"More than ever, we're now focused on documenting and building the history of our lives, not on living the life unfolding right in front of us," writes Damon Brown in his new TED e-book Our Virtual Shadow: Why We Are Obsessed With Documenting Our Lives Online. "It's all about the check-in, the status update, the captured moment, rather than being fully present day to day."
Not that there's anything wrong with social media, he hastens to add--as a technology writer he maintains an active social media presence himself. (In fact, he specially requested we include his Twitter handle, @BrownDamon, in this post.) But constant attention to social media comes at a cost, he says. "We lack focus because we're distracted by so many things, and studies have shown our brains are bad at multi-tasking. So in a sense when we're having experiences and documenting them at the same time, we're not experiencing any of it. This has crept up on most of us."
Like Brown, anyone active in business, and especially anyone running a small business, can't afford to ignore social media or even step away from it for too long. On the other hand, no one wants an experience like that of Cesar Kuriyama (a TED speaker now documenting one second each day of his life) who failed to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime sunset because he was too busy trying to get a good picture of it for Facebook. Is there a way to maintain the social media presence we all need to succeed and stay connected, without missing out on those moments? Here's Brown's advice:
1. Pick your poison
"Don't go willy-nilly into all social networks, choose what your audience likes the most," he suggests. "If you're a music industry person, be on MySpace. In my business, a lot of people that are influential are on Twitter, and so are the people I want to influence."
Once you pick one or two social networks that matter to your audience, stay active only on those. You may want to create an account in others just to reserve your preferred name, but don't make them part of your daily life. "It only takes 10 minutes to set up an account," Brown says. "After that, just do something occasionally."
2. Set a time for social media
For Brown, it's the hour between 6 and 7 a.m. "It's like reading the morning paper," he says. "I'm sitting there with my coffee and my bagel or whatever." Brown uses that time to post links to any articles of his that were published the previous day, and send shout-outs to people who've retweeted his tweets or his work, as well as catch up on his favorite Twitter feeds and tweet interesting tidbits. At the end of the hour, he goes on to the rest of his day.
"Then it doesn't matter if I don't go on every five seconds," he says. "Since I started doing this, it's really changed how productive I am, both for that hour, and for the rest of the day."
3. Give yourself a time out
Take some time every day to disconnect from social media completely, Brown advises. He himself does this by deliberately letting his smartphone run out of power, knowing that once it does it won't turn on again for at least 15 minutes. "Personally, I know my level of focus increases dramatically," he says. "It's helpful during work, but it's also helpful for paying more attention to my wife or even going for a walk." With social media inaccessible, Brown finds he can really be in the moment.
He recommends a new game called "Phone Stacking," in which people eating a meal together pile their phones on the table, and the first one to pick up his or her phone must also pick up the tab. The game fulfills our new craving for "soundproof" space when we step away from the virtual world and engage with the people actually around us, he writes. But, he says, before you put your phone on the table, it's fine to pause long enough to check in with Foursquare first.