This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series 10 reasons to stop apologizing for your online life

“I don’t understand how you can spend so much time online. Most of what I see online sickens me.”

“Like what?”

“Oh you know…porn. Spam. Stupid Facebook quizzes. Endless advertising.”

I couldn’t help smiling as this conversation unfolded at the cafĂ© table next to mine. It’s a conversation I’ve heard all-too-often: less-wired friends condemning the online activities of more-wired friends…and in the process revealing their own browsing habits as an assortment of porn, shopping, and time-wasting.

My latest post for the Harvard Business Review looks at what all that careless clicking does to the net. It builds on my 10 reasons to stop apologizing for your online life, and offers 6 practices that let you deliver on this reason for feeling good about your time online:

When you treat your online attention as a real resource, you invest your attention in the sites that reflect your values, helping those sites grow.

My HBR post ends with one of my favorite all-time quotes:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” That Annie Dillard quote applies as much to our time online as our time offline. When you direct your attention towards the sites that reflect your values, you’re not only shaping the Internet: you’re also shaping your own life online.

That leads directly to the 8th reason to stop apologizing:

When you spend your online time on what really matters to you, you experience your time online as an authentic reflection of your values.

There’s no surer way to turn an Internet skeptic into an Internet enthusiast than by encouraging them to focus their online attention on the sites and activities that reflect their values. The practices that I outline in my HBR post today can help do that, but they’re focused primarily on how to treat your attention like a garden hose, watering only those sites you want to see more of. My 8th point is more self-directed: it’s about re-orienting your online time so that it strengthens and nourishes you instead of leaving you with that sense of being slightly dirty and used.

Here are 5 practices that will help you align your time with what matters to you, and enjoy your online time more as a result:

  1. Big rocks first. Steven Covey’s productivity book, First Things First, talks about your schedule like a pile of rocks you’re trying to fit into a jar: put the big rocks in first, and the little rocks will squeeze in between. The same is true for your time online: start by making time for what’s most important to you — your best friend, your photos of your kids, your poetry club. Give it your best quality of engagement with whatever discretionary time you have, whether it’s that hour you steal online in the morning before anyone else wakes up, or the time at the end of the day before you leave the office. Then let all the little ditzy Internet distractions (checking your Twitter follows, looking up today’s WOOT, sorting through the latest round of Facebook requests) fit into the interstitial moments that are too brief to be really useful.
  2. Stifle your curiosity. Our dog is named Sisko, after the Star Trek character, and at one point I thought it would be cute to get him a Star Trek-themed dog collar. (See, this is why it’s good that we had kids and stopped obsessing over the dog.) Let me tell you, googling “star trek” and “dog collar” produces some fairly intriguing links. I clicked. I regretted. Don’t click just because you’re curious.
  3. Groom your browser bar. Your browser bar likely has room for 8-14 links: these will be the sites that are easiest for you to click on and visit, and which you’ll therefore visit the most. So don’t just choose the ten you already visit the most often — choose the ten that reflect your top priorities, the things that are really important to you. You’ll naturally shift your time towards those sites once they’re in reach.
  4. Focus on your most important relationships. When I realized that updates from my dearest friends and most respected colleagues were getting lost in a sea of tweets from people I barely knew, I created a set of Twitter lists for people I love, people I want to connect with in person, and people who inspire me. You can read my full methodology here — but the bottom line is that you’ll find it easier to focus on the things and people that are important to you if you make them more prominent in the applications and sites where you spend your time.
  5. Assess yourself. When you close your computer at the end of the day or evening, take a moment to think about how you feel about the time you’ve just spent online. Does it leave you feeling tired or empty? Inspired and recharged? Take note of the occasions that leave you thrilled or fulfilled, and think about which sites or activities bring out that kind of response. Then cultivate the habit of checking yourself whenever you’re starting to feel dulled by your time online, and redirect your activity towards something that makes you feel deeply and wonderfully like yourself.

Bear in mind that your initial experience of these practices may be a bit ambivalent — a lot of our less value-driven activities are compulsive, like online shopping, gaming or gossip. Forgoing Perez Hilton in favour of a long and thoughtful blog post may feel less appealing at the end of a long day….but give it a try and see how you feel after. My bet is that the more you devote your online time to what really matters to you, the more you will find your online time rewarding, enlightening and replenishing.

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