When Tech Takes Over

-Laura Oles

A few years ago, Microsoft released a study that claimed the average American had the attention span of a goldfish.  

Eight seconds. 

I can relate.

While this study has been hotly debated–some sources claim we are simply becoming more adept at filtering out unimportant content designed to grab out attention–I remain undecided. Some days I’m Dory from Finding Nemo. “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…ooh, what’s that? A new project?”

And I’m off on a tangent.

This has become particularly more challenging now that summer is here and our kids have no fixed daily schedule.  I love this part of parenthood–my kids are older now and time is fleeting–but I also realize that I have to carve out a set schedule even though others are coming in and out all day.  Working from home is a wonderful gift but also brings its own challenges.

And don’t get me started on the time suck that is social media. I know some truly productive people who are on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter all the time, and I marvel at how they manage it all.

I’m not one of those people.  

So, as someone who was in search of solutions, I was thrilled to come across Cal Newport’s latest book titled Digital Minimalism.  I had read his previous book, Deep Work, and found some very compelling arguments for ignoring most things that demand our attention in order to accomplish our top priorities.  Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, but he isn’t on social media.  He’s a prolific author and an example of what one can accomplish when treating our attention and time as our most valuable resources.  One of Newport’s most powerful contentions is that so few people possess the ability to focus on a single task for long periods of time that this skill will soon become a huge competitive advantage. 

I decided to experiment with some of the lessons I learned to see which ones, if any, might help improve my focus and reclaim some lost time.  Here are a few that are working for me:

No Morning Social Media:  With the exception of my publisher’s FB group and a writers’ sprint thread, I try not to be on social media unless there is a specific reason (book promotions, etc).  Working from home can be fraught with distractions, but I feel this is one thing I can control.  This rule helps me turn my attention to my daily priorities sooner instead of squandering minutes and energy on social media procrastination.  

Scheduled Email:  Having my email accessible on my phone has been a mixed blessing.  I can quickly respond to requests and inquiries, but then again, like social media, before long I’m down a rabbit hole of other people’s priorities. I now check in three times a day–early morning, lunch, and end of day–and this seems to work well.  If there’s an urgent concern, that’s usually when I get a phone call. People know how to reach me if needed. 

OSX Daily

Do Not Disturb is Your Friend:  Did you know that studies show that we check our phones several times per hour even when we aren’t receiving notifications?  And when our phones are blowing up with non-critical messages and demands for our attention, it takes us 20 minutes to refocus completely on the task at hand? There are so many ways for technology to intrude that it has required me to rethink my constant accessibility.  I now put my phone on Do Not Disturb for certain hours in the day when I know I will need uninterrupted time.  That doesn’t mean my time remains completely uninterrupted, but at least I’ve narrowed down the ways in which my time gets fractured into smaller segments.

I realized that I sometimes allow technology to determine which priorities receive my attention rather than using technology first and foremost for my own benefit in pursuit of my goals.  Pushing my correspondence and social media to the late afternoons/evenings has helped open my creativity and allowed the space my mind needs to work out plot issues and character motivations.  By not filling in small bits of time with other distractions, I’m returning to those earlier days when our minds were allowed to wander and ponder.  

I still fall off track now and then–usually, when I’m struggling with a particular aspect of a writing project–but I now catch myself more quickly and return to the task at hand.  Being more mindful of my attention has also helped me better identify why I’m procrastinating in a certain situation.  Once I can name it, I can figure out how to fix it.  I still fall short sometimes, and that’s okay.  Small improvements can mean big results over the long term. Not perfect, but better.  

I’ll take better. 

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