Here’s a quick thought experiment that will teach you something about yourself. Say you’re working at your computer, with your smartphone on the desk beside you.
Your phone buzzes with a new text message. Do you keep working on the computer, or stop what you’re doing to check the text?
The vast majority of us, in my observation, choose option B. A text is usually so much more exciting than whatever we’re working on, so we stop our flow of work and check the text.
Distraction is the enemy of success
When you’re deeply engrossed in meaningful work, you’re in a state of consciousness that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. You know this state, where you lose track of time and become one with the work. You’re “in the zone.”
Now think of all the digital distractions that constantly tempt us: text messages, instant messages, emails, and so on. When we allow ourselves to be pulled into these distractions, it pulls us out of flow. This means a massive loss in productivity, because it takes time to get back into flow.
I started out my career as a software developer, where flow was necessary. I would be eight levels deep in the code, and if someone interrupted me to ask about my weekend, that entire mental superstructure would come raining down in a shower of pixels. It would take me fifteen minutes to build it back up again.
The bad news is that every digital distraction you allow into your life has a “cascading effect” in terms of lost productivity. The good news is that you can take control of these distractions. And it will only take you one hour.
“By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.” – Christopher Columbus
We are all Pavlov’s dogs
The great Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov conducted an experiment with dogs where he rang a bell each time he served them food. After a while, the dogs began salivating when he rang the bell, whether he served food or not: their bodies became conditioned to expect food whenever they heard the bell.
We don’t often think of ourselves like Pavlov’s dogs, but we are. The text message alert on your phone is a “bell” that has conditioned you to expect a tiny burst of information. Because humans feed on information, the text alert delivers a little dopamine hit to your brain, and you stop what you’re doing to answer it. This is why digital distractions are so difficult to resist: they’re addictive!
Software and hardware makers understand this. These digital distractions are built into every device and app, because that’s how they get you to use them. The more an app interrupts your life, the more likely you’ll get addicted to it.
There’s only one way out: turn off the bell. You have to take control of your own working environment. Turn off, remove, and uninstall as many digital distractions as possible. Strive for a Zen-like simplicity on your computer and smartphone, where you will be able to devote large chunks of uninterrupted time to work that matters.
I recommend investing one hour in cleaning up all these digital distractions. Do it today, before you forget about it. It’s the best time investment you will make this year, because each digital distraction you remove will save you hours of time in the future. Here’s a list to get you started:
- Text messages: Set your phone to vibrate rather than an audible alert when you receive a text. Mute texts during working hours.
- Instant messages: If you have instant message platforms like Google Chat or Skype installed, turn them off by default, rather than having them load at startup.
- System messages: Get rid of as many icons in your system tray as possible, and remove their meaningless interruptions. (Most icons allow you to right-click, then choose “options.”)
- Audible notifications: Turn off all the audible beeps, boops, and ding-dong arooga’s from your phone and computer. These are productivity killers.
- Live updates: Turn off all the useless, distracting scrolling headlines (on the Windows 10 start menu, for example) by right-clicking and turning off “live updates.”
- Internet distractions: Remove time-wasting bookmarks from your browser, so you have to type them in manually. Install an app that blocks the internet during working hours.
- Email: This is the big one. Ruthlessly unsubscribe! Get yourself off all unnecessary email lists. If in doubt, yank it out.
“Don’t become a mere recorder of facts, but try to penetrate the mystery of their origin.” – Ivan Pavlov
If you had the opportunity to invest $1 today for a $100 payoff over the next year, it would be a wildly profitable investment. This is the one-hour time investment that will pay off at least 100 hours in productivity over the next year. Only you can make the investment; no one can do it for you.