This article is about prioritizing your attention on the things that matter. It’s about creating a sense of discipline in your life that enables your time and attention to be fiercely loyal to what’s most important to you. It’s about staying focused on caring for your long-term and most important goals above that which is short term and less important – so you can be more intentional with your attention. It’s also about:
- Managing distraction and building discipline so you can focus
- Limiting information overload
- Having agency over your attention, time, and limited mental and emotional bandwidth
- Setting boundaries
- Focusing on long-term over short-term goals
- Winning against temptation and derailment
This article is not a plea to renounce social media, email, news, or other common distractions, but rather how to manage them and use them to your advantage – in an intentional and beneficial way, rather than overuse, misuse, or be controlled by them.
At the time I am writing this, we are in the middle of a pandemic, which has me feeling incredibly grateful to technology and all it enables me to do. At a time when technology allows many businesses to function from a distance, and also enable my son to stay in touch with his grandparents during the pandemic; it is quite remarkable.
Yet … it is precisely the increase in screen time that also makes it a good moment to check in with yourself to ensure you are staying in balance.
My Relationship with Information Overload
I am writing this article as someone who gets easily distracted with information. I love to research and collect information, ideas, and various perspectives. Curiosity is one of my core values, which makes it difficult for me to maintain boundaries I set forth when it comes to consuming information, and it makes me prone to distraction, information overload, and falling down rabbit holes. This tendency is what catalyzed my various self-experiments with information dieting.
As much of a researcher and information collector I can be, I loathe clutter. My house, my desk, and my environment need to be clutter-free in order for me to focus. I have post-it notes on my desk that say “Clear the path” and “Get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful, or joyful.” I recently asked myself, What would happen if I applied the philosophy on my post-it notes to my information consumption and diet?
This started a new relationship with information, one where I have more control and intention. I admit that I have backslid many times over the years, but all the while I try to maintain an attitude of being a work-in-progress. I realized recently that the pandemic has caused an uptick in my technology and information use – another backslide. The reliance on Zoom for work, addiction to the news surrounding the election and pandemic, and desire to stay connected with friends from afar via social media have all contributed to this backslide.
Recently I, along with many others, watched the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma. The documentary did not surprise me; I’ve been following Tristan Harris’s work for years. However, it did re-ignite my motivation to use tech less. If you watched the documentary, you are aware that Apps are designed to steal your attention, and are paid well for it. “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product,” the documentary said in a nutshell. The increase of pandemic screen time, coupled with the documentary was enough to move me to spend less time on a screen.
There are many leadership, mindfulness, and productivity gurus who have a lot of helpful advice around this topic of boundary setting, work-life balance, and screen-life balance. I self-experimented with lots of success and failure, and I’m here to share a few of the things I’ve learned along the way that have helped me achieve more balance regarding how to take more control over our precious attention.
1. Prioritize First Things First
When I was young, I remember the important lesson in making a paperweight, where you have to put the rocks into the jar before the pebbles and the sand. The small things will slide in after the big things are in place. You simply cannot place those big rocks on top of a bunch of menial small stuff.
If you think about your work, how often do you push aside the important things to do “later,” yet still accomplish the little items, either because they are easier, on your calendar, or low-hanging fruit? And sometimes “later” never comes.
And let’s be honest – you just don’t have time to do it all, nor would that be possible. You will never reach the end of your to-do list, so you must get to the most important things first. As Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, wisely stated, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”
When you look back a year from now, how much quality time do you wish you had spent with your family? With your favorite hobbies? Doing what you love and what matters most? Working on strategic, visionary, and high-impact projects? How can you be sure that when you look back in a year from now, your life will have reflected your vision?
Using this simple chart, decide in advance how much time you want to spend:
Time Targets Chart: Domains of Life
By deciding in advance, it invites you to be intentional in keeping the areas you declared as most important at the top of your mind and calendar. How do you actually ensure you follow through on these targets? You probably have to set some guardrails, which this article gets into. However, it is important to keep in mind that the most effective way to stay tuned in with your priorities is to shift your mindset.
There are many different systems and tricks to make sure you are focusing on the most important things, but there is no one-size-fits-all system. You have to find something that really works for you, whether it is some kind of OKR system, the rule of 3, setting boundaries and personal policies, the ONE thing, or something else. To be completely honest, I do not believe a time management or accountability system will help you make this shift alone – I believe it is more of a mindset; it’s about inclining your mind toward priorities. This can be summarized in another simple Covey quote:
“The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.”
Avoid waking up in a year only to realize that you spent 25% of your time cleaning your house, reading the news, or checking your email.
2. Create Boundaries
So now that you have an idea of how much time you want to spend doing the things that are important to you, it’s time to make sure you can make those things happen by not letting your attention get derailed.
In a similar fashion, when you look back on today one year from now, how much time would you want to have spent on each of your devices? Create a separate target for each category that you use the most and give it some thought:
Time Targets Chart: Devices and Tech
Then create some categories and targets for types of online consumption:
Time Targets Chart: Types of Online Distraction
Review to make sure your targets between the first charts and second don’t exceed the universal allotment of time each day. Once you have some targets set for how much time you want to spend in each, you need to have a system for ensuring that you can effectively hold yourself accountable, which can be tricky when you have multiple devices.
Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up With Your Phone, advises you to keep different parts of your life separate so they don’t blend together. If you are working from home during the pandemic, your work and personal lives have likely been blending too much. If you can create some personal policies, it can help keep boundaries stronger, i.e.:
- Only allow yourself to access work email from your laptop, which stays in your office
- Read news only from one device, i.e. your iPad
- Read social media from laptop, which stays in your office.
Then it’s easy to set your daily time limit on each device ahead of time. This helps you take some control over how much of your attention you are dedicating to your devices. The app, device, and video game developers are trained to have you spend more time using their platforms, so don’t think you can outsmart them. Best to get ahead by deciding in advance and setting up a system to prevent you from surpassing your desired limit. After all, you only have 24 hours in a given day.
3. Don’t Rely on Willpower
It is easy to declare your intentions for how much time you want to spend on any given task ahead of time. The tricky thing is following through on these intentions when you are not carefully paying attention or when your attention is lured away by distractions. Health psychologist, lecturer at Stanford University, and author of The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, PhD, said, “When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses — not your long-term goals — will guide your choices.”
McGonigal warns that it can be difficult to unwind default responses and behaviors. Let’s say you are accustomed to checking your email or picking up your smart phone every time you get stressed. Then you get sucked into what is known as “doom scrolling,” which takes advantage of your stressed state of mind, and uses it as fuel to keep you engaged with the distraction. Before you know it, you’ve lost meaningful time to something you have not intentionally prioritized.
How do you put an end to this cycle? You can’t rely on sheer willpower. “The status quo is seductive, “ McGonigal said, indicating how hard it is to change those behaviors. In the realm of technology, there are many very intelligent people who work together to design and build algorithms, tricks, and systems to keep you engaged. Instead of pretending you will beat those systems (you won’t since you are disadvantaged), the idea is to get ahead of the systems.
You can get ahead of distraction by deciding on an alternative behavior so you don’t have to rely on sheer willpower.
What do you do when you are stressed? For some people, they stress eat. Some people gossip. Others doom scroll. Many people (myself included) are anxious right now because of all that 2020 has offered. We reach for our devices or potato chips because we think it will make us feel better, but in reality – these behaviors make us feel worse. And what’s worse is that when you are stressed, you have less control over your mind, which means you eat more chips or spend more time than intended on your smart phone. Price said in an interview with Dan Harris, “Our brains are in an altered state when we are stressed out, and it becomes more difficult to resist or not give into that temptation of just scrolling.”
I’ll say it again; do not rely on sheer willpower.
As soon as you notice you are stressed, distracted, doom scrolling, cleaning your house again, or otherwise focused on unimportant tasks, have a go-to alternative thing to do that is better for you and will get you back on track with your priorities. Decide what that is in advance, whether it is a few deep breaths, reviewing your calendar or list of priorities, an affirmation, or something else that will motivate you to take charge.
4. Make Common Distractions Less Tempting
When trying to adopt a new habit, psychologists will tell you to reduce the friction between you and the thing you want to do. For example, if you want to the gym early in the morning, have your workout bag packed and by the door the night before.
You could reverse engineer this advice by adding friction to a habit that you want to quit. For example, if you are trying to spend less time on social media, you might try adding friction by removing social media applications from your phone so it is harder for you to engage. Try it out. Uninstall for a week and see how it goes for you. You can always reinstall an application for emergencies, which gives you that extra 30 seconds and forces you to discern what is an actual emergency and what dictates your time in the moment. Similarly, if your dog, Fido, is distracting you from important work by barking at your office window, you would put him in another room while you are focused on work.
Switch to Grayscale
Another trick to make your smart phone less temping is to switch your phone’s display to grayscale. Colorful icons and alerts are meant to call your attention, with the psychology of color at the heart of the design. Tristan Harris, founder of the Center for Humane Technology and center stage in The Social Dilemma, recommends grayscale as a way to decrease the positive enforcement effect the color has on you and make your phone less tempting, addictive, and generally less fun to use.
Play with this idea of adding and removing friction and temptations to give you more control and greater ability to be intentional with your attention and priorities.
5. Create a Proactive Calendar System
I recently listened to Episode 20 of the Essentialism podcast, which featured Jordan Harbinger around the conversation of elite time management. In this interview, Harbinger talks about his proactive and rigid structure and system for his calendar, and how much more effective it is to operate from a place of proactivity rather than reactivity.
In the episode, Harbinger outlines his system, which is highly efficient, but is a bit too rigid for me personally. What I appreciated about his system is the concept of proactive scheduling in 15-minute blocks. So often we get derailed from our priorities by a phone call or an email that has someone else’s agenda or priority attached to it. He advises that if someone calls you, you should use that as a cue to schedule a time to chat with that person, rather than take the call. If you take the call, the next 15-minute time block will be delayed, causing everything to get off track.
Another piece of advice Harbinger offers is to decide in advance how long you will spend on any given task and when the time is up, the time is up. With this, there is no room to get derailed. I appreciate the concept of being proactive with your time and planning in advance, and I have a similar system in place for myself, although admittedly a little more flexible. Remember Covey’s advice:
“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”
Schedule Email Sessions
Another idea along the lines of being proactive with your time is to limit when you check your email to once or twice a day. This enables you to be in charge of when you get pulled into something. If you are worried about time-sensitive issues arising, you can give your phone number to those who work closely with you as a backup plan. You can also set expectations accordingly by instituting an “away message” that gives recipients the schedule of when you check your email and when they can expect to hear back from you.
6. Check In With Yourself Often
Don’t take my word for it that the concepts in this article will work for you; take notes for yourself. It helps to have some measure of how you tend to feel during certain activities, so check in with yourself and notice:
- What mood do you tend to be in when you are checking your email?
- How do you feel during and after scrolling through a social media feed?
- What mood do you tend to be in when you are connecting with your spouse or child or loved one without any distraction?
- How do you tend to feel when you are connecting with your spouse or child or loved one and you have your cell phone in your hand or while multitasking?
If you can notice how certain activities make you feel, you will notice when distractions or technology become a problem in your life. This practice of checking in with yourself often will also bring to light the reason why you spend time reading the news or scrolling on your device in the first place. You will begin to notice if it is a result of a particular feeling and also notice what activities make you feel better or worse.
Every time you open news, email, social media, or whatever you feel is a problem for you, use it as an opportunity to ask yourself: How do I feel and will this enhance my day? Will it add value? Will it satisfy my need? Does it energize me or drain me?
7. Designate “Time Outs” from Tech
Maybe it is a day of the week, a window of each day, or some kind of schedule, but it is a good idea to take some time away from your devices to connect with loved ones, creative pursuits, nature, or other hobbies.
For me, it is the morning and evening. I believe the first thing you do during your day will set the tone for your entire day. I personally do not want my phone to beep, ding, buzz, or remind me of anything that is unessential first thing when I wake up. I want to use my first moments of the day to connect with myself and my family in a present way. I find this mode helps set me up to be more present for my work as well.
If you look at your phone first thing, you are saying you don’t mind the app maker or the person who sent you an email to decide how you will start your day.
A good first place to start is to buy yourself good ole’-fashioned alarm clock so your phone can be charging in a different room, or at least not within arm’s reach at night.
8. Limit Notifications
This is the gold standard for first steps in controlling your attention. An oldie but goodie. Turn off all of your notifications except the ones you absolutely need. These notifications are designed to lure you into a rabbit hole and steal your attention. If it’s not urgent, remove the notification for it and set aside time each day to catch up on what you missed – at a time that works for you.
For example, my phone is always on silent (not vibrate). The only notifications I get on my phone are text messages and calendar reminders, which means I have to proactively go into any other app to check to see if I got an email, a “like” on Instagram, or a news update. This is not a foolproof plan. I am still at risk for going into the abyss of my smart phone when stressed or bored and then losing track of time (although I have a 5-minute limit on most of my apps so the risk isn’t too high anymore.) Each time I go to check in with an app on my cell phone, I do a quick self-check by taking one deep breath and asking myself, “Will xxxx (whatever I am about to do) serve me, really?” This is enough for me to often decide I don’t need to continue.
Use an App to Use Apps Less
Try SPACE, which is an app designed to help you find more phone/life balance by forcing you to pause before opening up social media on your smart phone.
The Bottom Line
Think about what kind of system you can take to pause before using getting distracted with something you know does not have a good impact on you, minimize your time on low-priority tasks, limit notifications and time spent on frivolous things, or anything else that will help you gain more control over your time and attention.
When you add up all of the time you could save by eliminating the low priorities and distractions from your plate, you will be surprised by how intentional with your attention you can actually be, and how much better it feels to consciously guide the way you spend your time.
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