How digital distractions drain your productivity

Digital distractions can make you feel productive and responsive, when in fact you’re just engaging in mindless, insignificant tasks. While digital technology broadens your access to information, makes communication easier, and provides other advantages, it often pulls you away from your true priorities.

For the most part, productivity means getting the most important things done, efficiently and effectively, while feeling satisfied with your progress and cultivating personal freedom for yourself. With this in mind, here’s how digital distractions drain your productivity:

Weaken your focus muscle

Paying attention to the task at hand is required to start, tackle and complete it. The ubiquitous presence of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and 24/7 online access erodes your ability to fully attend to one thing, concentrate, and work through problems, especially when they’re complex and require deep thought.

In January 2017, the Pew Research Center released fact sheets showing about 77% of Americans own a smartphone; nearly 73% state they have broadband service at home; 69% of U.S. adults use social media; nearly eight-in-ten U.S. adults own a desktop or laptop computer; and about half own tablet computers.

With digital technology at your fingertips, quick answers and instant gratification are expected. Over time, without consistent training and regular exercise, your focus muscle weakens immensely. And when faced with a difficult problem or averse task that needs to get done, you’ll be more tempted to look to your digital devices for a quick fix.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex craves novelty. The dopamine high you get from checking emails, text messages, social media and other digital information creates a feedback loop that encourages you to lose focus and seek external stimulation. The effects are sub-par results, more mistakes, and a prioritization of low-value busy work over high-value intentional work.

Encourage the counterproductive practice of multitasking (switch tasking) 

Doing more than one thing at a time  – commonly known as multitasking – is often viewed as a strength and skill. Companies misguidedly expect their employees to prioritize multiple projects and manage two or four or six tasks at once.

Although technology allows different processes to occur simultaneously, the human brain processes only one thing at a time, sequentially. As a result, juggling two or more tasks at one time — especially when they each demand high focus — is counterproductive.

In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen point out the brain has a limited capacity to pay attention, which makes it impossible to focus on two or more completely unrelated tasks at the same time.

You can do multiple, related tasks toward one outcome, such as when you drive a car, make breakfast, or attend to other simple routines. You can also background task very well, such as watch a movie while you exercise on the treadmill or listen to classical music while you cook. But when it comes to high-attention tasks — such as replying to emails while participating in a conference call, or texting while listening to an audio book — the best you can do is switch between tasks at rapid speeds.

In a University of California – Irvine study, researchers found it takes, on average, up to 20 minutes to refocus on an activity after being interrupted by email or another minor distraction. Each time you divert your attention from one task to another, you add to the time it would otherwise take you to complete it.

As your brain takes in new information on the second task, your attention becomes scattered and you lose your primary focus on the first task.  You then have to catch up on the information you missed or the thought process you abandoned to fully get back to the first task. Plus, attention residue from a prior unfinished task affects your performance on the new task.

Even if you consider yourself a super multitasker, you are still more productive when you attend to one thing, take a break, and then move to the next.

Reduce your brain power

Strong cognitive abilities allow you to be truly productive in creative projects or high-value assignments.  In Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, molecular biologist John Medina explains how digital distractions bombard the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for exercising willpower, goal-setting, decision-making, planning, making moral judgments, and carrying out other executive functions. He breaks down the process into four steps:

Step 1- shift alert. The prefrontal cortex acts a switchboard in alerting the brain to shift attention. Blood rushes to this region of the brain when you’re about to start working on task #1, such as writing a research paper.

Step 2 –  rule activation for task #1. This includes a two-part message. The first part is a search query to locate the neurons needed to carry out the task. The second part encodes a command to rouse the neurons, once found.

Step 3 – disengagement from task #1. While you’re working on task #1, there’s an interruption related to task #2, such as a text message from a friend. Because the rules for writing the research paper and replying to the text message are different, your brain has to disengage from task #1 before you can attend to task #2. Blood then rushes to the prefrontal cortex, alerting the brain to shift attention to the second task.

Step 4 – rule activation for task #2. The two-part message for rule activation to attend to task #2 is triggered. After the switch is completed, you may then address the second task.

Because these four steps have to occur in sequence each time you switch from one task to the next, your productivity dips when you give in to digital distractions.

Researchers found that persons who engage in heavier media-multitasking (i.e. toggle between many different websites, apps, programs or other digital stimuli) generally perform worse on cognitive control tasks and exhibit more socio-emotional difficulties. They tend to have less grey matter in certain parts of the brain, which serves to process information and is linked with intelligence, as well as thought and emotional control.

A neuroscientist at Stanford, Russel Poldrack, found that learning new information while being distracted causes the information to go the striatum (a region of the brain for storing new procedures and skills), but not to the hippocampus (a region of the brain for storing new facts and ideas, which makes information easier to recall or retrieve). In short, digital distractions negatively affect your memory.

Impair mental wellbeing

The constant stream of emails, instant messages, text messages, social media notifications, and online news produces information overload and mental fatigue. The fear of missing out (FOMO) keeps you hunched over your smartphone instead of attuned to the present.

Heavy media-multitasking, like switching from one app to the next, produces the stress hormone cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline.  One study found that smartphone overuse is linked to depression, anxiety and sleep problems.

In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle discusses how technology affects your capacity for solitude and development of empathy, which are critical for forming and sustaining human relationships. But in this digital age, you’re more likely to use the train ride or bus commute to consume more information on your electronic device, rather than think or reflect quietly. Instead of enjoying a face-to-face conversation on your break, you clear out your email inbox and scroll through news feeds.

Expanding connections through social media is not the same as building deep relationships and honing real friendships, which help to reduce stress and anxiety.  When your mental wellbeing is compromised, it’s harder to commit to and work on challenging projects.

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Avoiding and minimizing online distractions are necessary to get the right things done, with better results and in the least amount of time. To gain control over your digital device usage and online media consumption,  read 5 quick tips on dealing with digital distractions.

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Photo by: Benedicto de Jesus

5 quick tips on dealing with digital distractions

Digital technology puts information at your fingertips and keeps you connected with the rest of the world. But it also drains your productivity, distracts you from your highest priorities and slows progress on your major projects when it’s overused. It’s easier to update your Facebook page, watch YouTube videos, and check emails than do deep, creative work. 

Here are 5 quick tips on dealing with digital distractions: 

1. Get clear on what you really need to accomplish. If you neglect to design your day around your most important tasks, you’re more likely to seek the dopamine high that comes with consuming information online, posting on social media, and reacting to notifications on your phone.

Define which areas allow you to use your greatest strengths and tap into your key interests. Figure out where you derive the most long-term satisfaction and contribute the highest value. Curate the information you consume. Engage only with content that jives with your top areas of interest, and unsubscribe from content that doesn’t serve your highest priorities. By focusing on what really matters, you avoid going down the digital rabbit hole that leads you astray.

2. Put technology in its place. With digital devices, you can get turn-by-turn directions to where you need to go, send a quick message to a friend, and listen to a favorite podcast during your commute.  These are great modern-day conveniences to have. Use technology to help you execute on your priorities, but don’t let it dictate where you place our attention.

Processing emails is rarely the most critical use of your time. Resist the urge to respond to or read every single one of them as they hit your inbox. Surfing the Internet  and scrolling through news alerts on your break time feeds overwhelm and clogs up your headspace. Instead, take a walk, meditate, drink some water, or be with nature to truly decompress.

3. Turn off notifications.  The pop-up messages and sound alerts you get each time a text, or email comes in is bound to distract you from your real work.  Forget about checking it or replying to it within seconds or minutes. By end of day or next day is usually more than enough.

To reduce digital temptations when you need to be focusing on real work, remove automatic alerts and disable push notifications from social media.  Try online filters and website blockers like FocusMe (paid service), Freedom (paid service) or StayFocused (free service for Google Chrome users).

4. Have specific time blocks to go digital. Be intentional about when you check your emails, watch online videos, scroll through web pages, and engage with social media. Make it as hard as possible to reach for your digital devices at any time of the day. Avoid them first thing after you wake up (when you ought to be gearing  for your most significant projects), and right before bedtime (when you ought to be winding down and clearing your mind).

Before you start high-concentration work, close your web browsers and keep your smartphone out of sight – preferably in another room – with the Do Not Disturb mode on. (You can set it up so the most important calls still get through.)

Respond to emails and go online during chunks of predetermined time blocks on your own schedule. That way, you stay responsive and connected without being bombarded by digital distractions throughout the day. And carve out off-grid time, such as an entire Sunday, when you’re not responding to emails, surfing the Web, tweeting or retweeting, or liking posts on Facebook. Put away your digital device when you need to give undivided attention to the persons in front of you, such as when you’re having dinner with your family, meeting with a client, or engaging in conversation with a friend.

5. Track your technology use. Being aware of how and when you use your electronic devices is key to dealing with digital distractions. Do you know how much time you spend online in a given day? RescueTime and Toggl are among the time trackers available.

You might find that you are flooding your brain with useless trivia, fueling inner negativity by keeping up with the daily news, and wasting time on seemingly urgent things that are really non-essential. Perhaps you go digital to procrastinate because you don’t know where to begin with significant projects, or to alleviate boredom because you’re overqualified for your job. Or you might find that you use technology mostly as a tool to get important things done. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to do an audit of your technology use.

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Photo by: Phillip LeConte

Alternatives to 3 Misused, Overused Productivity Hacks

Productivity hacks can help you focus on what really matters, use your time effectively, and make progress on big projects. But here are 3 popular techniques that don’t work for everyone or in every situation, and the alternatives you could try instead:

1. Become an early riser.  Waking up before sunrise is a habit for many successful go-getters. Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Group), Tim Cook (Apple CEO), Oprah, and many top CEOs begin greeting the day before 6 am. The extraordinary Benjamin Franklin coined the adage, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” and was a prolific early riser.

Research suggests there are psychological and physical benefits to waking early. In his 2009 article, Proactive People are Morning People, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, biologist Christopher Randler notes that morning people are more proactive than evening types, i.e. they are more willing and able to take action to change a situation to one’s advantage. In a survey of 367 university students, Randler found that a higher percentage of early risers agreed with statements that indicate proactivity, such as “I spend time identifying long-range goals for myself” and “I feel in charge of making things happen.”

A 2008 study at the University of North Texas in Denton found that early birds tend to have GPAs that are an average of one point higher than their night owl peers’. The author Daniel J. Taylor theorized that early bird students are less likely to engage in activities that negatively affect their academic performance.

From a productivity standpoint, waking early has advantages. “Your most valuable hours are 5 a.m. – 8 a.m. They have the least interruptions,” says Robin Sharma, leadership expert and best-selling author of The Leader Who Had No Title. Productivity speaker Jeff Sanders also recommends you join the 5 a.m. Club to make maximum use of the morning hours, when your willpower, focus and energy are typically at their peak. His 5 AM Miracle podcast is “dedicated to dominating your day before breakfast.”

Early morning – before the rest of the world wakes up –  provides quiet, uninterrupted time for focused work. Being an early riser also fits with the regular, 9 to 5 schedule that applies to most of the workforce. When you tackle your tasks early or to-dos first thing in the morning, you generally feel more productive and less stressed throughout the day.

But membership in the 5 a.m. Club is not ideal for all and can be painful to maintain. When I shifted from a 7:30 to a 5 a.m. wake-up time for a few months, I loved the new schedule. I made the change gradually in 30-minute increments each week. The shift involved moving to 7 a.m. in week 1 and all the way to 5 a.m. in week 5. My desire to do focused work before my preschooler woke up was the driving factor.

Waking up before sunrise was not the problem, but going to bed earlier was. Whenever I got less than 7 to 8 hours of sleep, I would naturally feel groggy in the mornings and tired by afternoon. So I had to be asleep by 10 p.m. each night to be a full-fledged member of the 5 a.m. Club.  This meant preparing or having dinner earlier (and making changes in family/social time), compromising on evening rituals, and losing out on the creative insights and deep reflection that accompany being awake after 10 p.m. As a result, I now wake up between 6 and 7 a.m., which gives me an hour or two of quiet time in the mornings without needing to keep a super early bedtime.

Alternative:  You don’t have to wake up at 5 a.m. every day to be super productive. Instead, keep a consistent sleep schedule that fits with your personal chronotype (biological clock  or circadian rhythm), the earth’s 24-hour cycle, and your individual circumstances.

When you wake up is not as important as how you feel and what you do during your waking hours. You first have to figure out the ideal amount of sleep you need to feel refreshed and alert during the day. (Most adults need at least 8 hours of sleep, although many get by with less by consuming artificial stimulants.) Set yourself up for high-quality, sufficient slumber by going to bed — preferably at an hour before 12 AM when you have the opportunity to get all the non-REM and REM sleep you need — and waking up after you have had enough shuteye.

Develop a morning ritual to prime yourself for the rest of your day.  No matter what time you wake up, create a solid plan for prioritizing your day and stick to it.

If you’re not an early riser but want to become one, you need to clarify the why behind this desire. You can’t expect to rewire your brain and sustain change by blindly following productivity advice. Make the shift incrementally (through habit formation) instead of overnight (through sheer willpower).

 2. Schedule your priorities.  Many productivity experts say you should schedule time on your calendar to work on your to-dos. Some believe that to ensure the thing gets done, it needs to be scheduled.

Kevin Kruse, author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, recommends you nix the to-do list altogether and schedule everything. Michael Hyatt, author of Living Forward: A Proven Plan to Stop Drifting and Get the Life You’ve Always Wanted, maps out his Ideal Week on a calendar. He schedules time for his most important tasks, weekly appointments, special projects and quarterly reviews. Both Kruse and Hyatt advocate scheduling non-negotiable me-time or buffer time for yourself.

While carving out time on your calendar can boost productivity, it’s not foolproof. Interruptions and distractions get in the way. Energy levels dip and attention spans dwindle. Over-scheduling can suck the joy and spontaneity out of life. Although a calendaring system helps you stay on task, it can sometimes create too much rigidity for when to accomplish your to-dos. If you didn’t perform the task as scheduled, you’ll use up time reworking your calendar and feeling dissatisfied over unfinished business.

Alternative:  Using both a to-do list and a calendaring system is an effective, combined approach to making progress on your important projects and fulfilling your commitments. The to-do list is for tasks that do not have to be done at a specific time. The calendar is for activities that must occur at an allotted time.

For example, I schedule only meetings and appointments on my calendar, and plug away at my one to three Most Important Tasks (MITs) (usually related to research, writing, and problem solving) during set time blocks (e.g. 8 to 10 am, 2 to 3 p.m. and 5 to 6 p.m.)  I don’t give in to interruptions and distractions when I am engaged in focused work. The other hours are for ad-hoc activities and shallow work, like responding to emails and making telephone calls. This combined to-do/calendaring system provides structure without needing to schedule every single task on your calendar.

Adhering to a fixed schedule is less critical than doing your most difficult work when your mental clarity and focus level are at their highest. Consider the output you contribute, not the hours you put in. Pace yourself by taking necessary breaks. Work around your energy instead of force  your to-dos into a rigid schedule. Even with this more flexible approach, you can still keep a shutdown time – when you stop doing work and start winding down – to avoid burnout and impaired productivity.

3. Use a timer to focus on a task. The “Pomodoro Technique” is a time-management method that was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980’s. “Pomodoro” is the Italian word for tomato. Cirillo adopted the name from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he used to manage his time as a college student.

The Pomodoro Technique involves several steps. First, you identify the task to do. Second, you set a timer (traditionally 25 minutes).  Third, you work on the task only until the timer goes off.  After the timer rings, you check off your task. And if you give in to interruptions and distractions (e.g. checking emails, getting a snack), you reset the timer.  If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (5 minutes), then go to step 2. If you have at least four checkmarks, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, and do the steps all over again.

The technique helps you to set aside time and space to work on a single task and avoid procrastination. Having a timer adds a sense of urgency and importance to getting the task done. The breaks between tasks also allows you to preserve your energy and sustain your focus over long periods.

The technique, however, can also cut into your workflow and make it harder to develop the skill of doing real, deep work. The ability to concentrate on hard things for extensive periods takes practice to develop. If you’re constantly taking breaks (e.g. every 25 minutes), you don’t learn to sit with and push through temporary moments of discomfort or boredom.

Relying on a timer can also reduce your awareness of when it’s really time to call it quits. The technique can force you to work for sustained periods, when your mind is wandering off or your body is fatigued.

Working under time pressure can work for some people and for some situations. But when you get pulled into watching the timer instead of focusing on the task at hand, the Pomodoro Technique backfires.

Alternative: Single tasking and taking regular breaks — while nixing the timer or the 25-minute rule – provides the benefits of the Pomodoro Technique without the drawbacks.  If you find it difficult to focus on one task at a time, you can use Pomodoro to get you on track. You’re better off though when you eventually tailor the method to your personal preferences.

Experiment with the duration of your  work sessions. For certain low-value, administrative activities, like processing emails, you might want to stick with 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break. And for high-value, deep concentration activities, you could work in a 90- to 120-minute cycle, which is the brain-body’s natural ultradian rhythm, before taking a 20-minute break.  Standing up and stretching for just a minute every 45 minutes can also help you avoid long periods of being desk bound or holding bad posture, which is detrimental to your health.

When you’re in the zone, you don’t have to break your workflow with a mandatory break. Pay attention to your energy level. Take breaks based on the state of your mind and body, rather than depend on a timer.  During your break, engage in activities that clear your mind (e.g. take a walk or meditate) and avoid activities that clutter it (e.g. surf the Internet or check social media).

Test out productivity hacks and use what works for you

There are many productivity hacks from which to choose, but only a few are ultimately right for you. Try the method or technique for at least 30 days before you give up on it because you are bound to experience resistance and setbacks initially.

Experiment, make use of the ones that fit, and drop the ones that create more stress. Develop a customized, personal productivity system that helps you focus on and accomplish what really matters. Sometimes a simple tweaking of existing systems is all you need to do.

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Photo by: Jussi Linkola