As I was typing this line, my phone buzzed to let me know I’d been mentioned on Twitter. When I returned to type these words, the thought struck me that I had better check if my editor had replied to my email.
With flurries of app notifications, 24/7 emails, and the mere thought of our smartphones, staying focused with multiple screens is no easy task, whether we are interrupted by other apps, or we’ve simply decided to check Facebook in the middle of writing an email.
A digital detox might minimize these interruptions, but as a technology writer, I was convinced there were tech-based means to manage my attention.
Luckily, productivity coach Craig Jarrow, who founded the blog Time Management Ninja, agreed with me. “Technology can be a time-waster — but it can also be our biggest time-saver,” he says. Here’s how I experimented with tech to reclaim my focus and eliminate tech distractions…with more tech:
1. Blocking Notifications
The chime of a smartphone notification is enough to distract me from most tasks — and I’m not alone. According to researchers, simply hearing a notification distracted people and reduced their performance nearly as much as if they had stopped to respond to the alert.
What’s more, the average person checks their phone about 60 times a day. “When we interrupt our current task , it involves [more brainpower] to re-uptake the task, which impacts productivity and focus,” says Lee Hadlington, a senior lecturer at De Montfort University and author of Cybercognition: Brain, Behaviour and the Digital World.
But blocking notifications from all apps had me checking my phone more — a common consequence, it turns out. “Turning off all notifications can result in as many self-interruptions as having them on,” says Hadlington. “Our smartphones are our conduit to what’s going on in the world. If your alerts are off, you might be equally distracted wondering what could have been happening.”
“Instead, pare down the number of apps that get to send notifications,” Jarrow says. Think again: does that shopping app need to send alerts about new collections?
2. Blocking the Internet and Social Media
Even without the Pavlovian buzz of notifications, having the internet at my fingertips often inspires me to head down the rabbit hole of cute animal videos and endless newsfeed scrolling.
“The thing about our engagement with technology is that the thrill of reading your newsfeed or performing a search doesn’t dissipate over time,” Hadlington says.
So I decided to go cold-turkey. I downloaded a program to block all social sites, and another that would block the internet entirely. Being unable to access Facebook during periods of work felt good — the act of trying to load Facebook and failing seemed to slowly erode my habit of checking my newsfeed at the first twinge of boredom.
However, while the programs are great for project work that eschews the web, my job involves Twitter, and for that matter, the internet. For an everyday solution, “use your programs in full-screen mode to ground you in the activity you’re doing,” says Jarrow. There are also writing processor programs designed to do just that.
3. Testing my Bluetooth Button
I had high hopes for Saent, an app and Bluetooth-connected button that promised to maximize my productivity. The trick is that you link a physical cue — pressing the sleek, highly tactile button — with the start of a distraction-free work period on your computer that’s followed by a timed break. It’s based on the Pomodoro technique of time management, but the systematic division of projects into time chunks might not suit all working styles.
“It depends on the industry and individual differences whether this method can work. Some people can’t block out all distractions [during a focus period],” says Hadlington.
On some days, I could focus much longer than others. On those days, I didn’t want a reminder that my focus session was up.
4. Sorting Emails Before Replying
I receive roughly 50 emails a day, which is less than half what the average office worker receives. Emails often create the greatest demand for attention because as psychologist Larry Rosen told FastCo Design, the accessibility of email coupled with the the unpredictability of its contents “stimulates our brain’s “seeking” circuits,” causing us to self-interrupt tasks to check email — an average of 74 times a day, according to one study.
So what if my inbox was sorted so that I only ever saw high-priority emails? While Gmail has great filters that highlight the messages it learns are important, bundling everything else into promotions, updates or social notification folders, Jarrow suggested another powerful tool — an email filtering program such as Sanebox. Sanebox learns what a user considers important and hides all other email for reading at a later time.
Now I was getting closer to the root of my digital distraction — information overload from numerous sources. Streamlining my inbox so that “important” emails are highlighted helped reduce time spent there. To retrain my email-checking habit, Hadlington suggested setting specific times for email: at 9 a.m. and noon, scan and flag those that need action, then send replies in one (short) session at the end of the workday.
5. Embracing To-do Apps
My last and most effective experiment focused on positive steps. Instead of apps to prevent distraction, I would find apps to encourage engagement. In other words, a to-do list app, such as Todoist or Any.do, which offer simple and comprehensive ways to note tasks and break down major projects.
“We usually just pick up what tasks land in front of us, but if you look at the list, it gives you context of what you should be doing. That’s the power of the to-do list,” Jarrow says.
Managing digital distractions is about building new habits — ones that curb self-interruptions. “You don’t have to instantly respond to every email or pick up the phone whenever it rings. Technology is there for your convenience and benefit,” Jarrow says.
Technology can be a time-waster — but it can also be our biggest time-saver.