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FOCUS!

Critical advice to redirect the wasteful time spent on your digital device into workplace productivity.

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LIFE IS DEFINITELY NOT easy in the sign business. Your job can sometimes seem impossible — first, to manufacture, without a single flaw, a visual representation of a client’s creative vision and then, to install, also flawlessly, that specific vision onto an infinity of possible surfaces and configurations. Your clients are finicky, demanding and prone to agonizing last-minute changes of heart. Your life is lived on a perpetual deadline. It’s a pressure-packed business, and we all occasionally wish for a return to simpler times. Unfortunately, the demands of today’s information and social media landscape often seem to create more challenges than they solve. Don’t we all want to get back to simpler days when there was quiet time to think and plan? Can you use modern communication tools productively and still have time to, you know, have a life? The answer is an emphatic “yes”, but serious discipline is required. Here are 17 important ways you can start …

1. TIME YOURSELF

First up, recognize your dependency. Once you know how much time you’re spending on your phone, it’s easier to make bigger changes (e.g. spending entire days or weekends screen-free), but many people underestimate exactly how often and for how long they get distracted. Again, it has to do with evolutionaryinspired urges that made vital pursuits pleasurable: originally eating and sex, but that’s now become flicking through Twitter. To get an accounting, simply check your ScreenTime statistics on your iPhone or tap “Digital Wellbeing” under an Android phone’s Settings to see how your use is trending.

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2. CONTROL THE CUES

To live with frequent notifications is to outsource decisions about how your attention is deployed to a motley collection of friends, colleagues and strangers, most of whom have no incentive to put your interests first: they want an answer to their email right now or more engagement for their app. Turn off your alerts — all buzzes, banners, pop-ups and French horn-playing ring tones. Next, identify what triggers you to grab the phone. Is it your first spoonful of cereal in the morning or setting the alarm before you go to bed (that leads to one last quick dip into Facebook that ends an hour later with you fully updated on the lives of old school friends’ children).

3. INVENTORY YOUR APPS AND USAGE

Take an inventory of your tech use and evaluate each item for its usefulness, working on the assumption that if something can’t justify itself from a professional or personal angle, it’s out. Exit the social networks you barely use and get rid of the apps that, when you think about them, have no benefit. Yep, that means Tik Tok may have to go.

4. START WITH A ONE-MONTH DETOX

Cal Newport, one of the leaders of the digital minimalism school of tech use, recommends a more aggressive approach: completely unplug for a period of time to give your brain and emotions a breather so that you can reassess your digital needs. In Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, he advocates a month-long digital detox — a period in which a person takes a complete break from all optional technologies. When it’s over, the idea is that you slowly reintroduce these technologies on your own terms. “You don’t go back to what you did before. You rebuild it from scratch, but with intention,” Newport writes. The key is to ensure that “all the tech you have is amplifying something that you really care about.”

5. CREATE FRICTION OR “SLUDGE”

Triumphs of willpower are surprisingly rare in everyday human situations. The central force for eliminating bad habits such as excessive phone use, according to social psychologist Wendy Wood, is “friction” — if we can make bad habits more inconvenient, then inertia can carry us the rest of the way. And the more hassle, the more success, she says in Good Habits, Bad Habits. Thus, turning the phone off completely is much more effective than silencing it, not because you become any less curious about who might have sent a text, but because powering it up is a drag. Delete apps from your phone. (If it’s important, you can always check through the browser.)

6. KEEP IT OUT OF SIGHT

Studies have shown even the presence of a mobile phone on a dinner table is enough to disrupt/degrade a conversation as the gaze of both parties’ turns repeatedly to the device. Truly being with a colleague or customer means picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. What applies to a dining room applies doubly to the sales floor, staff meeting room, or home.

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7. USE “CALM TECH” …

There are numerous programs that promise to combat electronic distraction: examples include Freedom, which temporarily cuts internet access; Anti-Social, which locks down Facebook and Twitter; StayFocusd, an extension for the Chrome browser that turns off Twitter after 45 minutes of daily use. Meanwhile, single-task devices like the Kindle ensure your attention doesn’t get diluted. Instapaper allows you to read articles later (offline if you want), confident you won’t miss out on anything. Ditto is a large button that clips to your belt or blouse and vibrates when you get a text or call from designated people in your address book. Yes, it’s a reinvented pager. But it allows you to stash your phone in your bag, out of sight and reach, but giving you reassurance you’ll be contactable for, say, an emergency involving a VIP customer.

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8. … OR OLD TECH

They are getting harder to find, but a phone that does nothing but make calls ensures you won’t be led astray by the digital off-ramps of a smartphone. Similarly, get a cheap alarm clock and move your phone charger outside of the bedroom.

9. OUTSOURCE YOUR SOCIAL

When you can’t trust yourself to not get sucked in or just find the time requirements of social media too onerous, consider outsourcing the task to a media management service or a staff member. You may think no one can share your brand message like you can. But you should really give someone — i.e. a millennial — a chance.

10. REMEMBER THAT IT’S USUALLY DISAPPOINTING

Is there anything more annoying (and time-wasting) than falling for a clickbait headline? The ancient idea that what we desire isn’t necessarily what we enjoy has received support from modern neuroscience. Dopamine, it turns out, is probably better understood as a desire chemical rather than a feel-good drug — it can be triggered in huge quantities in the near-total absence of pleasure. This explains why attaining some long-sought-after object or accolade often feels like a letdown from the pursuit. Just bearing this distinction in mind, as you trundle through the day, can be surprisingly empowering: there’s at least a chance you’ll remember the next time you’re gripped by the urge to check a headline about “Zombie Fires Eating the Arctic.”

11. SET IF/THEN RULES

In study after (peer-reviewed) study, one teachable skill stands out as crucial for habit change: deciding on “if/then” rules in advance, says Kerry Patterson, author of Change Anything. Decide what are the “crucial moments” – such as when you find yourself instinctively reaching for your phone when a less-than-fun task presents itself. Formulate a rule, being as specific as possible: “If I find myself reaching for social media, I’ll drop to the floor and do 10 push-ups/spend five minutes on this task I dislike.”

12. SAY OHMMMM…

Meditate. Everyone and their dog is doing it (literally, “pet and parent meditation” is a thing). Your brain needs downtime, silence, a chance to be with your thoughts. Meditation teaches you to focus the mind without outside stimulation, strengthening self-awareness so you retain the capacity to choose, say, when to go online and when to disconnect. Don’t have time? Try five minutes a day. You can’t meditate? Nonsense. Spending those minutes getting distracted still counts; indeed, noticing when you’re distracted is the essence of meditation.

woman meditating

13. PRIORITIZE AWAY THE OVERLOAD

As noted on the productivity podcast precisionchange.com, there is something questionable about the whole “information overload” complaint: if we couldn’t handle vast amounts of information, we’d have a breakdown each time we stepped into wild nature (think of the cacophony of sound, crawling bugs, moving leaves, 125 shades of green, wisps of wind, dipping temperatures, all being taken in simultaneously by your senses). The real trouble is that in the modern world we have defined too many things as worthy of having the power to distract us. In the blurry world of ideas, Peter Drucker’s maxim that if you’re a worker today dealing with large amounts of information, defining your work — staying aware of what genuinely deserves your attention — is the most crucial work you’ll do. If you don’t, your phone is waiting in your pocket to devour your attention.

14. TAKE A DIGITAL SABBATH

If Digital Minimalism’s Newport’s total breaks aren’t an option, you could try a “Digital Sabbath” to put some distance between you and social media. As the name suggests, it’s once a week, should involve the whole family and run perhaps from Saturday evening to Sunday night.

15. TAKE PROPER BREAKS

As author and workplace consultant Tony Schwartz has argued, we tend to vastly underestimate the importance of restoration in human life. We operate on a multitude of rhythms, from the seasonal to the circadian (or daily) to the “ultradian” — the peaking and dipping of energy every two hours or so. Each cycle must alternate between exertion and rest if we’re to function well. To concentrate on a task, you need to block out distractions, but once that blocking function is worn down by fatigue, you are more likely to act on impulse, to shirk tasks that prove too challenging or to become irritable. Schwartz recommends working in bursts of 90 minutes, followed by half-hour breaks if you can. Note, however, that it is only activities such as stretching, taking in a dose of nature, or social ones such as chatting with colleagues, that have been shown to deliver energy benefits. “Cognitive breaks, such as checking social media, aren’t really breaks at all; given the load they place on your brain, you might as well have continued working,” Dr. Christian Jarrett, a neuroscientist and author, explained at the creativity website 99u.

16. FORGET FOMO; EMBRACE JOMO

According to the entrepreneur Caterina Fake, who helped popularize the term “FOMO,” the fear of missing out is “an age-old problem, exacerbated by technology.” Thanks to Facebook et al., we’ve never been so aware of what others are doing … and what we aren’t. How to calm your anguish? Try JOMO — the joy of missing out — which is basically the reaffirmation that what you’ve decided to do — build a business, spend time with your family — matters more.

man in nature

17. GET INTO NATURE

In our world of relentless, aggressive demands on our attention, US academics Rachel and Stephen Kaplan argued nature does something different: it exerts “soft fascination.” The result is what the Kaplans called “cognitive quiet,” in which the muscle of effortful attention — the one you use to concentrate on work — gets to rest, but without the boredom you’d feel if you had nothing to focus on. This helps explain why even just a trip to the local park may seize just enough of your attention to let the rest of your mind relax.

Signs of the Times has been the world leader in sign information since 1906. Contact Signs of the Times' editors at [email protected].

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