What if you’re not bad at productivity, you’re just mentally fatigued?
Have you noticed that even when you prioritize just one thing at a time, you’re still falling behind? Constantly interrupted, distracted, scattered? Are you annoyed at yourself because even with one—just one—#BeforeAnythingElse goal to do, you’re often STILL FAILING at getting that thing done?
Pump the brakes and stop the shame train—It’s not your fault.
WHY, ACCORDING TO SCIENCE…
Your goal-setting part of your brain automatically prioritizes the new things (a new tweet, new text, or new email) over important things (deciding who to hire, focusing on the road, or starting a 401K) because it’s governed by a chemical that only responds to bright and shiny rewards: dopamine.
Here’s the scary part: the companies designing our phones, computers, and social media platforms know this—and are EXPLOITING our default dopamine mechanism. In fact, they’ve hijacked it. They’ve even hired neuroscientists to make sure they hack our brains effectively. WTF?!
SCIENCE TRANSLATED FOR HUMANS...
Your struggle with productivity is not because you’re lazy—it’s because your brain is glitching. You’re constantly being sabotaged by a barrage of “shiny objects,” also known as digital interruptions, and THIS is why you still struggle to get things done.
Limit the digital interruptions, set your brain free. Unchecked, our smartphones, computers and inboxes are more “evil genius” than “intelligent tool”—but there are easy ways to fix that.
Read on for seven easy ways to limit the digital distractions in your life—without giving up your phone or moving to a cave in the mountains, fully off-grid.
No. 1 >> Turn Off Push Notifications.
“Push notification” is tech-speak for “permission to hijack your attention so you can’t sue us for altering your behavior.”
Push notifications work on nearly all the senses (sight, sound, and touch) with ad-based alarms, pop-up banners, vibrating notifications and badges (those little number icons at the top of an app telling you how many “unread” emails or “unseen” comments you have, etc.). They’re the number one digital distraction in our lives, draining our ability to focus.
Push notifications act on our subconscious minds, the part of our brains we can’t control. They alter our behavior in two ways:
(1) By triggering the brain’s “attention alarm system,” suddenly consuming us with an urge to “make it go away.” This creates the compulsion you feel to open unread emails to make the red number badge disappear, or to swipe open a pop-up banner to get it off your home screen.
(2) By hijacking our dopamine “reward” system in the brain. We’ve been trained that if we tap the push notification, we might get something rewarding: maybe validation from friends with likes or comments, or a beautiful photo. But sometimes it’s just an ad, or a ridiculously pointless “notification” from Facebook (“do you know so-and-so?”) that was actually a trick to get us back on the platform.
(Are you smirking a little because you’re one of those people with thousands of unread emails + notifications, and you think you beat the hack? I hate to break it to you, but: Your brain’s alarm system is still going off; it instead becomes obsessed with reminding you that you “don’t care” about those notifications. Either way, your brain becomes distracted from the task at hand.)
>> “BUT…What if I miss something important?”
No need for FOMO; the content in these apps (like comments, friend updates, emails) is important to you, and therefore already prioritized as a “self-relevant” goal by your brain. Translation: You’ll remember to check the important apps without push notifications.
HOW to turn off push notifications:
In iOS or Android, go to Settings > Notifications and turn off alarms, badges and banners from every app except apps with messages from actual people (i.e. texting, in case of emergency).
No. 2 >> Go Greyscale.
Using this temporary color-change setting on your phone can mean the difference between staying focused on the task at hand and getting sucked into your addictive apps as a form of procrastination and self-sabotage.
Tech designers know bright colors trigger attention in different areas of our brains, immediately altering our behavior. By switching your home screen to greyscale, you’ll disengage the automatic attention that gets diverted to loud colors in order to focus on the thing you’re trying to do.
Those little red numbers at the top of your app icons are red for a reason; red is a trigger color, proven to signal alarm in the brain. Your subconscious sees that red icon and becomes obsessed with making it go away, pulling your focus from what you need to get done.
HOW to enable Greyscale mode:
>> iOS Settings > General > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut (bottom) > Color Filters. Once selected, you only need to triple click the home button to activate or deactivate Greyscale.
>> Monochromacy is possible in Android but presently requires a few more steps. Search online for steps based on your phone model, or try these steps for Pixel or Nexus phones.
No. 3 >> Use Do Not Disturb Mode to get work done.
Create + Schedule temporary blocks of uninterrupted, focused time without distractions from the endless appeal of your social media feed, notifications, texts, unwanted calls or pop-up notifications—using a function already built into your phone.
Tech designers talk about “Do Not Disturb Mode” as an option to help you sleep through the night without interruption, but it works just as well for focused study / work time during the day, because it’s a setting that is fully customizable. You can even set it while driving, so you’re not tempted to text (I highly recommend this!).
>> “BUT...what if there’s an emergency? How will I be notified!?”
Don’t worry, you can set specific contacts to always break through Do Not Disturb mode (like your significant other, kids, or boss). You can also allow multiple calls from the same number made within three minutes to break through.
HOW to enable Do Not Disturb Mode:
Both iOS and Android have designated Do Not Disturb tabs within Settings. Simply visit Settings, find Do Not Disturb mode, and set your various preferences for night time, work/study time, or driving time.
>> Try the free app, Flipd (IOS and Android), my favorite mindful focus tool.
It has an option called “Flip Off,” where you can select a certain amount of time (30 min, 60 min, several hours) that you want to work uninterrupted. When you “flip off” and activate this timer, distracting apps are temporarily blocked by Flipd. So if you get the urge to scroll through social media, for example, you’d have to actively turn off your timer, navigating away from the app. Flipd is the ultimate tool for using mindful tech to battle tech addiction! Use my PROMO CODE to get a year of Flipd Premium for just $10!
Note: calls and texts still break through the timer, because Flipd can’t “pause” access to any apps that already came with your phone. So yes, it’s safe for emergencies.
No. 4 >> Limit your phone’s home screen to “tools” only.
Have you ever noticed that you only regularly wear what you can easily see in your closet? Well, we compulsively visit apps that are focal on our home screens because we regularly see them.
By moving distracting apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, news, dating apps, games, etc. to the “second” screen of your phone, you have to think twice in order to find them. That’s good, because the action engages your conscious brain (the one with willpower).
The design of our phones is so flawlessly distracting that our attention spans are hacked just by seeing an addictive app’s icon.
If you don’t believe me, play a game with yourself: rearrange all your apps in a weird, arbitrary order. Jumble them up, then close the phone. Next time you naturally pick up the phone, notice how confused your brain is when you tap the wrong icon (because it’s located in a new spot). Your brain creates visual, motor memory and auditory shortcuts for the things it’s addicted to—like these distracting apps—and that addiction runs deep.
HOW to reorganize your phone’s home screen to “Tools” only:
>> To move apps around in iOS:
Hold your finger down over any app for around 2 seconds until they all begin wiggling in place.
Locate the distracting app you want to move off the main screen.
Hold your finger over it for about 1 second, dragging the app off to the right, until the “second screen” becomes available.
Release your finger and the app will now be located on this “second” screen.
Do this for as many apps as you need.
Even better? Before logging into your phone, pull down on the home screen to open the search bar to type what app you want—the extra step involving language will force your conscious brain attention to engage, which helps to curb addictive, distracted behavior.
No. 5 >> If you can’t switch off entirely at night, turn on “Night Mode.”
“Night Mode” is an option that dims your bright backlit screen and changes the tone to a warmer color during a scheduled period of time you designate, typically at night.
“Night mode” reduces the blue light you see, causing less irritation in the later hours of the night when your eyes are especially sensitive, and most importantly, reduces the disruption that backlit screens cause to your sleep-regulation system.
The blue light that emanates from our phones, computers, TVs and tablets is a shorter wavelength than other colors, which means it “vibrates” more when we look at it. When you’re looking at a screen for hours at at time, your eyes are trying to focus on something that is extremely bright and perpetually shaking, causing irritation.
If you’ve ever spent an entire workday staring at a computer screen and felt your eyes struggle to adjust as you get up to look at the world around you—or feel an urge to rub your eyes like a sleepy child after scrolling on Instagram for a while—you’re dealing with something called “digital eye strain.” It happens to all of us, and it’s painful.
On top of digital eye strain, when our eyes absorb blue light at night, it throws off our inner sleep mechanism (production and release of serotonin and melatonin), making it harder to fall asleep, difficult to stay asleep, and leaving us groggy when we wake up. Screens at night = reduced quality of sleep = which leads to higher distractibility the next day. And plenty of other problems, like mood swings and inability to focus or retain information we learn.
In other words? Limit screen time after the sun sets, and if you have to look at your screens, switch to night mode.
HOW to enable “night mode”:
>> How to switch to Night Mode on your iPhone: Find it in iOS, under Settings > Display & Brightness > Night Shift, where you can customize when it’s active, or leave it’s default settings on (sunset to sunrise). Night Shift can also be enabled on iPads in the same way.
>> How to switch to Night Mode on Android phones: Go to Settings > Display > Night Light. Tap Schedule and choose when you want Night mode to turn on. You can set a custom time or leave it default as the duration from sunset to sunrise.
>> How to turn on Night Mode on your Mac computer:
Go to the Apple menu and choose System Preferences.
Select the Displays pane.
Click on the Night Shift tab.
Click on the Schedule menu.
Choose Sunset to Sunrise to have Night Shift turn on and off automatically when it thinks it's night time, based on the time zone your in.
>> To dim the lights and activate night mode on web browsing: Try G.lux, a free browser extension for Google Chrome, or FireLux, a free browser extension for Firefox. Safari browsers will dim if you set up Night Mode through the computer’s preferences (instructions above).
>> How to switch to Night Settings on an Amazon Kindle e-reader:
Tap "Books" from the home screen.
Locate the book you want to read and tap it to open.
Tap the screen to pull up the Options toolbar and tap the "Text" button.
Select the "Font Style" tab and select the white on black text option from the Color Mode row.
P.S. This is a friendly reminder to avoid watching TV right before bed, as the blue light from this screen also messes with your melatonin/serotonin production and ability to fall asleep + sleep soundly. I wish I was better at this.
No. 6 >> Switch to a cheap alarm clock instead of your phone.
Sleeping with your phone next to you at night when you’re trying to increase your attention span + productivity during the day is a little like checking an addict into rehab and offering them a bump of heroin under their pillow.
By using older tech (a traditional alarm clock) and relocating your phone, you’re reducing your ability to act on your brain’s tech-dopamine addiction and sabotaging your attention span.
Because you have no self-control when it comes to the addictive information available on your phone. I’m not trying to shame you, I’m simply stating a fact: the addictive design of your smartphone’s apps works on your subconscious mind, and you can’t control your subconscious impulses. Because your attention span is your only limited inner resource, you have to aggressively protect it from being drained, at all hours of the day and night.
HOW to stop using your phone as an alarm clock:
>> Step 1: Buy a simple alarm clock and set up at your bedside. Since we all got addicted to smartphones, the price of alarm clocks has bottomed out—so enjoy your perfectly functional $5 drugstore clock and stop answering emails (or sending questionable DMs) from your bed.
>> Step 2: Set up your phone’s Do Not Disturb mode (see a how-to description earlier in this post) with your priority emergency contacts allowed to “break through” and be sure to set the ringtone at loud volume. Then leave your phone in the kitchen or across the room overnight.
>> “BUT...what about emergency calls or texts???”
Don’t worry: With Do Not Disturb mode on, you won’t get any unnecessary notifications / calls / texts, but you’ll still hear emergency calls because the volume is high, and you already preset your emergency contacts. And if we’re being honest, true emergencies are rarely texts, right? You can also let you friends / coworkers know you’re doing this, so they’ll know to call if it’s important enough to wake you up at night.
No. 7 >> Establish “Batch” Response Times for Emails.
There’s now a scientific term for the social pressure we feel to immediately respond to texts, emails, and IMs/DMs: “telepressure.” Resist telepressure (and mental burnout) by breaking your digital tasks into chunks; choose blocks of time to respond to emails, especially at work.
We’re not multitasking with our digital media and devices—we’re switch-tasking. Switch-tasking is attempting multiple unrelated tasks at once, resulting in short bursts of focus on one thing and then another—which is exactly what we end up doing in our inboxes.
One study found that we spend more than 40% of our productive time per day switch-tasking with digital communication tools (like email, IM, texting, and social apps); another found that we are interrupted an average of four times per hour by these apps. Especially emails.
Gloria Mark, a professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, studies the way modern work is fragmented by constant media interruptions. She and her team found that each of these interruptions becomes a time suck—it takes people an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task at hand. If we’re interrupted an average of four times per hour and it takes us an average of 23 minutes to get back on task, how much productive time are we losing each day!? I won’t even attempt that math.
Mark’s and several other studies show that digital interruptions—especially switch-tasking with email—raise our cortisol and adrenaline levels, leaving us overwhelmed and anxious. The solution? Limit the number of email interruptions with “batch responding.”
HOW to set up “batch” response times to emails:
>> Step 1: Choose (1) or (2) times per working day that you can comfortably spend time responding to emails. The time(s) you choose are dependent on when you’re naturally most creative / productive and the demands of your work. (I’m most creative in the morning before noon and essentially useless after 4pm. This means it’s best if I check emails at 12pm and 5pm.)
>> Step 2: Notify your boss, coworkers, clients, customers, and anyone who emails you of your new response times. The easiest way to do this is to add a note to below your email signature, like this:
“In an effort to increase productivity, I respond to email between the hours of 9-10 am PST and 4-5 pm PST, Mon - Fri. For any urgent matters, please call 555) 555-5555. I value your time and will respond as soon as I am able. Thank you for your understanding.”
This email-signature trick is especially effective, because it passively notifies senders of your boundaries, while asserting your physical constraints: the time zone you live in, the days you work, the best way to contact you in urgent matters. It slowly re-trains people on what is an appropriate form of communication for you.
Step 3 >> Set an alarm on your phone or reminder on your calendar 2 minutes before your “batch email response” window begins, and another 2 minutes before it ends. Don’t snooze this alarm—stop what you’re doing when the final alarm goes off, and close your inbox browser. It’s important to create a healthy habit.
>> “But what if I fall behind on responses and my job suffers because of it?”
Full disclosure? During the first month I did this, I had to “play catchup” outside my set response times once, at the end of a week on a friday. Being effective with email is a cycle that just needs momentum to start; you’ll find you get less unnecessary email as your peers adjust to your communication style.
Oh, and if you have a particularly resistant boss, follow these three steps:
(2) show them your suggested email signature, and
(3) ask for a trial run of 30, 60, or 90 days. Tell them if there is any decrease in productivity, you’ll immediately return to the old way of doing things. (Hint: You won’t have to go back to the old way of doing things. *smirk*)
Copy >> Paste this template into your email signature (you can alter this in the settings of your inbox provider) and adapt as needed:
In an effort to increase productivity, I respond to email between the hours of ______ TIME ZONE and _______ TIME ZONE, FILL IN DAYS OF THE WEEK. For any urgent matters, please call _____. I value your time and will respond as soon as I am able. Thank you for your understanding.”