Get Personal & Professional Value from Idle Web Surfing

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 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 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 – 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.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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