Guard Your Attention

It is an all-too-common scenario: You pick up your phone with a specific intent—maybe to send an email. As soon as you pick it up, however, you notice that you have a notification on your lock screen.

The brain instantly has its original thread of thought hijacked, and now your focus is pulled in a different direction. Before you know it, you are several screens deep into an app you had no intention of using. Worse still, a new pop-up notification soon appears, alerting you to activity in another app, and off you go.

By the time you are done, you lock your phone and put it down, only to realize that you never actually sent that email. You pick the phone back up, frustrated that you didn’t accomplish you original task, and annoyed at having to repeat the same actions again.

Replay this short scenario over and over again throughout the day, across multiple devices or computers, and the result is that you feel frazzled and burnt out. Your sense of accomplishment at the end of the day is not proportional to the amount of mental energy you have expended.

Technology isn’t the culprit, though it is an enabler. The problem is improper usage of the technology by allowing it to prompt and poke us with notifications. Notifications are almost never a good idea. Anything that rips you out of your focus and flow is a detriment to getting any meaningful work done. And yet, despite this fact we seem to have convinced ourselves that our company/team/whatever would fall apart if we don’t respond to that email or Slack message within minutes.

The negative effects are not just limited to work that requires deep concentration. Distraction while working on light-focus tasks will still cause unnecessary stress and drain on your mental reserves. If you are texting, checking Twitter, and trying to watch a TV show while composing an email, your brain must still fight to avoid those costly context switches that happen when your attention shifts.

The solution is to get protective of your attention, and to limit your device’s ability to nag you. In almost all cases, you should only be getting information on a pull basis (you decide when to check) instead of a push basis (the device gets to interrupt you).

The specific lengths to which one goes to disable notifications will vary depending on the person and their situation. Personally, I have Do Not Disturb permanently enabled on my phone, and notifications for all but a few apps completely disabled. The few apps I allow are not permitted to post banners to my lock screen. Notifications on my MacBook are entirely disabled, OS-wide.

If you value your productivity, your energy, and your happiness, you must take the threat of distraction seriously. I recommend that you take drastic action; try 7 days of radically reduced—or even completely disabled—notifications across all of your devices.

It will likely feel strange and uncomfortable for a few days. Push through the discomfort. You will rediscover a peace and focus you likely believed was no longer possible.