How long can you stay focused on something without being distracted?
About a year ago, when I started writing my first book, I discovered I was not able to sit still and concentrate purely on writing as I used to years ago. Every 10-15 minutes I would suddenly remember to send an email to my insurance company, order a new book online (it’s so necessary for my research!), or feel an urge to check my email, as if I didn’t clean my inbox 10 minutes ago, or would just automatically open Facebook, not even realizing what I am doing. Then I would force myself to go back to writing, just to realize five minutes later that this particular phrase I have just written would make an awesome tweet, and go on Twitter to schedule it, and of course end up reading the feed. My brain was living a digital life of its own. Without noticing it, I became a perfect example of what constant mindless usage of technology does to you, a model digital procrastinator.
This clearly was not going anywhere. Given that the book I was writing was about digital detox, I thought it’s about time to start with myself and change my own behaviour before teaching others. I have previously given up my smartphone, and have happily lived without it for two years. Now it was time to review my relationship with my computer.
Sorting out my productivity turned out to be much harder than giving up the smartphone. When you don’t see something, it’s easier not to think about it, isn’t it? But the real challenge is to actually use your technology to work, but at the same time try not to get distracted. I experimented with multiple productivity strategies to fight digital procrastination, and found it all gets down to one simple truth – being honest with myself.
The early bird
I learned that the way I started my morning totally determined my day. Doing the most important thing first made the biggest difference. If I had enough energy for work and my eyes didn’t hurt from the previous night, I would sit down to computer straight after breakfast, and work on the book until lunch without checking anything online. I would start with something easy to get myself into the “flow”, and then gradually the work would catch up. As I felt my concentration decreasing, I would stand up, stretch, eat something, but would not allow myself to check internet until the work finishes.
Completing this one important thing in the morning gave me an incredible energy boost to do other things, and a deep satisfaction by myself even before lunch. On the other hand, if I tried tackling small things like sorting out emails first “for the peace of mind”, I ended up frustrated and not really having enough concentration to do the big thing afterwards.
If I didn’t feel energized in the morning, instead of chaining myself to computer (something I’ve done for years as “everyone is working!”) I started going for a walk. Finally, there were mornings when I just had to get some “info fix” and couldn’t resist an urge to open the computer for some news. In these cases, instead of browsing through social media feeds, I got myself to watch a TED talk while having a breakfast. This always gave me the right boost to start the work, yet not feeling a complete waste of time.
Willpower doesn’t work
Being honest to myself also helped me stop fully rely on the willpower to control digital habits. Psychologists say our willpower is a limited resource, which we deplete throughout the day as we take all sorts of decisions. Small decisions like “should I click on the link” or “should I reply to this email” deplete your willpower as much as life-changing decisions.
I had to be honest that there is no such thing as “I will just check if there’s anything important on Facebook”, and I am just not disciplined enough to do that. You never spend just two minutes on it. The best engineering minds of the century are constantly figuring out how to keep you longer on the website, as this is the way the company earns money: the longer you stay online, the more ads they show you, and the more likely you are to buy something. You either work, or you browse. Two are not compatible, and technology will always take advantage of you. My only way to stay productive was either to disable wifi or to use blocking apps, or to work from a café that didn’t have any internet connection. This small thing somehow made wonders to the brain, as if it said “Ok, since I can’t have my internet fix, let’s get some work done”.
Work less, do more
Most importantly, I allowed myself to work for a limited number of hours. With digital, we often feel that we could do more. Tech blurred the boundaries between work and private life. This leads to us never feeling really accomplished, never satisfied with the outcome of our work.
Inspired by a Japanese app developer Non Umemoto, who works for only 3 hours every day, I decided to try the same. I discovered that 3 hours can be a very short time if you are distracted, but quite a lot of time if you are fully present. I therefore I tried avoiding all distractions, even switching off completely my non-internet phone. This last action produced a sense of relief for the brain, as if one item on the agenda was gone.
Working for 3 hours daily also makes me prioritize, what I will be doing in these hours. Initially it felt very frustrating, as I was obviously not accomplishing anything, but the more I do it, the more I notice how my brain is learning to focus. Putting a time boundary in place helped relief the stress of a never-ending work, and gave me more strength to do things.
Now that my book is almost finished, I can share its biggest wisdom: listening to your own internal rhythms, in spite of what others tell, you, and putting your agenda above any tech solution is the ultimate recipe to fight digital procrastination.