The single biggest productivity killer in the modern world of work is distraction. The main culprits? Constant notifications on our laptops and, unsurprisingly, our mobile phones. This is a huge issue, because being distracted prevents us from getting into a state of deep work, which is where we do our best thinking, as well as creating something called attention residue over the course of the day as we switch from task to task, which has been shown to lower cognitive function.
Unfortunately, mobiles are designed to be distracting, from the dopamine hit we get from each notification, to the scroll-inducing effects of social media. Our phones are shiny, comforting toys that are much easier to engage with than, say, a complicated work problem. But there are ways to help ourselves resist the urge of our itchy thumbs: all of the tips below are designed to reduce the dopamine hits we get from our devices, as well as giving our willpower more of a chance.
- Set screen time limits. If there are certain apps you spend far too much time on, whether it’s Instagram or a game, you can set a daily time limit. I’d recommend starting with 15 minutes (you’ll be surprised how quickly you reach it) and trying to reduce it by a minute each week to wean yourself off. Of course, you can override the limit with your passcode, but it gives you a moment to reflect on whether that’s really how you want to spend your time, removing some of the mindlessness of the habit. The advanced version of this is to delete the apps that tempt you, even if it’s just during the week.
- Do Not Disturb mode. Having your phone on Do Not Disturb is a simple way to put you in charge of when you check your notifications, rather than being constantly jolted out of focus by pings or buzzing. Something else you can do is create a favourites list and set it so that calls from those numbers still come through when you’re in DND. That way you never miss a call from your family, partner, key clients etc.
- Switch off non-essential notifications. Do you really need push notifications from the BBC news app? Is it vital that you know instantly that your aunt’s neighbour has also liked her latest status update on Facebook? Even email notifications are unnecessary: you almost certainly check it regularly enough not to worry about missing anything. Again, this makes email/news/cat photo checking more intentional and, importantly, on your terms. Don’t let your phone dictate your life.
- Make it black and white. Every phone has an option to make it grayscale. You may have to look up exactly how to do it on your specific model, but typically it’s in accessibility settings. Having your phone in black and white most of the time simply makes it less shiny and appealing – our brains are pretty basic in that way. In particular, it makes the red notification icons stand out much less.
- Put it away! If you really need to focus, nothing beats having your phone off and out of sight somewhere. Not just on silent, not face down; somewhere you can’t see it at all. If this is impossible for you, you may need to have a think about whether you’re suffering from digital presenteeism. One thing’s for certain; nothing better enables you to work quickly and to the best of your ability than having your phone in a different room for a couple of hours.
Phones are wonderful things. If lockdown taught us anything it’s the incredible value of being able to connect with loved ones digitally. However, when we lose control of our relationship with our devices, they can become quite destructive; eroding our focus and stopping us from doing our best work. Follow these tips, and you can take charge of your own attention.