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.
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?
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.
Yes, I'd like to know when the book is published!
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.
Augmented reality is here, and is already having a strong impact on everyone, including those who never played a video game in their lives and never heard about augmented reality.
Pokemon Go, a smartphone game that lets users catch imaginary figures of Pokemon (pronounced the same way in plural) on real streets, has become a global phenomenon in just a couple of weeks. It is dominating the Appstore, already boasts more users than Tinder and Twitter, and will be officially launching in the UK in a matter of days. Millions of gamers who got out of their rooms to browse through the real cities in search of virtual monsters mark the beginning of the new era for all of us, where the virtual and real worlds collide. And judging by the news from the past week, no one is ready for this collision and it will likely be quite painful.
The game in a nutshell
Pokemon Go uses the player's smartphone GPS data (similar to Google Maps) and camera to navigate them across the real streets and parks of the city or village in search for little virtual monsters. As a player moves along, she comes across different Pokemon, which she needs to capture. Some physical locations in the cities have been labelled by Niantic Inc, a Google split-off behind the game, as Pokestops -- places, where gamers can collect tools to capture more Pokemon. Players can also purchase the "lure modules" and place them in a Pokestop, which will attract the virtual figures to their area for 30 minutes, so they can capture even more Pokemon.
Once a player collected her Pokemon, she can train them in a local "gym" to get stronger and fight with Pokemon of other players.
Many gamers are enthusiastically sharing on social media that they are finally motivated to get into the streets instead of sitting in their homes, in search of new Pokemon, and even make real friends with strangers, who are on the hunt for monsters.
So why should you care? At the end of the day, this all sounds like an innocent fun for teenagers and kidults, who refuse to grow up. Except that it is not, and has already affected many more people around who have nothing to do with gaming.
What's going on?
The first worrying news is, of course, that the number of people staring at their phone screens all the time, while walking in the streets, will increase disproportionally. There have already been multiple reports of smaller and larger injuries, with players damaging themselves while trying to get a virtual figure and not noticing the traffic or change in the landscape. Drivers will now have to be even more attentive, as there'll be more players crossing the streets chasing a Pokemon and ignoring the cars. Let's hope not many of them will be in the driving seat.
Second, and even more disturbingly, the in-game "lure" feature has already been already reported as used by criminals to attract the players into the less crowded places with many Pokemon and rob them. The police in the US, where the game was released among the first, issued a warning to "keep behaving as you would do in a normal environment", advising players not to go by themselves to remote places, where they can be attacked. Easier said than done when you're on the hunt for a Pikachu.
Third, the life rhythm of many people who had nothing to do with gaming was disrupted, as physical locations defined as Pokestops and "gyms" in the game attracted players who tried catching Pokemon at all times of the day, including at night. Imagine waking up at 3am and seeing a group of people across your house furiously tapping their phones. The Northern Territory Police, Fire and Emergency Services in Australia issued a request to players not to go hunting inside the police station. So far Niantic Inc has not established the process of complaining and changing locations.
What we've learned so far
Over the last two weeks, we got yet another confirmation that software companies have an immense power to change the behaviour not only of single individuals, but also that of the masses. By simply placing a virtual figure next to a particular point, they can move thousands of people without any effort, disrupting the lives of businesses and humans. They might not still realize their own power, which isn't good news, because it means they aren't realizing their responsibility. Or they might realize it and only use it to earn money. Not good news either, let alone the fact that this power can be easily used and abused by criminals.
While the media is busy republishing the same press-release saying that the Pokemon Go is helping the gamers get into the real world, and hence helps their mental state, it's only a small part of the truth. What we actually witnessed is that people's brains getting totally confused with augmented reality. And this is only the beginning.
When the gaming company suggests we should "behave as normal", but claiming that is a hypocrisy at its worst or a total lack of understanding of how the human brain works. We are wired to look for unusual things, and Pokemon with their bright colours will be the first that our brain identifies. Not the "dangers" in the real world.
We all have certain "spacial maps" in our brains, according to which we navigate. Our brain is used to identify the obstacles and measure the distance to them. By stopping to use our side eyesight while staring at our phones, and stopping to rely on our sense of spacial awareness that has been developing for thousands of years, we put ourselves in the immense danger in the real world. A mobile phone is not an object that is capable to replace all of our 5 senses, and yet in the current version of the augmented reality this is what it encourages our brain to do. Again, all attempts to say that "people should behave normally" are simply a lie - you can not behave normally when your brain is overwhelmed and you are not using your normal perception channels.
Augmented reality as it is presented through Pokemon Go is not enhancing your life experience and perception, it is depriving you of your capabilities to react to the threats and opportunities of the real world.
Then again, the dopamine affect. Dopamine, the hormone of pleasure also associated with all sorts of addictions, gets released when we discover something new and unusual - and Pokemon Go perfectly fits the bill.
Add to that parents, who are clueless about what sort of things their kids are doing on their phones, as they "don't get this tech stuff" and we get a pretty apocalyptic picture.
What shall we do?
Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to say that Pokemon Go is an ultimate evil and needs to be prohibited. In fact, it's a very average and a rather raw game, which will be on its peak for a few months, until it's displaced by other, more sophisticated games.
However, the game release showed us that the power has shifted. Software companies now have as much (if not more) power as policy makers, but they don't have policies and procedures to prevent the harm they might do, except of "issuing a warning", which isn't doing anything. Our minds and behaviours are impacted in the strongest possible way, and our daily lives might be affected even if we have nothing to do with the above. And the worst thing, we aren't realizing it and keep enthusiastically experimenting on millions of people.
Perhaps it's time that we recognize that technology isn't just about "people having fun" or companies just earning money, but is actually bringing massive shifts to how each of us lives and how our society operates. Perhaps it's time to start talking about it in a constructive way in the public space - involving policy makers, media, lawyers, and of course, developers, who need to start thinking about the social consequences of their work and make it part of their daily jobs. Perhaps there need to be certain legal frameworks, and sociologists and emergency services need to be involved in the discussion before games like Pokemon Go get released. It's too big of an issue to run it as a worldwide an experiment.
I went on Facebook this morning to check the address of the place I’m meeting tonight at with a friend. Twenty minutes later, I still didn’t have it written in my agenda, but I saw a cute dog cafe video, checked the best places where to travel with kids (I don’t have kids), read a story about a new women-only taxi app, and got jealous discovering that someone will be speaking at a conference I hoped to speak at.
Then something distracted me from my laptop, and when I got back to it, I couldn’t remember why I had opened the Facebook in the first instance, but felt that I haven’t accomplished much in my life
Yes, these things happen even to me, although I professionally help people spend their online time more consciously. It shouldn’t therefore come as a surprise that nearly 7 millions Britsfeel depressed when using social media, according to the recent research by Opinium UK.
We can experience an ongoing stress from the negative or sad news, or constantly compare ourselves to more successful or luckier friends who go on amazing holidays, move countries for awesome jobs and purchase expensive properties. We obviously know that social media represents an idealized version of people’s lives, but still can’t help envying them. In fact, a few years ago German researchers found that the main motivation of people going on Facebook was to get social gains in reputation and improve their social status. In other words, comparison is inevitable.
We all need a mental diet
The main problem with Twitter or Facebook is that we don’t really have any control over what kind of information is thrown at us when we log on.
Imagine you popped into a restaurant for a quick lunch with colleagues, and together with a healthy tuna salad you’ve asked for, your waiter brings crisps with fat salsa on the house. Your colleagues start eating them and invite you to join. You didn’t want crisps, you wanted your healthy salad, but you feel tempted to try a bit, and long and behold an hour later you realize you have eaten a whole set of junk food, and your salad is only half-finished.
The chemistry of food or information consumption is similar. Our body is wired to find sugary or fatty foods tastier, as it is to find discovering new information and social recognition appealing (these are all sources of a “cheap” dopamine, a hormone of pleasure). If you are presented with a choice of an apple or a chocolate brownie (or reading a Facebook post), you’d eat the latter first, unless you have an incredibly strong will power or gastritis. It doesn’t mean, however, that all your diet should be made of chocolate brownies.
Luckily for our physical bodies, our society supports healthy eating, and we have some control over how much and what we eat. On social media, however, we have no control over what we “eat” or see (no equivalent of a menu to order from). Even worse, most of us feel the social pressure to use social media (according to 56% of the respondents), but there are no social norms around how much is too much. As a result, by being on social media we overfeed ourselves with various emotions we have no control over. As we don’t give ourselves time to digest them, this leads to depression and anxiety.
Healthy social media habits
If you are not part of 10% of the population who simply cannot log off social media (which is a mental health issue and requires an adequate treatment), but simply want to have a healthier relationship with it, the following three rules will help.
First, realize that social media is an analogue of a chocolate brownie. Too many of them will upset your stomach and figure. Too much of social media will make you anxious, unable to concentrate and full of self-doubt. Set the limits of how many minutes (hours) you use it per day, and use a blocking app (GetFocusd, Antisocial, Freedom – there are a few) to prevent access to it the rest of the time. Or use social media scheduling tools like Hootsuite if using it for work.
Second, never go on social media when tired. When we are tired, the part of our brain responsible for self-control does not work, and so you cannot decide when to stop and how much time you are spending there, or to understand emotions arising from reading various posts.
Third, when you are on social media, be active – do not mindlessly scroll through the news (this is proven to cause depression), but rather actively comment and engage with people. Be truly social, and this will pay off.
Want similar tips? Sign up for our newsletters!
Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina is a keynote speaker, author of Homo Distractus, professional coach and a pioneer of the Consciously Digital™ concept.