Is Social Networking Sucking Your Life Away?

An honest cost-benefit analysis can help you decide.

I participate in Twitter. I also participate on LinkedIn and RedBubble. And I have accounts on My Space, Facebook, Technorati, Del.icio.us, StumbleUpon, Pownce, Flicker and a number of others I can’t remember. (I occasionally sign up for a “new” account, only to find that I already have one. Oops!)

Note here that I make a distinction between participate in and have accounts on. The social networking sites I participate in are the ones I use regularly. The ones I have accounts on are ones I’ve tried but don’t actively use. And then there are the ones I’ve tried and deleted accounts from. (My recent experience with Spock comes to mind.) I’ve actually deleted more social networking accounts than I actively participate in.

But I know many, many people who actively participate in multiple social networking sites. And I have just two questions for these people:

  • How?
  • Why?

How Do they Do It?

I don’t know about you, but in my universe, a day has 24 hours. Of those 24, I throw away 6 to 8 by sleeping. I spend another 4 to 6 doing “life maintenance” tasks like eating, bathing, socializing with my household’s members (husband, parrot, dog, and horses) and friends, and keeping my house clean. Then figure another 4 to 12 hours doing the work that pays the bills.

What’s left? Not much.

So how are people finding the time to participate in all these social networks?

My participation in Twitter is well-integrated into my lifestyle. Twitterific is open on my computers’ desktops. (And no, that’s not a typo. It’s open on all of my computers’ desktops.) Throughout the day, I receive tweets from the 30 or so Twitter members I follow and send my own tweets out into the ether. Occasionally, a conversation will start up between me and another member, but it usually consists of no more than two or three tweets on either side. And it isn’t as if the conversation is live. Sometimes a fellow twitterer will ask me a question and I won’t see it for an hour or two, when I’ll finally answer it. It’s not like I sit there watching Twitterific. I don’t. And when I’m away from my desk or computer, I’ll occasionally tweet from the field using the SMS capabilities of my Treo. I do this most often when I’m on the road, but I occasionally do it when I’m in the middle of something and have a few spare minutes. I hate doing nothing and these tweets often give me something to do.

My participation in LinkedIn is less active. I basically check in once a week or so, just to see if any of my contacts have added contacts that I know. If so, I attempt to add them. Once in a while, I’ll update my profile or write up a recommendation for one of my contacts. Or ask for a recommendation.

RedBubble sees me even less frequently. Although I started out visiting every morning for one to two hours, I soon realized that I was wasting my time there. RedBubble, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a social networking site for artists, photographers, and (supposedly) writers. Members post their work. Artwork can often be purchased. But I soon learned that the kind of artistic people who actively participate in online social networking do so only so they get positive feedback on the work they’ve posted. There’s not much “social” about it. So I stopped wasting my time and now use RedBubble solely to get extremely high quality cards and prints of my own photographs. (Seriously, RedBubble is the best. I challenge anyone to find a better source for printing photography in a variety of formats.)

Note that I used the phrase “stopped wasting my time.” I stopped wasting my time with most of the other social networking sites, too. I simply wasn’t getting enough benefit from these sites to make it worth the time I was spending there.

Yet so many people make the time. Where do they get it from? Do they simply neglect the other parts of their lives? Which ones? Sleeping? Life maintenance? Real socializing with friends and family members?

How do they do it?

Why Do They Do It?

But perhaps the real question is why they do it. What benefit do people get from online social networking?

As you may have guessed, I haven’t seen much benefit to the sites I don’t actively participate in. I have my own Web site (you’re on it, unless you’re reading this in a feed reader or yet another splog has stolen my content), so I have my own forum for sharing thoughts, photos, etc. That means I don’t need MySpace or FaceBook. I simply don’t have time to surf the Web for interesting content, so I don’t need Technorati, Del.icio.us, or StumbleUpon. My photos are on my site or on RedBubble, where they can be purchased as high-quality products, so I don’t need Flicker. Pownce is simply a prettier version of Twitter with a few extra bells and whistles, but I like Twitter and since I use the Twitterific interface for following tweets, I don’t care how unattractive Twitter’s interface is.

As for the social networking sites I do participate in, I see definite benefits to my participation and those benefits outweigh the cost in my [very valuable, at least to me] time.

Take, for example, Twitter. Being a writer is a lonely occupation, since it doesn’t involve working directly with people throughout the writing process. In fact, it’s better when there isn’t anyone around. So imagine me at my desk working 12-hour days to finish a book on time. I have some music on and my parrot is chattering away in the next room. I’m creating screenshots and laying out pages, and editing the last edition’s text so it applies to this version of the software. I need a break, I feel like being part of the world, at least for a few minutes. So I switch to the Twitterific window and see what my Twitter friends have been up to. Suddenly, I’m not alone. I’m part of an active, current world. I see news tweets from CNN when something major has occurred (although I really don’t give shit about O.J. and can’t understand why CNN is determined to keep it in the news). I see tweets about lunch and meetings and work activities and family interaction. I’m alone in my office, yet I’m part of a bigger picture and that picture is live.

I’ve also made friends on Twitter. Not people I’ve met in person — at least not yet. But people I can turn to if I have a question or even chat with. Yesterday, I called Francine Hardaway, one of my Twitter friends, on the phone to get her impressions on social networking. She’s extremely involved in online social networking — she tweets about it all the time — and I thought she might reveal something about it that I could be missing. What I discovered is that she uses Twitter for pretty much the same reason I do. And she’s involved with many of the other social networking sites to stay in tune with what younger, technology-saavy people are doing and thinking. This helps her with her work as an entrepreneurial consultant.

What’s neat about Twitter is that it attracts people from all over the world. I think I have more Twitter friends in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand than in the U.S. It’s interesting to observe how they come and go throughout the day. Andy, who is in the U.K., is just finishing up his work day as I start mine. Miraz, in New Zealand, is getting to work as I break for lunch. Twitter is a big picture of the world and I find it fascinating and well worth the time I put into it.

I wish I could say the same about LinkedIn. Although the concept is a good idea, its feature set is somewhat limited by the site developers’ desire to monetize it. So the really useful features are reserved for paying members. And frankly, I don’t think they’re worth paying for. What’s left is a true networking site where you have to already have a relationship or link to a member before you can be directly linked. That keeps spammers and “friend collectors” (as you might find on Twitter, FaceBook, etc.) in check.

While you think that a professional networking site like this — after all, it’s based on working relationships — might result in work leads and jobs, it doesn’t. Not for me, not for any of my LinkedIn connections. Yet people spend hours and hours on LinkedIn, answering questions posted by other members, searching for jobs, requesting recommendations, fine-tuning their connection lists. For what? I don’t know. Although I haven’t entirely written it off, it certainly isn’t worth more time than I already put into it: perhaps 2 to 4 hours a month.

N630ML at Norquist'sRedBubble, as I already mentioned, has just one benefit for me: the ability to get very high quality prints of my own photos. I’ve used it recently to create a package of photo cards to give as a gift to passengers on Flying M Air‘s Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure. The quality is something I can be proud to hand out as a gift. In fact, I recently had cards made as a gift for a friend who allowed me to land my helicopter in her yard so photographer Jon Davison could get photos of the helicopter and a really neat looking house. So my time spent on RedBubble these days is solely to upload photos and place orders.

I should mention here that I also use Del.icio.us. The emphasis is on the word use. I have a Del.icio.us bookmark in my browser that creates a Del.icio.us bookmark for pages I like. I never view the resulting list. Instead, Del.icio.us automatically generates a page full of my new links each day and posts them to my site.

But what about the other online social networking sites out there? Why are people using them? What benefit are they receiving? Is it worth the time they’re putting into it?

Don’t Let It Suck Your Life Away

I’ve been saying the same thing for years now, but I need to keep saying it.

Computers are a great tool and the Internet gives us easy and often exciting new ways to interact with other people. But there’s far more to life than what you see on a computer screen. The hours you spend in front of a computer are the hours you’re not participating in real life, building the relationships and memories and skills you’ll cherish for a lifetime.

So here’s what I’d like you (yes, you) to do. The next time you sit down for a session on Facebook or Flicker or [fill-in-the-blank], note the time you got started. Then, when you’re finished, note the time you stopped. Then think about that time and how you might have spent it better with your spouse or kids or best friend in the park or at a ball game or sitting around the kitchen table in conversation. Or doing something else that you enjoy or that can make you or your relationship with other people better. Then think about all the hours you spent at that social networking activity and imagine all those hours spent doing something better.

Don’t you think that might make your life better?

People often ask me how I do so much. My stock answer is that I don’t watch television. But the other answer is that I try not to waste time online.

And with that said, it’s time to get to work for the day.

What Do You Think?

I know you participate in online social networking. Why not answer my two questions — how and why? — in the Comments for this post? Perhaps you’ll be the one to explain what I’m missing. Use the Comments link or form for this post to get started.

On Notebooks and Scratchpads

Some organization/productivity tips.

When I’m working in my office, I’m sitting in front of a computer all day. Although I have three different tools for taking notes on my computer while I’m working, I always turn to pen and paper when I need to make a note. And I recently realized that that isn’t a bad thing after all.

Sure, you can use software to jot down notes as you need to, but there’s really no substitute for a notebook or scratchpad. I have both, although I prefer the notebook.

It’s usually a spiral bound notebook, the kind with page perforations so you can cleanly rip off a sheet. I keep it open on my desk to the “current” page, which is the page I last used for jotting down a note. I try hard to start a new page each time I have a series of related notes to jot down, but I don’t always succeed. Sometimes, I simply forget.

Recently, I used up all the pages in my notebook and haven’t replaced it. So I’m using a scratchpad. I make the scratch pads out of the galley pages for my Quicken books. Really. Here’s how it works. I write my Quicken book and submit it electronically as Word files. I get back edited Word files, accept or reject changes, and send them back. Then the book goes to layout. The publisher prints the galley pages and sends them to me. I mark up the pages that have problems and send them back to the publisher. Since there’s no reason to send back pages without problems — after all, why pay to ship more than you have to? — I save them. I bring them to Kwikprint here in Wickenburg and they cut them into 1/4 or 1/2 size sheets and pad them up with about 200 pages per pad with the blank side facing up. Throughout the year, I use the scratch pads in my office and house to jot down notes.

What kinds of things do I jot down? Well, one look at the notebook will reveal all. Here’s my current scratchpad (1/4 page size) by page:

  1. The phone number for the local museum (highly recommended), along with the user ID, password, and domain address for a recently created MySQL file.
  2. A list of the template files I plan to create for my series of articles about creating a WordPress Theme from scratch. (The same list appears in the first article of the series.)
  3. My ScratchpadMeasurements of content, sidebar, and page sizes, in pixels, for the WordPress theme I’m designing from scratch and writing about in the article series (see image).
  4. Another page of the same thing but with a different layout and different measurements.
  5. A list of hexadecimal codes corresponding to the colors I plan to use in the WordPress theme I’m creating.
  6. Dates for the beta and Gold Master releases of a software program I’m not allowed to talk about.
  7. Domain names for a few adventure travel sites I checked out for possible advertising of Flying M Air excursions. (They all suck.) Also the phrases Whirly Girls, instrument rating, and Part 136 jotted down during a conversation with a fellow pilot this afternoon.

What’s not listed here are the pages I don’t need anymore, the ones I’ve torn out and discarded. (Don’t worry; I have a recycle box under my desk.) That’s the beauty of notebooks and scratchpads. You can write down the information you need when you get it and discard the pages when you’re done with them. Or file the pages if you think you’ll need them in the future.

Getting Things DoneI’ve been trying hard lately to get and stay organized. I have been reading Getting Things Done by David Allen and it’s been helping. Although I think he goes to far — no, I do not need a label maker to properly file or label things — he has a lot of good ideas. And although he recommends blank, unlined paper — like the kind in your copy machine — I prefer lined notebook paper for notes I want to keep. What I like best about the notebooks is that the pages stay bound together until I’m ready to discard or file them. No loose paper scattered all over my desk, waiting for me to do something with it.

So although I still rely on iCal to keep track of appointments and schedule items, I don’t use any computer-based tool for jotting down notes. All notes are in my notebook or scratchpad (or both), where I can note things wherever I am, without having to open a program or document and use a keyboard.

After all, it only takes one hand to write with a pen.

5 Tips for Staying Focused

Some things that work for me.

I’ve been having trouble staying focused on my work these days. It seems that the number of distractions at my desk exceed the number of reasons I should work on my current work-in-progress, Excel 2007: Visual QuickStart Guide.

I’ve come up with a few tips that help me stay focused on a specific project or task. You may have heard some of these elsewhere; I’ve been reading a lot of about productivity tricks lately and have been linking to other articles. But this is my take on these techniques — whatever that’s worth.

  1. Organize your workspace so it has everything you need to work on the project — and just that. If you’re as likely to succumb to distraction as I am, anything handy that’s unrelated to the task at hand will pull you away from it. Ditto if you have to get up and get something that you need that’s not handy, especially if getting up takes you past the fridge, the phone, or any other distraction.
  2. List the steps you need to complete to get the job done. Think the job through before you begin so you know what has to be done. Amend the list as you work. Before starting any task that’s not on the list, ask yourself if it’s really part of the project. If so, add it to the list and do it. If not, don’t be tempted.
  3. If you don’t need an Internet connection to work on your project, turn it off. That’s as easy as turning off your AirPort card (on a Mac), unplugging your Ethernet cable, or turning off/unplugging your router. One tip I read online recently suggested using a light timer to turn off the router for a certain amount of dedicated work time each day. Personally, I like to be more flexible.
  4. Don’t check your e-mail. If you have to keep your Internet connection turned on for your work, don’t run your e-mail application. If you do and it checks e-mail periodically (as most do), you’re very likely to be distracted by an incoming e-mail message. I know I always am. Best to not to run your e-mail application at all.
  5. Don’t run applications you don’t need to get the job done. That includes (especially) Web browsers and other distracting applications. If you’re often tempted with games and are fortunate enough to have more than one computer, delete every single game you have from your work machine so you can’t be tempted to play when you should be working.

Remember, I work alone in an office, so I’m not usually distracted by other people. If you have distractions from others, be sure to check out “18 Ways to Stay Focused at Work” by Dave Cheung. His article includes some tips for keeping co-workers from ruining your productivity.

Tools to Help You Minimize Distractions on your Mac

So you can get things done.

The biggest source of distractions for me these days is my computer itself. There are just so many other things to do with it (blogging, researching stuff on the ‘Net, e-mailing, playing with images, etc.) than the things I should be doing (working on my Excel book, writing articles for Informit.com, taking care of accounting matters, etc).

Evidently, I’m not the only person with this problem. It was covered on MacBreak Weekly, one of the podcasts I’ve been listening to these days. A summary of some of the tools discussed on the program is covered on 43 Folders: “MacBreak: Minimize distractions on your Mac.”

My favorite: Spirited Away to hide inactive windows.

If you’ve got the distraction problem as bad as I do, good luck getting over it.

How to Use E-Mail More Safely and Effectively

“Hacking Email: 99 Email Security and Productivity Tips”

I just stumbled across this article on the Web today. It’s got some really great tips and advice for using e-mail.

From Hacking Email: 99 Email Security and Productivity Tips on ITSecurity.com:

The 99 tips in this article make up the best in email practices. From how to ethically use the “BCC:” to what attachments will make your mobile emailing compatible with everyone else’s, this list covers everything you need to know about emailing.

Highly recommended reading if you use e-mail in your day-to-day communications — and who doesn’t these days?