Technology has been called the greatest disruptor of happiness in human history. For all of our technological connectivity in the modern era, we have never felt so overwhelmed and fragmented as a society. We’re stressed out by the size of our inboxes, by our social media feeds, by the tangle of wires on our nightstands. Technology is flooding into every crevice of our lives faster than we can currently assimilate and evaluate what it means for us.
Distractions are not just an annoyance, they also have a powerful impact on focus, flow and productivity at work. According to Cyrus Foroughi, a doctoral student at George Mason University, one minute of distraction is more than enough to wipe your short-term memory. An interruption as short as 2.8 seconds (the length of time it takes to read a short text message) can double error rates on simple sequencing tasks and a 4.4 second interruption can triple error rates. Even worse, when we get distracted, it takes an average of 11 minutes to return to the task that you were doing before. No wonder it feels like we are constantly saying, “Now what was I doing…?”
Linda Stone, a software executive who has worked for both Apple and Microsoft, explains that we are so busy keeping tabs on everything that we never focus on anything, a phenomenon she calls “continuous partial attention.” Today the average smartphone user checks his phone 150 times a day. Which means that every time you swipe open your phone, you’re giving away approximately one minute of your life. Multiply that by 150 swipes, and you are looking at 2.5 hours of your day…every day. Or the equivalent of 38 days a year.
A recent study found that the mere presence of a phone in your line of sight can decrease your focus, flow and connectedness to others—even if you never touch it or even look at it. Why? Because your brain is anticipating you might get a message and you might be needed, a feeling that is particularly addictive.
So, what can be done about digital distraction? While completely unplugging is one solution, I believe we need to learn to live with technology rather than just escape from it. Technology itself is just a tool—what we do with it makes all the difference. To drive home this point, I’ll show you how to fight fire with fire—using technology to help control technology. Here are six of my favorite apps to help you regain control of your digital life and refocus your attention with intention.
- The Realizd app tracks how often you unlock your phone, how long you go between unlocks and what you are doing on your phone. Knowing your stats increases your awareness so that you can make proactive choices about how you spend your time and energy.
- The QualityTime (for Android) or Freedom (paid app for iPhone/Android) apps enable you to turn off specific apps (Candy Crush anyone?) or even to lock you out of your phone for periods of deeper focus.
- Calendly helps you schedule meetings without the back-and-forth emails.
- Gmail Unsubscribe is an open-source Google Script to help you easily unsubscribe your email address from unwanted newsletters and other bulk emails in Gmail and Google Inbox.
- MindFi offers “eye-opening meditation for busy humans.” Users are encouraged to re-center themselves through three-minute guided meditations designed to be used during a break, a meal or even during a commute.
- Todoist is a to-do list and task manager to help you remember details and prioritize tasks in your life.
Finding the right apps can be a tremendous support for managing information flow in your life. However, even helpful technology can be distracting. To avoid getting overwhelmed, choose one app and stick with it for at least a week to see if it is a good fit for your life. The best apps will seamlessly support you in achieving your goals of greater productivity, focus and flow.