By Andy Tattersal
To consider how being constantly connected through computers and mobile devices has encroached on our working lives, consider the experiment about the frog in a pan of boiling water.
A frog in a pan of cold water that is gently heated will not realise it’s boiling to death if the change is sufficiently gradual. In the same way, the web has affected our attention span and so our productivity – slowly but surely the heat of distraction has increased as decades of internet evolution has added email, websites, instant messaging, forums, social media and video.
Striving to manage technology better or wean ourselves off from distractions such as social media updates or emails can be very hard, if not virtually impossible for some. It requires serious willpower.
What’s the answer for today’s organisations – lock-down and block, and risk restricting access to genuinely useful content and services? Blocking and locking-off parts of the web can only hinder progress and innovation, or by reacting to slow to change and innovation as seen in the NHS can have a negative impact on technology uptake, especially now the internet is now made up of things.
If we are to advance knowledge, it’s essential to have access to the full gamut of content online. Whether that’s to study the effects of pornography on society or for a student’s private consumption, we have to be mature about this, there is some content on the Web that will always be demanded. In fact the government’s efforts to deal with online pornography has led to the over-zealous use of internet filters. Dumb filters performing keyword filtering inevitably led to legitimate sex education websites being blocked.
Procrastination is not new and there will always find new and inventive ways of putting-off work. But there are means to help tackle that distraction, if only for some rather than all of the time.
Eat that frog
The problem with digital distraction is often starts from the first moment we sit down at our desks, or even before we’ve got there. Once we open our email we are drawn into conversations, questions and broadcasts. The more emails appear, the more we feel compelled to deal with them.
A useful solution involves that frog again: we all have tasks we ignore and delay, nagging away at the back of our minds. We have to complete these tasks, so why not start your day by doing just that and eating that frog: instead of checking frivolous updates and emails, tackle an important task that’s hanging around first thing in the morning.
The Pomodoro Technique
The popular Pomodoro Technique, which suggests using 30 minute time slots for a single task, followed by a break, can be helpful in dedicating time to specific projects. Another way to reign in distraction is to create lists or use time management apps like 30:30 or Wunderlist. These help set up a structured pattern to the working day, which is especially useful if you need to use social media professionally but also need to carve out time to get other things done.
Meditation and mindfulness has gained much attention in the last couple of years, such as Andy Puddicombe’s popular Headspace imprint. In a busy office this offers a sensible solution to problem of losing focus. Just five minutes meditation could help quiet the mind and return focus to completing the current task. Various studies have highlighted the benefits of meditation and mindfulness on a digital worker’s productivity, and general happiness too.
Create an alternative productivity calendar
Paper diaries are still often used, if less so with the modern proliferation of electronic alternatives. These often dictate the modern worker’s routine, so much so that they fill in the spaces with fractured and incomplete tasks. Another solution is to create a personal online calendar to overlay a work calendar. By scheduling everything, from checking social media and emails to family time and free periods, it’s possible to make better use of the time you have.
Self-management starts with you
There comes a time to cut back on things that aren’t good for you, whether that’s food, drink, or social media. We realise that seeking distraction from our daily tasks is not healthy, especially if we can minimise it.
Professor Steve Peters has helped many high-profile sports stars control this impulsive, emotional part of the brain – something he calls the “chimp brain”. The easiest way to do so is not to feed it, for example, by not opening email. But finding a happy medium between restriction and necessary use is not easy.
Some have tried to constrain email and its effects on the workforce by turning it off for set periods. In Germany there have been calls to prevent companies from contacting employees out of hours. While this is fine for those working the nine-to-five, this no longer applies to many for a variety of reasons, some personal, some due to the nature of the work.
Self-management tools are a better option. For Google users there is an app called Inbox Pause which does just that, preventing new email distraction. There’s also restrictions for email on mobile devices that only updates when connected to known work or home networks – which means less chance of compulsively checking while out and about or on holiday.
But all of these require commitment, and like any lifestyle modification there has to be a willingness to change. Technology will continue to embed itself within our lives at home and at work, especially the use of smartphones. So if we feel the need to reign-in the distractions, whatever app or technique we choose to help us, it hinges on our own self-discipline.