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Connected Mode: 10 Ways to Stay Productive with Online Work

Every Monday is Productivity & Organization Day at Zen Habits.

Editor’s note: The following is a guest post written by Anne Zelenka, editor of Web Worker Daily. It provides a nice contrast to my usual philosophy of single-tasking, and I’m honored to have a distinguished writer such as Anne contribute to Zen Habits.

Maybe you’ve heard you should firewall your attention and eliminate annoying and addictive interruptions like IM and Twitter. But there’s another way to work, a way that you can stay in communication with colleagues, deal productively with interruptions, and keep a broad view of what’s available online. I call it connected mode.

There are certain tasks you do where you need focus. These tasks may include writing a research paper, developing a piece of complex software, working out a particularly involved web application usage scenario, or reviewing a legal contract. You need focus for such tasks because if you are momentarily interrupted it’s hard to get started again.

Just because single tasking works best for certain tasks, however, doesn’t mean that’s always the best way to work — and you may already spend much of your time dealing with fragmented and interrupted work anyway. There are three trends making multitasking and connected productivity a better fit for at least some of our work: (1) the Millennial generation’s penchant for achieving group productivity via staying in constant connection rather than firewalling their attention, (2) improvement in computer software that means it remembers task context rather than your having to, and (3) a move towards assembly, linking, and remixing tasks rather than solo content creation from scratch. You can read more about these trends at my blog.

Here, I’ll share with you some ways you can explore and experiment with connected mode productivity to see where and how it might work for you. Then let me know what your work day looks like.

1. Set aside at least a couple hours each day to improve your connected productivity skills. To get good at it, you need to practice it. In this podcast, human computer interaction researcher Mary Czerwinski notes that people can train themselves to be better multitaskers. There’s no sense in doing it when all your associates are offline, so choose a time where you’ll be able to engage in conversation and connection with the people you work with. Bonus: as your colleagues figure out what are good times to talk with you by IM or phone they may interrupt you less when you’re single-tasking.

2. Equip yourself with tools that support connected mode. You need a good IM aggregator (Trillian on Windows or Adium on Mac, for example), a team chat room or status updater like Twitter for lightweight status broadcasts to associates, and plenty of display space so you can have communications windows and ongoing work windows shown at the same time.

3. Declare your availability. Let your associates know when you’re available for interruption and then ensure they know when you’re NOT to be interrupted too. You can use instant messaging presence indicators, but that’s not the only possibility. Twitter or another web/IM/SMS status updater can be a lightweight way of telling colleagues when’s a good time to connect with you. If you work in person with colleagues, you’re probably in connected mode by default — they’ll check in at your cubicle when they need something. To tell them you’re not available, use headphones and turn your back to the entrance.

4. Surf rather than swim in the information ocean. Connected mode productivity is based upon linking across topics and people and computational resources — so you need to keep the broad view. You can’t get that if you’re swimming around in just one part. Instead of trying to absorb everything about one subject, try balancing your information diet with little bits and bites from arenas other than your usual ones. This can provide inspiration and new directions… that’s what connected productivity is about.

5. Connect with people one to one every day. If you do home-based work on solo tasks for a large part of the day, you may be missing out on the personal relationships that can catapult you forward by solving a particular problem you had, suggesting a new direction, or just making you feel more human. Use instant messaging, VoIP, comments on other people’s blogs, or services like Twitter or Facebook to make and strengthen connections.

6. Look for channels other than email. Email’s great as a support for single-tasking, because its asynchronicity allows you to respond when you’re ready, not when someone else is. But it can be a real drag for back-and-forth discussions because they get so drawn out. During your connected productivity time, use synchronous channels like face-to-face meeting, instant messaging, a team chat room, or the phone. You’ll resolve issues faster and any of these alternatives build relationships better than email ever could.

7. Explore linking, assembly, and mixing tasks. You’ll “get” connected mode productivity better if you understand what kind of tasks it’s best for. Consider: creating a website with WordPress, a prebuilt theme, and widgets; responding to an ongoing discussion in the blogosphere by linking to many opinions and sharing your own; building a mashup with Google maps and some data from your social network; brokering relationships across two separate social groups that you are a part of. Such tasks often require interacting with multiple people and surfing the web to find the right pieces and get it all working together — that’s quite different from solo tasks of creation, engineering, or analysis largely from scratch.

8. Seek diverse social contacts. The key is not the number of connections you have, but their diversity. If you have 200 connections all within the same social and professional grouping, the inspiration and information you get from those connections will largely overlap. If, on the other hand, you have ten contacts across different topics and demographics, you’ll get different perspectives and bits of ideas that you can link up in new ways.

9. Use multiple social networking tools. Different kinds of people use different tools — so don’t limit yourself to just the one that your dominant social group uses. I’ve found new connections and rediscovered old ones in many different places; if I expected everyone to come to whatever place I found most comfortable, I’d needlessly limit myself.

10. Know when you need to single task. If you have a major deadline, have all the informational resources that you need already available, and just need to crank some widgets then yes: firewall your attention. Multitasking, connected mode productivity is not the best choice for every situation.

How do you balance single-tasking focus with multitasking connection throughout your work day and on different projects?

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