Offline? That’s Fine

We recently had a campus-wide network outage at the college where I work. It only lasted a couple hours but it was enough to seriously disrupt the day of web content manager, like me, who relies on access to websites and online tools to do their job.

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It really should have been something that destroyed my productivity, something to panic about and rant and complain with my co-workers over: “Can you believe this? Just as I was in the middle of site changes. WTF!” It would have been really easy to use this as an excuse to not get something done, to just kill time until the connection was restored.

At least, that’s how the old me would have felt. This time, I recognized the loss of an internet connection for the gift it actually was.

In fact, I barely noticed when the connection disappeared because I was already working offline when it happened—deep into Excel sheets building site-audit tables and content update schedules. When I happened to look up and notice my instant messenger app was offline, my reaction was less “oh crap” and more “huh, that’s weird” because it was no big deal.

No, it was more than that — I actually felt relieved almost immediately, because I could see all the benefits of not having an internet connection for a while. No IMs to interrupt me, no email coming or going to worry about. It was a sudden gift to the whole campus of enforced offline time, a chance to work without interruption.

I was able to keep doing work because I have a task management system I trust, and that lets me easily pivot from one context to another. No internet? I still had plenty I could do that didn’t involve being online. Move to the projects that don’t need it like those content update schedules.

I was able to keep doing work because I have a task management system I trust, and that lets me easily pivot from one context to another.

And just because I couldn’t send or receive email didn’t mean I couldn’t compose emails. For a while now, I’ve built a habit that makes writing emails a separate task from checking email, allowing me to focus on communicating clearly in messages and threads that I am initiating or replying to.

For example, if I have to email some questions to Tom, write up a brief meeting summary for Jerry, and send a reminder to the student group about cartoon night, I don’t open my email client. Instead I use WriteRoom or Byword — a full-screen text editor — because I want to focus on the words without distraction of terrible email composer interfaces. I have a standing “email drafts” text file I keep synced with Dropbox, a reusable document where I can write all those messages one after another in a long string, and then they’ll be ready to cut and paste them into email when I’m ready to send focus on all my other email tasks. That may be an hour later or more — but the important thing was getting the email written, and having that text file ready to go so I can add to it, edit it, even send messages from my phone if I need to.

So it turns out that I can have a pretty productive afternoon without an internet connection. I’m not even sure I realized how much of my workflow had moved to offline systems, but if it had gone a step further and I my computer crashed, I probably still could have worked with a different computer, or worked on paper, cleaned out files in my office, had some good conversations with my co-workers.

The key was being organized about breaking up tasks into different contexts that separate online work from offline work, and embracing forced offline time as an opportunity. For a couple of hours that afternoon I got to enjoy the quiet of fewer interruptions, the focus of fewer distractions, and I found my productive flow. I’m almost looking forward to the next time our network connections go down.

Almost.

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