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The Myths of Opting In to (Nearly) Everything

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo

**
You may know that I was offline last week, not by choice, exactly, but by circumstance, as I was in Cuba. Land of slow, expensive, and typically inconvenient Internet, I decided I’d simply not make efforts to get online, check email, and keep up all the things we’re told we have to do to “maintain our brand.”

It was fantastic, really, until I logged into gmail and saw 363 messages in my inbox, 360 of which were totally unimportant. I felt both overwhelmed and saddened by this, and I vowed that when I returned home I was going to make some changes that would make my online life more manageable and sane.

I've been on an unsubscribe spree and let me tell you: It feels good.

I’ve been on an unsubscribe spree and let me tell you: It feels good.

When I got home, I made good on my promise. I started unsubscribing from mailing lists and digests that either provided little or no value or which I wasn’t sure how I got subscribed to in the first place. I started “unliking” businesses on Facebook that I actually didn’t really like or whose social media messaging I found terribly annoying (“‘Like’ this post if you want to be on the beach with this cocktail!'”).

I was just starting to feel good about getting back to the basics of email and social media–you know, connecting with people I know and like and value. And then, I got together with a colleague to discuss something else entirely and our conversation eventually came around to all of the organizations and groups and lists we opt into because we think we “have” to.

“So there’s this new blogging collective,” he said, “and I joined–did you?–even though I don’t really know what the value is.” I knew about the collective. I’d even read the website and its “sell” pretty thoroughly. I’d considered joining, too. Ultimately, though, I had a hard time justifying the $75 membership fee. $75 may not be a lot, but when you multiply that by the number of groups you think you should belong to, your expenses add up quickly (though you can, if you’re a US freelancer, deduct professional membership and conference fees on your taxes).

E. went on to talk about a number of other groups and services he’d heard about lately, and I started to feel like I’d felt when I opened my gmail after five days in Cuba: Was any of this actually important?

Somehow, many of us have bought the myth that we have to opt in to nearly everything: professional societies (even when they haven’t proven their worth, or, in some cases, even established what benefits they’re actually conferring upon members); social media platforms and “influence” ranking programs (“Maybe I should sign up for Klout, just in case it’s important!”); newsletters (“Maybe one press release out of the hundreds I receive a month will actually be useful.”); and events (“If I don’t go to TravelMassive/TBEX/TBU/fill-in-the-blank, no one will know who I am and I won’t be considered for opportunities.”). We end up spending massive amounts of time on the upkeep of these things (time we don’t even realize we’re losing until we go off-grid, like I did), and missing out on the other things in our lives that we really cherish (in my case: family, reading, other hobbies, and oh yeah, actually writing).

While I’m not arguing that these things are unimportant or that they’re not useful, I am questioning whether we’re doing/joining these things because we’re truly convinced they’ll be beneficial or because we think that we’ll somehow be left behind if we don’t opt in. I wonder if we think, before we opt in, about whether the “sell” of this “must-do” thing actually aligns with our personal and professional values and goals.

I’m also suggesting that many of these opt-in groups, activities, and lists may actually be distracting or, in some cases, a waste of precious time and resources. I value networking and connecting with other writers, but I’ve found that the most valuable, lasting, and mutually beneficial connections I’ve made have come out of one-on-one encounters where I’ve reached out to someone I respect or they’ve reached out to me, not at the events where sharing is occurring over well drinks or where bloggers are speed dating to get a tourism board’s attention.

I’d love to know how you handle the opt-in choices in your own life and career. Do you feel pressured to join groups or sign up for events or lists because you think it’s what you should do? How do you make your decisions about what to join? Do you feel overwhelmed by all the noise about what’s supposedly important? Share your experiences and advice in the comments.

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6 responses »

  1. Great post, Julie.. I did that to my google reader blog list some days back.. In the days when I thought about travel writing and “making connections”, I used to comment on a lot of blogs, follow them etc. Not sure whether over time, or from a sudden realization, I felt I didn’t enjoy a lot of the stuff I was reading – which was stuff I had opted in to read so that I could (apparently) get momentum in this ‘travel writing thing’.

    In hindsight, it might be a good thing that many of these opt-in things are costly as well, else there will be even less resistance to join every possible such noise-source on the planet.

    On a less work-oriented side, I think we also opt-in a lot to fit in, to the social normals, to the cultural stereotypes. I don’t think am qualified to give advice, but my recommendation is we should opt-in to stuff that makes us happy, not stuff that might lead to other stuff that might make us happy.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Abhijit-

      Good for you for figuring that out before most people do! And I think you’re AT LEAST as qualified to give advice as most people who DO give advice. I, for one, think your “opt-in to stuff that makes us happy” is golden.

      Reply
  2. I go on mini-unsubscribe sprees about once a year, but I’ve never approached the magnitude you just accomplished. Hosannasto you! My downfall is computer newsletters (I’m not a full-fledged geek, but I have tendencies in that direction) and travel newsletters. All of which do make me happy – when I have time to read them – but aren’t strictly necessary for my day-to-day work. I’ve dealt with that by setting up a separate email address just to receive the travel newsletters, and directing computer newsletters to my personal email address, which eases the burden on my business address — the one I use 90 percent of the time. Still, I have to unsubscribe from three or four new PR mailing lists a week. They get my name/address from other mailing lists (that I do need to stay on) but are totally irrelevant to the work I do. Don’t know of any way to avoid that.

    Reply
  3. I have a separate email address for things I’m not as interested in, but it’s a pain to go through it every week, because the junk builds up. And it’s starting to build up in my regular email address too. I *do* find some newsletters/list servs that I’m on useful, but you’re right that I don’t need to be on nearly the amount that I am. And god, my Google Reader, don’t even get me started. I’m too intimidated to even open it. Talk about unsubscribing! I need to do a complete overhaul. (The words “Google Reader” make me wince.)

    Reading your post also made me realize that I could probably be a lot less connected, even when I’m not on vacation. So much of what I receive via email isn’t urgent.

    Thanks for this — you’ve empowered me to hit the unsubscribe button! And to tackle my dreaded RSS reader.

    Reply
  4. I too have been on quite the unsubscribe spree lately. I’ve mostly been weeding out dumb newsletters and useless promo stuff. I have a separate inbox that catches some of that stuff, but like any other type of junk mail, that just shouldn’t be necessary. I can opt out, and I do.

    I also have a paid monthly profile/account on a freelance-related site that has never once brought me any offers, let alone actual work. Why do I still have it?! What a crazy waste of money, even if only several dollars a month. I need to cancel this week.

    A friend of mine uses the phrase “weed the garden” to refer to lots of stuff: getting rid of life clutter, toxic relationships, bad habits. WEED THE GARDEN.

    Reply
  5. Hear Hear! It’s so refreshing to hear you say this. I often struggle with what I “should” do in regards to where I want to go professionally. The rankings and formulas and hoops to jump through leave me feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed.

    I truly enjoy life (and travel) when I don’t let myself feel guilty for falling short of the things the career authorities say I must do to progress. I want to be happy and do what I love – at a pace that works for me. Going off the grid is my favorite way to shake off the voices of comparison and stay close to what’s important.

    Thanks for articulating this.

    Reply

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