On removing distractions permalink
In today’s digital day and age, it’s easy to get distracted or interrupted by the tools that were once designed to help us. I recently took stock and realized how easily I found myself heading down a rabbit hole and just how much time and brain power I was wasting on things that weren’t important. It’s easy to blame those tools - it is their job after all to keep you an active (captured) user. But really, I had trained myself to keep myself distracted, out of a deep work or flow state, using technology. It’s taken me the better part of 3 months, but I’ve started to see progress in unwinding those bad habits, and wanted to share them.
Really this is the result of me noticing two relatively small behaviours:
- I’d hear or feel a new message of some sort, compulsively turn on and unlock my phone/laptop to check to see what it was - sometimes in the middle of a meeting or, even worse, the conversation with my wife.
- I’d complete a relatively valid task (like checking to see who just messaged me) using my phone/laptop and compulsively open a new tab in Chrome to one of many “news” sites in the blink of an eye
It wouldn’t even register what was happening as it was happening and before I’d know it, I’d just spent 5 to 60+ minutes doing nothing but searching the internet for something to “entertain” me.
Breaking the cycle
It all boils down to this: if I want to waste time, I needed to make it difficult for me to do it.
So I started by turning my phone back into a productivity tool.
Silence the interruptors
The notifications were the initial trigger that would lead to these undesired behaviors, which were, themselves, triggers for other undesired behaviors. If I never look at my phone, it makes it really hard to go down a rabbit hole of distraction. I’d look at and unlock my phone most frequently because it’d vibrate or make a noise signaling the arrival of a new distraction.
I removed the notification icons from my phone’s lock screen, which means that I’m less likely to check my phone for the time, see a notification, unlock my phone to check and clear it, then slide into Behaviour #2 by opening a new tab to some site full of new-ish links. BOOM! There goes 15 minutes. I shut off all notifications entirely for some highly interruptive applications like Slack. I still allowed notifications for applications like texts, emails, and phone calls. But I enabled Android’s features that automatically turn on Do Not Disturb mode while driving or at certain times of the day - like at night, when I’m winding down for bed - unless they’re from a few select people or they’re repeat callers (in case of emergencies).
All of this was to shorten technology’s reach - to prevent it from reminding me that it’s there, when I didn’t really need it.
Be deliberate about wasting time
I uninstalled all non-productivity focused applications like Reddit, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat and others. I already cut ties with Facebook roughly 7 years ago, but I’d have lumped that one in also. I did leave a few applications that were technically distractions, but didn’t require me to look at the screen in order to provide that distraction - Soundcloud and Pandora.
I left applications I used to help me organize and get stuff done like Trello, Evernote, Google’s Inbox and Maps, and Focus Timer Rebort (I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro Technique). So while I made it hard to distract myself, I made it easy to focus on things that I thought were important.
Next I blocked all access to time wasting sites from my phone. Even though there are times I could reasonably want to access them, I wanted just enough friction to make it not an addictive thing. By blocking all access from my phone, that meant I had to either
- find another site that had that information (like the score of the Celtic’s game); or
- access the restricted site on my laptop - which, as I’ll elaborate on, had its own guardrails.
This all meant that if I wanted to waste time in one of those ways that had become addictive, I had to be deliberate about it.
A time and a place for distractions
As I described above, it’s common for one to remove technology from a place where one wants to focus on other things - like removing the TV and your phone from the bedroom to force your mind to associate that space with sleep and sex and not distractions. The inverse practice also holds: one can create a space associated with technology and distraction to contain its presence. This is not unlike having a home office as a spatial boundary between a work- and life-mindset; allowing them to exist in the same vicinity but still be distinct. So I also wanted to provide a way for me to channel those distractions.
I used the StayFocusd extension for Google Chrome to still allow me to visit those distracting sites, but limit the amount of time I do so to only 10 minutes per day. This provides a relief valve of sorts in the morning during when I can quickly catch up on the world news, game scores and schedules for my favorite teams, and find a few new tech blog posts or white papers to add to the hopper to read while on the way into work.
Keep in mind: there’s nothing preventing me from side-stepping all of these restrictions. But that’s not really the point. It was really to make the unintentional, addictive triggers and their subsequent behaviors intentional. By making it just hard enough to engage in them, I’ve succeeded.
I think I’m happier, more focused and productive, and WAY more present. My data usage on my phone has dropped by >50% and since I only pay for the data I use, it’s having a noticable impact on my bank account. My phone battery lasts a heck of a lot longer, which is its own cathartic benefit to not have to worry about my phone being charged all of the time. And even if it dies, I care less now. I’m not inundated with all of the negative, click-bait news. What I read is now all focused on helping me progress in some way and not as a method of distracting myself.
All-in-all, this has been one of the better moves I’ve made in the past few years.
Feedback? Thoughts? How are you removing your own distractions? I’d love to hear about it, so give me a shout!