I love my phone (iPhone X) and I love my laptop (MacBook Pro 13″). But their aim is to enhance my productivity and not to detract from it. As apps, tech, and the way we communicate have evolved over the last 5 years, have we (or have I) evolved to handle them?
Yes, I am someone who has been scrolling through twitter while my child has innocently asked me a question, and I found myself being annoyed at them for interrupting me. It’s not a parenting high point.
Yes, I am someone who has been listening to my husband recount his day at work whilst at the same time reading a FOAM post and only half concentrating on each. It’s not ideal relationship-building.
And consequently I’ve made some changes to ensure that my time on tech is meaningful. It’s not that our phones are bad, or that technology is a distraction. It’s that we need to learn how to ensure that we use technology as we want to – so we are in charge of it rather than the other way round.
Nir Eyal’s new book Indistractable identifies, rightly, that it’s fine to want time in your day to browse social media, but the problem lies when you’re trying to write an article, or do a piece of work, and a notification means that you flick away to your email, or you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a twitter debate. The key is how to ensure that your time on social media (or your email, or playing games) is when it’s supposed to be, and doesn’t happen as a distraction from your main task.
I’ve made some key changes to how I use my devices, and I’d love to hear yours…
Meaningful working day at your computer
When I am doing work at my desktop, I have minimised the risk of interruptions and distractions. Distractions are different for each person – for some it’s browsing through news articles, for others it’s reading blog posts. For me, it’s email and social media distractions.
My email inbox management is second to none. I have had Inbox Zero up and running for several years, and it has greatly improved my productivity. But that also means that I read emails that come in all the time, and most of the emails are not that interesting. Around 40% of my daily emails are things that are personal to me or need me to think about and input via a reply. The remaining 60% are newsletters, group emails, various work IT alerts. These are not things that I can unsubscribe from (and I do operate a ‘furiously unsubscribe‘ policy where I can) because I do need to glance at them and sometimes they have content that needs more input from me. And it only takes a second for me to glance and delete if needed. However, I have realised that the act of switching to my email, even just to glance at it, is worth far more than a second. My attention on the task I was doing breaks, and it then takes time for me to get back into the flow of my work (and that’s assuming I don’t get distracted by anything else in the meantime).
SaneBox (and I’m sure there are other similar apps) has changed my email inbox management. It redirects my emails automatically into folders, and I can train it to work better over time. Those group emails or newsletters I mentioned, automatically go into my SaneNews folder, the emails that I usually don’t need to reply to immediately go into my SaneLater folder, and the ones that I will likely never read go into my SaneBlackHole folder. All this happens without me doing anything at all. These folder don’t have notifications, they don’t tell me how many items are in them, and if I want to check them I go into the folder and read what’s there. This means that my actual inbox is now only showing me the interesting things that I want to see and need to reply to. It has plenty of other customisable features – it keeps track of who hasn’t replied to me via the SaneNoReplies folder (which helps me as previously I just sent emails then deleted them and left it up to the recipient); I can set reminders for myself (for example I’ve been asked to do some local teaching but I don’t have my rota yet – I can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and that teaching email will reappear in my inbox on 14th November) which means I don’t need to add unnecessary tasks to my todo list.
On my laptop itself I’ve changed the notifications. I have Do Not Disturb which turns off all notifications after 10pm, but also I have removed the notifications from most apps during the day.
Nir Eyal suggests Timeboxing for your day – essentially where you set out a schedule with blocks of time, which can include time for playing whatever computer game you like, time for reading news sites, time for browsing TikTok (my new guilty pleasure thanks to my tween). I don’t Timebox as I prefer to be more flexible, but when I sit down to a task I do set a specific timeframe that I’m going to work on it for and will resist being distracted until the end of that.
Meaningful mobile phone use
My phone is my best tech friend and worth every pound I paid for it. But it has been a minefield of distractions. I’ve made the following changes:
I’ve changed my home screen to include only the apps I actually need immediately (previously I had all my social media apps on the home screen, and TV viewing apps, and the numerous school apps).
I’ve deleted 80% of the apps I had to clear the clutter.
I have removed notifications from pretty much all the apps I use. The only exception is WhatsApp (mainly so I don’t miss any urgent family notifications, and not because I don’t want to miss my tween’s pleading WhatsApp messages e.g. “Can I get TikTok? Can I get SnapChat? Please reply ASAP”). I’d got into the habit of just allowing notifications from any app I downloaded, but there really is no reason for this at all. Urgent is when a trauma call is coming into ED, and even then you normally get at least 10 minutes warning. Urgent is NOT that someone has replied to my tweet and I need to read what they’ve said stat – that can realistically wait.
Now, when I glance at my phone I don’t see unnecessary notifications goading me into checking apps. And if I want to check twitter I will have to swipe and scroll to it and open it and check,
Meaningful work meetings
This one is a work in progress for me. In truth, we only pick up our phones in meetings because it comforts us – maybe the meeting is boring, it’s getting fraught, or the time-keeping by the chair has gone AWOL. But we know, just as when I look at my phone while listening to my husband’s day, we aren’t really present when we do this and therefore aren’t getting the most out of the meeting. So my new challenge is to keep my phone away during any work meetings, teaching, lectures, workshops so I can make the most of where I am and contribute as much as I can.
(In exchange, I plea for all meeting chairs to keep to time and focus).
Meaningful real life relationships
Clearly there is more to meaningful life relationships than your mobile phone or your notifications, but a good start is by being present and not distracted. I have purchased an actual alarm clock (yes, I’m sure the majority of you have one but I’m ashamed to say I have always used my phone).
My phone now goes away at 10pm and stays downstairs till I chose to look at it in the morning. And then I can actually have some time with my own thoughts when I wake up rather than reaching straight for the phone. Having the Do Not Disturb setting on my laptop means that if we are watching TV (usually via my laptop and Chromecast) and I get a message, I do not get distracted and want to see what it says.
And finally, I’m working with my tween to ensure we have some good family rules. When I’m home I try to put my phone away between 1730 and 1930 to focus on my kids and their homework, dinner, life. I hope this will model good behaviour for her own device usage.
These are small practical changes but for me they have had a big impact. You may be horrified reading about my experience of distraction, or maybe some is familiar to you. Have a read of Indistractable or just make some changes based on these suggestions. And please let me know any other tips or tell me how you’ve been getting on with making changes.