While the digital world is constantly demanding your attention, your best chance to maintain control over your day – and your headspace – could be to simply press the ‘off’ button.
Like most people, you probably have a certain part of your job which you find quite challenging and involving. You might be very good at it and enjoy it once you’re on a roll, but getting into it is often just hard work. What is this kind of work for you?
For me, I must admit, it is writing – writing emails, reports, articles and business collaterals. I’m passionate about helping people thrive, and usually there’s a lot I’d love to say. But knowing exactly what to say and how to say it to make the greatest difference is not always easy. Once I get in front of my laptop I often need to push myself to stay on task for a good half an hour before things start to flow.
Unfortunately I don’t always manage to reach this state at all, or to stay in it for long. Whenever I’m interrupted say by a phone call, text or app notification I easily lose my train of thought. If this happens once or twice I rebound without a problem. But frequent interruptions not only waste time, having to refocus over and over again is also draining and demotivating. And when I happen to receive disappointing or stressful news, that’s probably the end of my productive hours.
When facing demanding tasks, it can be difficult to say no to the enticing escape routes offered by my apps and the internet. Every minute spent clearing my mailbox, checking my social media and chat accounts or getting up-to-date with ‘essential’ news can feel like a refuge from the hurdles ahead … but work is impatiently waiting for me.
I’m often tempted to do fact-checking while jotting down my thoughts, which doesn’t help. Of course, I know too well that this habit is the enemy of flow. It’s much easier to create something engaging and authentic if you express yourself freely, without inhibitions, at least while capturing the first draft. Corrections should be made later. However, I just can’t resist looking things up on the internet as soon as questions arise in my mind, when the answers are only a click away.
Well, I’m certainly prone to make my life harder then necessary. But I’m clearly not alone.
Radical steps are needed
Your work probably looks very different from mine. But when it comes to mentally demanding tasks, you and I possibly experience similar challenges. We’re likely both hindered by external distractions and self-sabotaging habits, to some extent, that have something to do with our phones and the internet.
So what’s the solution?
Here’s my strategy to get around these problems. Before starting a challenging and perhaps daunting activity, as long as my work allows, I simply turn off the Wi-Fi on my laptop. When I’m in my home office, I even unplug the router. I also put my phone on silent or flight mode and leave it in another room. Essentially, I put myself in a bubble. These are radical steps I know, but they work wonders for me.
Creating your own bubble, at the right times, could also help you find your flow. (If you’ve ever worked on an airplane and noticed how easy it was to get things done, you’ll know what I mean.)
Your brain only does its job
You have no reason to feel guilty. You may just expect more from your brain than it can reasonably handle – as most of us do in the information age.
It all comes down to your neurological wiring. The amount of energy available to your brain is finite; it consumes around 20% of your calorie intake, on average. Now, when you engage in activities that require intense focus and critical thinking, such as planning, analysing and prioritising, your brain needs to burn fuel like there’s no tomorrow.
In order to sustain itself, your brain tries to preserve energy. It has a natural inclination to escape from persistent hard work. This is why you might find it tempting to avoid or drop a difficult task, and to do something easy instead, even when you feel fresh. And when you’re mentally tired, it’s particularly difficult to focus, because your brain has little resources left to continue its workout. So instead of staying on task, you’re prone to procrastinate, multitask and look for escape routes.
Your brain is also notoriously susceptible to distraction, for reasons rooted in human evolution. Our ancestors constantly had to stay in tune with their environment in order to survive. So even today, we have a natural instinct to pay attention to what’s happening around us and to respond to the unexpected. This means that if you want to successfully ignore distractions you need to override your nature, which certainly requires energy. And when your mind is already overworked, this can be mission impossible.
To sum up, we have a tendency to demand too much from our brains, expose ourselves to temptations and distractions, and then try to overcome them (often in vain). This creates exhaustion, stress and anxiety. Try to control your attention when feeling exhausted, anxious or stressed, and you’ll find yourself on the road to failure.
How distracted are we?
In the ‘good ol’ days’, before everyone had a mobile phone, receptionists and personal assistants vetted the calls. Faxes landed in the copy room and you decided when to collect them. When someone wanted to talk to you, it was perfectly acceptable to say, ‘I’m unavailable’.
So what does our day-to-day reality look like? In this ‘always plugged in’ work culture, how do our apps and devices influence our habits?
Let’s look at a few statistics:
- The average office worker checks their inbox 30 times in an hour.
- The average employee uses 10 different apps in a day to get their work done, and toggles between them 10 times in an hour.
- 45% of office workers in the UK read news websites during work hours, for 1 hour and 5 minutes a day, on average.
- People in the US and UK check their smart phones every 12 minutes, on average.
- Smartphone users in the US receive 46 push notifications a day, on average.
- Office workers are interrupted every 3 minutes and 5 seconds, on average, mostly through digital channels.
Some of these statistics are a few years old, so it’s fair to assume that the current reality is even more grim than these figures suggest. But you only need to glance at your chat and web browser history to get a sense of your own patterns.
I know that when I scroll through my Google search history at the end of a hectic and unproductive day, it always looks terrifying. I also know how awful I feel when I lose my sense of control over my day. So for me, preserving my focus, energy and sanity is top priority.
You can’t not be affected
Say you have exceptional discipline and willpower, and you’re great at ignoring emails, calls, texts and notifications when you need to focus. You might be interested in hearing about this research study, which looked at people’s performance while working amidst these kinds of distractions and ‘ignoring’ them.
The study found, that when participants were bombarded with emails and phone calls while they were trying to solve problems, their IQ dropped by an average of 10 points. This is despite the fact that they didn’t respond to any of the messages, and kept working. (Interestingly, men were affected to a greater extent than women.)
So what exactly does it mean to lose 10 IQ points? Your ability to focus and solve problems is reduced just as much as if you were missing out on a night’s sleep, and twice as much as if you were smoking cannabis. Essentially, the distractions caused by unopened emails and unanswered calls reduce your mental sharpness. And while resisting the temptation to respond, you’re also weakening your willpower.
Another experiment revealed fascinating insights about how keeping your smartphone nearby could effect your thinking and performance. Before taking a series of tests that required concentration, participants were divided into three groups. They were asked to either place their phones on their desk (face down), or to keep them in their pockets or bags, or to leave them outside the room. All phones were turned to silent.
People who left their phones outside performed far better than those whose placed their phones on their desk, and slightly better than those whose phones were in their pockets or bags. The vast majority of participants were under the impression that the location of their phones had no effect on their performance. Well, it appears they were wrong.
These results might seem surprising, but certainly make more sense when you learn about what scientists call ‘continuous partial attention’. This is a mental state when you don’t want to miss anything, and so you keep staying alert and reachable. You’re on constant lookout for updates and opportunities, and available to respond as needed.
When you’re trying to stay connected to everything, in truth you can’t be fully present with anything you do. Even when you receive no calls or alerts, or when you don’t respond, you feel somewhat uncertain and tense. Spending a lot of time in a state of suspense is likely to leave you anxious and overwhelmed, and also dissatisfied.
Your headspace should be top priority
You have a few options to shelter yourself from digital distractions, and even from thoughts of being interrupted. You may turn off notifications on all your devices – including email, chat, social media and other apps – or disconnect from the internet. You may silence your phone, put it in flight mode or switch it off, and leave it out of sight and out of reach. You may find a place to work with poor or no mobile network and internet access (many authors’ dream).
The point is, you need to stop relying on your willpower and discipline to stay focused while the digital world is demanding your attention. There are times when you need to cut yourself off from this environment completely in order to preserve your focus, energy and spirit.
It’s best to disable every single source of interruption for those few hours in the day when you want to maximise your brain power. You have the option to pick and choose, and still see some results, but you may want to check in with yourself first:
- ‘Why is it so important for me to stay connected?’
- ‘What am I afraid of missing out on?’
- ‘Do I really need to be contactable all the time?’
After creating a communication etiquette, and ensuring that your teams and clients are on the same page, you should be able to carve a few hours out of your schedule when only you decide where to direct your attention. You must be able to find a time when your headspace and the quality of your thinking are made top priority.
It doesn’t matter where you are in the food chain. Many successful business leaders and CEOs are using this strategy to take control of their days and access their best thinking.
If you’re still hesitant, I suggest you experiment just for a single day, as a start. You may find it an enjoyable and rewarding experience and get hooked. You won’t be the first person this has happened to.