Developing filters in the age of distraction

Online distractions are tiny thrills in our every day. Every time we check our email or Facebook or Twitter, we get the thrill of the new: What has happened since last I checked? Every time we see that there’s new unread email, we get a little kick. Dopamine is released into our system. It is addictive. It feels a little like this:

At one point not too long ago, I realised that I spent way too much of my time online. I used my smartphone to check mail and Facebook on the go without really having the time or patience to reply on the phone. Whenever I sat at my computer to work, every five or ten minutes I would feel the urge to check my email.

And I realised that every time I checked my email, I was hoping for something to distract me from the thing I was working on. Something easier, something immediately rewarding. But most of the times, I just found more stuff I needed to do. And so, my to do-list grew, and I got more stressed, the more things I tried to keep in my head at the same time. At one point, I realized that I was stuck in a bad habit, and I needed to make some rules for myself in order to kick it.

As internet theorist Clay Shirky has pointed out, we’ve not suffering from information overload, but rather from filter failure. We need to develop better filters to manage the flow of information that we meet every day. It’s a well-recognized problem. In fact, the whole GTD movement is all about getting rid of distractions and Getting Things Done.

So, I’ve been giving this some thought. And I’ve been looking around, and sought to develop a set of filters to limit the stress and distraction of unwarranted information flows. This is what I’ve ended up with so far:

1) Inbox Zero
The first step was to empty my inbox. I try to follow the rules of Inbox Zero. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it’s pretty simple: You should be processing your email instead of checking it. Checking email just means looking to see what’s new. Processing email means actually converting each email into concrete actions. So, for every email in your inbox, do one one of the following:

  • Delete — if no other action is required on your part
  • Delegate — pass the task or information on to whoever should have it
  • Respond — if you can reply to this in a few minutes, send your reply — straight away
  • Defer — if you cannot reply or delegate (e.g. if you’re waiting for an answer from someone else before you can reply), defer the email for now
  • Do — if the email represents a concrete task, go ahead and do it — straight away

If you do it right, you should end up with an empty inbox on a regular basis.

2) Quit the smartphone
Having a smartphone made it very difficult for me not to distract myself every time I had a minute to spare. In the end it was literally a physical reflex. Whenever it felt like I was about to be bored for just a second, I’d pull my smartphone out of my pocket. So, I decided to sell it and revert to an old Nokia. That way I can’t stress myself out by reading emails that I won’t be able to reply to when I’m on the go. The only things I miss about having a smart phone is the Google calendar integration and the full touch keyboard.

3) Reply to email in bulk
Not having a smartphone means I can only check my email on the computer. This means it is very easy for me to compose my replies straight away, making it a lot easier to process my email. So, I’m practicing answering emails in batch mode. Because of Inbox Zero, I know that the emails in my inbox are the only ones I need to worry about. One good GTD tip is that if it takes less than 2 minutes to do something, do it straight away. As it turns out, it won’t take more than two minutes to reply to most emails.

4) Process email once a day
This may sound radical, but being self-employed I can push the envelope on this. Inspired by Tim Ferriss and Elizabeth Grace Saunders’ routine of answering email within 24 hours, I try to just check my email once a day. I do it in the morning, like regular snail mail. I find that nothing is really that urgent anyway. And answering emails within 24 hours is still considered pretty good going by most people. The most important part of this is managing people’s expectations, so I’ve set up an email auto-responder to let my contacts know how often and when I check my email:

Thank you for your email.

Please note that I only check my email once a day, usually in the morning. I do this in order to minimize the amount of time I spend on email, and to free up the rest of my day for other things. You can read more about how and why I do this in this blog post.

If you need an immediate reply from me, you can call me or send me a text message.
cheers,

Andreas

I’ve also added this text to my Contact page on my website, as well as in my email signature. The short version of it is: “If it’s urgent, call me or send me a text message. Otherwise, I’ll reply in the morning.” Processing email in the morning is an easy way to start the day, and it stops my compulsion to check my e-mail throughout the rest of the day.

5) Limit access to social and news websites
Whenever there’s a natural break in my work (or I’m about to work on a difficult task), I tend to take my mind off work by skimming social stream sites like Twitter and Facebook and news sites like Reddit. Since these sites are updated all the time, they offer the same dopamin fix as email (and I probably check them more often because now that I don’t check my email). Having unfettered access to these sites makes such procrastination almost instinctive. It’s way too easy to open a new browser tab to check what’s new instead of focusing on a difficult task at hand. Just like with the smart phone, it can become so instinctive that I don’t even think about it before I realize I’m procrastinating again.

So I’m experimenting with using a Chrome plugin called Chrome Nanny to limit access to these sites. I simply add sites to a list, and define the amount of time that I’m allowed to access these sites each day, and the plugin will block access after I’ve spent that amount of time. I’m considering blocking access to these sites completely. But I find that because my friends and family use Facebook so much, it’s very difficult to stop using it all together. It’s by no means a perfect solution, but it helps a little. I’d love more feedback on how to handle this.

6) Read articles offline
I follow a lot of blogs in Google Reader, and quite a few people on Twitter. This is my two primary sources of day-to-day reading in addition to my morning newspaper. And I’ve been trying to adopt the same batch approach to these services as I use with email. But instead of reading all of it in one go on the computer, I use the brilliant Readability extension for Chrome to send the articles to my Kindle so I can read them whenever I want, offline and away from the computer.

These self-regulatory rules are a work in progress. I believe that as we grow more accustomed to the new digital technologies, we will come to adopt various ways of managing the constant flow of information and distraction that has become available to us. Designing such self-regulatory filters, limitations and norms will be one of our big challenges in the coming years.

2 comments

  1. Bryn

    Nice post, Andreas. You’ve succeeded to inform me about the psychology behind it, help me understand why you do just what you do, and inspire me to come up with some way that will hopefully work better for me than my current always-insufficient, begrudging slavitude to my ever-demanding inbox. Wonderfully concise and manageable to read yet totally coherent and well cited, too, made all the more interesting by infusing it with your own personal narrative. Nicely done, Andreas. Thanks for sharing :-)

  2. Karen

    Hi
    I enjoyed reading this great article.
    I would have to disagree with Clay Shirky. Many people are truly suffering from information overload and their minds are truly over stimulated with a lot of useless information. It’s sad to see people suffer with more stress, headaches, bad posture, bad eye site and the list goes on due to due too much technology. Moderation in all things : ) I am very happy I don’t work with computers or own a smartphone. 😄 Also the sub conscious mind can’t tell the difference between what’s real and not. So watching horror and reading gossipy websites is also negatively affecting your mind. It’s a fascinating subject. I limit my time carefully and prefer uplifting music and books.

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