Personal Reflections on Removing Distractions for Improved Productivity
I've done a couple of experiments with reducing distractions (here and here). Since then, I've taken the weed-whacker to Facebook, only check the news a couple of times a day, and (try to) restrict my Netflix.
What does this mean for me professionally and personally?
First of all, I don't miss Facebook one bit. The research is pretty clear that social media makes us unhappy. What alarms me in retrospect is that Facebook use seems like an addiction: something bad for you, but you can't stop doing. Consider these stats from a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on social media usage:
- 69% of adults in the US said "they use such services at least once a day."
- And yet, "82% of Americans believe social media is a waste of time."
- 57% said social media "does more to divide us."
- 55% said "social media does more to spread lies and falsehoods."
I've been pretty careful for a long time about what services I sign up for. I can't deny the influence of Twitter, but I never understood the appeal of reading people's mundane, off-the-cuff thoughts, or publishing my own. I never signed up. Likewise, no SnapChat.
In short, I only had Facebook to deal with. I was a little worried about losing contact with my FB friends, but realized a) I only had about thirty FB friends, and b) that worry was a symptom of the FB disease. The solution was easy, I asked all my FB friends via instant messenger if they'd give me their email addresses so I could stay in touch. Many did. Anxiety-crisis averted. I backed up and deleted my account.
What now? That's easy, too. How about I make more real, in-person friends? You know, the kind that research shows actually increase well-being?
The news is inherently depressing, and apparently we love it. Even as a kid (back in the three-network days), I hated watching or listening to the TV news because it sounded ugly. This doesn't mean news isn't important. But there's only so much reporting of the current socio-political awfulness a person should read.
I used a browser blocker to keep me from reading the news during the day for several weeks. I'm pretty good now at only dipping into Google News and NPR a couple of times a day. I know from past experience I can go weeks at a time without checking the news because if something really, really important happens I'm sure I'll hear about it. Here's the way I now see being a news junkie:
The news is like Facebook. Emotionally, it's more like gossip, and is addictive in the same way.
The fact is, I can't do much, if anything, about what's in the news. So why obsess and clamor and complain over what I can't change, when I can fill my life with plenty that I can?
Netflix, et al
This is my bane. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, CWTV, IMDb FreeDive, YouTube...I'm still addicted to streaming media. It's not wrong for me to enjoy a little TV and movies, but it's too often a go-to break from work or other activities. Is this bad? Yep, for the same reasons as above. It keeps me away from real, live social interactions. There's also evidence that watching TV has negative mental effects, while reading has positive effects. (Sorry, I don't have a link to this right now.)
My current solution to this is strict time-blocking. I try to only watch Netflix during certain times of the day.
I know when I'm watching too much TV. I can feel it, and that's compounded by my profession as a software engineer. My job is at the computer, so all together I can end up spending sixteen hours a day on the thing.
Meditation, WOOP, Time-Boxing, Habits: Whew!
Removing distractions has helped my productivity and well-being. But it's not enough. To create a healthier work balance, I needed to retrain my brain. Fortunately, we live in a great time for research into well-being.
Proper meditation, where the wandering mind (the Default Mental Network) is stilled, helps not only with mental/emotional health but also distraction. After all, the wandering mind is distraction.
This is a great technique for establishing new behaviors and habits. It can be done daily in a few minutes. I've used this to manage overwhelm when facing a large task list.
- Identify what you Wish for (the goal)
- Imagine and emotionally invest in the Outcome(s). It's valuable to imagine the affect on the future self.
- Imagine and emotionally invest in the Obstacle(s). Again, what's the affect on the future self?
- Create a simple If-Then Plan. "When this happens, I will do this."
Note: Do not "flip the Os". Imagine outcomes first, then obstacles.
I've adopted a 50-10 time box. Read my blog article.
There are great books on how to break and make habits, based on science. For those who love podcasts, here's an interview with the author of Atomic Habits.
I've had to overcome some challenges in the past couple of years. Thankfully, I have a wife who loves me, and my clients have been happy with my work. I enjoy reading about science and well-being, and enjoy even more applying what I learn.
All in all, my experiments have been a success.