‘Nothing vast enters the lives of mortals without a curse.’ – Sophocles
Sophocles was a famous playwright who lived in 400BC; he would be shocked by how vast the changes to our lives have become nearly 2,400 years later. And whether we know it or not, their corresponding curses touch almost all aspects of our lives.
We are going to tackle one particular curse from one vast change to our lives – digital distractions that have arisen from mobile technology and near-constant internet access. We will look at the cause of the issue, common sources of distractions, and how we can squash them in order to claim back our two most valuable resources – time and attention.
The Underlying Principle: Set your own boundaries or someone else will do it for you.
The most important thing to understand is that if you don’t set limits and boundaries on how you use technology, the makers of technology will do it for you. And their preference is for you to spend as much time using their tech as possible.
You are up against highly skill and paid professionals whose entire job is combining psychology with technology to get you to spend as much time on their services as possible.
These people understand how to ‘hack’ our brains in order to make us spend more of our time and attention than we want to. They would have you click and watch and scroll all day long. The best way to prevent this is to first understand it, and to then set limits on your technology use.
Start tracking your phone use
Before we dive into the details:
Your phone likely has a built-in setting for tracking the amount of time you spend on it – take a look at it now, or turn it on if it’s disabled. If your phone lacks this feature, install an app for it.
Now that we’re aware of the problem, let’s look at why it happens.
Wired for Novelty
The good news is that our compulsive checking of news, messages, emails, and other distractions is not entirely our fault – this problem takes advantage of our brain’s built-in desire for novelty.
Back in our hunter-gatherer days, novelty – spotting new shiny things – was important. It kept us on our toes by wiring us to look for anything new, extraordinary, or out of place; often this was a threat like a skulking lion, or an important resource like a ripe berry bush. Novelty likely helped us to create new technologies by making new and useful tools like hammers and spears.
Like many things in the modern world, this evolutionary trait has been hijacked for profit. We won’t cast judgement on this, rather we will look at what we can do to lessen the problem.
Some common uses of digital novelty in our modern digital world include
- Notifications. Seeing that red number pop up over an app makes us feel good.
- New messages. The thought that we might have a new message excites us, as it could be anything; an invite for creamy pints of Guinness after work, a hiking trip at the weekend, etc.
- New content. News websites will scour the world for new news and information, or re-hash existing news to seem new. Facebook invented ‘Infinite Scroll’, a never-ending stream of content, updates, posts, and comments, to keep us engaged for hours.
Ways to squash distractions
Review your screen time regularly
Checking our screen time on a regular basis will allow us to bring more awareness to the issue, which in turn can help us to consciously spend less time on distractions. Even better if your phone will show you the specific apps and websites you are losing time on.
Decide on how much daily screen time you are happy with, and try to stick to this goal.
Install a website/app blocker
There are many apps available for all devices that can block a specific list of apps and websites.
When I first thought of doing this myself, I resisted it a lot: it hurt my ego and sense of pride to think that I needed a piece of software to help me focus. People in the past didn’t need this, why should I? Well, our ancestors also didn’t have to deal with these distractions in the first place. There are legions of experts in psychology and technology whose job it is to get us to spend time on their apps and websites; there’s nothing wrong with us using technology to fight back and reclaim our time and attention.
Make use of Do Not Disturb Mode
Most devices have a ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode that will stop all notifications. You can usually choose which ones to block if you don’t want to do a blanket block, in case you need to get notifications from an important app. Some devices will also allow you to let starred contacts get through to you; on my phone, if a starred contact rings me a second time within three minutes, my phone will let it through and I will be notified.
Set boundaries for engaging with distracting content
Instead of checking in on news, messages, and emails many times throughout the day, set aside time each day to engage with these services. This can make the experience better, as you will feel better using these services when you know you’re not supposed to be doing something else. You can engage with them fully instead of trying to do two things at once.
Don’t use your devices in the morning or evening
This is an important tactic in the Momentum Mind Workshop.
Most of us are in the habit of checking our phones first thing in the morning – victims of our novelty-seeking bias before we even have our first cup of coffee! And we are usually on them just before sleeping too. This is bad for our sleep as well as our focus.
Set a time each evening to put away and disconnect from digital devices, and set another time to check them in the morning. Aim to give yourself at least an hour of device-free time each morning.
Replace the habit with a new one
Checking your phone for notifications, or emails for anything new and interesting, has likely become a habit that is triggered by boredom.
By recognizing this and being aware of it, we can then try to replace this bad habit with a good one.
For example, when boredom arises:
- Go for a walk, in nature if possible.
- Read a book.
- Do something productive on your phone like watching a TED talk
Delete apps and accounts
If you want to spend less time on an app on your phone, delete it.
If you keep clicking a bookmark on your web browser that takes you to a distracting website, delete it.
If you are losing too much time to a particular service and don’t get much out of it, consider deactivating or deleting your account. This year I deleted my Instagram and Facebook accounts; the first few days were difficult, but a few weeks later I didn’t miss them at all, and I now have more time and attention available to me each day for worthwhile pursuits.
Turn off your internet
This is my favourite tactic at the moment; turning off the WiFi on my device when I want to knuckle down and focus on a task. I would turn off the WiFi router itself but this just creates a new distraction in the form of my upset partner!
I resisted this idea at first as I felt I needed access to the internet to do my work. This is true sometimes, but can be worked around by getting any material you need in advance and saving it offline.
This helped me to see just how deep into distracting behaviors I had gotten; at first I found myself clicking into Safari on my iPad, having forgotten that the internet was turned off in the first place! It initially took some willpower to not turn my WiFi back on right away, but with some regular practice it has become a strong habit that helps me to get a lot more done each day.
Memento Mori – Remember that you have to die
An awareness of our limited time on this earth can be a great way to stop spending it in unproductive ways. It is the finiteness of our time that gives it value.
I used to think that time is our most important resource, but now believe it is our attention: your time will be spent regardless, second by second, while the quality of your attention can go up and down, and its quality often dictates the quality of our time.
Consider going for dinner with a friend or a client. Your time will be spent either way, but your attention can vary. If you are checking your phone every couple of minutes, your time will not be as well spent as it would if you focused your attention on the person across from you.
To put it bluntly: the person sitting across from you will be dead and buried one day, so put your f!cking phone away!
The Slot Machine Analogy
There is a machine in the USA that makes more money in a given year than movies, game parks and baseball combined.
Slot machines are deceptive because each round of ‘just one more pull’ adds up and up and up, but the users attention is so focused on trying to win that they often don’t notice how much money they are spending.
Similarly, every time we check an app or website, we are spending a Time Coin. It doesn’t seem like much – a few checks here and there throughout the day – but as the months and years of this behavior add up, we end up trading away far more of our time and attention than we would like.
This analogy comes from this excellent TED talk.
Plant the Seed of Awareness
Culling down these distractions can seem like a difficult task, especially if the habits are set in deep. But as with everything we teach at Momentum Mind, you don’t need to tackle this problem in one fell swoop – just plan out some baby steps.
A good start is simply bringing awareness of these distractions, and how they sap away your time and attention. This seed of awareness will slowly grow into a heightened appreciation of your time and attention, and a disdain for apps and services that do their utmost to steal them away from you.
From there you can pick one of our suggestions above to work on, and take on a new one as you get the hang of the previous one.
If you can build these new habits, over time your attention will strengthen, and you will stop spending time in a state of continuous partial attention; a state in which we are focusing on nothing in particular and our attention just bounces around like a squash ball.
If you don’t decide on your relationship to technology, its creators will decide it for you.
If you are interested in teaching these ideas to you and your team to enhance both their personal and professional lives, get in touch with us to learn more about the Momentum Mind workshop.