I can usually control my splurging at all-you-can-eat food buffets, but not so much at the all-you-can-eat information buffets available to me on the internet. The pull to browse can be so strong at time that it’s a battle to remain productive. However, as a management professor, I’m interested in developing personal effectiveness, and one of the largest obstacles faced by many people is learning to manage technology before it manages us.
Professor Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, argues that to achieve periods of focused, uninterrupted work, we should be meticulous about the technology we allow into our worlds. Newport advises only adopting a new technology after a conscious evaluation of whether that technology is a net gain. This assertion is why I made a decision to downgrade to a flip phone, and why I urge you not to ditch all of your screens, but to get real with how they affect your daily life.
The cameras and maps alone are an incredible convenience that make smartphones highly attractive purchases. However, there is a dark side amidst all of our clicking and swiping. More than a few people sleep next to their phones, use them in bed before falling asleep or reach for them out of compulsion because it beeped. As a result, we have a population of people who are detached, sleep deprived and distracted. Seeing one new like or reading one small tidbit of new information provides a small, addictive hit of dopamine that keeps users hooked like the “Bet you can’t eat just one” potato chip truism. There is no end of the internet.
I urge you to be proactive with the entities competing for your attention. To aid you in this endeavor, consider two strategies I amassed through my reading on the best practices in self-management.
Plan for a digital sabbath once a week. Schedule a time when you will access digital technologies only in an emergency. A day allows for a deeper mental reboot, but for some, an hour or two may be more realistic (or feel free to take a whole weekend). Whatever timeframe you choose, use that time to connect with others, with your hobbies, with nature, or to just space out.
Process your emails at a few selected times per day. While many businesses communicate internally with instant messages, email is still widely employed and time usurping. When considering our electronic communication of choice, we want to process it, not scan it. Every time you scan your emails without action on them, you create what productivity guru David Allen calls “open loops” that reduce your willpower. To free yourself, block off a few periods throughout the day to reply, delete, and file. If you feel that your company culture expects instant email responses, there may be a culture problem to confront.
Don’t take my two suggestions for granted. Common sense is not common practice. If you can successfully implement a Digital Sabbath and achieve Inbox Zero over the long-term, you’ll amaze yourself at what you can achieve with your newfound freedom.