I’ve written a book. It took me a year and a half, countless tea cups, and a couple of pair of trousers that worn off because of long sitting, but is was finally there. Now the question was: how do I let people know about it?
The tricky part was that Homo Distractus (this is what the book was called) was about unplugging. It explained how we have all unnecessarily became obsessed with checking our gadgets and advocated for keeping our devices under control. I also had a zero marketing budget.
I am a former digital marketer and I know a lot about selling products online. But wouldn’t it be weird to launch my book crowdfunding campaign on unplugging by posting about it on Facebook? In Homo Distractus, I oppose the pressure that creative people have to be ‘always on’ and maintain a constant presence on social media. But I could I do differently with my own book?
I wanted to prove that ‘online’ is not the only way to attract attention. So I had to look for alternative ways.
Do what you can do best
The first, most obvious one, was doing more live talks on the topic. I love public speaking and am reasonably good at it (I did a TEDx talk). So I scheduled as many talks as I could fit in 5 weeks of the campaign. It was the first time I decided to charge for them, explaining all funds will go to support my book. Surprisingly, all my talks sold out, and quite a few people attending the talks ordered the book.
What I learned: 1. Focus on what you do best, and rely on your partners to do the rest (in this case, online promotion). 2. There’s already lots of free stuff out there. Start charging, it creates value in the eyes of attendees.
A website that forces you to unplug
The second way to promote the book offline came out of a pure chance. I came across an article about a guy who created a website that would only show its content if you disable internet. I wrote him on Twitter, asking whether he’d be interested in collaborating. I didn’t expect any answer, but really liked the concept.
To my surprise, Chris Bolin (this was his name) was fast to reply, and he liked the idea… and so in a few days we’ve put up homodistractus.com, the first website that forces you to unplug. We wanted to re-create the experience of being focused and attentive even when you are connected. So the website is designed the way that it only shows you content if you disable your wifi. It explains, how ‘always on’ makes us distracted and stupid. When you reconnect again, it redirects you to the crowdfunding page. We’ve had quite a few backers coming from this website.
What I’ve learned: 1. Always take a chance, even if you think it’s minimal. 2. Rather than avoiding something, think how you can build on top of it (in my case, how to improve online experience, not get rid of it).
Making a fool out of myself
Towards the end of the campaign, donations started slowing down (which usually happens), so I needed to find a way to boost them. I ordered stickers that said ‘Your time is limited’ and ‘This device is just a tool’ that you could put on your devices to remind yourself to browse mindfully. They also included links to homodistractus.com.
Then I and my friend borrowed colour pens and paper from her 5-year old daughter (thank you, Anna and Cecilia!) and spent the whole morning drawing a poster. One side of it said ‘1/3 of us would rather give up sex than a smartphone’ (quote from a BCG study), and the other ‘Do you manage your device, or does it manage you?’
Using girl’s umbrella as a holder, I went with this amateur into the ‘digital heart’ of London and spend my lunch wandering around Old Street and giving out ‘mindful’ stickers. While I’ve attracted a few sceptical looks, overall people have been really friendly and we got a few backers. However, the biggest effect was on my existing social media following: probably people were so impressed by how I made a fool out of myself that it became our biggest donation day throughout the campaign.
What I’ve learned: It’s about a balance. Online blends nicely with offline. People like to have offline experiences, but getting them to talk about this online amplifies your reach.
As of writing this blog post, we’re 94% financed, and still have 3 days to go. To get your copy of Homo Distractus or digital detox cards, please, check our Indiegogo campaign.
A parent tried our mini digital detox: “It has improved my time at home and some of my workflow habits”
Mum-blogger Paola tried our digital detox cards for one week, and wrote about her experience with it. We’re publishing a short version, and the full one can be found on her blog.
“I am a mother to two children aged 2 and 4. I live in Finland, and here many children have a smartphone by school age. I’ve now been Facebook-free for over three years and spent around six months smartphone-free last year before joining a new workplace where I could not live without. I wondered, how a mini detox will affect my work as an IT professional? How about my family time? Will it be liberating as when I gave up my smartphone?”
Usually I spend the evening working or blogging at my laptop and interrupt my flow several times by checking social media on my phone. When I’m too tired, I turn on the TV and watch some Netflix show or Youtube videos.
Beside giving up that, I also decided to do something really special for my challenge first day. After my kids’ bedtime I went out to a pub with my brother, something I hadn’t done in ages. On my way back, I completely turned off the phone and kept it that way until morning. When I got home, my first instinct was to check my social media, but I’m glad I resisted the temptation. The world definitely went on without me checking on Instagram.
This task was easy for me, as I disabled most notifications on my phone long ago. However, it was refreshing to disable even text notifications for a whole day! I went one step further and kept my work internal chat closed most of the times. I was the one deciding when it was time to open it and see if anyone needed my help. That helped a lot with my concentration and I could check a few things off my backlog. At home, I always keep my phone silent as I find notifications are distracting for my kids as well. A text message ping can disrupt nice playing and they are immediately dragged towards my phone.
This was a nightmare for me. I am the queen of browser tabs. You know how bad it is? Generally I have three browsers working, some with multiple windows and each windows fills the maximum number of tabs and counting. Oh, then there are the terminal tabs, where I code. For my job, I need some multiple tabs open, even for working on a single task. However, 90% of my tabs are just to blame on my obsessive multitasking. Some are blog posts or articles I keep open for weeks, before accepting the harsh reality I’ll never actually read them. There’s the ever-notifying internal work chat. When I got the task from Anastasia I did the unthinkable. I dragged my cursor to the small circle on the upper left corner of the screen. It shined red before I clicked… and there, all gone. Starting from zero, here. Since then I’ve made a resolution of closing the internal chat and just opening it regularly to check if I have important messages, without allowing notifications to break my focus. Moreover, I now plan to keep a minimum number of tabs open, to allow me to focus more on one task at a time. I’m really curious to see how this will affect my work in the long run!
For the full week of detox, check out Paola's blog.
To get a set up of 30 digital detox cards for yourself or as a gift for your loved ones, check out our crowdfunding campaign.
“Phone is an enemy of creativity”. Interview with Grammy-winner singer and song writer Corinne Bailey Rae
Creative people appreciate the value of being off the grid. A US rapper Kanye West famously tweeted that he got rid of his smartphone to have “air to create”. British musician Ed Sheeran, according to some critics, has written his “best album ever yet” after taking a full digital detox.
So when representatives of Grammy-award winning British singer and songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae contacted me and said Corinne would like to record a podcast with me for her new album and talk about being in the moment, I instantly knew we’ll have lots to talk about. We talked about the importance of listening to our inner selves, and how gadgets can prevent us from doing this. First Corinne interviewed me for her podcast and later I interviewed her for my book Homo Distractus.
Below is the extract from our conversation for my chapter about creativity and the value of unplugging for Homo Distractus.
Recovering from a loss of my first husband took me away from people and noise of everyday life. As I had lots of time on my own, I realized how many internal resource we have to repair ourselves, how much internal wisdom we have. And so when I started going out of that period, I wanted to keep listening to my inner voice, my intuition, to keep paying attention to people and whatever made me happy.
For me being in the moment is a key. In the creative world the highs are really high, but they can easily be disintegrated if we are not “drinking them” at the time. For example, if after a gig instead of talking to people I need to do something related to business, or post something on social media, I can just feel how this subtle feeling, creative spirit, is disappearing.
It’s so difficult to be in the moment. I remember an episode, when I was really lucky to work with my hero Stevie Wonder, and when being in the same room with him, I had this thought at the back of my mind: “This would make an amazing photo!” This thought was taking me right out of the moment, and I don’t want this to happen.
I once went to see Prince’s concert, and he got lots of people on stage from the public to dance with him. And there was one who spent the whole 10 minutes she was on the stage begging someone from the public to throw her phone to her. She was not in the moment for any single second! Another example, at the inauguration of Obama, when he and Michelle were dancing, all invited guests were filming this dance with cameras. This is ridiculous, this was a national event, of course CNN was covering it, they surely wouldn’t have got better quality on their mobiles than CNN. So what was the point?
This is the event that will never happen again! Every moment is unrepeatable. In pursue of trying to capture something in technology we miss on life itself. I’m keen not to miss on my own life.
I do make rules for myself in terms of how to use technology, but I am also quite disorganized so I like to go with the flow. I do some social media to a small degree, but I am very conscious that for one good Instagram photo you need to take 15 shoots, and it takes you out of the moment. In private life, I always keep my phone on silent, just looking at it once in a while, and sometimes discover that it’s ringing, so then I pick it up and it’s a good coincidence. Of course, if I am shopping with my husband and we go to different parts of the supermarket, I’ll keep it on.
I have a set up for friends that they just can come around to my house without calling me.
For creative work I definitely like to get lost in the moment. There’s no way I could work with my phone near me, checking whether I have a new Instagram like, so lots of time my phone is just not in the same room. I just go to it as if it were an answering machine.
I don’t want to constantly present my life as idealized and don’t feel I have to be an ultraversion of myself. My brand is about a more natural presentation of myself anyways, so I feel a lot less pressure to keep up with the buzz, I guess I am lucky.
For me the main danger is not so much always being on, but constantly getting comments. 50 people may say “you look nice”, but if there is just one odd or negative comment, it will stay with you. It’s no good to hear too many positive things, either, but negative things told directly into your phone are difficult, phone just feels too private to me.
If you are a creative person, you should have time to develop whatever you are working on. I know many committed writers who are not on Twitter for this reason. You think of a funny thing you’d write now, but if you leak it out into the public space too early, it will take away the potency of the idea.
Contemporary artist Tracey Emin says that the phone is an enemy of creativity, and I tend to agree. It creates the interruption you don’t need.
I would rather get out of the studio and see that I have missed 3 calls, rather than ask myself – what was I doing, was I recording something, when I got interrupted? Give up the idea you’re missing out.
Sometimes you will miss out on something, but sometimes you’ll have a massive 3 hour chat with your friend, and if you were to move somewhere just because other friends were there, you would lose this opportunity. Not every choice has to be made. Sometimes you have just to be where you are, giving your attention to this particular person. Otherwise you are never really fully there.
Tech can be massive help to creativity, but you have to choose it. I consciously go online to do some research, but sometimes I notice: I have looked already on this website twice today, there isn’t really anything new here. On my screen I have a reminder “Go outside” popping out, which helps. I also sometimes write down “next time I’ll look at this or that”. I can definitely be really sucked into browsing pages, like staying for hours on Pinterest.
So you have to keep being very aware, and conscious, whether you are you even enjoying your browsing? Am I really wanting to see what I am seeing, or am I doing it out of habit? So when I am thinking that I am not enjoying all these images, I just close it, and go outside.
This interview has been recorded for Anastasia’s new book Homo Distractus: Fight for your choices and identity in the digital age. Grab your copy here.
Being “always on” can be overwhelming for your brain and nervous system. These 7 tips will help you “digitally detox” without getting rid of technology altogether.
1.Disable notifications and all sounds on your devices
Why? Notifications remind you to check your device, and the more you receive them, the stronger this habit becomes. Device and app producers know this (there is even a “habit forming” design school!), and so send you as many notifications as they can, no matter how relevant they are, so your behaviour eventually becomes automatic and unconscious.
How it works? By disabling notifications, you start acting consciously, as opposed to allowing your device to decide for you, when to check it.
2.Keep your devices outside of your bedroom and dining table
Why? It will improve your quality of sleep and sexual life, and help you manage your weight.
How it works? Keeping your phone next to your bed puts your brain in the state of alert, as if you left the house door open. Additionally, couples who keep iPads in the bedroom tend to have little to no sex – our brain simply finds the device more pleasurable! So leave your devices to recharge outside of your bedroom.
Similarly, don’t get them out at the dining table: when distracted, you are less likely to pay attention at what you are eating, and remember it. So you end up overeating both at the current and the next meal and gain weight you could’ve easily avoided by not staring at your screen during mealtime.
3.Use blocking apps
Why? If you ever tried to focus on something for 20 minutes while online, you know how hard it is. Simply relying on your willpower to stay focused is not an option, as your brain has already been wired through long-time use of devices to be distracted.
How it works? An app (Moment, Quality Time, Freedom, Antisocial, FocusON) or a browser extension (RescueTime, Stayfocusd, LeechBlock) allows you to block access to all or some websites for a certain time. I personally enjoy Newsfeed Eradicator for Facebook that selectively blocks your newsfeed but leaves access to messenger, so you can still talk to friends.
4.Stop multitasking and put your device out of sight
Why? We can’t multitask well, and by switching between different windows or devices you are teaching your brain to be more distracted. The mere presence of your smartphone, even when it’s off or in your bag, can make you distracted.
How this works? Focus on doing something in one window, and only then switch to the other. Don’t work on several devices unless you must. To concentrate on one thing, best to keep your phone in a separate room or at least not within your reach. Similarly, when done with work, hide your laptop, so you don’t feel tempted to check it.
5.Declutter your smartphone
Why? Every little decision eats our brain energy and will power. This is why Barack Obama or Mark Zuckerberg prefer to wear the same model of clothes every day, eliminating unnecessary decisions. Too many apps mean too much choice, and additional temptation to check something.
How it works? Get rid of all apps you don’t use or that eat your time (Facebook Messenger is on top of my list). Put others in folders, and move them away from the first page, so you need at least 3 clicks or more to reach them. This way, you have more time to think, if you really need to click before you do, and eliminate unnecessary decisions.
Why? We bought into the idea that we need to react fast when online, although often we don’t. 70% of employees respond to emails straight away, whereas only 30% say their boss or colleagues expect them to.
How it works? By delaying your reaction to a stimuli (i.e. incoming email) you are unlearning to be a Pavlov dog. Next time you feel an urge to react, ask yourself, if this is really urgent, and delay checking or replying for 1, 2, 5 minutes etc.
7. Read a book
Why? Deep reading is the best training for staying focused for a long time, which helps to solve problems and take better decisions. It is also the best way to relax that reduces stress levels by 68%.
How it works? If you haven’t read a print book for a while, start with 2-3 pages a day without any interruptions, and gradually increase the number of pages. Get my new book, Homo Distractus: Fight for your choices and identity in the digital age, as a reading manual (it has other useful tips on claiming back your time and attention without giving up your tech).
You may know that I've been working on this book for the last year and a half... and it's nearly ready! We've got a title (thanks to our subscribers for voting!), an amazing book cover, and last week shoot a video for the promo campaign. Homo Distractus will soon be launched, soo excited and can't wait - and if you want to pre-order the book with 10% off, leave your email following the link above! And so far a few sneak pics from working on it :)
ESTIMATED READING TIME: 7 MINUTES 45 SECONDS
Think about the last meeting or conference you attended. The speaker was likely talking to herself, while everyone else was busy with their gadgets, and didn’t not even try pretending they were listening. We are so used to this behaviour that started considering it normal. But is it really so innocent?
Founder of Consciously Digital Anastasia Dedyukhina talked about the cost of digital distractions and why an “always on” culture is a problem at the roundtable for senior HR professionals at Rethink! HR Tech summit in London. You can use the discussion summary below to help your employees be more focused and creative.
It turns out, the cost of digital distractions is high. They can result in decreased productivity, poor decision making, lack of creativity, and increased stressed for employees. Some researchers calculated that an average company loses $10,790 per employee every year on digital distractions. Even brief interruptions can eat up to 40% of our productive time, and about 60% of work-related interruptions happen because of technology (incoming emails, notifications etc).
Technology encourages us to multitask, but most humans aren’t good at multitasking, as shown by researchers at Stanford. We don’t actually multitask, but rather switch between different tasks. It takes our brain some time to go back to what we were doing, so every incoming email or notification will decrease your productivity. Researchers say that even the mere presence of a smartphone reduces brain power.
Distractions have also been shown to lead to worse decision-making. When overloaded, our pre-frontal cortex (part of the brain responsible for self-control) stops differentiating relevant information from irrelevant, and we are more prone to make mistakes.
Another side effect of the “always on” culture is the potential lack of creative and innovative ideas. Creativity comes from our brain creating new connections between existing facts. You may have noticed that your best ideas come not in front of the computer, but when you are in the shower or walking, and your brain is “connecting the dots”. However, to do that, it needs time to “digest” information we’ve been feeding into it. By constantly overloading it with new information, we don’t allow this digestion to happen (similarly to what would happen we were constantly eating and not giving the stomach time to digest the food). When we don’t have a “thinking space” where our brain isn’t stimulated, we are less likely to come up with innovative ideas.
Stress and burn-outs is another possible consequence of always being on. Researchers found that a mere expectation of a work-related email outside of working hours can lead to an increase in stress levels. Harvard Business School experiment showed that strategy consultants who could predictably unplug once a week to focus on their project felt better, delivered better product and had better relationships within the team and with the client.
Last but not least, distractions can have a negative effect on the team morale and motivation. When checking our device while another person is speaking, we send them a signal that what they have to say isn’t that important. “I remember one of the young employees being really upset after his presentation. He spent a lot of time preparing it and felt very nervous, but nobody actually listened to him, they were too busy on their smartphones”, shares one HR director.
Given that we have lots of research that shows that digital distractions has a huge cost, why many of us are still behaving the old way? Why is multitasking or replying to emails over the weekends encouraged in many places?
First, it’s tricky to have a one-fit-all solution. All work styles are different. One person wants to work over the weekend or in the evening, because they want to be with kids at daytime, while another asks the HR, what time their work actually finishes. Millennials are connected all the time, while the older generation may choose not to be part of any social network. It’s important to keep the balance and allow people to work the way they’re mostly productive and healthy, rather than establishing rigid regulations for the whole company.
Second, there is just not enough awareness about the real cost of distractions, about how our brain works, and how focus and space are important for good decision making and creativity. Managers often give bad examples by themselves, emailing everyone after working hours. Some of them even think that if an employee responds to an email fast, it means they are productive and loyal, and reward this behaviour. This can set up the culture, where urgent prevails over important, and not all employees, especially young ones, will feel empowered to challenge it. Spreading awareness about the real cost of digital distractions can help with it.
Third, technology can be not only distracting, but also liberating, and many people don’t want to lose the benefits it offers. “I like to be able to take notes on my phone and email them to myself”, says one participant of the round table. How can we know, when instead of helping us, technology becomes a problem? One way to determine this boundary is to ask ourselves: is this particular use of tech making my life easier? Or am I losing time or focus with it?
Fourth, we are not taught to manage people’s expectations and make lots of assumptions about what they want from us. There are way too many channels that we have to manage, and people expect us to be available on all of them, unless we let them clearly know we won’t be available. In the aforementioned Harvard Business School experiment, consultants initially resisted unplugging because they thought the client would be unhappy. It turned out, the client didn’t care as long as he knew when consultants will be contactable again.
How can HR help employees find a balance between being online and offline?
First, leading by example. Start from small things like not cc-ing everyone, to regularly reminding employees that if we as HR are emailing them out of the working hours, they don’t have to. Also, we can try getting senior management on board, so that they can “lead by example”, too. If a CEO can step up and say that the company isn’t expecting employees to be connected 24/7, even if he or she is sending emails on a weekend, this can send a powerful message. Encouraging personal conversations as opposed to emailing is another message a CEO can send to employees. For example, a CEO of one company does every day 8am “porridge” sessions in the buffet, when everyone find him to ask any questions, as opposed to sending emails.
Second, raise awareness about the cost of distractions. You can start by asking employees, how often they think they are disrupted, and whether being able to stay focused would help them do the work better. Helping people understand how brain works and where creativity comes from will help managers accept that a disconnected employee is not a bad employee.
Third, in order to respect everyone’s work style and not to come across as over prescriptive, HR may offer some solutions on how not to distract other people, as opposed to how not to be distracted yourself. For example, one company has set up Thursday as a meeting-free day. Similarly, we can propose specific “disconnected” time periods (i.e. Friday afternoons), or blocking certain hours in their calendar, when employees can choose not to focus just on one thing. During these hours, they can be contacted for truly urgent inquires by phone, or in person, and HR suggests everyone to respect these hours. Merely having this option to disconnect makes an employee more empowered to push back against the boss or colleague when they need space to think.
Encouraging to respect others doesn’t have to be serious. One company, for instance, used a “mobile spa” box with a palm tree near it at meetings, where everyone was asked to put their phones to give the some rest while the owners are working. This helped the meetings be shorter and more productive.
Fourth, HR can organize and facilitate discussions on consolidating all the platforms the company uses with the help of IT department. For example, it’s possible to use API to set it up the way that skype calls will be forwarded to a person’s phone if they are not picking it up, but only before 5.30pm). Employees should be aware of these options that can make their lives easier.
Fifth, we need to encourage the culture that honours flexibility. Great ideas are rarely born in front of the computer. Instead, teams can have walking phoneless meetings outside of the office for 15 minutes, as practiced by one company. HR can propose to set up a “tech-free” area in the office, where people are encouraged not to bring their devices, but just come and think, or chat with others. Offering a few standing desks will also encourage employees to stay more focused (it’s difficult to stand for a long time, and we tend to be more focused when standing).
Whichever solution you go for, they need to be simple, and help reduce the amount of things to manage, as opposed to adding to them.
What is one thing that you as an HR can you do this week to help your employees stay more productive and creative in an age of digital distractions?
Thanks a lot to everyone who has sent me their questions about my upcoming book. There are actually 100 questions precisely (I take it as a very good sign!), and I am going through each of them and making sure they are addressed in the book.
While I am doing that, I decided to record this video to give you an update about the book, and start answering some of them. Totally inspired, and getting back into writing!
PS You can read the first and second chapters here for free, and if you want to get updates about the book and know when it's published, please leave me your email below the video (if you have already left me your email, no need to duplicate here).
Anastasia Dedyukhina’s new book “Homo distractus: Fight for your choices and identity in the digital age” is crowdfunding! To get your copy, support our campaign.
ESTIMATED READING TIME: 8.5 MINUTES
This is an extract from Anastasia Dedyukhina’s new book Homo distractus: Fight for your choices and identity in the digital age” To be the first one to know when the book is published, please leave your email below this post.
Before the digital era, when a phone rang and we were busy or just didn’t feel like talking, we ignored it. Nowadays, if you refuse to connect, it is seen an act of rebellion. No privacy is left.
Technology has not only removed the boundaries between work and private life, something political activists of the past arduously fought for decades, but also seriously lengthened the work day. In the US 47% office workers believe that tech has increased their working hours, and at least one in three employees feel they are expected to be reachable after office hours.
When staying connected defines your career progress, employees willingly get on a “digital leash”. Connection is seen as a proxy of loyalty and productivity. Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer famously prohibited employees from working from home, when she discovered they had not been logging into the corporate email. Even with no formal pressure, we often willingly put this digital leash on ourselves. Early stage business owners, for example, are often proud of staying connected 24/7 and see this as a proof that they are controlling their business.
But does being connected all the time really help our productivity and business?
What research says
It turns out, it doesn’t. Multiple research proves constant connection can actually damage the concentration, productivity and sometimes even health of employees and, consequently, the company bottom line.
One of the top researchers of technology and humans Gloria Mark from the University of California at Irving has shown that people who do not check work email on a regular basis are less stressed, more productive and can focus longer on a single task.
Similarly, when a Harvard Business School researchers Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter convinced a team of management consultants at BCG to unplug once a week to focus entirely on delivering a project, they became more productive, reported more open communication with colleagues and delivered a better product to the client. Curiously, the relationship between the client and the unplugged team of consultants not only didn’t suffer, but improved. Contrary to their expectations, the client didn’t mind the team to unplug as long as he knew, when consultants were available.
Research also shows that an extended working day doesn’t make us better workers. From a study by John Pencavel from Stanford University we know that productivity falls after a 50-hour working week, and after the 55th hour putting in extra hours doesn't add anything. In other words, my may try to convince ourselves or our bosses that when we check emails at 10pm, we are being productive, but in reality, we are not.
Lastly, we know that while technology increased our working time, instead of using it productively and creatively, we end up bridging the gap between various programs and moving information around (i.e. from email into a presentation). For instance, McKinsey estimates that an average office worker spends 28% of his work day just on managing emails. No one would call this a productive use of time.
What your body says
When we are constantly connected, are exposed to lots of diverse information, and switch between different tasks (something we do online all the time), we tend to get tired faster. Specifically, one part of our brain responsible for self-control and decision-making, pre-frontal cortex, gets overwhelmed. When this happens, we become more likely to make mistakes, take worse decisions, not manage well our emotional reactions, and tend to lose focus on the bigger picture. We also lose the ability to understand, what’s relevant to our work, and what’s not. In other words, with digital overwhelm we stop being professional.
If we further force ourselves to stay connected, our brain opts in for the easiest “reward” – and so we might end up just checking email for hundred times per hour, as opposed to doing what will really make a difference.
And as our stomach needs time to digest food, so our brain needs to process information we’ve been feeding into it. There is time to take information in, and time to digest it (this happens unconsciously). If we don’t stop staffing the brain with information, it won’t have time to digest. As a result, we’ll quickly get mentally obese – we’ll get a lazy brain that is not unable to concentrate, perform fast enough, and feeds itself mainly on junk food like cat pictures in social media.
Lastly, longer working hours though are known to create unnecessary stress for the body, which can lead to health issues. For example, the UK employees who work the longest hours are also known for taking more health-related leaves than their European colleagues.
What society says
So why are we still expecting employees to stay constantly connected and reward this behaviour? Why do we assume that being connected is equal to being productive?
There is a number of reasons. First, it’s just easier to do so. As Cal Newport explains in his bestselling book “Deep mind”, digital busyness has become a proxy of productivity, because knowledge workers don’t anymore have a clearly defined outcome of their work, and so it’s difficult to measure their productivity.
If you are a builder, you know your work is finished, when you have built a house, and you know how many houses you can build in a given year. But how can a knowledge worker show he’s being? Being the first one to respond to emails is certainly one way to imitate productivity both in front of your boss or yourself.
The second reason is that we have bought into a bright future of a constantly connected culture. We’ve been shown the shiny benefits of instant collaboration, real-time updates etc. Digital nomads with their laptops by the side of the swimming pool. And yes, these are great benefits. The problem is, connected culture comes with a price, and tech companies did not tell us about it. The price is our inability to concentrate and stay focused (we need large uninterrupted chunks of time to do deep meaningful work). The price is our body and brain being in a constant state of alert, trying to be on top of everything all the time, and perform at the same time. As with the Harvard experiment with BCG consultants, we just assume we need to be connected, even if there is no real need and it has no real impact on our relationships. It’s a matter of habit, and in many cases it has become a bad habit.
Third, we end up staying connected all the time because of how tech products are designed. I have written a lot about it already, explaining how phones, apps and websites are designed to keep you endlessly browsing and scrolling, as opposed to finish your task and go – this is how online companies make money.
Fourth, most managers simply don’t understand, how our brain works and where productivity and creativity come from. That’s not what they have studied. And while “digital skills” has become the new mantra of HR conferences, there is no understanding whatsoever of how these digital skills need to be combined with human skills – ability to stay focused, concentrated, creative, and get the most of your brain.
What can we do
It’s not all so gloom, and both businesses and entire states slowly start realizing the importance of not only connecting, but also disconnecting. Brazil demands that employees are compensated for checking emails out of the working hours, and the French law that prohibits to require employees to check emails after working hours acknowledges that ‘the blurring of the borders between private life and professional life<…> are risks associated with the usage of digital technology’.
Virgin UK has introduced a 2-hour per week email ban for all senior management, Volkswagen does not allow sending or receiving emails after an employee’s shift has ended and Daimler, another car manufacturer, has an optional auto-delete email policy. All emails employees receive while on vacation gets deleted, and an auto response suggests to email back if something is very important, or contact their colleagues.
While these attempts are certainly better than nothing, unfortunately, they are not enough. The problem is not the email, it’s just become a symbol of an “always on” culture. Prohibiting people from working flexibly is not a solution either (some parents, for example, might find it very beneficial to be able to skip afternoons, but work from home in the evening). The real challenge and need is to change the working culture and perception of what technology is good and not good for.
Human brain is not a computer, and it cannot do various tasks simultaneously, or perform equally well throughout the day. It also needs time to digest information. Technology is not a holy grail, it is a tool. It can create a lot of opportunities, but only if used appropriately. What we need is less “digital skills”, and more “human skills” trainings - we need more understanding of how people actually become productive and creative, and how to get the most of our brains.
If we acknowledge that human brain is nothing close to a computer, we may need to change the way we work. We’ll need to start respecting the time, when people need to be offline to do meaningful work, and plan our own work accordingly. We’ll need to become more organized, because we’ll constantly have to make a trade-off between speed and quality of communication and work. Companies will need to find a way to measure their employees’ productivity and loyalty without using their online visibility as a proxy.
It will take some mental effort and as all changes will likely produce initial resistance. What we’ll get as a result though is a clearer, more productive and creative mind, better relationships with people around us – both coworkers and clients, and more free time to do things that are truly important.
PS One thing you can do today yourself is to introduce a ritual of opening and closing your work day. It can be purely symbolic or even silly, like going around your table three times, or putting your laptop in a chest of drawers and closing it. What’s important is that you give your brain a clear signal: “I am done for the day”, and not go back to the device again until the next morning.
(I purposefully don't insert hyperlinks at the text, because they make you distracted from reading)
This is an extract from Anastasia Dedyukhina’s new book “Homo distractus: Fight for your choices and identity in the digital age”. To be the first one to know when the book is published, please leave your email below this post.
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ESTIMATED READING TIME – 6 MINUTES
This is an extract from Anastasia Dedyukhina’s new book “Homo distractus: Fight for your choices and identity in the digital age”. We've launched a crowdfunding campaign for it, to get your copy please support us here!
In my teenage days, Russian boys dreamt of becoming oil billionaires, and girls hoped to become oligarch’s wives or lovers (no, there wasn’t much equality back in the days). Twenty years after though, boys and girls in Russia, UK, USA, France, China and pretty much everywhere in the world hope to become billionaires by building and selling a tech start-up.
Tech companies have replaced oil barons not only in teenage dreams, but also in the global markets. Five top businesses by market capitalization are now Silicon Valley enterprises; six of the world's wealthiest 10 people made their money in technology.
Our time and attention is what feeds this growth. It became the main currency of today’s economy.
The new gods
In pre-historic times, humans were constantly short of energy, and so needed to constantly hunt (or gather) to refill it. This consumed most of their time. As civilization progressed and we discovered and started using fire, and then electricity, we were able to gain more energy from food, and consequently, more free time.
We didn’t make a good use of it though. This time and energy is now occupied by very large internet corporations. Technology has become a new kind of religion, and the ultimate goal of these new gods is to keep us online as much as they can.
We check our devices between 85 and 221 times per day, scroll down pre-loaded Facebook and Youtube feeds, buy things online even when don’t need them, and continue to endlessly consume. We can’t concentrate anymore without being interrupted every five minutes by a notification. And even if researchers like Gloria Mark from University of California, Irvine, show that even a short interruption significantly increases the time needed to complete a task and is bad for your productivity, we are increasingly encouraged to be distracted – in the office and outside of it. In fact, we are told that we are being productive and agile by trying to be everything everywhere.
Click and keep
A number of studies by Microsoft, Google and similar companies show that the longer we stay online, the more likely we are to buy something. The more internet pages we browse through, the more advertising an internet company can show us, and so the more money they make.
As a result, their KPIs, their success metrics, and designers’ bonuses, are usually tied to how much time we spend on a website or app, and not on how productive or focused we are. Their objective is to keep us online as long as possible, and to make us click on the ad links as much as possible. And they succeed, if one can call it a success. As per Ofcom report, 49% of Brits admit to spend more time online than originally intended.
In “the click economy”, each click is rewarded by money. And usually it’s Google and Facebook who benefit from a “click economy” the most, since they have the most visitors.
The business models that require people’s attention and clicking on links require a constant flow of new content, which needs to be produced at a top speed. The goal of many popular sites is therefore no longer information, but the attention itself. The quality of this attention doesn’t matter, as long as people click.
Whereas there have been experiments to measure, how engaged and interested in the content visitors are, most advertising is still sold based on cpc (cost per click). Just because it’s the easier for a media planner (a person who decides, how ad dollars or pounds will be spent across different websites) to use one number to compare the costs of buying ads on different websites, even if the audience of these websites is completely different.
This is why both advertisements and article headlines get more extreme and nonsensical. You might have heard of the term “clickbait titles” since these are title that help generate clicks. “You won’t believe what happens next”, or “How one woman made $$$ in her bedroom” or “Your mom will hate this trick” are all examples of attention-grabbing titles that make you want to click, click, and click more.
Music videos, commercials, movies, and reality TV shows look like softcore porn: any kind of attention sells. Youtube star Tyler Oakley in a 4.7 millions views video seats in front of the camera with bottles of beers duct-taped to each of his hands and drinks them for about an hour, giggling. Doing similar gigs, Tyler earns hundreds of thousands pounds and enjoys 8 millions subscribers.
Digital economy feeds through your attention, at the same time putting the quality journalism in a difficult position of competing for the same click pounds or dollar with the most obnoxious websites.
The captivating design
In order to capture human attention, software companies design their products in a specific way. This has been described in detail in Adam Alter’s “Irresistible” and Nir Eyal’s “Hooked” books, as well as in Tristan Harris’s blog.
For instance, a popular game Candy Crush adapts to the time you spend playing: if you play a few minutes every day, tasks are easy. But the more time you spend playing, the more complicated they become. Anna, a client of mine who runs a beauty salon, admits she only managed to stop playing the game when she uninstalled it from her phone.
A pre-loaded newsfeed on Facebook or Youtube is another way to keep a visitor on the website for longer. Notifications are yet another powerful and cheap way to make you come back to your device over and over again. An app will keep sending you notifications, until your habit is formed, and you don’t need further reminders, and your behaviour becomes automatic.
No wonder that companies make it really difficult to change notifications settings. For instance, it takes 6 steps to change your notifications settings on Facebook. One of the key UX design principles says that every action should take a user as few steps as possible – so obviously Facebook isn’t very interested in helping you get rid of notifications.
What can you do?
We might have not noticed it yet, but most of us are already living in the matrix, where our online experiences are pre-engineered, and distracted behaviour is encouraged to keep feeding the machine.
As in the movie, it starts with a realization. A good place to get your red pill is to start measuring, how much time you really spend online across all devices, and how much of this time is productive. I use a free version of Rescuetime browser extension to do that, and there are plenty of others to help.
I often find that my clients underestimate, how much time they spend online, by approximately two hours per day. This is a lot of time. This is one extra month per year you could get for things that matter. Do you complain that you don’t have time to do things that you’d like to? Here’s where your time goes.
If money is a stronger argument for you, you can do a quick calculation, how much distraction is costing you (also check Nielsen Norman’s work on the real costs of “free” online products like Gmail for businesses in distracted attention). For your back of the envelope calculation, simply multiply all the unproductive hours you’ve spent browsing by your hourly rate. This is the real money you’ve spent on being distracted.
This is an extract from Anastasia Dedyukhina’s new book “Homo distractus: Fight for your choices and identity in the digital age”. Please, support our crowdfunding campaign and get your copy here.
How long can you stay focused on something without being distracted?
About a year ago, when I started writing my first book, I discovered I was not able to sit still and concentrate purely on writing as I used to years ago. Every 10-15 minutes I would suddenly remember to send an email to my insurance company, order a new book online (it’s so necessary for my research!), or feel an urge to check my email, as if I didn’t clean my inbox 10 minutes ago, or would just automatically open Facebook, not even realizing what I am doing. Then I would force myself to go back to writing, just to realize five minutes later that this particular phrase I have just written would make an awesome tweet, and go on Twitter to schedule it, and of course end up reading the feed. My brain was living a digital life of its own. Without noticing it, I became a perfect example of what constant mindless usage of technology does to you, a model digital procrastinator.
This clearly was not going anywhere. Given that the book I was writing was about digital detox, I thought it’s about time to start with myself and change my own behaviour before teaching others. I have previously given up my smartphone, and have happily lived without it for two years. Now it was time to review my relationship with my computer.
Sorting out my productivity turned out to be much harder than giving up the smartphone. When you don’t see something, it’s easier not to think about it, isn’t it? But the real challenge is to actually use your technology to work, but at the same time try not to get distracted. I experimented with multiple productivity strategies to fight digital procrastination, and found it all gets down to one simple truth – being honest with myself.
The early bird
I learned that the way I started my morning totally determined my day. Doing the most important thing first made the biggest difference. If I had enough energy for work and my eyes didn’t hurt from the previous night, I would sit down to computer straight after breakfast, and work on the book until lunch without checking anything online. I would start with something easy to get myself into the “flow”, and then gradually the work would catch up. As I felt my concentration decreasing, I would stand up, stretch, eat something, but would not allow myself to check internet until the work finishes.
Completing this one important thing in the morning gave me an incredible energy boost to do other things, and a deep satisfaction by myself even before lunch. On the other hand, if I tried tackling small things like sorting out emails first “for the peace of mind”, I ended up frustrated and not really having enough concentration to do the big thing afterwards.
If I didn’t feel energized in the morning, instead of chaining myself to computer (something I’ve done for years as “everyone is working!”) I started going for a walk. Finally, there were mornings when I just had to get some “info fix” and couldn’t resist an urge to open the computer for some news. In these cases, instead of browsing through social media feeds, I got myself to watch a TED talk while having a breakfast. This always gave me the right boost to start the work, yet not feeling a complete waste of time.
Willpower doesn’t work
Being honest to myself also helped me stop fully rely on the willpower to control digital habits. Psychologists say our willpower is a limited resource, which we deplete throughout the day as we take all sorts of decisions. Small decisions like “should I click on the link” or “should I reply to this email” deplete your willpower as much as life-changing decisions.
I had to be honest that there is no such thing as “I will just check if there’s anything important on Facebook”, and I am just not disciplined enough to do that. You never spend just two minutes on it. The best engineering minds of the century are constantly figuring out how to keep you longer on the website, as this is the way the company earns money: the longer you stay online, the more ads they show you, and the more likely you are to buy something. You either work, or you browse. Two are not compatible, and technology will always take advantage of you. My only way to stay productive was either to disable wifi or to use blocking apps, or to work from a café that didn’t have any internet connection. This small thing somehow made wonders to the brain, as if it said “Ok, since I can’t have my internet fix, let’s get some work done”.
Work less, do more
Most importantly, I allowed myself to work for a limited number of hours. With digital, we often feel that we could do more. Tech blurred the boundaries between work and private life. This leads to us never feeling really accomplished, never satisfied with the outcome of our work.
Inspired by a Japanese app developer Non Umemoto, who works for only 3 hours every day, I decided to try the same. I discovered that 3 hours can be a very short time if you are distracted, but quite a lot of time if you are fully present. I therefore I tried avoiding all distractions, even switching off completely my non-internet phone. This last action produced a sense of relief for the brain, as if one item on the agenda was gone.
Working for 3 hours daily also makes me prioritize, what I will be doing in these hours. Initially it felt very frustrating, as I was obviously not accomplishing anything, but the more I do it, the more I notice how my brain is learning to focus. Putting a time boundary in place helped relief the stress of a never-ending work, and gave me more strength to do things.
Now that my book is almost finished, I can share its biggest wisdom: listening to your own internal rhythms, in spite of what others tell, you, and putting your agenda above any tech solution is the ultimate recipe to fight digital procrastination.
Anastasia Dedyukhina is a professional coach and a pioneer of the Consciously Digital™ concept.