Facebook, Twitter, chat rooms and more—Alexandra Samuel shares how online technology can turn from a distraction into a tool that helps you stay focused on your goals and inspired about your life.
The Internet has a terrible way of distracting a girl: You sit down to search job postings, and you end up in a chat room with some guy in Thailand who wants to know how you refinished your floors.
When I posted my long-term goals online in December 2004, it was a way of procrastinating the immediate goal of getting a job:
Be invited to a gay wedding.
Hire our first fabulous employee.
Meet Stephen Sondheim.
Never use the word "synergy."
It doesn't have to be that way. Instead of yielding to the siren song of online distraction, you can use your computer to connect to your goals—and to find the inspiration to achieve them.
That's exactly the point of 43 Things, the website I used to record my goals. It asks a simple question, "What do you want to do with your life?" and gives you a quick way to record up to 43 answers. Five years after recording my initial goals, I've crossed almost two dozen off my list...including some big ones, like "start a company that lasts longer than two years," "create a writing group" and "potty-train my son."
I'd love to tell you that 43 Things is the tooth fairy of the Internet: Stick your to-do under a virtual pillow and wake up to a giant check mark. But no, I had to do the hard work of finding clients, fellow writers and rubber bedsheets. What 43 Things supplied was the focus, advice and support to help me do it.
We tend to think of setting goals and seeking inspiration as highly personal. But achieving our goals is not always a solitary pursuit: The encouragement and resources of a larger community can help us do something we couldn't do alone.
How to plug into inspiration on the Web
Your computer can support both sides of this equation. It can be a solitary meditation room, an artist's garret, a silent retreat or even the red carpet entrance to the party of your dreams—where your best friend, favorite musician and newfound mentor gather to offer help and cheer you on.
Here are some of the ways you can plug into inspiration on your solitary desktop or on the social Web:
Create an Inspiration Playlist Use iTunes or your favorite MP3 manager to create a playlist of songs that inspire you. Since I'm a big Broadway nerd (yes, in addition to being a tech nerd), my playlist is full of my favorite inspiring show tunes like "No One Is Alone" (Into the Woods) and "What I Did for Love" (A Chorus Line). I listen to it when I'm working on a creative project, going for a run or just need a boost. Burn your playlist to a CD so you can have copies in your car and at work: Nobody needs to know that you wrote that terrific report while listening to "Wind Beneath My Wings."
Create an Inspiration Feed As fascinating as it is to read about the Fruit Loops my best friend is eating for breakfast, sometimes I want a little more fiber in my Facebook or Twitter feeds. So I've created a group of people to follow on Twitter strictly for their inspiration value. It includes the latest tweets from the likes of David Badash (a prolific, funny and thoughtful gay rights activist and writer), Tricycle magazine (a Buddhist publication) and Angela Raincatcher (an artist). I peek at the latest tweets from my "inspire" group throughout the day; these words of inspiration are a great counterweight to the gossip and links that otherwise overwhelm my online experience. You can do the same thing on Facebook by creating a list of your most inspiring friends and clicking on the name of that list when you're viewing your Facebook homepage.
Inspire Your Password Using your dog's birthday as your email password may help you remember to pick up an extra juicy soup bone when the big day rolls around, but it's not doing anything for your inspiration-starved soul. Take those passwords you punch in day after day after day—your email password, your Facebook log-in, even your bank PIN—and turn them into pick-me-ups. Try a password like B3Y0urs3lf or JustD01t or Trust1nU, mixing letters with numbers (4 for A, zero instead of O, 1 instead of L or I) for extra security.
3 more ways to turn distraction into inspiration
Bookmark Your Inspiration You've got browser bookmarks for every newsletter in your field and every after-school program in your neighborhood. That's great for your work and your kid—but what about your heart? You can use your browser's bookmark collection to create collections of online resources related to spirituality, creativity, mental health—whatever inspires you and keeps you on track. My inspiring bookmarks range from ideas for beating writer's block to short meditations that inspire me.
Inspire Your Desktop The background on your computer doesn't have to be an ad for your computer manufacturer. Whether you're moved by a panoramic view of the Himalayas or a close-up of Hugh Jackman's abs, stick those inspiring ridges where you'll see them every day: on your computer's desktop. Starting up to the sight of Hugh's six-pack may be just the thing to lift you out of your morning blahs.
Share Your Inspirations "I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing." I had listened to this line from the musical called [title of show] 900 times before I finally had to write a blog post about how it inspired me. As I struggled to describe the impact the show had on my life and work, I uncovered new lessons in it, like how to separate yourself from how other people see you. When you share a blog post, Facebook update or YouTube video about what inspires you, you're not only helping other people discover a new source of wisdom or courage: You're likely to come to a new understanding of what helps you soar.
These practices won't turn you into a digital Buddha, someone impervious to the magnetic appeal of Perez Hilton's latest headline and Zappo's latest sale. What they can do is rebalance the scales: to edge you away from a tech life that toggles between relentless offline productivity and mindless online distraction.
"Productivity tools" like computers and smart phones can be transformed into personal touchstones, and "buddy lists" can become support groups. Now that's what I would have called synergy.
Where do you turn for inspiration online?Share your thoughts below!