Twitter logosTwitter is the service that asks “What are you doing?” and gives you 140 characters to answer. These mini-messages can be sent by web or SMS and act as high-tech haiku — if haiku was Japanese for “people who can’t spell tell you what they just ate, but not why you should care.” With endless uninteresting updates, it may seem to be an engine of anti-productivity, sent here by industrious aliens to weaken our social structure before invasion. But efficient people do use it. Barack Obama, for example, famously twittered throughout his campaign. And I think we can both agree that he has a lot more work to do than you and I combined.

Time-wasting Twitter can be reconfigured to help you save time and boost productivity. Just like you can use nuclear poison to generate cheap power, but without the whole “millions of years of waste” thing. As with all tools, the key is in the correct use of the service. And as with all Internet tools, 95% of it is garbage — the key is filtering out what actually works for you, not against you (one of the founding principles behind this blog).

One of the key productivity tenets of the information age is “e-mail batching” (or what Smartlife prefers to call “message batching”), which is the idea of steering clear of your messaging tools until a certain time and then sweeping through them all at once. This can be quite a challenge for the modern e-mailer — who makes a caffeine-soaked, heroin junkie look like Buddha if the server goes down for ten minutes — but by setting harsh time limits to clear your inbox you can save hours in mental effort each day.

The problem sets in when you’ve got more than one messaging service or website to keep tabs on. With most businesses increasing their online presence, and a whole slew of entirely online industries, many people have to keep track of mails, pokes, comments, trolls, lolcats, and other Internet-invented-verbs on a spectrum of sites. Twitter can help you batch your batches, or bi-batchify things, to keep your entire web-presence on one easily checkable location. If batching is good, double-batching has to be better!

The numerically-named “m1k3y” over at Grinding.be has provided instructions for creating your very own digital secretary. This system harnesses half the modern net, hooking together Twitter, Gmail, RSS, and every site you’re interested in to create an artificial assistant who’ll track everything for you — tirelessly and privately. Please note that unlike the movies, this cyber-secretary will not develop sentience and fall in love with and/or try to kill you. Whether you view that as bad or good is a matter for your therapist.

The setup process is relatively simple, but non-trivial — expect to spend about a half an hour. It’s worth your time in the end, though: you won’t have to make anymore productivity-derailing stops because you haven’t checked the “Z-site” in a while. You still will, of course, but now you’ll have to admit that that was just an excuse to stop working. Smartlife: technological solutions AND tough-love insights.

You don’t have to use all the time you save for work, though — what would be the point? Twitter can also break down those vast “I want to but just don’t have the time” tasks into bite-sized chunks for the cab ride, the elevator-wait, and even the five seconds while Excel spins up and you’re dangerously close to deciding to take an early lunch. Twitterers* like Booktwo are reading out the classics like James Joyce’s Ulysses, seven-score symbols at a time, so that you can read a book the size of your head without taking a week off work.

Never mind reading. Even writing a book can happen on-the-go with Twitter, and even more astonishingly, the fabled step of “finding a publisher” might be thrown in for free. That’s a step that takes most modern “authors” an infinite amount of time. While “writing a novel” can just be a get-out-of-work free card for some, Japanese workers wrote novels while going to work.

They used the SMS service to write their books, one sentence at a time on their daily commutes, and found fame and moderate fortune. The “Twitter novels” like If You, which sold almost half a million copies last year, are written by people already working and just on their way from one place to another. In fact, half of Japan’s 2007 top-ten bestsellers were literally phoned-in.

Twitter is also the perfect communication tool if you’re expecting a big event soon — or, worse, if you aren’t and one happens anyway. An imminent birth, a short turnaround project, even a night out: when things start to happen, you don’t want to spend fifteen minutes phoning everyone involved to let them know “it’s all happening right now, now is the critical time, which is why I’m wasting time repeating the same message to everybody, one after the other on this damn phone!”

Set up a dedicated Twitter account instead (they’re free), and just text the go-word when the time comes down. Anyone interested will instantly get the update and can immediately start preparing baby-clothes, weekend shifts, or hangover cures as appropriate (hopefully not all at the same time). It works well for emergency communication as well, as journalism student James Earl Buck discovered: scooped up by police for photographing an anti-government demonstration, he only had time to text “ARRESTED” to his Twitter account before being relieved of his phone and thrown in jail.

Friends and colleagues saw the signal, and within hours, the American Embassy and the Associated Press were both asking the Egyptian police some very pointed questions about the legality of detaining non-violent journalists in general and a certain Mr. Buck in particular. He was free within the day.

It takes you three weeks and a forest of paper to clear an incorrect utilities bill, and he escaped from an Egyptian jail in ten key presses. That’s because he uses smart tools intelligently, while the masses just keep doing things the way they’ve always been done.

*”Twitterers” is a tad unwieldy, but if someone’s prepared to transcribe Ulysses for no pay we’re not going to call them a “Twit.” Even if we maybe should.

Image credit: AODdesign.com

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Suggested reading:
- “Twitter Novels: Not Big Success Stories Yet” (ReadWriteWeb)
- “What is Twitter Good For, Really?” (Brazen Careerist)
- “12 ways to use Twitter to increase your productivity” (SimpleHelp.net)
- “Access Twitter Through Gmail With TwitterGadget” (Mashable)
- “…200 Tweets – My Thoughts on Practical Twitter Use…” (Tim Ferriss)