It often seems like our online lives are lived in the future. We’re always looking forward to the next viral video, the next social network, the next must-have device. In the rush to stay ahead of the digital curve, we often miss out on the opportunity to learn from where we’ve already been.
But as we spend more and more of our lives online, it’s crucial to take stock of how our digital lives are unfolding. In part, that’s to avoid falling into bad habits: We need to periodically step back to ask whether all our gadgets, social networks, and online explorations are really serving us — or whether it’s actually vice versa. The growing popularity of “digital fasts” or “detoxes” attests to our sense that we need to regularly reassess our online lives and even reconsider how much time we spend plugged in.
While a digital fast may be useful in identifying where you want less technology in your life, it’s less likely to show you where technology is working well for you — or where it could work even better. With so much of our work, relationships, learning, and leisure now taking place on screens or networks, we need to ensure that our habits for digital tools are supporting both our personal and professional goals.
That’s why I like to undertake a periodic review of my digital life, looking back in order to look forward. Our current or recent online experiences are the best source of insight into what is actually effective or meaningful to us online and what is the product of hype or compulsion.
When I assess my digital life, I try to consider not only what makes me productive, but also what makes me inspired. I ask not only where I’ve learned the most, but who has helped me to keep on learning and growing. Here are the four questions that help me undertake that balanced assessment:
What made me more productive, and which devices or workflows let me down? In the business world, most of us think of our digital toolkit first and foremost in terms of its impact on our productivity. Our computers and phones are now so central to our workflows that reviewing our online productivity can provide a remarkably clear picture of our productivity pitfalls and victories. If you can take a clear-eyed look at which tools and habits made the biggest impact on your professional effectiveness over the past year, you’ll be able to work smarter in the year ahead.
Start by thinking about your biggest projects or business wins of the past year: What were the devices, networks, or applications that made them possible? Did you enjoy any major payoffs from investing in new tools or skills — and if so, could similar investments take you even further? Asking questions like these helped me see that in my biggest projects of the year, like my research on the family media market, my greatest productivity gains came not from adopting new tools but from becoming more skilled in using the basics (like Excel). That’s a good reminder to spend less time and money buying new software and to spend more time becoming a power user of the software I already depend on.
Conversely, it’s useful to think about any tools that really let you down. Stepping back to look at where you’ve really saved time and where your systems need some tweaks is the best way to ensure that you’re using the software, devices, and workflows that actually make your life easier, and that you’re not settling into unproductive habits.
When was I moved or delighted? Making the most of your time online isn’t all about efficiency. The more time you spend online, the more it should be a source for inspiration — for those sudden aha! moments that shift your sense of what is possible or make you see the world in a different way.
But those aha! moments probably won’t come from watching cat videos or taking Buzzfeed quizzes. That’s why you need to take stock of your breakthroughs and think carefully about the kinds of sites, interactions, or content that rock your world, so that you can be sure to feed yourself more inspiration in the months ahead. I was able to quickly find a list of everything that wowed me in 2015 by searching Facebook for “my posts about best.” By looking at everything I had shared with the declaration of it being the “best,” I got a good taste of what inspired me this year. Looking at the online moments or devices that truly amazed you is a terrific way to figure out where you’ll find inspiration or moments of delight in the future.
Where did I meet or engage with people who have strengthened my work? When I lead workshops about social media, one of the most common anxieties I hear is the fear that we are wasting time on social networks like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. But social networking is only a waste of time if it’s home to empty, meaningless interactions. That’s why we need to evaluate our social networking in terms of the relationships it has enabled or supported.
In the context of work, that means asking yourself where you have created, rekindled, or sustained the relationships that helped your work in the past year. This isn’t about counting up where you accrued the greatest number of followers or the highest volume of inbound traffic; it’s about identifying the specific people who have become important colleagues, clients, collaborators, or friends. (If you haven’t had anymeaningful connections through social networking, then you may want to revisit the way you’re using social media — or whether you want to use social media at all.)
In my own reflections, it’s been clear that for many months now Facebook has been by far the most significant network in my professional as well as personal life. That’s a good reason to double down on Facebook as the primary network for sharing my professional news and to think about how much time I need to continue investing in other networks. Noticing where you formed or deepened your most important professional relationships over the past months is a great way to choose your home base in the months or year ahead.
Where did I learn the most? With the constant barrage of online information, it’s crucial to evaluate where we’re actually learning and where we’re just being entertained (or annoyed). All too often we approach our lives online as if we’re still living in a world of information scarcity, which is what makes us feel like we have to read every email or keep up with every blog in our field. But only some of the content we consume actually moves our professional practice forward, so it’s useful to look back at what we’ve read or watched and ask which articles, talks, or videos actually expanded our knowledge or thinking in a meaningful way.
Start by asking yourself which pieces of content really stand out in your mind: What do you actually remember reading or seeing, and which articles did you make a point of sharing or forwarding to your colleagues? If the standouts came from a few key publications or sites, make a point of subscribing to those sources in your news reader (like Feedly or Flipboard), or set the most important publication as the page that your web browser launches when you open a new browser window. If your top reads are on a specific set of topics, set up news searches and subscriptions that bring those stories to you via email or RSS.
And don’t forget to think about how your online learning interacts with what you’ve learned offline, too. This year, my thinking about career development and leadership was influenced by posts here at HBR; my perspective on my own field (tech and social media) was affected by what I read on Medium and by the Startup and Reply Allpodcasts from Gimlet Media. But those digital sources only took root because I also invested in attending a few key events, like YxYY and Wisdom 2.0, that brought me face to face with thoughtful tech innovators. It’s helpful to consider not only where you find the most mind-opening content online, but also which kinds of offline conferences or interactions help to deepen or catalyze what you learn online.
Reflecting on these four dimensions of life online will help you ensure that the year ahead brings you more of what made your time online most meaningful, because you’ll know to invest more time and attention in the networks, tools, and relationships that have had the greatest impact. Yes, you can still look forward to what’s coming next in the digital world, but by looking at the past as well as the future, you’ll get a lot more out of your digital present.
Alexandra Samuel is a speaker, researcher and writer who works with the world’s leading companies to understand their online customers and craft data-driven reports like Sharing is the New Buying. The author of Work Smarter with Social Media (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), Alex holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University. Follow Alex on Twitter as @awsamuel.
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