You take the seat in your favorite corner, and open your math notes. Today you’re determined to complete the assignment you’ve been procrastinating for almost a week.
However, just before starting, you decide to check your inbox. You check, and you don’t find anything worth your attention. (That’s what is going to happen if you check too frequently.) Because it got done so quickly, your digital-thirst isn’t quenched. You decide to skim your Facebook feed as well. After all, you plan to be off internet for three hours immediately after this.
You’re on a slippery slope now. You like (thumbs up) few pictures, leave few comments, chuckle at a funny video, and then click on a click-bait BuzzFeed article, which lets you slip further to a YouTube video. And then few suggested videos from YouTube’s long list of seductive thumbnails and titles…
By now, you’re neck deep in entertainment and procrastination, ignoring what you set out to do.
A survey by Tata Communications found that globally people spend, on average, more than 5 hours a day on internet and 64 percent worry when they don’t have access. (Have you felt anxious about missing on something when forced to stay away from internet for several hours?)
This is just internet, though. If you add other forms of screen-time (game consoles, texting, and TV to name few), it looks worse. Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 8- to 18-year-old kids in U.S. spend more than seven and half hours on different types of screens. (This doesn’t include texting, which is an animal in itself.)
(Note: this post is specifically on overcoming digital distractions. To learn about the wider issue of distractions, please refer to the following post:
Although there is some overlap between the two posts, I bet you’ll find information in this post that will hugely complement what you read henceforth.)
What do you lose as a result of distractions?
Jonny the protagonist sits down for a 60-minute session to complete his homework. Ten minutes into the session, his phone beeps. He quickly reads the message and responds. Just two minutes, and he resumes the session. Fifteen minutes (after the first distraction) into the session, he starts getting itchy to know what his friends are up to. Next minute, he is on his Facebook feed, looking for updates. Likes and comments ensue. After five minutes, he is back to work. Another fifteen minutes of work, and he digresses to his inbox to see if something new has arrived there.
He had three interruptions in that session.
Although these interruptions amount to just twelve minutes, their effect is far more deleterious. Interruptions break momentum and focus, and it takes time to get back to the earlier level. According to a University of California-Irvine study, it can take, on average, nearly 20 minutes to get back to the earlier level after an interruption. It may be less for you, but the point is that interruptions consume far more time than the duration of those interruptions.
To understand it intuitively, consider how multiple speed-breakers on a highway can significantly increase the travel time, although the width of all the speed-breakers combined is an insignificant proportion of the total distance traveled. Every time the vehicle slows down at a speed-breaker, it loses momentum. Something similar happens when distractions strike your study session.
So, how to control digital distractions (or screen-time)? You’ve to attack them on two fronts: first, keep them to zero during your work sessions (we just saw what they can do to your productivity) and, second, don’t overdo it because you’ve only 24 hours in the day. Let’s start with the first.
Avoid screen-time during study/ work session
Once you get on with your session, don’t play Jonny. Shun screens during the session. Here are few steps that will make it easier for you:
1. Bury the phone
Every time your phone buzzes with a notification, you get distracted. Turn it into silent mode, and bury it under a pillow or dump it in a drawer or bag.
2. Get off the internet
Pull the plug on internet before you start your session(s). If it’s on, you’ll have to fight stronger to overcome the urge to surf.
There is another way to achieve the same objective: block internet through browser extensions such as StayFocused (it’s an extension for chrome, but you can Google and find similar extensions for other browsers). And in case you’ve to use internet for your work, you may, instead of blocking the internet itself, selectively block only time-waster websites. (I use StayFocused to completely block internet, and it has worked extremely well for me. Once you realize that you’re off internet for few hours, your craving for surfing subsides. That way, complete blockage works better than selective blockage.)
Blocking internet completely or selectively can be a tough transition, though. I took following two steps to make it smooth:
When I started blocking websites/ internet the first time, I deliberately avoided difficult tasks during the blocked period. A difficult task is likely to frustrate you, forcing you to look for ways to undo the blockage and hence lose the habit even before it is formed. So in the initial days when you’re getting used to the blockage, avoid taking up difficult tasks. Once you get used to it, you can take up difficult ones too.
I started with just 30 minutes of blockage, and gradually increased the duration to as high as eight hours. Starting small and gradual increase will preempt internet-withdrawal symptoms.
3. Keep only one project open
If you’re working on a computer, keep only the bare minimum files and tabs open. Close everything else. This will keep you on just one thing, and make you less likely to fall to distractions.
Now, you may think, “What if I miss an important email, message, or a call that comes during that session?”
Studies show that many, regardless of age, check their smartphones every 15 minutes or less and become anxious if they can’t.
But here is the point.
Will heavens fall if you delay liking a video on cat on Facebook by two hours?
And when was the last time missing an email or message for an hour resulted in missing out on something, let alone substantial? You’ll have to really stress hard to think of one such instance, and, BTW, not seeing a message for some evening fun & frolic for an hour isn’t catastrophic. Moreover, important and/ or urgent messages rarely come unanticipated, in which case you can make an exception. This fear of losing on some important information is largely imaginary, a result of bad habits that have made your mind crave for your phone and digital media.
Now, think of the price you pay every time you distract yourself because you fear missing out on something. It’s humongous. And no one is asking you to completely abandon your screens.
4. Read your favorite articles through a reader service
If you read articles from your favorite publications by visiting their websites, then you distract yourself multiple times a day.
A better way, which not just organizes all the web articles in one place but also dramatically reduces distraction, is to subscribe to these websites through Feedly, a popular RSS reader. Feedly pulls articles from the websites you’ve subscribed to as and when they’re published and places them in an inbox, making it convenient for you to access them from one page.
You may, in fact, dedicate a slot in the evening – your energy level is lower in the evening, and matches well with the low-energy, low-focus task of reading – when you go through all the articles in one go, instead of reading them throughout the day, checking and re-checking if they’ve been published.
5. Schedule screen-time
Yes, no one is asking you to completely abandon your screens.
After 2-3 productive sessions, schedule 30-odd minutes of distractions during which you heartily chat, text, surf, and watch.
Cap your total time on screens
Don’t overdo. Don’t have four hours of digital entertainment every day.
On this, I won’t belabor you with reasoned answers. I’ll only show you mirror:
1. How you use your time determines where you end up?
Everyone has only 24 hours in a day. What you become in future depends on how you make use of your day. People who do well, eschew distractions despite the temptations. Remember, social media is not going to pay your bills when you graduate.
2. Most digital media want to addict you to make money
But for few exceptions, digital distractions are largely free. But they’re free not to serve a philanthropic or noble cause (connecting the world or making information easily available). When you peel the layers, almost all addictive activities support a for-profit business, and the more you get addicted, the more money they make. They’re free to enter, but you pay a heavy price in terms of your time and attention once you get hooked.
To give an example, Facebook’s initiative to provide free or affordable internet to poor people in developing countries seems to be laudable. But do these people really need internet when they’ve to contend with far more basic survival issues. Or Facebook wants to onboard more people on its network to earn more advertising dollars. It’s all driven by money.
3. Don’t accumulate digital garbage just because it’s free
You hear about a new online game, and you download it. You come to know about a new YouTube channel, and you subscribe to it. You see others using a new app, and you too start using it.
In no time, you collect digital garbage. That’s what happens when things are free. Even if it’s marginally useful, we collect it. But, they come at a price: they distract you.
If you want to get rid of unnecessary bloat – and save your sanity – then keep only the ones which you use regularly. (If you aren’t using something regularly, then it’s not important to you.) Uninstall others. Your irrational fear of missing out on something is forcing you to accumulate and keep this digital garbage.
If I were you, I would go a step further. I’ll apply 80/20 rule to all my digital assets (or rather liabilities) every three months, and keep only those which lead to 80 percent of my productivity.
Digital distractions have become so much part of our lives that many of us don’t even see how they’re bleeding hours out of our daily schedule. If you can control such distractions, at least during your productive sessions, you create more effective hours for yourself. That’s a critical edge over many, many others.
Controlling distractions is not easy, though. You’ve to be disciplined, because distractions are the path of least resistance and we human beings are wired to follow the path of least resistance over the difficult one.
Start small. Start with 30-minute distraction-free sessions, and gradually increase them to 50-odd minutes. I started with blocking internet – phone was never a problem for me – for 30 minutes, and now I can go for as long as eight hours. And, as I mentioned earlier in the post, the moment my mind knows that I can’t reverse the blocked internet, my craving for internet goes down.
With discipline and right approach, controlling digital distractions may not be as difficult as you think. For me it turned out to be that way.