Tech Life Breathe deeply

Rands Information Practices

Your most precious asset is your time. You can start and adopt the following set of habits right now to give yourself hours of your life back. Equally important, these habits will substantively increase the quality of your time by reducing stress, increasing focus, and ultimately improving the quality of the things you build with your hands.

Some of these practices pay immediate time-saving dividends. Some require small consistent investment over time to achieve the desired effect. All require discipline. Some feel destructive. Many require working counter to the intent of the apps and services you use every day because the collective goals of those apps and services goals can diverge from your goals.

You will have a strong negative and opinionated reaction to at least one or more of these bullets. Your strong negative and opinionated reactions are a clear sign you care about how you spend your time, so keep reading even if you’re mad.

Browser

  • Make a copy of your bookmarks somewhere safe. Now delete all your current bookmarks. Wiggle uncomfortably in your chair a bit. Breathe deeply.
  • Start rebuilding your bookmarks from memory a bit at a time. No hurry. Links to your web-based tools and critical documents belong in your browser bar. News, blogs, and other daily consumables belong in your feed reader because a browser is designed to browse, not read.
  • No feed reader? Configure and pay for Feedly. Learn the keystrokes for Feedly.1
  • Install an ad blocker. Donate to these folks. Be generous about unblocking the sites you regularly visit because while it’s not a fair trade, yet, it’s the best we got right now.
  • Pin (Safari Chrome) your must have browser tools (candidates include email, calendar, feed reader, or others) to your favorite browser. This will keep them handily anchored in a familiar, accessible place. Pin no more than five. Unpin if you haven’t used that tool in a week. I’ve held steady at four for over a year: internal email, calendar, external email, and Feedly.
  • Use tabs in your favorite browser. Learn the keystrokes to create new tabs, navigate through them, and close them.
  • Strive to have one browser window open at a time. Strive to have 10 or fewer browsers tabs open at any given moment. Fail at both of these objectives frequently, don’t beat yourself up, but understand that each window and tab open creates additive distracting undetectable stress.
  • Put your bookmarks in the cloud so that they are the same on your phone’s browser.

A win condition: The ability to “scrub” all your consumables in less than 10 minutes. The absence of a long tail of cluttered bookmarks that distract you unnecessarily.

Phone

  • If your phone allows it, flag VIPs on your phone (iOS Android). If your VIP list is greater than seven, you’re not identifying VIPs, you’re identifying another set of essential humans.
  • Turn on any episode of the second season of The Office, sit somewhere comfortable, and turn off all non-critical notifications on your phone. Critical notifications are calls from people you know and VIP notifications. Continue to ignore the voice that tells you need these non-critical notifications.
  • Purchase and install Robokiller and configure it to block all spam calls to your phone and set-up the RoboRadio feature. Appreciate the payback.
  • Return to your comfortable place, turn on any episode of Season 2 of Parks and Recreation, and delete any app you haven’t recently used on your phone. Ignore the voice in your head that says, “I’m going to need this at some point!” Remind that voice, “Deleting the app from my phone doesn’t delete this app from the universe.” Repeat this phrase over and over.

A win condition: When you have three free minutes, you don’t instinctively reach for your phone.

Email

  • Read your inbox with the following scrubbing protocol:
    • If it’s a mail you want to read, read it. Enjoy.
    • If the mail is from an external (non-work) source and you don’t want it, do one of the following without fail:
      1. If the option exists, unsubscribe from the mail. This works about as well as you would expect.
      2. If an unsubscribe option does not exist and you’re sure you’ve already attempted to unsubscribe, or you are just fed up with this mail, mark the mail as SPAM. Tell yourself this is fun.
    • If the mail is from a work source and it’s generated by robots (calendar notifications, code check-ins, system notifications, etc.), spend a morning learning how to filter these notifications automatically out of your inbox into a useful place (Apple Mail Gmail).
    • If you haven’t already, learn the keystrokes for your favorite email application.

A win condition: Using the above protocol, both my work and personal inboxes are at inbox zero. Every day. It took months of filter tweaking and unapologetic religious spam flagging, but for the first time in in years my inbox is mostly high signal mails I need with little filtering fuss. Yes, I work at Slack, and my work inbox has much less work email than your average work inbox, but I continue to get hundreds of emails per day.

Life

I am often asked how I prioritize my time because there is a perception that I do a lot of work.2 First and obviously, I have precisely the same number of minutes of the day that you have. Second, I am ruthless about spending my time appropriately. An individual practice above might only save me 10 seconds, but that’s 10 seconds multiplied by completing that action a thousand times in the next month. That’s around 160 minutes. That’s just under three hours of my life.

In three hours, I can ride 40 miles and climb 3,000 feet. I can read a sizable chunk of my current book.3 In three hours, I can write the first draft of this article. It will take another two hours to finish. I don’t know when that time will arrive, but I know because I care about each minute that it will be here shortly.


  1. What’s with the incessant “learn the keyboard commands”? Not a surprising practice to frequent readers. The math is simple. The faster time per individual action, the lower your total investment in the work to get work done. If you are touching your mouse during common work, I guarantee you could be moving faster and saving time. 
  2. Productivity types notice no discussion of productivity apps above. I’ve never met a typeface, editor, or productivity system I wouldn’t try, but for the past year, the work done in a productivity tool has been absorbed by the system above plus Slack practices. I have a 1:1 channel with everyone I meet with regularly, and we use that shared space as a mutual to-do list, and it turns out that this captures a majority of the tasks I’d normally house in a productivity app. When you combine this habit with the fact that I can use my email inbox as a lightweight to-do list because it’s usually empty, I do not need a productivity app. 
  3. Bonus: Remove anything with a screen next to your bed. Put a book there.