Computers and smartphones make fantastic tools but poor masters.
The connectivity that offers potential surges in productivity also brings huge temptations.
Some mornings I've sat down with my smartphone, iPad or computer, intending to simply check for important emails, texts and alerts.
- I start browsing my Facebook feed.
- I skim celebrity gossip disguised as news.
- I scan trivial information (or misinformation).
- I follow myriad links that criss-cross the entire internet but somehow lead nowhere good or useful.
I intend to just dip my toes into the water, but I'm quickly dragged in by a riptide of triviality. By the time I come to my senses I'm treading water, lost and disoriented, far out at sea.
Two precious hours have disappeared; my plans for the day are in disarray; and I'm no closer to achieving my goals and ambitions.
Unfortunately, that wasn't just a one-time mistake.
Each episode of aimless online browsing strengthens bad habits and undermines good ones. It also weakens attention span and the ability to focus on work.
Even after you've put down the phone or shut the browser, your brain can take 20 minutes to switch to a more productive mode.
Mindfulness researcher, Dan Nixon, believes distracting websites, mobile apps and social media are undermining productivity – and not just at a personal level but also across the wider economy.
Low productivity growth has become a problem in many advanced economies and has not recovered to the levels achieved before the 2008 financial crisis. Nixon believes it's no coincidence that in the past decade productivity growth has slowed while global shipments of smartphones have risen.
"Distractions at work might cause weaker productivity via two main channels," he writes.
- Any distraction has a direct impact on the amount of time allocated to effective work. Social media, online shopping and browsing news, sports and gossips sites can all drag us away from work for hours every day.
- Repeated episodes of distraction can create habitually scattered minds, leading to consistently reduced productivity. If you keep getting distracted by external stimuli, over time your brain becomes more likely to stray on its own accord. Even when you're trying to stay on task, you'll be less effective.
Online habits outside work can also have effects that spill into the workplace.
Aimless time on distracting websites and social media is obviously unproductive.
But makes us feel guilty about our lack of self-control.
And it's not even genuinely entertaining.
Yet it's so addictive.
Online browsing has a lot in common with slot machines. By design, they both use unpredictable feedback loops – or "intermittent variable rewards" – to be addictive.
"Research shows that levels of dopamine surge when the brain is expecting a reward. Introducing variability multiplies the effect, creating a frenzied hunting state, activating the parts associated with wanting and desire. Although classic examples include slot machines and lotteries, variable rewards are prevalent in habit-forming technologies as well."
This realization humbled me.
I always thought I was too smart to be sucked in by slot machines.
Yet I had developed a similar addiction.
Time online was passing in a blur. It was hard to remember exactly what I'd been reading or viewing. But I knew that most of it was trivial and much of it was pure garbage.
I was supposed to be working on my Mac. Instead, Facebook and other companies were monetizing my attention through online advertising.
I was also becoming more unhappy.
There is plenty of evidence to show that high consumption of social media and time-wasting websites correlates with declines in happiness.
Overindulging in aimless web browsing gets in the way of more rewarding and meaningful activities.
It can't make you happy any more than playing slot machines or taking drugs can.
There is growing recognition that this is a problem.
Some people are now switching to "dumb phones" to break their addictions.
But smartphones and computers are powerful tools, and I'm not ready to give up either of them.
Instead, I've developed strategies to ensure my devices are my servants, not my masters.
During work hours I disable all alerts, except text messages and phone calls. Then I place the phone out of arm's reach but close enough to hear any incoming calls.
A smartphone is more addictive and more intrusive than a computer.
But paradoxically it can be easier to reduce phone use than to cut back distracted browsing on your computer, because the computer can't be set aside in working hours.
I developed Focus because social media and favorite websites can be all too tempting when you're trying to get work done.
Focus is a Mac app that sits in your menu-bar and helps you set your optimal work environment.
When you're doing online research, it's very tempting to explore side paths and byways. Focus can block websites and apps in most web browsers (including Google Chrome, Safari and Firefox ). Make a note of any particularly distracting websites and add them to your blocked list.
Focus is a powerful distraction blocker. But it also provides other productivity-enhancing features, including:
- motivational quotes
- a pomodoro timer
- schedules (which can be set with an enforced locked mode)
- productivity trackers.
It's not just a website blocker; it also helps rebuild your powers of concentration and reinforces good habits that will become stronger over time.
Focus made a big difference to my productivity at work. But to take my performance to another level, I also had to change my smartphone and browsing habits outside working hours.
Don't rely on self-control or tell yourself you'll simply go cold turkey. You need a systematic approach to block distractions, reclaim your time and rebuild your attention span.
If you have a serious smartphone problem, start by rethinking FOMO.
Fear of missing out on what exactly?
What's so important that you can allow it to interrupt your work? What's the opportunity cost of trying to keep up with the relentless flow of information?
How much time do you need to keep up to date? Can you set time limits?
Can you keep up with all the important current affairs by ditching the distracting sites and just watching the evening news?
Maybe check social media for just 10 minutes a day after work? Or even just once on the weekend and once midweek?
Consider posting on your Facebook page: "Please don't be offended if I don't respond quickly. I'm trying to manage my Facebook addiction by reducing my hours online."
Once you've thought these issues through, set up some simple systems that make it harder to access your iPhone or Android on a whim.
Put the device in a different room when you're not using it.
Change your lock screen to an image, or words, or a combination of both that means something to you. Something like, "Why now?" or "Do I need this?"
I know someone struggling with smartphone addiction whose lockscreen is a memento mori – a reminder of mortality. This is intended to prompt him not to waste precious hours of his life in meaningless, instantly forgettable activity.
Developing discipline in your working life and your free time will make you much more productive.
A more distraction-free life will also make you happier and more engaged with your friends, family and your environment in general.
Work and life are better when you're in charge of your attention and focus.