The idea of digital minimalism is not to reduce how much time you spend online, but rather to focus on what really matters, and ignore all the rest (inevitably, this will reduce less useful time spent online). Holiday season might be just the best time to do that, as you have far less social pressure to catch up with all.
So here are my five ways to be a digital minimalist:
1. Don’t carry devices with you at all times. Stop making yourself constantly available. But do make sure people know in advance when you are available (relationship management).
Why: as one famous entrepreneur says, mobile phones are a way for other people to impose their agenda on you. And now in addition to other people, it’s bots and internet companies that do the same, and this will only increase. Either you are in charge of your time, or your device is. If you have it around with you at all times, it’s likely the second option.
2. Accept the idea that someone will be unhappy and you may lose some opportunities… but what you gain instead, is an increased focused and more energy in your brain for a few things that matter.
A client, a busy business woman, finally allowed to convince her to unplug for 48 hours, and was relieved to discover that the business kept running as it should, the team was able to cope with problems on its own. Now she is determined to make it a regular practice.
Why: our attention is a limited resource. If we are paying attention to multiple things, we are taking away attention from what is truly important. We have to start making choices.
3. Before you look at your devices in the morning, write down on a piece of paper 2-3 things that will make a true difference if you do them. Stick the note to your monitor. Now switch your computer and start by focusing on what will make the most difference, not by checking everything else.
Why: decision-making requires lots of attention, and self-control consumes lots of brain energy. When we are distracted and/or presented with exciting opportunities internet offers us all the time, we cannot take good decisions, less so control ourselves all the time.
4. Review, how many social media platforms you use
Only keep those you truly enjoy using, or that you need for work. To determine it, try not logging into one for one week. Did work or relationships suffer? If nothing changed, you can probably easily live without it. Or log into it a couple of times per month.
Why: Just managing all of them requires lots of attention to you. Every notification you receive schedules a little time in your brain to act upon it (check, reply, like etc). It might be small, but they accumulate quickly.
5. Don’t open multiple tabs at once
One task, 1-2 tabs max. When done, take a break and switch to a different task.
Why: I wrote multiple times that humans are not good at multitasking (proven by experiments in Stanford and other places). When we do that, we lose up to 40% of our productive time.
Bonus point: Revise all your paid online subscriptions
It’s tiring, but find a couple of hours to make a list of all online services you use (Amazon, eBay, Netflix, Coursera etc) and revise if you have any ongoing subscriptions that you don’t use. One client discovered he could save up to 300 pounds per month when he finally got down to cancel all subscriptions he was not using.
PS If you want more tips, check out Homo Distractus book, or How to be a digital minimalist webinar
Antonio will spend this St Valentine’s as millions of other UK singles: swiping profiles on a dating app. He has been looking for a serious relationship for over a year now, when he moved to London. Antonio is good looking, hard-working, with pleasant manners and interesting to talk to, and yet got no luck.
Most matches he gets don’t reply to his messages at all, or their conversations die after a few phrase exchanges. Others just keep talking, and ignore his suggestions to meet up in person. To meet just with one girl, Antonio has to send over 100 messages, and do even more swipes. With his busy lifestyle, he finds online dating incredibly time and energy consuming.
Antonio is certainly not the only one feeling disappointed about the amount of time online dating takes from his life. Whether you are looking for love or sex, the return on time invested is quite modest, to say the list. Tinder users swipe through more than 1 billion profiles, but only make 12 million matches per day. I.e. only 1.2% of all swipes end up in matches. You’d have a much bigger chance of success to find a match of you said hi to 100 random people in a pub.
An average Tinder user spends up to 90 minutes a day reviewing their matches. However, only one in 500 swipes leads to a phone number being exchanged, according to Justin McLeod, CEO of dating app Hinge. We have more choice of partners than ever, and yet we end up lonelier than ever before. Instead of humans, it’s our phones we share our most intimate experiences with.
The three whys
One reason is too much choice. In an experiment by Sheen Iyengar, people who were offered too many varieties jams to choose from, preferred not to make any choice and walked away with no purchase. Those who had fewer jams to choose from, were more likely to make a purchase. Similarly, too much online choice leads to the analysis paralysis. Instead of talking to one person, we keeping swiping for more.
Another reason of why we end up spending so much time on dating with limited results is the very design of the dating app. Tinder and co are in the business of keeping you online, and so use various tricks to maximize your time spend on the app. For example, most apps are designed to keep you swiping, not messaging to people (you need to make fewer actions). You have very little reason to talk to one particular person, and not keep swiping. What if the next one is even more amazing than this one?
Most dating apps use the effect of “variable reward”. By endlessly showing you new matches, they make your brain release dopamine, the neurohormone of pleasure and anticipation of the reward.
Apps make it really easy to remove a contact, too. Just click a button, and there’s no person. So we end up objectifying people, and don’t care much about establishing the contact with current matches – they are all equal in our eyes. Researchers found that only 7% of male matches on Tinder would send a message, and only 21% of female ones (the study did not specify sexual orientation).
A vicious circle
Rejection hurts. A few men I interviewed for my book wondered, if there was something wrong with what’s written in the profiles, or with what they look like, that they didn’t get messages. (There was nothing wrong with any of them). Quite a few complained their self-esteem was going down, as a result of using an app, and thinking about removing it.
Another way to cope with this frustration for men is to start swiping even more women right to increase their chances for a response (there is even a program that does it automatically for you). On the contrary, women get even pickier as to whom to swipe or respond. So the vicious circle continues and the real winner in this race for love is the dating app.
What to do
Does this mean you need to give up online dating if you actually want to meet someone? Not necessarily. I’m sure you know as I do quite a few success stories. However, you may want to ask yourself about the return on the time invested in the app, and how many people you could have met in that time if you chose a different way.
If you still have hopes in online dating, being aware of how technology affects your behaviour and setting up yourself rules will help. You may choose to try talking to everyone you match with, get to meet them possibly soon, not spend more than 10 minutes a day or leave the app if you have no result in 1 month.
As to Antonio, he is still online, but now plans to ask his friends to introduce him to a nice girl, in an old-fashioned way. I’ve got his contacts in case you want an intro.
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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Anastasia Dedyukhina is a professional coach and a pioneer of the Consciously Digital™ concept.