Category: Managing Your Time Online


Nearly a year ago, I flagged a Life Hacker post on arranging environments for success, intending to get back to what looked like an interesting self-help guide to making my office more useful.  Little did I realize at the time that Susan G. Friedman (of Behavior Works) is an expert on shaping the behavior of parrots!  It took me a few moments to wrap my bird brain around the idea that behavior shaping can (and maybe should) apply to designing environments for human beings.

People have asked me in the past how students should minimize the distractions of digital multi-tasking while they study.  I usually suggest things like Kino to mask unused screen real estate or tools like Scrivener that allow a writer to focus ONLY on the text while darkening the rest of the display.

But no one – not teachers and not parents – really can rely only on the physical environment to shape the desired behavior of learners or children.  Certainly, we can help remove external distractions, but ultimately, the students themselves must be partners in this effort for it to succeed.  If they are not on board with the effort, they will still manage to day-dream at a minimum.  Unmotivated, children (and adult learners!) can still circumvent software and decide to go “just check email really quick” or check out the newest popular video on YouTube.  They must be willing to shape their behavior and report accurately upon what they did while “studying” in order to continue to evaluate the success or failure of the redesigned environment.

So, before addressing the physical space – or perhaps simultaneous with the design process – you need to address the internal learning environment as well.  Maybe it is time to discuss a reward system for demonstrated results (and not just measuring successful studying by supposed time spend on task).  Or it might be a good idea to try out the Pomodoro Technique for yourself.  Afterall, human beings are very capable of gaming the system – any system.  Even one that they create for themselves.

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Ok, I hate to use one software product to advertise a competitor, but as a mostly unbiased consultant, I feel obligated to bring educators the latest news on whatever services, software, and systems are out there.

The only reason I don’t do MORE of that is because ideas often strike at the least convenient moments.  Especially when I am no where near a computer.

Admittedly, there are ways around this problem.  I could type using the Notes program on my iPhone.  I could probably find a plug in or something for Word Press.

But I like easy … as in REALLY easy and leveraging a tool I already use for similar purpose.

Enter Posterous.

This service has taken away all my excuses for not blogging … other than the fact that I do have a life, like to run, drive a car, and have a dissertation to write … when an idea strikes me.  It uses my email program … ANY email application whatsoever … to send a blog to the service.  I can also include attachments like photos and audio files.

So simple that I have no excuses anymore, other than a total lack of something to say.

Which doesn’t stop too many bloggers, actually.

But if YOU have something to say and just have struggled with the complexities of getting to a computer in order to blog, check this little site out.

I was asked recently by a professor for ideas on how students could limit the digital distractions of their life. I knew that a few products were out there but did not have any names to give him quickly. Low and behold, as I was engaging in some digitally enhanced procrastination myself, I discovered an article on Life Hacker about Kino.

Kino is literally a desktop mask that hides the background on your big, gorgeous screen so that you can focus on the task at keyboard … saving attention so that you finish the project and can later put the digital real estate to good use watching Iron Man 2 trailers. This puts it into the category of tools that self-aware procrastinators, like me, use to manage ourselves. It ranks along side habits such as turning OFF my cell phone, shutting down my email program, and setting a timer in World of Warcraft. These actions make sure that I can hit a project hard, complete it, and move on to actually watching Iron Man 2 in the theater.

Problem is that they are all voluntary. And there’s the rub. None of the tools to eliminate distractions work unless a person (student or teacher) wants to engage in them. Oh sure, parents and lab administrators can install programs to actually take the decision out of the hands of their students, but is this really necessary? Or is it actually counter-productive? At some point, teens and young adults (and older adults) need to start self-regulating by turning off distractions or turning on the distraction-muting programs themselves. As any early childhood educator will tell you, learning to self-regulate is a major life skill. If a 13 or 23 or 33 year old hasn’t mastered that one yet, it is time for some remedial training.

Truth is, teens and college students are more capable of choosing to limit social media than we may think. Reports are coming in that they are logging off Facebook and other sites in order to improve grades and achieve other goals. One of my favorite blogs, Zen Habits has a list of tips for teens to manage the balance between goals and socializing via media.

The key is that, no matter how hard it may seem, you have to decide that you’re in charge of how much of the data stream you will enjoy – and when. I’ll keep posting tools to help whenever I find them!

This morning, I’m sipping my coffee and reading the news, switching between print (the New York Times) and my trusty electronic feeds (via Google reader). Since I’m focused on the educational potential of online tools, I stopped to track down and read this article from Ars Technica on addiction to social media.

As is usual, I find myself mulling a difficult question or two. And I haven’t even had my second cup of coffee (don’t get me started on addictions ….)!

First off, as the article points out, defining behavioral addictions is problematic and open to debate. Many addiction specialists question the label “addiction” applied to compulsive behavior. And many Madison Avenue behavioral shapers simply enjoy the income. But that’s not the question I am focused on today.

My question is: is this really new behavior? Or is it just shifted to a new medium? And how would we study this question?? I only ask because, as I reflect on my own use of social media and slick devices, I do not see substantial changes in behavior other than the fact that I can now do things once instead of twice.

Let me explain. Back in the old days, when I carried around a DayTimer instead of an iPhone, I’d spend a substantial amount of time — at odd moments of the day — making notes about what I needed to do when business hours started: who needed to be contacted, what memos needed to be written, what newspaper article I needed to clip and file, etc. And I do mean at all hours of the day. Being a multi-tasker and insomniac from my teens, it was not unusual for me to be up at 4 am writing out reports long-hand on a legal pad so that a secretary could type them up when normal people started working.

Now, I drink my coffee and read the paper as always, but I can file clips (in the form of URLs) immediately (in Endnote or star them in Google Reader). Instead of making myself a note to remind my students of a paper due next week, I can send it out now via Twitter or the Moodle news feed. I type up my own memos (more likely emails) and can send them out at 4 am, if that is when I’m thinking of it … instead of making notes and hoping I’ll remember what I was thinking about. Does this mean that I’m addicted to social media? Or was I addicted to (something …. work perhaps) before social media came along?

People frequently make a big deal about how we text or read electronic media in bed … but how is that different from the prior sins of reading fiction or watching TV before falling asleep? I’d argue that a quiet game of Bejeweled is more relaxing than watching the nightly news, but I think I’ll leave that question to those who feel like researching it (anyone want to get wired up in the sleep lab?).
Instead, I’ll continue to wonder if we are all Rip Van Winkle, suddenly waking up and forgetting the progression of the past 50 years. We did not suddenly become a sedentary, media focused society with the invention of the smart phone. We’ve been sitting and amusing ourselves with cheap paperbacks, readily available newspapers, crossword puzzles and TV for decades. Is the shift to electronic media really increasing our consumption of media? Or do we just notice it now that we’re not consuming the privileged print as much as we are the disruptive electronic forms?

I had wanted to teach a section of our Introduction to College Learning class, but I was assured that they already had all the well-qualified instructors they needed …. ah, well, such is life. So, I’ll have to share my bits of wisdom to a MUCH larger audience via the Internet (or the “Interweb” as it was called on an episode of “House” — seriously).
Today’s lesson is about time management and how to procrastinate while looking like you’re doing something productive. What’s better than sitting down with your syllabi, planning out when things are due, and watching your favorite TV show? Very effective multitasking, which puts you well on your way to surviving in the modern world.
Unless you already have your paper planner (I’m assured they still exist) or use Google Calendar, check out this online software: StudyRails. Seriously. Many first year students get into trouble because they haven’t had to work very hard before college and suddenly have what looks like an even lighter load than senior slide … until they get hit with mid-terms.
So, plan ahead, block out time now for studying and playing both. You’ll thank me around Halloween when you can still go out with friends, play your favorite videogame, and tell your parents that you’re getting a “B” with a straight face.