I often conduct a workshop called “Organize Your Digital Self” and the last section of the workshop is on staying sane in a world with so many ways to go into digital overload. Here are a few of my favorites apps and programs for staying sane:
StayFocusd is a Chrome Extension that lets you choose websites (like Facebook or casual games sites) that you want to limit your time on. You decide how much time is enough, and then StayFocusd will warn you when you’re getting close to your limit and cut you off for the day once you’ve surpassed it. Sure, you can open another browser, but if the point is to be more cognizant of how you’re wasting time, it does a good job reminding you.
WorkRave is designed to help prevent repetitive stress injuries (like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome) but it also works very well to force you to take a break. If you’re one of those people that can sit for hours working at the computer without even realizing that an hour has gone by, try a program like WorkRave. You can decide how long you want to work in one sitting, how long you want to break, and how long you want your “snooze” to be before you really have to take that break. Use your break times to talk to your family, spend time with your pets, go breath in some fresh air, get the mail, etc. The point is to force yourself to get up from your computer and do something else. I’d experiment with the optimum continuous focused work time – for some it is 45 min, for others it is 90 minutes.
RescueTime is a bit like having your very own “big brother.” Once you install it, it can track how much time you spend where on your computer (not just the Internet, but also your desktop, Windows or Mac). So if you think you’re spending 3 hours a day answering email, it can verify that or it might tell you that the 3 hours is actually spent in Farmville. RescueTime can also block distracting sites, so you can kill two birds with one stone – track time and block sites that are wasting time. If you’re into the Quantified Self movement or you want students to track some data of their own for a project, the time-tracking reports and graphs from RescueTime are great (see video RescueTime Reports). To measure just your online activities, there is now a RescueTime Chrome Extension too.
Part of staying sane is not becoming distracted and following link after link “down the rabbit hole” of time suck. Readability is a great little browser extension for Chrome, Safari, or Firefox. Their mission? “With one click, turn any webpage into a clean comfortable reading view.” Not only does Readability strip out all the extra links and advertisements on an article you’re trying to read, but it allows you to set your preferences for margins, background, text color, font, font size, columns, and more. Subscribers to Readability can save web articles for later reading, send articles to a mobile device, and sync with Kindle. The video that follows is a 1-minute tour of Readability.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dropbox, which is one of those programs that has changed my workflow and contributed greatly to my ease of mind. This is one that you will have to pay for if you want more than 2 GB of space (and trust me, you will). Here’s the idea: if you’re working on multiple computer systems, dropbox makes a file folder on each computer and a mirror image of that folder “in the cloud.” Whatever you drop into the folder on your computer, that file is mirrored in your Dropbox account in the cloud and then on the other computers synced to your account. The beauty of this is that you can edit a file on your home computer, close it, drive to work, and after you boot up the computer there, the new version of the file will be sitting in the Dropbox on that computer. You can also access any of the files in your Dropbox on any computer and on mobile devices by logging in to your Dropbox account. This is invaluable when you suddenly have to present off someone else’s computer. The ease of mind comes from knowing that if a disaster occurs and all your computers are lost, the Dropbox with all your important stuff will still be sitting there in the cloud waiting for you. Dropbox has gotten some negative press lately over encryption practices, but the reality is that their encryption practices are better than most of our private security practices (if your work requires a security clearance, try another system).