Why you should read this: Learn how to disengage from your phone for strategic blocks of time, get more present in your own life, and avoid the myth of multitasking
It’s no secret we’re spending more time than ever on our smartphones. In a 2015 study, Americans between 25 and 54 were reported to check social media on their smartphones an average of 17 times a day and spend a staggering 4.7 hours per day consuming data. This essentially means a third of Americans’ waking life is spent on their phone.
Combine this data with a recent survey by Reventure showing that millennials more than any other generation feel significant levels of stress from being always on and never able to completely shut off from work. This constantly connected mentality combined with an appetite for plugging into social media and other apps is a potent mix that keeps people chained to their phones.
It’s crucial to step back and ask yourself: Are you really more effective and fulfilled when you’re constantly connected?
The Myth of Multitasking
In a society where technology is rapidly advancing and speed and efficiency are highly valued, it’s no wonder multitasking has become the norm. Except it hasn’t. Research has shown time and again that what we think of as multitasking is really just constant task switching and that there’s a stop/start process that needs to occur every time this happens. Don’t believe me? Try this little experiment (hat tip to Nancy Napier at Psychology Today)
Here’s the test:
- Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper
- Now, have someone time you as you carry out the two tasks that follow:
- On the first line, write:
- I am a great multitasker
- On the second line: write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like those below:
- 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
How much time did it take to do the two tasks? Usually it’s about 20 seconds.
Now, let’s multitask.
Draw two more horizontal lines. This time, and again have someone time you, write a letter on one line, and then a number on the line below, then the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence, changing from line to line. In other words, you write the letter “I” and then the number “1” and then the letter “a” and then the number “2” and so on, until you complete both lines.
I’ll bet you your time is double or more what it was on the first round. You also may have made some errors and you were probably frustrated since you had to “rethink” what the next letter would be and then the next number.
Anyone who constantly monitors their email or texts like a hawk will likely see the parallels here. You could be right in the middle of an important task or thought and see that Pavlovian text ding and you immediately go into task switching mode and check the text. It could be a link to an article that you automatically go read which then leads you to another article and all of a sudden you forgot what you were doing when you checked the text. Sound familiar? It sure does to me.
Now if you truly crave that by the minute connection and interactivity of responding to a text right away, keep on doing what you’re doing. But if you find your work, energy and stress levels suffering from this kind of ‘multitasking’, let’s look at a few strategies that can help.
I. Eliminate Notifications
For the past full year, I’ve been completely free of notifications other than incoming phone calls and voicemails. I’ve eliminated banners, dings, and vibration alerts for all apps, texts, and email. The only indications I have left on my phone are number bubbles that pop up silently to show when something new is in there.
This was all catalyzed by a trip to Peru where I was completely off the grid for 3 days trekking to Macchu Picchu. When I got back to the hotel and plugged in, I had 297 unread emails. What was amazing to me is even over a three day span how few needed absolute immediate response. Of course I had one of my colleagues covering to address the super important stuff, but it was shocking to me not only how few needed a response right away, but also how quickly I was able to delete or respond to them. In that moment, it took me about 1 hour of focused work to clear my entire inbox of 300 emails. Over three days, that’s essentially 20 minutes of mental and physical energy per day devoted to email. It struck me that for those exact same emails if I had been in the office and constantly vigilent, I would have spent 10 times that amount of time and energy task switching, reading, deleting, and responding to each individual email that came in.
Of course we’re talking extremes here and I don’t advocate checking your email once every three days unless you’re in a profession where that might work. As an agency finance recruiter, I need to be constantly vigilent inbound calls, texts, and emails from candidates and clients. But there was definitely a lesson in there. Tim Ferriss is a big believer in ‘batching’ email and I’ve realized that by turning off notifications, you go on offense when it comes to work and productivity. You’re free to create batching windows as large or as small as you want depending on the specifics of your job. Need to be productive in the morning? Look at your email once when you wake up, make sure there are no fires, then turn off your email and focus for 2-3 hours before plugging back in. If something is super important, you better believe you’ll get a phone call about it.
II. Take Advantage of Airplane Mode
For the longest time, airplane mode was kind of a fuzzy concept to me. I only knew it as that thing flight attendants told you to do with your phone that nobody actually did anyway. And then I learned about microwaving my testicles. Research has shown that cell phone EMF exposure is linked to lower testosterone, lower sperm count, and infertility. This scared the shit out of me since half of my working hours are spent in meetings with my phone sitting about a quarter of an inch from my man parts.
After a little digging, I realized airplane mode on your phone is essentially a kill switch for EMF, kind of like that cool thing they used in The Matrix when those robot squids got too close. I immediately started making use of this whenever I was going into a meeting. It also served a nice dual purpose of not having to put my ringer on silent or be disturbed by a vibrating phone in the middle of a meeting.
Then I got a little more paranoid and created some offline playlists on Spotify so I could go into airplane mode at the gym. It’s amazing how your workouts can improve when you’re not extending your rest time during sets of power cleans to scroll instagram or watch cat videos.
Eventually I began to see airplane mode as a legitimate tool, similar to eliminating notifications. And psychologically, I actually think it’s more powerful. Even when you turn off notifications, you know deep down that if you just look at your phone, you’ll be able to see what’s popped up on social media, text, or email. It’s right there IN the phone. But airplane mode basically acts as a shield. Even if you look at the phone, there’s nothing there. It’s cut off. Mentally, it creates a true break from the outside world and allows you to be fully present in whatever you’re doing, whether it’s a meeting, working out, cooking dinner, sharing a meal with someone, or hiking with friends.
Of course it has to be used strategically since you’re cutting off the phone function as well as everything else, so it’s up to your judgment when to take advantage of airplane mode.
What strategies and habits have you used to reduce your frequency of screen time and phone checking? Feel free to share on the comments below
Coming Up Next….Part 2 of how to use technology to tame phone checking.