dandelions

dandelion via David Hepworth CC FlickrThat doesn’t mean I don’t ever get to do that. No, not at all. Every so often – at least once a day – I take a moment to just wander the web. I click on all the new shiny. Ooh! What would Thor look like as a lady? Ooh! They’re making more Star Wars movies! Ooh! President Obama’s Science Advisor is really cool! Ooh! There’s a new XKCD! Ooh! LMFAO dancing to the Cantina Band! I just let myself click and travel, stream of consciousness-style, and enjoy a little bit of the wonder of humanity here and there.

Then, either after fifteen minutes, or when I feel the urge to get back to work (and usually the latter comes before the former), I throttle down the gravy hose and get back to the focus. It’s the mental equivalent of wandering through a field kicking dandelions during a break from work. And yes, I’m aware that I could actually get up and go outside, but it’s 13Fahrenheit here, so dandelions are hard to find.

I’ve decided that it’s not so much that I need to ignore social media, but rather that I need to craft a deliberate practice out of it. I need to read with attention, to make use of what I’ve read, and to balance pleasure with pragmatism.

Like many practices, it’s imperfect (number of distractions while writing this post: 4) but I believe it is worth developing.

What are your strategies for your own gravy hose?

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