Five ways to manage digital distractions

21 November 2023

Amantha Imber

Dr Amantha Imber is the founder of Inventium, a behavioural science consultancy and the host of...

After interviewing over 150 successful professionals, Dr Amantha Imber discovered five unusual and unexpected ways they manage digital distractions.

Six minutes. This is the amount of time people can stay focused on a task before succumbing to the lour of email or messaging apps, according to research by Rescue Time. After analysing 185 million working hours worth of data, the research revealed that people check email or instant messenger every six minutes, on average.

Through the podcast I host, How I Work, I have spoken to over 150 successful entrepreneurs, business people, and innovators about how they buck this statistic. I discovered some unusual and unexpected ways they do this. And the good news is: they are easy for anyone to apply.

1. They use checking so called ‘digital distractions’ as a mini-break

Wharton Professor and best-selling author, Adam Grant isn’t a fan of going cold turkey when it comes to social media, email, and other digital distractions. Instead, he uses them as small rewards or breaks after having done a large chunk of deep, focused work.

“I actually find some of those distractions to be useful mini breaks,” says Grant. “So, when I’m stuck on an idea or a sentence when I’m writing, I’ll actually go over to Twitter and check it for a minute or two, but I limit myself on a clock. I also have goals for how much work I have to finish before I’m allowed to go over and check. I’ll use it as a small reward for making progress on the things that I think are important.”

2. They reflect on their motivation for wanting to check social media

For Grant, being conscious about his motivation for checking social media is critical. He warns people that if the urge to scroll through Facebook or other social media sites is constantly taking you away from your work, then your work probably isn’t motivating enough.

“I actually feel the opposite impulse. If I’m scrolling through Facebook, I’m like, ‘Ah! I’m going to have this really exciting work to do! I want to get back to that’,” he says.

So, while checking social media at work isn’t something Grant frowns upon, being cognisant of your motivation is key.

3. They create subtle changes to nudge themselves towards healthier habits

Avoiding digital distractions doesn’t have to mean making big changes in your life. Sometimes it’s the smaller changes that can have the biggest impact. Matt Mullenweg, a founding developer of WordPress — the open source software used by over 31 per cent of the web — is a big fan of making subtle changes to nudge himself towards healthier digital habits.

“If what’s closest to me in the bed when I wake up is the Kindle and not the phone, I’m more likely to read,” describes Mullenweg. “But if the phone is on top of the Kindle, I’m more likely to look at the phone.” Making sure he leaves his Kindle on top of his phone is therefore a small, but effective strategy for doing more reading and less phone checking.

4. They work offline for hours at a time

In today’s world, being disconnected from the internet is rare. We are never far away from Wi-Fi and if we are not in range, our phone probably is.

But for the world’s most productive people, deliberately taking themselves offline is key to making progress on their most important projects.

“Going offline is really great,” says Mullenweg. “I do this on airplanes, but then occasionally at home I’ll just turn off the network, literally unplugging it, and then just force myself to look at all the things that are there in front of me.”

5. They sometimes go to extreme measures

Prior to becoming CEO of Moment, a company that helps people reign in their mobile phone usage, Tim Kendall was President of Pinterest and struggled a lot with his own phone usage. He started to research what he describes as “brute force approaches” and discovered a product called the KSafe.

The KSafe, a lockable kitchen safe with a built-in timer, was originally designed as a dieting product where dieters could lock away unhealthy food. But in recent years, the product has found a dual purpose for those struggling with mobile phone addiction, whereby they could lock their phones in the safe.

Kendall, himself, tried experimenting with locking away his phone on weeknights, and then for a few hours on weekends. While he doesn’t use the KSafe regularly anymore, he found it effective at the time.

“The thing that works for me today is in my house, where I have an office. When I leave that office before I go and have dinner with my family, I just leave my phone,” says Kendall. “On my best nights, I don’t go and get my phone until the next morning, which is effectively the same thing as putting it in a kitchen safe from 6pm to 8am.”

We’re all human

But at the end of the day, the world’s most productive and high achieving people are human. They also have days where they struggle with digital distractions, just like the rest of us.

When thinking about staying off his phone for significant periods of time, Kendall says: “I find it hard and I go through withdrawal, but I also think that it has a meaningful impact on my relationship with my kids and my wife. I just feel less anxious and less psychologically toxic if I can take a break from my phone.”

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