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Simplify the Internet

The Internet is overwhelming for many people — it never ends, and our connection to it is consuming more and more of our time.

When things get overwhelming, my advice is always the same: simplify.

But how do you simplify such a complicated beast as the Internet? It’s impossible! Actually, no, it’s doable, but it takes a willingness to let go.

Without letting go, there is no simplicity.

Let’s take a look at some ways to simplify the Internet.

The Complications

How you simplify depends a lot on what you do on a regular basis, and that’s different for everyone. Some common things that many people do regularly:

  • Social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr
  • Social news: Reddit, Digg, Hacker News
  • Blogs, cooking sites, long-form magazines and other fun/interesting things to read
  • News and sports sites
  • Email
  • Actual work tools like Google Docs, WordPress, Basecamp, etc.
  • Shopping sites like Amazon
  • Tools for learning like Code Academy, Khan Academy, Duolingo
  • Tools for productivity, goals and personal finances
  • Games
  • Videos
  • Music
  • Fitness sites

Whew! That’s just the tip of the iceberg too. I haven’t touched weird stuff, nerdy stuff, academic stuff, or porn.

Let’s see if we can simplify.

Simplify Social

Let’s start by saying that no, we don’t need to be connected on social networks as much as many people think they need to be. I have nothing against social networks, but I do think we let ourselves become addicted to them. And that’s not healthy.

So here are some ways to simplify (you don’t have to do all of them):

  1. Quit Facebook. I quit Facebook altogether about 15 months ago, and haven’t looked back. It was too time-consuming, even after I’d reduced it to just family (no friends or work colleagues). It was too many people oversharing, too many ads, too many people posting what they’d eaten or scored in a game or complaining about some part of their day. It was noise. So I quit, and my life got quieter. Sure, I miss out on some things my family is doing, but I usually hear about the important stuff, and being able to let go of what you might be missing out on is really key to simplifying. You’re always going to miss out on something.
  2. Choose 1 or 2 social networks. If you’re going to do Facebook, don’t do other ones too. You can quit Twitter and Instagram. Really you can! It’s not a necessity by a long shot. These days I use Twitter and Google+ (sparingly).
  3. Be sparing of your social use. You can be a part of a social network and not participate all day long. I only check Twitter once or twice a day usually, and spend only a minute or two looking at replies. That’s not to say I’m above everyone else, but that I’ve consciously decided that I’d prefer to be creating rather than always connected to the social stream. Yes, I miss out on stuff, and yes I’m OK with that.
  4. Follow few. You don’t need to follow as few people as I do, but you also don’t need to follow hundreds or thousands. How can you possibly keep up with that many people’s updates? You can’t, so cultivate your stream to just the essential.
  5. Post infrequently. Yes, I know that many people post several times an hour, but I believe that’s because they don’t choose. Simplifying is about making choices — just put out your best, and cut back on the noise. When I have something I might want to tweet, I say it to someone near me instead (usually).

Simplify Reading

There are a handful of sources of news and interesting reads that I open on a regular basis. Here’s how I’ve simplified reading:

  1. Pick a handful of sources. There’s an almost unlimited amount of reading out there, and you could do it all day and not make a dent in just what was created today. So let go. Pick just a few good sources (including news sites and blogs and social news and more), and check them once a day at most.
  2. Scan, and Instapaper. Scan through your sources, open a few that look interesting. Scan the article/post, and if it looks worthy of reading, save it to Instapaper (takes 1 second to save it if you use a bookmarklet). Instapaper becomes your bucket to collect interesting reading. Close the tabs, and get out. You don’t need to read all of it right now — do that later. If you read now, you’ll never finish or get anything else done.
  3. Save some time for undistracted reading. I like to read at certain times of the day. I open Instapaper and read an article or two, then archive them. There are no distractions in Instapaper — when you read, just read, don’t switch back and forth among different tabs.
  4. Clear your queue out weekly. Every Monday, archive or delete your entire Instapaper reading list. But … but … yes, let them go. If you didn’t read them this week, you’re not likely to read them later — your list will just keep growing and you’ll always feel pressure to read it. If you know that you’re going to clear out the list on Monday, you’re likely to spend a little time over the weekend reading the most essential reads. And trust me, it’s wonderful, wonderful to let go of your reading list and clear it out. It’s like a fresh start, every week. (This is called the Impending Doom Machine.)

Simplify Email

Email becomes a constant distraction for many, a neverending stream of things to do and reply to. Let’s simplify.

  1. Clear out your inbox. Seriously, clear it out today. Here’s what to do: scan your inbox and put a star or flag next to the important to-do items, and mark them on a to-do list (a simple text list will do if you don’t already have a list); quickly go through and delete/archive anything you know isn’t important; put all the rest in a folder/label called “to process”. You’ll get to them later, in chunks in the next few days. Done! Your inbox is clear!
  2. Let messages disappear into the ether. Use the Smart Unread Inbox (or my empty gmail version. This setup will take every message that you read and zap it from the inbox — knowing this forces you to act on the message immediately, or it’ll be lost in the ether. This is a brilliant method, trust me.
  3. Process immediately. Now, when an email comes in, do one of these things: Reply or act/reply immediately if it takes a minute or less; Put it on your todo list, and star it, if you need to act or write a longer reply later; Put it on your calendar immediately if it’s something you need to do on a certain date. Otherwise, just hit archive, and it’ll auto-advance to the next message. You can process a dozen messages like this in a minute or three, and then your inbox is empty again!
  4. Filter ruthlessly. Everytime you get an email in your inbox you don’t really need (notifications, newsletters, ads and brochures, etc.), take 20 seconds to create a filter so that it never hits your inbox. You’ll save tons of time with this small investment.

All the Rest

The above steps will simplify a lot of what most people do, but what about the rest? There are a few key principles to help simplify:

  1. Reduce buckets and sources. If you have a lot of inboxes (buckets) you have to check regularly, let some of them go. Merge some of them. Have as few as possible. Same for sources of information — if you’re checking a bunch of things regularly, ruthlessly cut back. If you have 150 blogs you’re following, cut it to 10. Seriously, it’s OK to let go.
  2. Zero notifications. Don’t be notified everytime people post things or reply to you or follow you or email you or comment on your blog. You don’t need to know right away. Check infrequently. Turn off all notifications, and filter them out of your inbox.
  3. Let go. You will probably have a difficult time letting go of certain networks, sources, tools, time-wasters. That’s because you’re afraid of missing out. Let me assure you, I’ve let go of many of these, and you aren’t missing anything. You’ll live. Breathe, and let go. Also let go of checking often — it’s not important.
  4. Pay yourself first. Before you get lost down the digital rabbit hole of distractions and socializing, do the work that matters most to you first. Before you check email and social networks and start online reading, do important work. Find distraction-free spaces, and let go of the need to check your online addictions. Read more.
  5. Save to Pinboard and forget. No, I didn’t say Pinterest — I think you can safely let go of Pinterest and other similar sites with a bunch of addictive things to look at. Instead, use Pinboard, and save the bookmarklet to your bookmarks bar (or be smart and use a keyword bookmark. Now, anytime you might need something later, just bookmark it in Pinboard with a tag or two, and forget it. You can safely offload almost everything from your mind but what you’re working on at this moment.

There are surely other parts of your Internet life that I haven’t simplified here, but I think the general principles can work for most people. Let go, reduce, focus and act.

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
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