The Internet is a wonderful tool, community, knowledge base, sounding board, diversion, and much more. Broadband Internet provides always-on access to the vast Web and instant communication tools (e-mail, instant messaging). Much of the online world is free and forgiving—one doesn’t need to worry too much about exploring.

Despite the openness and exploratory nature of the Internet, it is an unfamiliar and frightening world for some. Others become addicted to a constant flow of information and diversion, an information stream that TV could only approximate before the Internet. The potential for fear and addiction is a major stumbling-block for effective Internet use.

The Internet can be used in a non-threatening way that complements daily life; indeed, the Internet can greatly increase productivity when used properly. There are some simple things you can do to improve your Internet usage:

  1. Use Google effectively.
  2. Check your e-mail less frequently.
  3. Obtain and use web-based e-mail for on-the-go access.
  4. Limit your time online.
  5. Eliminate repetitive online tasks.
  6. Filter the available information.
  7. Use the proper tools.
  8. Bookmark.
  9. Do not abuse IM.
  10. Write clear, concise electronic communications.

Read on for a discussion of tips 1 and 2; I’ll continue this series this week.

1. Use Google effectively.

Google is an amazing website—a wealth of information is only a few clicks away. This information is just waiting for you to find it—search technology is the only barrier. To use a search engine effectively, you must write good queries. This isn’t obvious—if you were interested in golf and typed photography into Google, the results are overwhelming. So much photography! 211 million results; no person could ever go through that many.

Now, Google selected popular and respected websites to occupy the top slots, but perhaps you were interested in something more specific. The key to a good search query is to find the unique key words that relate to what you want to find. This is sometimes a chicken-and-egg scenario, but to continue with our photography example—let’s try macro photography. Only 4.25 million results, two orders of magnitude less than our initial, naive query.

We’ve seen how to dramatically improve the relevance of your search results by introducing additional search terms related to what you’re trying to find. These tips barely scratch the surface: Google can look up movie times, music albums, UPS / FedEx shipments, ISBNs, perform calculations, search news, show maps and satellite imagery, and find images.

Using Google in an effective manner will greatly reduce the time you spend wading through search results and following dead-end link trails. An hour or so spent learning Google will save countless hours when you need to find information quickly. Google’s broad reach of information can provide insight into just about any aspect of your life—learn a new hobby, find a movie showing near you, or check the satellite imagery to determine if your hotel is really near the beach. Just Google it!

For more information, check out the following Google resources:

Other resources include the Google Guide and O’Reilly’s Google Hacks book.

2. Check your e-mail less frequently.

E-mail is a wonderful communications tool. It is a nearly instant method of delivering information to someone electronically and can greatly increase your quality of life. However, just because you can check your e-mail every second doesn’t mean that you should, and here’s why:

E-mail, though instant, is not instantly actionable. People leave their desks during the day, attend meetings, answer telephone calls, and write other e-mails. It is simply not possible to answer incoming e-mails instantly. Nevertheless, constantly checking e-mail can become a habit, a means of distracting one’s self from other tasks. This is not what e-mail is for.

In order to use e-mail properly, you need to determine the minimum unit of time it takes for you to accomplish something. How many minutes do you need before you can accomplish something that requires concentration? This varies by person and profession; the only way to discover this magic number is to track your time.

I recommend that you multiply this number by 1.5 and use that as your e-mail check interval. The extra time is added so that you may actually transition between tasks gracefully, and allow for the inevitable coffee breaks, etc. Checking e-mail any quicker can destroy your productivity, as new, distracting information can come in that is complex enough to destroy the careful thoughts you spent time forming. Remember: if it is very time-critical, someone will contact you through a more immediate means. E-mail is not designed for instant communication, only instant delivery of information.

Using e-mail carefully will decrease the amount of time spent reading, responding to, and getting distracted by e-mail. Grouping your time into uninterrupted chunks that work for you will help improve your productivity—you can even address incoming e-mail in one such block.

There are many more articles available on why you should reduce your e-mail checking frequency: