March 6, 2023
When I go upstairs to start work for the day in my home office, there is one big predictor of how productive I’m going to be — whether my mobile phone comes with me or whether I deliberately (or accidentally) leave it downstairs.
Sadly, this morning, my phone was by my side. As I wrote this piece, every time I felt stuck, I unconsciously picked it up and scrolled through social media for relief. The new messages, likes, and followers instantly made me feel better. But they also made me reluctant to go back to work, because Microsoft Word failed to fill me with the same positive reinforcement.
“If I find it difficult to not be distracted by my phone, how about younger professionals who are a mobile-first generation?” I thought.
Being the first generation to be raised entirely on tech, as a Gen Z, you likely spend half your waking hours scrolling through your phones. You’re also more likely than Millennials to be hooked to your phones — research shows that 31% of Gen Z feels uncomfortable if they are without their phone for 30 minutes or less, 58% check their emails multiple times a day, and over a quarter use their phones for 10 or more hours. While we have become potentially more reliant on devices and technologies than any other generation, we cannot let them undermine our ability to focus and work smart.
I spoke with various guests on my podcast, to learn how they keep distractions and bay and get work done. Here are a few tactics we discussed to help you stay focused when you need to get things done.
Use a struggle timer.
I recently chatted with Scott Young, the critically acclaimed author of Ultralearning, all about how to get better at staying focused on task. Young believes that our ability to concentrate depends on how well we can manage our emotions. Making progress on big, important projects is often frustrating, involves getting negative feedback and, at times, questioning our abilities. These challenges can create an instinctual aversion to maintaining focus. This morning, for example, writer’s block frustrated me, and instead of staying in the flow, I reached for my phone.
Young has tried several strategies to improve his capacity to stay focused and reduce digital distractions. One of them is called the “struggle timer.” The idea for the struggle timer emerged when he was contemplating his approach to studying and learning new material. One of his many accomplishments is that he learned the entire MIT computer science curriculum — which normally takes four years — in less than 12 months. And he did this without taking any classes.
When Young was working on solving a problem during the course, he would often wonder: How quickly should he look at the answer when he couldn’t identify the right one? “The approach that I took during the MIT challenge was, as soon as I got stuck, I looked at the right answer, because immediate feedback is important to learning,” he told me. But that also broke his flow.
Over the years, Young shifted his view. He now believes it often makes sense to struggle a little bit on harder problems for two reasons. Firstly, you can sometimes solve the problem with a bit more time, and therefore struggling for a little longer can be even more beneficial to your learning, and force you to say in the flow. Secondly, Young believes sitting in the struggle allows you to appreciate the right answer more once you do find it. The solution will be much more memorable when you go through and overcome your initial frustration, he explained. It’s the difference between actually figuring out how to solve a problem and looking up the answer, then thinking, “Oh that makes sense.”
Young took these insights and now, when he feels himself struggling with a problem or a task, he sets the struggle timer for five or 10 minutes. Often, this additional time helps him stay in the flow instead of giving up or procrastinating.
Create stuck scripts.
A professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Adam Alter experiences stuck points frequently. But instead of automatically reaching for his phone to relieve his unpleasant emotions, he does something else. “The best thing you can do is to have a script that you follow in those moments, especially if you regularly hit these points where your default would be to check the phone,” Alter told me.
For example, every time you hit a stuck point, Alter suggests telling yourself that you’ll go for a two-minute walk. “I often do this. I walk around the floor in my office building. And at home, I’ll just take a stroll outside or I’ll walk upstairs from my office, which is in the basement.”
This short walk is a natural way for him to reset. After walking, he sits back down and finds it easier to pick his work back up.
Another strategy Alter uses is switching tasks. Instead of getting distracted and squandering time, he’ll reach for a simpler task when he feels stuck on something difficult. “Whenever I hit the wall on the primary stuff, such as writing a paper, I turn to the secondary stuff, so it’s time spent wisely,” he explains. For instance, as a researcher, Alter tries to stay up to date with the newest findings in his field. He’s frequently sent the tables of contents for academic journals, but rarely has time to go through them properly. When he feels stuck on a task, however, he’s learned that he can shift his mindset by reading through these journals rather than giving up altogether.
Leave your phone behind.
Phones are, well, one of the biggest distractions when it comes to getting work done. Research has shown that the average person touches their phone 2,617 times per day. That’s a lot of swiping, typing, scrolling, and clicking — and many of this occurs when we’re procrastinating from the task at hand or are experiencing negative emotions around the task (frustration, boredom, etc).
We often say to ourselves, “I need to check my phone less.” But this strategy relies on pure willpower, and sadly, willpower is a limited resource. Perhaps it’s time for a more extreme strategy that physically restricts us from using our phones.
Prior to becoming the CEO of Moment, a company that helps people use their phones in healthier ways, Tim Kendall was the president of Pinterest. During this time, he struggled a lot with his phone usage. He started to research what he describes as “brute force approaches” and discovered a product called the kSafe.
The kSafe is a lockable kitchen safe with a built-in timer. It was originally designed as a weight-loss aid in which dieters could lock away unhealthy food, but in recent years, the product has found a secondary purpose for those struggling with mobile phone addiction, as it’s the perfect size to lock away smartphones.
Kendall initially tried experimenting with locking away his phone on weeknights, and then for a few hours on the weekend. While he doesn’t use the kSafe regularly anymore, he found it effective at the time.
“The thing that works for me today is in my house, I have an office, and when I leave that office to go and have dinner with my family, I just leave my phone in the office,” he said. “On my best nights, I don’t go and get my phone until the next morning, which is effectively the same thing as putting it in a kitchen safe from 6 pm to 8 am.”
I’m not asking you to go buy a kSafe, but one way to maintain your focus is to leave your phone in the furthest spot possible when you’re beginning a task. If you’re working in a huddle room in your office, for instance, leave your phone in your desk drawer. When you hit a stuck point, you’ll be less motivated to walk all the way across the hall just to check your Instagram.
We all lose focus from time to time but staying focused is imperative if you want to be productive. Focus helps us get into a rhythm, be consistent, and produce better results. The thing is, our minds are powerful and we can train our minds to ignore distractions. Use these tips to make small changes and use your time in meaningful ways.
Dr Amantha Imber is the author of Time Wise, the founder of behavioural science consultancy Inventium and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful people.
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