Since I got broadband Internet a few years ago, I’ve had my email client at home checking for new mail every 5 minutes. When I started using a dedicated RSS reader, I also set that to check feeds as frequently as possible (every 30 minutes in NetNewsWire).
Earlier this year, I had to spend a few weeks without an Internet connection at home. I was able to check my email only when I made the trip down to the university library, and I stopped following the news altogether. Although slightly inconvenient, this was not as bad a situation as I had expected, and I felt that I got lots more work done this way.
When I eventually got connected again, I really felt the contrast. The RSS reader in particular was very interruptive. Unlike email, which comes in intermittently, there were updates in my subscriptions virtually every time the program refreshed them, so an interruption was almost guaranteed to happen every 30 minutes, with the green badge on NetNewsWire’s icon tempting me to see what was new. I tried to compensate by setting it to check only every 2 hours. However, it turned out that I had got conditioned to expecting news on a regular basis, and found myself glancing at the Dock icon quite often. I actually lost patience and manually refreshed the subscriptions sometimes, which only resulted in me feeling disappointed with my willpower.
My solution to this unfeasible dependency has been to turn off automatic checking in NetNewsWire. As hoped, this seems to have undone the conditioned expectation of updates, and I now manually refresh my feeds when I’m having a break. I’m sure that’s still more often than truly necessary, but at least I can concentrate on my work when I want to.
I’ve also reconfigured my email client to update every 15 minutes. I don’t want to turn off automatic checking altogether here, because sometimes you do get emails that need immediate attention. It seems that since emails are more sporadic, there is no regular interval to get used to, so you don’t actually notice that the program is checking less frequently.
Another highly effective strategy I use is to minimise the number of RSS feeds I subscribe to by using good news “gatherers” such as John Gruber, and even to dump Flickr contacts (except friends, of course) whose photos I don’t end up liking as much as expected.
If you feel like you’re getting an information overload on your desktop, I recommend you take control and make some changes as well. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to get by without being constantly connected.