How to Use Twitter Without Twitter Owning You – 5 Tips

(Photo: Timothy K. Hamilton)

Total read time: 5 minutes.

I’ve evolved as a user of the micro-blogging tool called Twitter.

That said, technology is a great slave but a terrible master, and Twitter can turn the tables on you with surprising subtlety. This post will explain how I use Twitter and the 5 rules I follow to keep it from using me…

I use it mostly as a digital diary for recording the fleeting moments, fun online findings, and useful tools that are worth sharing but not worth a separate blog post. For those of you who want more from me than 1-2 posts per week, Twitter is where I put most of my discoveries.

It is also amazing for real-time polling of followers on topics ranging from strength training to the best online back-up tools (in descending order of preference:,,, the last of which uses Amazon’s S3).

I avoided following people until one month ago, as I didn’t want another inbox (which direct messages or “DMs” produce), and I didn’t want to inadvertently hurt the feelings of acquaintances I might neglect to follow.

Following no one avoided both problems. I elaborate on this approach in a short video here.

I started following because I was interested in observing effective, interesting updates and also measuring the impact of following on my time use. Secondarily, I noticed some fine print in Twitter’s seldom-read Terms of Service (bolding is mine):

*Spam: You may not use the Twitter service for the purpose of spamming anyone. What constitutes “spamming” will evolve as we respond to new tricks and tactics by spammers. Some of the factors that we take into account when determining what conduct is considered to be spamming are:

* If you have followed a large amount of users in a short amount of time;

* If you have a small number of followers compared to the amount of people you are following;

* If your updates consist mainly of links, and not personal updates;

Though it seems these rules aren’t yet strictly enforced (some business and RSS accounts are almost exclusively links), I didn’t want to risk being banned, as I find Twitter both fun and useful. [Update: as several readers pointed out, I read this and got things backwards. Following no one is fine; following more people than follow you can get you banned.]

The 5 Rules of Keeping Twitter Use Under Control

1. Don’t post and read at the same time.

Here’s the problem with following others, as fun as it can be.

You decide to make a quick post on, but then you notice the stream of updates from the people you follow. Then you click “older” a few times and peruse a few quick links like “World’s fattest cat (pic)”. Before you know it, 30 minutes have passed and you have forgotten what you were going to post, as well as your to-do list. Repeat this whenever your mind wanders throughout the day = nothing done.

Having your friends’ updates as the default dashboard helps Twitter’s pageview count but can kill productivity.

I suggest writing updates (“tweets”) separately from reading friends’ updates, so that you can better prevent entering the hyperlink blackhole. I read friends’ updates after 5pm and use, which automatically shortens URLs, during business hours to update both Twitter and Facebook status at the same time. I found TweetDeck and other applications, while full of cool features, too seductive and easy to overuse.

2. Set alerts or blocks on Twitter usage.

My time on Twitter immediately more than doubled once I followed others, despite the misperception that I was still spending roughly the same amount of time on the site. I used RescueTime (Disclosure: I am now an investor in RT, but I recommended them for months before we were introduced) to track usage and then set alerts, which is how I measured the increase and reigned in overuse. Use a program like RescueTime or MeeTimer to alert you when you exceed a pre-determined time on Twitter, or when you’re about to load the Twitter page.

For those who want to stronger methods for preventing time wastage, download Firefox and use LeechBlock to block certain sites entirely for set periods. From their site:

“You can specify up to six sets of sites to block, with different times and days for each set. You can block sites within fixed time periods (e.g., between 9am and 5pm), after a time limit (e.g., 10 minutes in every hour), or with a combination of time periods and time limit (e.g., 10 minutes in every hour between 9am and 5pm). You can also set a password for access to the extension options, just to slow you down in moments of weakness!”

3. Follow those who won’t create another inbox, or follow everyone and go Gary V.

I follow mostly close friends and celebrities, both of whom are unlikely to send me many direct messages, as the former knows I prefer phone and the latter doesn’t know I exist. The other approach, which bruises fewer egos, is to follow friends and strangers alike but make it clear that you don’t read any DMs, a la Gary Vaynerchuk. Based on attempts to the do the latter on Facebook and LinkedIn, I’ve concluded that most of the world doesn’t read directions or alerts, so I opted for the friend and celeb option.

4. Don’t post unless you add more value than the attention you consume (both yours and others’):

1. Add value if you consume attention.

I use Twitter as a “micro-blogging” platform, exactly how it’s most often described. Just as I wouldn’t put up a blog post that reads “just ate a burrito. Mmmm… good,” as it consumes readers valuable attention without adding value, I wouldn’t put up such a post on Twitter. On the other hand, “Just had an incredible mahi-mahi burrito at [best unknown taco stand] in San Diego. Must-eat: In NYC, try:” adds value with actionable details. Mundane perhaps, but still a cool “to-do” that ethnic food lovers can tuck in the back of their heads.

Some self-indulgent tweets are fine, but make sure 90%+ help or entertain your readers somehow. Information empty calories are parasitic.

2. Use the tool for its best purposes and ignore the rest.

Use a tool for what its best suited to do. Don’t make a Swiss army knife out of every social media tool or you’ll end up with nothing but overwhelm, passive-aggressive “friends,” and a dozen separate inboxes.

I use the blog for testing ideas/campaigns/memes, catalyzing social change, and introducing more developed concepts so I can watch and track their impact and evolution in the blogosphere.

I use Twitter to broadcast time-sensitive suggestions, questions, events, random facts, and happenings, and other ideas that don’t justify an independent blog post. I don’t want another IM program.

3. Linking is fundamental to adding value.

Twitter is perfect for honing your word economy and value-to-attention contribution: offer a brief takeaway and quicks links to more resources for those interested. Minimal attention impact for the uninterested with gateways to more goodies. Here are a few recent examples.

5. Do interact, but don’t try to respond to everyone. Don’t overuse Twitter out of a compulsion to please others.

To quote @karmakorrupt via Twitterholic extraordinaire @sacca: “Seeking approval from others is a full time job with no vacations or benefits.”

Remember: Twitter is something you chose to do. Unless you work at Twitter, chances are that you have another job (or family) that’s more important. Focus on doing big things and enjoying Twitter and similar tools in the downtime.

Related Links:

See Tim’s profile on Twitter

Measuring What Really Works on Twitter

Top 10 Twitter Tips for Beginners

5 Ways to Use Twitter for your Business or Career (NY Times)

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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154 Replies to “How to Use Twitter Without Twitter Owning You – 5 Tips”

  1. Tim, you use to post, but what are you using to read those you want to follow? I’m seeing several people recommending Tweetdeck, but you say no?

    Thanks for the great post. I’ve had a Twitter account for over a year but barely used it, precisely because of the timesucker element.

  2. Tim,

    Those are great tips. I was thinking of putting a “follow me on Twitter” box on my site, but was worried about Twitter taking over my life. I am so hesitant to add this into my life, because it seems like it could eat up a larger portion of my time.

    I knew you would give us tips for being time efficient.



  3. Great post! from my experience with bringing Twitter relationships into the real world is also one of the most powerful.

  4. Solid post Tim. I held off on the Twitter craze as long as possible, but now that I’m using it…I’d like to keep it that way. I’m currently in the process of ‘taking control back’ in my relationships with Facebook and Myspace!

  5. Dang Tim,

    There are some fantastic links to external Twitter services, I had seen maybe half of those, if that. It is way easy to let Twitter steal your day though 🙁



  6. Hey Tim, you mention linking your Twitter and facebook accts… I have found this a great time saver… But I am wondering if there is any data available about how it affects follow rates. I make the assumption that if someone is already your friend on facebook and they can get all the updates you post on Twitter automatically through your facebook status than it actually is a dis-incentive for them to follow you twitter acct. I work with upcoming artists to develop their grassroots marketing strategies and Twitter is a great tool that can act like an extension to the blog.. Blogs for larger things with more depth… Twitter for quick announcements and interactions… Facebook is not that elegant of a solution for these convos on the go… And since we want to drive people to follow the Twitter acct to experience this added value the artist is offerig such as contests, meetups, minute by minute status, last minute show announcements, as well as convos it seems that linking he accts for all posts would be detrimental.. Do you know of any data which supports or disprove this? Thanks. @jonrezin

  7. Your last paragraph packs a punch. All of this social media is fun and addictive, and it can draw our attention away from what’s most important. Good reminder.

  8. DUDE! Last night I have the most AWESOME upgrade to Twitter come to me.

    Note: I think the way most people are using Twitter is stupid and uses about 7% of it’s potential…

    Anyhow the most AWESOME addition would be to have a way, on one account, to control whether an update is broadcasted to SMS. I think the SMS option is probably the MOST useful and it seems least often used (or talked about).

    I have multiple Twitter accounts so I can have one exclusively for SMS. The idea was to get a group of close friends using the SMS for organized group messaging. I had it working for a SPLIT second… but it’s HARD. Everyone has to be educated in proper etiquette. As soon as someone goofs off once it throws things off. Or if someone starts using their account more “internet” style (with RTs, (vias) and links) it breaks the usefulness of the real world “web 3.0” experience I’m trying to get hooked up.

    I was just about to try to implement things again with my group of friends (since everyone’s more up to speed on Twitter now) but it hit me that if everyone could do the internet stuff AND the “web 3.0” stuff on one account that would be AWESOME!

    There would just need to be some setting and a switch hooked up to filter tweets that I wanted to go to EVERYONE and ones that I wanted to go to people following me via SMS.

    Perhaps something simple like starting a message with a “+” sign makes it go to everyone and people following via SMS (I just came up with that, I haven’t thought about it much).

    After that modification Twitter is a POWERFUL tool (in regards to shit going on in the “real” world.) I casually keep an eye on applications like dodge-ball and 4-square, but those are designed for nerds with iPhones and leaves out the general populace. Twitter has the ability to REALLY go viral and be useful (which some may argue it has already but I wouldn’t 🙂 ).

    The people/persons I keep in mind when thinking about how to make things useful are the technologically illiterate folks from Mil-Town (Milwaukee). Twitter can connect people to people and the internets through regular phones, but… The system currently isn’t structured to fluidly make that happen…

    OK. Thanks. Had to get that out of my system. I recall seeing somewhere that you were a series something investor in Twitter so I figure you could pass this insight on to the proper team/individual. 🙂

  9. Tim –

    I have actually avoided Twitter as it seems like a time sucker…

    My husband and I read your book and changed our lifestyle and now are doing what we love… the catch is, the network guys said we both need to be tweeting so I have given in…

    I just started “tweeting” today and came to your post to see how to do it most effectively. Wish I had read this before sending my first tweet!

    I do appreciate the concept of just giving useful tips and will do this in my tweets from now on.

    Thanks for keeping me more sane and for guiding us in our lifestyle choices!


  10. is absolutely the best way for me to update twitter, facebook and my blog all in one, and Tim hit’s the nail on the head saying that it stops you getting sucked in to reading pages and pages of updates

  11. good tips to think about. I feel because i have twitter app on bbm,its a great site for a few reasons.

    a.)networking links

    b.)staying in touch with friends/fam

    c.)Cure for boredom while waiting in lines,sitting at coffee shop,ppl watching,in traffic,airports..ect.(and since i believe average person spends 45min/day waiting)its simply a entertaining way to get random ish off mind.

    BUT dont let it be only way you interact with ppl..problem with technology nowdays(textn,email,social network sites..ect.) ppl forget how to socalize(some kids dont even learn) with real human to human contact(in life you HAVE to get personal..sometimes 😉

  12. I like the idea of following celebs and friends only. Now that I have read this post I realise that I do this subconsciously. Maybe my brain tells me to avoid inbox junk without me knowing 🙂

  13. Hey Tim

    My name is also Tim, isn’t that crazy? I’ve very rarely looked at twitter, and I’m glad I’ve done so because I can easily imagine myself wasting endless hours on it. Not that I want to spend tons of time reading through your comments or whatever (for the same reason of not wasting my time), but I was just wondering what you do besides blogging and twitter? (Go outside, etc)?

  14. Great twitter tips. I do find I am on it too much now. Have to cut down my time. It is how easier to use when you have a program and are not using the twitter interface on the web. I have a couple tools that are helping me cut down my usage.

  15. You know, Twitter is easily misunderstood. It’s simple and it’s simply overwhelming most times. It’s an avalanche of information. I never sit down to tweet more than fifteen minutes anyway. Great post, though. =)

  16. Before reading this guide I had actually not realized that it was twitter using me and not I using it 🙂 Great Guide!

  17. Tim,

    I read one of your last twitter posts asking for top screenplays to read. I’m on the board of a film school and a repped screenwriter and my answer would be;



    Office Space

    Mean Girls

    The Kings Speech

    There are plenty of others, but those will give you a good range.

    You can get free scripts here There is also a store in LA and you can look at their stock here.

    The books you must read if you’re thinking of writing a screenplay are “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder and “Story” by McKee. “Story” is not the most efficient way to go about writing a screenplay, but it does contain concepts that will come up when you are talking about your screenplay. “Save the Cat” is the most efficient at just getting a screenplay done.

    Our school offers a three week intensive course and I would be happy to get you a full scholarship ( tuition $3000). I can also tell you what parts of the course you can skip without losing any of the information you would need to learn how to write a script. It’s by far the quickest way to learn to write a screenplay. Let me know if you would like for me to make that happen.

    I don’t want to include a link since I don’t want to advertise on your site, but would be happy to send any info you would like.

    Cheers and good luck,


  18. As a fairly new website owner, I recently started using Twitter. I’ve seen some really good examples of how to use it and not to use it. As for how not to use it, don’t seem like the pushy salesman with multiple posts per day hawking your products or affiliate products. One of my followers inundates almost the entire page with tweets… annoying. Don’t be that guy.

    Anthony Robbins has a good approach offering bits of wisdom with an occasional link to either his product or some other source of info.

    Another good example is one in which the marketer cements his relationship with his followers by using their name in response to a tweet they may have posted in response to one of his tweets/articles on his website.

  19. Yeah, Twitter is fun to use and helpful share and get information. But Twitter owning you? that’s uncool. Anyway, I do like your guides here, very useful, thanks.

    have a great day,


  20. Hi Tim, great blog you’ve got here…I sort of stumbled across it and have been reading a couple of your posts and they’re interesting and very enjoyable to read.

    Anyway, coming back to twitter. I get where you’re coming from about them owning you but there is a lot of press in the UK at the moment about Celebrities using the medium because it is easier for them to get their message over to their fans and that they can actually control their own PR rather than rely on the press which often portrays them in a rather less flattering way in a lot of cases.

    So I think it goes both ways to be honest!

    great post and I think I have become a regular reader from now on.

    Cheers, Danny

  21. This is good to read because it’s always a challenge to grow your Twitter Following without having it control your life. Great tips.

  22. This is a great article. I too love twitter, but it’s often hard to figure out how best to use it. I love your advice of making sure you don’t try to reply to everyone. It can get tiresome.

  23. It’s a shame you can’t follow your own first rule of posting then Tim:

    “Don’t post unless you add more value than the attention you consume ”

    “I use Twitter to broadcast time-sensitive suggestions, questions, events, random facts, and happenings, and other ideas that don’t justify an independent blog post”

    No, you don’t. These days your constant stream of regurgitated links to your old blog articles have ruined your twitter feed. It feels like an automated spam bot is running out of control now and I’m afraid the signal-to-noise ratio means I was finding it a source of frustration rather than inspiration so I’ve had to mute your feed in the name of sanity..