Today we are living in such a rich and complex information environment, with such amounts of information and communication channels available that were previously unknown in the entire human history. In the modern digital age, from the euphoria of the abundance of information we are sweeping into informational anxiety, with many of us already suffering from light forms of attention deficit disorder (ADD) and lack of ability to concentrate.

The Internet and the smartphone have become the most widespread addiction in the world: studies show that many people check their phone every 15 minutes or less and become anxious if they have no such possibility [1]. The Internet and digital technologies are using powerful mechanisms of neurobiological reinforcement, based on the effect of continuous novelty and unpredictability which our brain likes for evolutional reasons. When we connect there is always new information associated with reward and release of small doses of the hormone dopamine. Since the reward is always variable and unpredictable, we always return for more of it. This is the vicious cycle which reinforces mindless and repetitive online behavior, activating the compulsion and addiction circuits in the brain [2].

There are also psychological, cultural and social factors making us chained to our smartphones. The outcomes are very sad: we isolate ourselves behind the screens, become intolerant to boredom, and struggle to stay in the present moment. With all the abundance of social networking and possibilities to communicate, people have never been as lonely as today. Personal wise we become overstimulated and attention-deficient. Work-wise we lose our precious ability to concentrate and produce high-quality intellectual work. Only look at the costs of the digital overload at work to an average office worker:

Being constantly bombarded with excess information harms memory, concentration and the ability to produce timely results and make good decisions. It also takes a toll on creativity and the ability to see the big picture.

This is especially dramatic since, in today’s knowledge economy, people’s intellectual work is the primary driver for value production in most of the businesses. By letting ourselves be distracted and interrupted we do not realize our creative potential, do not deliver full value to our clients and colleagues, do not solve problems effectively and oversee opportunities.

By letting ourselves be distracted and interrupted we do not realize our creative potential, do not deliver full value to our clients and colleagues, do not solve problems effectively and oversee opportunities. 

This is a very gloomy picture of the modern knowledge worker, however, there is good news: there are multiple effective measures you can personally take to stop or at least reduce the plague of digital distractions and start working and living in a more productive, focused and fulfilling way.

1. FILL YOUR VOID

Business psychologist D. Mahaffey says that most of the solutions for managing the digital overload fail because they do not address the underlying issue – the one of inner void many people experience today in the industrialized hyper-connected world [3]. Receiving constant messages, texts and emails may actually feel satisfying and feed such unconscious needs as feeling your own importance, a sense of being needed, the desire to prove one’s selfless dedication to work to supervisors, and others.

Approach your digital behavior honestly – what is behind your urge to check work e-mails on Sunday evening? What would happen if you stopped receiving all those messages? Do you have enough social and emotional support in your surroundings? Do you have a purpose? Are you looking for external validation? How different you could be if you left your phone out of sight and went for a walk in the forest, or sat in silence for a while and then came up with a few decisions to improve your life?

2. INCREASE YOUR ENERGY

There are basic foundations to personal productivity which are impossible to bypass, for instance, sufficient and quality sleep. Yesterday Elon Musk was a productivity hero, today there are more realistic comments about the true cost of the 120-hour work week to his personal relations, emotional condition, physical health and productivity itself. If you are not one of the few lucky ones who does not need a long night sleep to feel good, better obey your physiology and do not neglect sleep.

The next step is to quit or at least reduce coffee consumption. While it gives you an instant surge of energy, in the long run, it depletes your resources. The alertness you experience after drinking it is actually the fight-or-flight effect in your nervous system, the same as if you experienced a sudden life-threatening event, just on a smaller scale. Think of all the stresses we already have. Do we really need to create an extra stress effect artificially through coffee? Science attributes a few beneficial effects attributed to coffee as well [4], however, if you cannot function without it, is it a medicine or a drug? Even little doses of caffeine may cause addiction. Common withdrawal symptoms are headache, drowsiness, anxiety, and irritability. After a few days of withdrawal however, your body will adapt and you will discover that it can perfectly function without this powerful and addictive stimulant.

Much better fuel is actually having a life purpose and goals and reminding them to you every morning. If you don’t know what matters most in your life and why you will struggle to define your goals. Without clear goals, your efforts will be spread on everything at the same time. You will not be driven and inspired. As witnessed by many successful entrepreneurs and public figures, a great way to channel and increase your energy is to clarify your mission, vision, and goals. It is also a sure way to increase your level of happiness!

3. MANAGE ATTENTION INSTEAD OF TIME

Managing personal energy is important; managing attention is even more important. Many productivity experts have come to the conclusion that time management doesn’t work.

Probably because with the present volumes of information coming onto an average office employee daily, it is not realistic to expect she would answer all the e-mails, read all the newsletters, respond to every single inquiry and post in all the social media on top of her daily job duties. The only effective strategy is to limit and filter the information and to act only upon what really matters (what brings value to you, your clients and colleagues). In order to do it we need to master our attention, not time. The following suggestions will help you do it.

LEARN PRIORITIZING

In order to master this skill you may use the following box:

STOP MULTITASKING

Multitasking is neither talent nor a virtue; it is a harmful and counterproductive habit. Studies show that even the digital natives are not better at using the phone and interacting with others at the same time. Our brain cannot allocate equal resources to multiple conscious activities simultaneously. If you do it you exhaust your cognitive resources faster and the quality of your work inevitably diminishes. Constantly switching from one task to another is counterproductive as well: it actually takes more time to complete the tasks you're switching between and you make more errors than when you focus on doing one task at a time in order [5].

Likewise, you can also make it easier for your brain and do similar things in one session. Batching tasks works because you’re maintaining the same frame of mind for all the tasks involved. For instance, you can batch your communication activities: e-mailing, voice-mails and texting.

REMOVE DISTRACTIONS

Break the dopamine-releasing reward cycle by deactivating visual and sound notifications on your mobile phone.

Keep your private phone away from your desk. Take your business phone to meetings only when it is absolutely necessary. A study demonstrated that the mere presence of a phone makes people less engaged and less productive, even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention [6].

UNSUBSCRIBE AND UNFOLLOW

Sam Ovens, an entrepreneur and a millionaire under 30 says:

«…in the modern world, the game is more about what you ignore, not what you pay attention to… The modern-day strategy to win is to ignore»


This is indeed a brilliant observation. Despite the common FOMO, you will most likely not miss or lose anything if you stop checking newsfeeds. Facebook published a study showing that its users feel actually worse after passively consuming social media.

Also, in the world of informational overload, daily news is something you could let go of. The way we consume news nowadays and their predominantly negative content is not good for mental and physical health: they may lead to anxiety and depression and increase your levels of the stress hormone cortisone. If you want to stay informed, you can limit your news consumption to just one session a day.

4. DO LESS, NOT MORE

Many people confuse productivity with doing “a lot”. The more things they cross out of their to-do lists, the more satisfied they are. However the lists are endless and at the end of the day, it is the value and impacts of your actions that matter and not their quantity. Just as with information consumption, the smartest strategy is to actually cross out as much as possible to be able to give the best and the most of your energy to the things that matter. You will be forced to take hard decisions and delete any task that does not lead you toward your mission, your values, and your goals.

5. MANAGE E-MAIL EXPECTATIONS

E-mail is one of the biggest culprits in reduced personal and organizational productivity. If your job role allows it, set specific times to check it at particular times every day and set an autoreply: “I check e-mail 3 times a day, at 9 am, 12 am and 16 pm. For urgent matters, you can contact me at …”.

This way you will set your boundaries and prevent anxiety and criticism from your senders, who will thus know when to expect your answer.

Avoid CC and Reply All. Make sure e-mail is the best communication method for the message you want to transmit.

If you can, also avoid opening your e-mails as soon as you arrive at work because it immediately draws you into a flow of short-term problems. “Choosing email as your first task of the day can be a wasted opportunity to use your mind at its highest potential”, say the authors of “One second ahead” [7].

6. TAKE BREAKS EVERY 90 MINUTES

There is strong evidence that working longer hours and with fewer breaks does not help productivity but actually reduces it [8]. Regular and uninterrupted time off allows the necessary time to process information and work-out problems. Our brains work in 90-minutes activity cycles not only during sleep but also when we are awake. Respecting this natural rhythm helps you achieve more in less time.

8. DISCONNECT REGULARLY

Leave your phone out of sight or better activate flight mode daily from 20.00 pm to 7 am. Keep it outside your bedroom. If you use it as an alarm, replace it with a regular one. Practice digital detox on Sundays and on vacation: this will help you reconnect with the present moment, live your life here and now and give a break to your overstimulated brain. Do physical activities and practice body awareness – acknowledging and feeling your body (and not just your thinking brain!) will bring more balance into your organism and your life.

9. DRAW THE LINE BETWEEN PROFESSIONAL AND PRIVATE

Unless you love your job more than your life, it is a good idea to draw a clear line between professional and private. Even if you work from home, it is better to have particular hours dedicated to working and then having your PC and documents out of sight. For the same reason, if you can, have your business number separate from private, and don’t use the former 7/7.

10. DISCIPLINE AND DISCIPLINE AGAIN

Basically, it comes down to the fact that the only way to protect yourself from digital overload is to act upon it with your own mind and will. There are organizational and cultural factors which influence it as well and we will look into them in the next article. But fundamentally there will be no coach and no ultimate app to manage your attention, change your behaviour and improve your focus abilities (while Fantoo helps a lot!). In the war for your attention led by millions of online advertisers, platforms and services “if you don't stand guard and police your own consciousness, this war will affect you. If you don't take precautions, you'll become a casualty.” (Sam Ovens)

Only your personal decisions and your own will can take you to the next level of productivity and happiness. What helps tremendously is mindfulness. Observe your inner thoughts and impulses. Catch yourself on the next urge to check your phone and ask “is it really urgent and necessary now?”. Notice where your time goes; you may journal your daily activities and their timing for a week and then analyze where you have your precious time draining away: you may get surprised.

The uninterrupted focus is a skill and like any other skills, it needs consistency, practice, and patience. If you master it you will free yourself from a lot of stress, get more things done in less time with better quality and will reach new levels of personal and professional happiness.

 

REFERENCES

[1] https://hbr.org/2009/10/making-time-off-predictable-and-required

[2] https://www.palgrave.com/br/book/9781137551900

[3] https://www.inc.com/scott-mautz/psychology-and-neuroscience-blow-up-the-myth-of-effective-multitasking.html

[4] https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/691462

[5]https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2016/06/29/how-to-improve-productivity-by-managing-information-overload/#6a1bbe667840

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20182054

[7] Rosen, L. Gazzaley, A. The Distracted Mind. Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.

[8] https://www.elementsbehavioralhealth.com/addiction/new-studies-compare-smartphones-cocaine-addiction/

 

All the images are courtesy of Freepik.com (makyzz, dooder)