How to Fight Digital Distractions

Dilbert - Digital Distractions

We live in the age of distractions with all kinds of notifications, messages and alerts attacking us day and night. Today, your attention is a commodity that gets acquired and then sold for a profit by businesses like Facebook and Snapchat.

Achieving your goals in life requires immense focus so it’s very important to minimize the impact of the distractions on your productivity. The three main digital time wasters of our time are:

  • Email (compulsive checking thereof);
  • Social media;
  • News.

Here are some simple approaches that I’ve developed over the years to fight those.

1. Decouple work email from personal

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes get the urge to check work email when I’m at home or doing other things. Like with any other distractions, you want to make the act of checking work email as conscious a choice as possible, and install as few hoops to jump through to make the process less automatic. The purpose of those is to make you stop and think, “Do I really need to do this now?”

To accomplish this, I keep my work email out of the Mail app on my laptop and phone. If I need to check work email, I actually have to open Gmail in a browser and log in with my username and password. Which is not a problem to do once every morning when in the office but often not worth it to get a random work email fix at home.

If you are afraid to miss a critical work-related email, get strategic email forwarding in place. I forward emails from Amazon and Linode to my personal inbox so I will know if a problem with our server infrastructure comes up.

2. Keep the time wasters out of your phone

I use Twitter and Facebook but I keep the apps out of my iPhone. They make it just too easy to pop the social network and then wonder where half an hour of your time went. Instead, I only access both via my laptop browser, and I log out of Facebook after using it (see the next tip).

3. Log out when you’re done with it

This again has to do with making the distractions harder to tap. Once I’m done with checking my Facebook feed, I actually go and log out of Facebook. This way, I have to log in again if I want to check it next time. Making Facebook checking a bit more complicated than just typing “facebook” in the browser really helps to spend less time on the social network.

(Another benefit is that by logging out of Facebook, you are supposedly minimizing the amount of tracking that Facebook can do with their Like button all over the Internet.)

Oh, and I also log out of my work email as I leave the office.

4. Fetch, no push

Combined with app notifications, push email is the biggest enemy of your productivity. For a mere mortal, it’s just too hard to fight the urge to open that email immediately after it arrives. Even if you don’t have email notifications on, the increased count of unread emails on the Mail icon makes the best of us anxious to check it.

Take back the control and disable push email. Go for “manual fetch” where you actually have to tell your email app to go and download new messages.

5. No notifications by default

Do you really need to receive push notifications from that travel app that you use twice a year? How about browser notifications from that recipe website? Heck, do you really need to be instantly notified once a new article comes up on TechCrunch?

Your default answer to all notification requests on your phone and in your browser should be “Disallow”. Only in the cases when there’s a legitimate reason for an app to send you notifications (e.g. a messaging app), should the notifications be allowed.

Otherwise, you will drawn in notification spam sooner than you’ll notice it.

6. If you have to be checking the news, at least try to make it useful

I’m not a big believer in the value of news in our lives. That said, the mix of fear, excitement and easy explanations for what’s happening around us makes them such pleasurable fast food for our brains! No wonder it’s hard to keep away from them.

But if you are going to indulge in some news checking, at least try to make the process more useful for yourself. What I’ve recently done is switch from my regular mix of WSJ and TechCrunch to Spiegel and Heise Online to improve my German. Now I really have to struggle through the news articles but at least I know I’m learning in the process.

7. Schedule a “Do not disturb” mode on your phone

At 10 PM every night, my phone automatically goes into the “Do not disturb” mode with no audible notifications. So even if some rogue app wants to steal my attention during my quiet time, it will only be able to do so if I actually turn on my phone. Again, it’s all about claiming back control.

If I had to sum up the above tips, they really boil down to two main points:

  1. Realize that you are in control of how you spend your time and what digital distractions you allow to interfere with your activities.
  2. Just stopping to indulge in favorite distractions is hard. Make the job easier for yourself by minimizing the temptations and by installing roadblocks to make the indulging as much of a conscious choice as possible.

Good luck! Now let me check my email.