Updated on 09.17.14

Get Personal & Professional Value from Idle Web Surfing

Trent Hamm

joanGiven how the usage of The Simple Dollar spikes during the normal workday in the United States (this phenomenon occurs on many other blogs, too), it’s easy to conclude that many visitors visit the site during downtimes during their workday, seeking information to improve their financial lives and their career.

While this is an effective way to use downtime, with just a little bit of planning and forethought, you can make that time spent finding and discovering useful information for yourself and for your career quite a bit more valuable without a lot of additional effort. Here’s the game plan – try out some of these tactics for yourself.

Share information you find.
Let’s say you find a brilliant article on The Simple Dollar (or another site, but I’m sure the best stuff is from TSD). You read it, find things you can actually implement in your own life, and are really inspired by it. That’s a very good thing – it’s the reason you’re surfing the web for such information, right?

You can increase the value of that information even more by sharing it. Think of a person or two who might really enjoy reading that article and send them a link to the article, along with any comments you might have. If they find value in the article, not only will it improve their situation, but some of their positive feeling about receiving that information will be attributed to you, the messenger. I have a few friends who regularly send me brilliant links on a regular basis with their comments – and I really appreciate it. Those people are just web surfing and sending me the good stuff they find, but by doing that, they’re becoming more valuable to me and cementing our relationship.

Ask follow-up questions of the person who distributes the information.
Whenever you receive a really good piece of information, whether it be from finding an article or from someone sending it to you, ask some good questions. Get the person that wrote the article (or the person that sent it to you) to think about it a little bit more. This is another way to provide value – quite often, a well-constructed question opens the door to a whole new train of thought, and it is those new trains of thought that the information economy thrives on.

Whenever I read a good article on a blog somewhere, I leave a comment that says thank you for the information and also either provides specific new information or asks a relevant question. I do the same whenever I get sent a really interesting link – I reply to the email with a nice thank you and also with a question or an additional thought. This usually spurs discussion – and discussion builds connections and relationships.

Build a basic “information page” about yourself, with an email and links to your profiles on any sites you participate on.
Many of you have noticed that on the right hand sidebar of The Simple Dollar, I’ve included links to my twitter and Facebook profiles. That makes it easy for people who read The Simple Dollar and want to see other discussions I’m involved with to quickly jump over there and find out more. More than a thousand people have done so, and many of them have started conversations with me outside of the material on The Simple Dollar. For example, just a few days ago I had a reader discuss The Boomtown Rats (one of my favorite bands) with me for a long while and now we’re swapping records in the mail.

I include these links because it enables people with similar interests to continue the conversation with me if they want to, and that conversation can often build into something compelling (like those Boomtown Rats and Bruce Springsteen records I’ve got coming in the mail). They can also develop into professional opportunities – the conversation about my book deal was started on Facebook when a person from a publishing company contacted me there because of a Facebook message I’d made, but she’d originally found it from The Simple Dollar. Opening more connections made doors open for me.

What about an information page for you? It doesn’t have to be anything fancy at all. Just go to Google Pages and use their templates to set up a basic information page about yourself. Include a way to contact you directly (IM, an email address, whatever you like) and links to your profile on any online discussion forums you converse on, particularly anything that’s relevant to your professional interests (in other words, those where you conduct yourself professionally). You might instead use your blog for this, if you have one, but it’s far from necessary. This lets people interested in you find out plenty more – and that’s a very good thing, as it paints a more complete picture of you and gives them plenty of common interest avenues to contact you.

What about privacy? Some people might not want that information linked – that’s up to you. On the profile itself, you choose what to link. Also, you can use a pseudonym if you want, or you can use your real name (that’ll make it possible for people to search your name in Google and find this information page) – it depends on what your goals are.

If you have something relevant and useful to say, always add a comment with a link back to your information page.
So why build such a page? What use does it have? Well, whenever you leave a comment at The Simple Dollar, there’s a place to put a URL. You can put your information page’s URL in there and leave an intelligent comment, and then later readers will read it and perhaps click the link … and go straight to your profile page. This lets people follow up with you directly or discover your comments and writings and thoughts at other sites.

This way, people find your profile because of your insightful comments, meaning they’re led to your information by something intelligent you’ve written – they’ve already got a positive opinion of you and are likely seeking to contact you with something – or perhaps just to find out more about you to reaffirm their positive opinion.

Join a social bookmarking site…
So how can you combine the value of this information page and the value of sharing links with others? The most effective way is to join a social bookmarking site – a place where people share links, vote up the good ones, and comment on them. There are many good ones out there – Digg is a good one with a technology focus, Reddit has great conversations and a very eclectic mix with a liberal politics and science bent, StumbleUpon caters to a wide array of interests, and so on.

Join one of these sites, set up a profile that includes a prominent link to your information page, and then start commenting and submitting the interesting links you find. If you’re submitting genuinely interesting stuff and making worthwhile comments, eventually you’ll build a following there and people will visit your information page, again making connections that might surprise you.

… but make it truly social.
Of course, the reverse is true. When you’re on sites with comments, visit the profiles of people who submit interesting articles and make interesting comments. If you like what you’ve found, tell them so – and ask what industry they work in and so forth. You might be able to build a very valuable contact in this way.

I’ve heard from many people that this is the purpose of sites like Facebook and LinkedIn – to make good contacts with people. What I’ve found, though, is that most of the time you’re seeing connections between people that aren’t real – they’re not based on anything at all. I’m on both sites, and quite often (esp. on LinkedIn) I have people making links to me that aren’t based in any form of reality.

When you make the connections based on something real – shared intellectual interests – the connections mean a lot more and you’re much more likely to get value out of them. That’s why, even now with a popular blog, I still comment on many sites and contact people who have interesting comments and profiles – there’s value there.

Find and befriend people who share things that really interest you.
How do you find these interesting people? Focus in on topics that are naturally interesting to you. Let’s say you’re on Reddit and you see four links on the front page that are compelling. Go through the comments on those links and then visit the profiles of people who left comments that were interesting and insightful to you. Those are the people you’re seeking – people with intelligence, insight, and common interests with you.

If you do that regularly, you’ll find a group of people who are intelligent and parallel your interests very well. These are the perfect people to reach out to online, because in their real lives they’re likely doing things that are compelling as well. It might lead to professional opportunities, personal opportunities, and who knows what else. I can’t even count the interesting things I’ve found and received because of these connections – at the same time, I’ve helped out many people I’ve found this way, too, even cinching a job for one of them.

Minimize the navel-gazing – no one cares about your cat except for possibly your closest friends.
If you have a personal blog where you write about the drama of your relationship with your girlfriend or you post a lot of pictures of your adorable kittens, you might not want to include this blog in your profiles. Why? This type of information is simply not compelling to anyone but you and your closest friends – certainly not to professional acquaintances and probably not to more casual friends, either.

The same goes for the trail of bread crumbs you leave in your comments in various places. People might be interested in your cat care comments if you’re a vet, but if you’re just in love with your precious kitty, not many people will find that compelling, so resist the urge unless you’re providing information that’s actually useful to others.

It’s fine to post opinions and such, but ask yourself before you post whether or not this information adds any value for anyone else. If it doesn’t, consider carefully whether you should even post it at all – usually, the answer there is no. If you’re careful about that, you wind up giving the impression to others that you’re insightful and useful – and that will encourage people to look more deeply into the thoughts you have to offer.

Save your best resources for future reference in a sensible way – and share this list, too.
Sure, it’s easy to just bookmark any useful pages you find, but eventually one’s bookmarks become so overcrowded that they cease to be useful. Alternately, you don’t save anything at all and then regret it when you realize you could use this useful link or the profile of a particular person.

I use del.icio.us to solve that problem. It integrates with Firefox (my web browser of choice) so that bookmarking a page is just like it used to be, except a window pops up that lets me add tags to the link I’ve saved. This lets me easily sort the links I find – I can tag one with “food” and “chicken” and “lime,” for example, and later on I’ll be able to find it by searching for any of those tags. You can add as many or as few tags as you want to any link you save, and you can save as many links as you want.

I effectively do this sharing with my Weekly Roundups – I just bookmark them and tag them at del.icio.us in my personal account and then share all of them that are relevant here.

You might want to share your link collection on your profile if you’re using something like del.icio.us – you can make some links private if you want so that you’re not sharing personal stuff. It’s just another way to share information with others and it also gives you a bit of the “messenger effect.”

If all else fails and you just want to play a game…
If this is too much for you and you’d rather just play a game online, try choosing one that has a social benefit. Here are two options.

FreeRice is a vocabulary game that donates twenty grains of rice to the U.N. World Food Program for every correct answer you get. It’s a great way to spend some idle time, help feed the world, and become a little more aware of food issues in the world.

FoldIt is a puzzle game where your answers are directly used to solve protein folding problems and advance medical science. This one is quite fun – I’ve been sucked into playing it for hours.

No matter what you decide to do with your time online, remember that you can make it more valuable, both for yourself and for others, and still retain the fun of surfing to interesting sites and learning new things.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Andre Kibbe says:

    Your article came at the right time. For the last three years I dismissed social bookmarking as a solution looking for a problem. But this week I’ve started using del.icio.us and StumbleUpon, and am just starting to realize how it pays off dividends.

    Even beyond the value that opening your “bibliography” up adds to others, it’s a great way to reflect on what’s on your own mind. After looking at what you’ve been reading lately, themes start to emerge.

    Stumbled. Downloading FoldIt right now.

  2. shari says:

    The very best website for a personal “hub” that I have found is ClaimID. It’s easy to use, very customizable, and is a participant in OpenID. To give you an idea, here are the profiles of the two founders: http://claimid.com/terrell and http://claimid.com/fred.

  3. Frugal Dad says:

    I was a social media late adopter. In fact, I still don’t fully utilize all that is available. Twitter is nice for sharing short blurbs about what’s going on in Frugal Dad’s personal life (you know, the “navel-gazing” stuff. StumbleUpon has been a great find as I have started stumbling articles of interest throughout the week to use as the basis of my weekly blog roundup.

    I’m still not on Facebook, MySpace, etc, but would like to add this medium to the mix over the next few weeks. I’ve heard LinkedIn is good for professional networking, but I don’t know much about that one either. Obviously, I still have some expoloring to do.

  4. KC says:

    Thanks for the article. I find myself doing idle web surfing all the time. I’m a baseball junkie and that’s usually where my web surfing leads. however I’ve befriended soem other baseball junkies and I usually share my information or links with them through email or a message board. So your article has validified my “idle surfing” – Thanks!!

  5. Great tips. I am a late adopter too, but it’s fun to discover this amazing world. The possibilities are endless.

    The tip about navel gazing is very important, with one possible exception: some people have a talent for writing about everyday life in a way that is highly readable, compelling and funny. I love reading those blogs and don’t mind the personal stories. If you make people laugh, you ARE being useful.

  6. Andy says:

    I am just getting started in social networking stuff too. One problem I have though (and I am sure every other blogger runs into this too), is time. Between reading blogs, writing, and improving the site, it doesn’t leave much time to follow twitter or other things.

  7. jakc says:

    thanks for the link to FreeRice! Addicted already. Will this help me with the GRE?

  8. Aimee says:

    Your advice about navel-gazing is overly negative. There’s no reason someone passionate about kittens, or candy, or cracks in the sidewalk shouldn’t share their love with the web. If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that no one is unique in their likes and dislikes, and that it’s a great place for weirdos to come together. Better advice, that I got from another blogger years ago, is to focus your blog onto one topic. So you’re passionate about your cat and Russian lit, there’s no reason you can’t have two blogs that give equal attention to both.

  9. Jim says:

    Another website I would recommend that falls under the “social benefits” category is The Hunger Site (www.thehungersite.com), a charity site where you can donate to Mercy Corps and various other charities for free, simply by clicking a button on the site.

    The way it works is, every time you visit the site and click a “give” button, you are taken to a page where you view the site sponsors’ ads, and the sponsors donate a very small amount for each click in return. Fast, simple and free. I try to stop by there almost every day.

  10. That One Caveman says:

    “It’s fine to post opinions and such, but ask yourself before you post whether or not this information adds any value for anyone else.”

    With all the junk out there, I really wish people would take your advice. With all the noise out there, it makes it really hard to shout above the crowd and get people’s attention.

  11. Serendipity says:

    I’m very interested in creating a comprehensive profile page, but I’m concerned about security. It’s not that my blogging or online interactions are inappropriate, I’d just like to preserve my family’s privacy. I’d love to hear other opinions on how letting go of anonymity has helped or hindered anyone else.

    And hey, Bruce Springsteen records? That’s something to lead with!

  12. j says:

    working alone all day i find “idle web surfing” is part of my job description. however, this post solidifies what i’ve been learning on my own. i am not into all the social/bookmarking sites (only on facebook right now, which i love love love but i’m only 24) – my friends refer to me as “the blog queen” b/c i am constantly sharing information that i’ve read with other people a la a maven type (Tipping Point). the simple dollar is one of my #1 recommended blogs as it has helped me get a hold of my finances – another great post – thank you!

  13. Frank says:

    Good article! I switched from del.icio.us to diigo (http://www.diigo.com) for social bookmarking. Not only is it a much nicer and faster interface, but you can highlight and notate pages on a website. What’s really cool is when you go to a site and see notes that others have left.

    They have so much stuff, it comes with it’s own firefox toolbar. But you can also use customize to just drag off the buttons you want and only use the features that interest you.

  14. SUJ says:

    This post definitely came at a great time when I’ve been trying to optimize the resources I find online. Great post! It’s something I’m going to look into as I peruse through your blog postings

  15. Toby Wilkins says:

    thanks for that, some really good tips and Im going to try and do some of them, starting with leaving thankfull commends and adding my url in the hope someone will visit!

    Toby out

  16. Sandy Naidu says:

    Social networking has been very helpful both personally and professionally…It can get a bit addictive if you don’t manage your time properly…But it has great benefits.

  17. Phil says:

    Worthy topic and well-written. It’s given me some helpful ideas about improving social bookmarking sites and promoting yourself by helping others.

    And Boomtown Rats! OMG a throwback for me, glad to see that worked in there. Inspired me to watch The Wall again and watch Bob as Pink.

    Thanks for the post!

  18. Shaggy says:

    You need to be careful a lot of employers are now doing searches for a persons name an email address before hiring. This can be both a blessing and a curse so I recommend if you have a personal blog that might not be the front you want to portray to a perspective employer to do this under an alias that can’t be traced back to you directly. I also suggest that a professional blog or comments on professional sites can be beneficial to your career so use these all under an alias and email address that can be traced back to you.

  19. russ says:

    great post, i think it’s actually one of the best i’ve read on your site. very original idea, i haven’t seen something like it on yours or other blogs. great job for tackling something a lot of people deal with (internet downtime) and to make it valuable.

  20. DB says:

    Call me skeptical but I just don’t buy the free rice thing. It absolutely must cost this organization money to dontate the rice, right? If they have the money, why don’t they just donate the rice now? Kids are starving, for crying out loud! So some kid has to go hungry because I don’t get a question right? And why 20 grains of rice? Why not 25? Or 30? 500? Come on, this cannot be legit. If you want to help kids out, just find a legitimate organization and donate your time or money. Playing games online doesn’t help anyone but you feel better.

  21. Mari Garza says:

    @DB. Their FAQ answers just this question.

    If FreeRice has the rice to give, why not give it all away right now?

    FreeRice is not sitting on a pile of rice―you are earning it 20 grains at a time. Here is how it works. When you play the game, sponsor banners appear on the bottom of your screen. The money generated by these banners is then used to buy the rice. So by playing, you generate the money that pays for the rice donated to hungry people.

  22. Interesting post.

    One thought I had was Why not post about your cat or whatever you want to talk about.

    Its your own blog. YOu can do what you want. Now, I agree with you, if the goal is to get value from personal idle web surfing, then pictures of your cat may not be the best idea.

    However, it may be cathartic and rejuvenating to you. So, the actual act of blogging about your cat might be building your karmic value and making it so you can perform in your other capacity.

    In other words, there is value in a personal journal, and so what if its public, you don’t have to read it. The value is then personal and it doesn’t matter if you find value or not.

    I think the moral of the story is to separate your blogs into niches. Cats should go on your personal cat blog, Business should go on your business blog.

  23. Serendipity says:

    @ DB

    Free rice works because with each question, a new ad gets shown. From the site’s FAQ page:

    “When you play the game, sponsor banners appear on the bottom of your screen. The money generated by these banners is then used to buy the rice.” So the longer you play, the more you ads you view and the more money you generate.

    Plus, it really is pretty fun. I always get stuck around the low 40s, though. I can’t believe it goes all the way up to 60!

  24. Kevin says:

    Thanks for the information! One of my favorite del.icio.us uses is to bookmark sites and have the links with my comments show up on my blog using their link rolls feature. That way I’m updating the blog while I use digg to find sites to bookmark on del.icio.us

    I’m totally down the social bookmarking rabbit hole.

  25. I’ve actually posted this on my own blog. There is a lot of truth to the part about “navel-gazing,” but I also think personality keeps people coming back for more. My knitting blog has branched out some because I’ve noticed the most successful knit-bloggers also talk about their personal life. People keep coming back because they want to find out what happens next.

  26. Very smart post. You may want to add to this list…you have some excellent ideas.

  27. poetryman69 says:

    make use of idle blessings

  28. Bunyip says:

    had a bit of a go at the free rice. Got mad at it when it asked this
    enormity means:

    To me “enormity” means something really big ie enormous. But according to my dictionary – wickedness is one possible alternate meaning – though I suspect if I used “enormity” in this way – none of my friends would understand me.

    And a halyard is a rope but a specific rope with a specific job ie hauling sails or flags up (boat) masts. Otherwise, it’s an ordinary rope so halyard means rope also seems wrong. I’m not sure this site would help my vocab at all. I did donate a bit of rice. Stuffed if I know who they make count the stuff.

    As for the social networking. I’m a bit too paranoid to enjoy being easily contacted. I like to keep my friends separate too – just in case I shame myself with one group – then I won’t automatically be excluded from all groups. And I don’t deal well with people who are overly persistant aka stalkers. So it is interesting that you want to advertise who you are and how to contact you and I feel I’ve got enough problems with too much email already. Maybe I should lighten up?

  29. Hi Trent,

    I’d say that del.icio.us in many ways changed my life.

    Aside from the obvious benefit that you can store all your bookmarks “virtually” and can access them from any PC anywhere, my friends and I have formed an informal network where we are regularly saving worthwhile sites and articles for each other–including this one of course!

    Casual Kitchen

  30. mrsmonkey says:

    fascinating painting up top of this article. what is the name of this piece and who is the artist?

    thanks trent.

    ps..IMO many many people will be interested in your cat if he or she has a hitler mustache or is particularly insane. cats are internet stars!

    what I love about the internet, is there is no end to it. anytime I have a question, I type it in and VIOLA! an answer, or six thousand answers.

  31. Eswar says:

    hmmm … just like everyone else I was wondering too … about how i would explain this habit of mine was useful too … thanks

  32. Ron Merrill says:

    Three weeks post “Four Hour Work Week” and a weekend with Tim Ferriss, I am delving deeper and deeper into lifestyle design, personal outsourcing and social networking. I am so glad to have found The Simple Dollar! I look forward to following your recommendations and spending many hours of newly created free time devouring it’s content. Cheers!

  33. DB says:

    @ Serendipity and Mari Garza

    Oh…I see you’ve cited the FAQ from the web site in question as your source…now I’m convinced.

    Sorry, but I generally only believe about half of what I see and almost none of what I hear. My skepticism serves me well.

  34. Neha says:

    Great article! This is one of the most useful things I’ve read in the past week. It speaks to being a producer, not just a consumer. You have to generate content for people to read what you write.

  35. Rob Madrid says:

    Can you add a facebook link that would allow people to post your articles. I seem to remember GRS had one as I posted an article once but I haven’t seen it since.

  36. clear1 says:

    At my hourly rate, the time it took me to read this lengthy post was quite costly Sure beats poking around linked in though!

  37. flashy007 says:

    So I joined a social bookmarking site and I have found many interesting web pages that I would have never found on my own just like this one. I like finding new things on the net. I came across a very useful site that keeps track of all your favorite links it’s very useful if you want to organize what you find. Netvibes I highly recommend to do just that. Now to find new things I like I use stumbleupon which is in my top favorites…

  38. Lenore says:

    I hope the Free Rice game does have tangible benefits for people in need, but even if it doesn’t, I’m already hooked. It’s honing my vocabulary faster and better than months of reading and conversing about “relevant” online material ever could. Thanks so much for the recommendation, Trent!!! I’m going to try the other game too. Pehaps it will develop the other side of my brain.

  39. marco sarti says:

    Thank you! You gave me a new point of view on how to let my downtime from job become more useful for me (and for others too, I hope)!

  40. mrsmonkey : The art is:
    Joan of Arc, 1879
    Jules Bastien-Lepage (French, 1848–1884)
    (for a larger view and more details: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/sara/ho_89.21.1.htm)

    You can see it in person at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC (that’s how I recognized it!)

  41. I recommend using StumbleUpon as a social bookmarking site for beginners is it not only caters wide variety of interests but also allows non-power user’s submissions to receive traffic. However with digg only a small amount of power users stories often make the homepage and stories which don’t make the homepage received next to no traffic. My stumble upon submissions have sent over 30,000 unique to my site which is a lot more than I could say for my digg stories which are rarely receive more than five diggs.

  42. “I include these links because it enables people with similar interests to continue the conversation with me if they want to, and that conversation can often build into something compelling”

    This is the money sentence! Continuing the conversation that can build into something compelling! I love it!

    Thanks so much. I’m a lurker, but was brought out of the dark to say I appreciate that kind of openness.


  43. Does your website have a contact page? I’m having
    problems locating it but, I’d like to shoot you an e-mail.

    I’ve got some recommendations for your blog you might be interested in hearing.

    Either way, great site and I look forward to seeing it develop over time.

  44. Thanks for your personal marvelous posting! I actually
    enjoyed reading it, you’re a great author. I will ensure that I bookmark your blog and will eventually come back down the road.
    I want to encourage you to definitely continue your great job, have a nice weekend!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *