Amar Sagoo

8 July 2006

Don’t let it control you

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.


  1. Funny, I've been doing something similar, inspired by 43 Folders.

    For the last month or so, I've had my email auto-check set to one hour. This has two main side effects.

    Firstly it reduces the frequently with which new mail distracts me, and lets me get more work done.

    Secondly, and less predictably, I've found that when there's a delay, quite a large proportion of the mail I receive becomes irrelevant. Let's say an impulsive colleague emails a question either to me personally, or to the whole team. By the time my leisurely auto-check comes around, either someone else has dealt with the question, or the person has figured out the answer themselves.

    For Newsfire, I use the opposite strategy to yours. I found that proper news (bbc, guardian) and group-edited aggregator sites (boingboing, 3 quarks daily) produce so much new material that they're unmanageable, so I've removed all those feeds and only kept feeds from low-volume but consistently interesting blogs.

    The high-volume ones I have made into smart bookmarks in Firefox. That way I'm not alerted to new content, but I can scan the headlines if I want to, without feeling that I have to "mark them as read" for the sake of tidiness.

  2. I think if I set my email client to check only once an hour, I'd keep getting impatient and checking manually, like I did with the feeds.

    Although the self-solving property of emails does sound cool. A potential research project?

    I know what you mean about the volume of the big news sites. For tech news, I only use Ars Technica (including some of their journals), Daring Fireball and the German site

    I yet have to find a nice solution for general news, as I can't keep up with the BBC's feeds.

  3. Troubling how quickly these conveniences can become annoyances.

    I'm going to dump RSS Menu (great little program!), because it's too easy to click to check news and the Growl support is too good. Most of its feeds I've moved to OmniWeb anyway, which just shows the current feed article count: no bouncing icons, reminders. I do like david w's approach using Firefox.

    I do need to set my email check interval to hourly or longer. Few things are more distracting than the new message count in GyazMail, especially when the new message I can't resist checking turns out to be spam.