One of the things we emphasize at our Center for Digital Liberal Arts is a critical disposition toward digital tools and culture. We know from first had experience how creative and computational media can be integrated productively into learning, research, and everyday life, but we also know how easy it can be to allow the devices in our life to become vectors of constant distraction. With this in mind, this installment of our tech tips series is about managing the potential distractions in our always-on world.
Let’s start with the obvious. Just unplug. Leave your computer at work at the end of the day. Try an afternoon without your mobile phone, or at least turn off the notifications streaming in from the various email programs, social media apps, and games you have eagerly installed. If this is hard for you, you might need some social support. That is the animating idea behind last week’s #1WkNoTech movement. Join that community, make a deal with a few friends, or just tap your own inner reserves and leave your technology behind for a while. Take a GPS-free hike in the mountains, hold eye contact with a friend over coffee, or just have a daydream. If you need to work, a good place to start is with a paper and pen. You can outline, jot notes, sketch out ideas, all without notifications popping up in your muji notebook.
If you can’t just drop out of the always-on culture for a day or a week, you might also consider just structuring your workday a bit differently. Assuming you have some self control and want to focus your time and attention, you might make a daily pact with yourself to not look at your email or social media until after you have accomplished something meaningful for the day. There will always be something to respond to in your inbox or feed, but it is much more effective to give your most productive attention to important tasks and leave the inbox for your slump times. If you feel like you must monitor your inbox more regularly, you can tweak this approach by scheduling two email windows per day, and letting your regular correspondents know that the shouldn’t expect to hear from you outside that time. At the very least, you could limit your checking of email (or Facebook, or twitter, or Instagram…) to once an hour. Try the Pomodoro technique (detailed in the next tech tip!) to more sanely and productively balance work time and distraction.
Of course all of this is premised on your self-control. If you need to be in front of your computer and can’t quite seem to keep from clicking on the notifications and open tabs vying for your attention, you can always use a small amount of money and technology to help you out. One well known approach is the Freedom app for macs. This app does one thing – turns off your internet connection for as long as you want. Click the app, tell it that you need to focus for two hours, and you are effectively turn your computer into a non-networked device. The only way to turn on your internet connection is to reboot your computer, which is enough of a deterrent for most people to make this technique effective. If you absolutely positively need your wireless connect for research but can’t curb your appetite for distraction, try the Anti-social app. With this app, you simply tell it which website you want to block, so that when you turn it on you can get to jstor without fear of falling down a tumblr hole. There are dozens of other apps for your particular computers, phones, and tablets that do versions of this sort of blocking.
If a cluttered screen is your problem or there are too many virtual windows vexing you, you might try simply enabling the full-screen view in whichever application you need to use. I am drafting this very tip in a program called scrivener, which offers a very intentional full screen mode that essentially turns my screen into a basic word processor. You can do this with Microsoft Word or most any other writing program with a few clicks as well.
Regardless of your intentions, it is likely that you will at some point find yourself needing to work on a task that requires hours or days of sustained attention. Once you have enabled your distraction apps, moved to full-screen mode, and organized your day around your task, it might be tempting to sit down (or stand-up!) and work straight through for a few hours. Tempting as that may be, you should give you eyes and body a break every once in a while. As ever, someone has an app for that – the TimeOut app can be set to remind you to refocus your eyes (say every 10 minutes or so, to avoid dry eyes and headaches) and have a stretch or stroll (say every 45 minutes or so, to avoid neck and back pain). If you really need to work twenty-four hours straight, you might try the flux app to make sure that your screen doesn’t trick your eyes and brain into thinking that you are living in an arctic summer.
By using some of these low-tech or high-tech approaches, you will hopefully be able to find your own sustainable rhythm with the world of digital devices and nagging notifications. Ideally, you will find a way to get such technologies to support your ambitions, rather than slavishly responding to every ping or indulging every last link. If you think you need to really reset your approach to living in a world of digital distractions, you might try some brain training, or to simply take some time to reset with a tech-free day or vacation.