When was the last time you spent an entire day without looking at a screen or device of some kind? Most of us will flippantly think “oh, it hasn’t been that long”, but if you stop and actually try to remember a specific day where you did not use your phone or computer at all, that memory can be pretty elusive. Feeling familiar?
How about just a morning? A whole chunk of hours from when you wake up until at least lunch time? No?
Now, I haven’t got any robust research on the tip of my tongue, but I’m going to take an educated guess and say that many of us will be scratching our heads right now.
I’ve written before about the problems caused by being too plugged in and why a tech detox might be a good idea once in a while. But today we’re going to look at how being overly digital can affect our productivity and creativity, and how we can change our routine to overcome that, without cutting ourselves off completely.
What’s the problem with our devices?
We’re constantly connected to screens and the internet. The rise in usage has been slow but pervasive, so many of us can’t even imagine going back to the dark pre-digital ages. We wake up and check our social media; we’re constantly checking emails throughout the day, even when we’re in the middle of tasks and we end up rarely doing just one thing at a time.
That all sounds true, you might be thinking, but why is that an issue?
Deciding is tiring
Well, for one thing, too much inflow of information can cause big problems for our energy levels.
As they put it over at Medium, “excessive consumption causes decision fatigue”. We are constantly consuming new information and content, and having to make decisions based on that input.
Every single time we do something online – whether we choose to read an article, reply to an email (never mind how to reply), buy something, or decide what to watch on Netflix, we’re absorbing info and responding with a decision. We’re making on average 300 decisions per day. Assuming we’re getting at least 8 hours sleep (which is a dubious assumption at best), we’re awake for 16 hours, that’s almost 20 decisions every hour. A lot of energy goes into making those decisions which we could have spent on something useful, creative or productive. Or at the very least, we could have felt less tired at the end of the day.
Feel the need
Every time we get notifications, emails, likes and so on, we get a rise in dopamine in the brain, similar to a high. Social media and other digital products we use are super-addictive. But the satisfaction from these little dopamine hits doesn’t last long. And although it can make us feel productive in the short term, it’s a false sense of accomplishment. We become dependent on it, but ultimately, it’s a shallow source of happiness. In fact, people who use social media excessively experience a decreased sense of satisfaction with their lives.
Multitasking is bad for our brains
We are becoming a culture of chronic multitaskers. And plenty of research is finding that multitasking is actually awful for us: people who multitask a lot have more trouble organising their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, and score lower on IQ tests.
As Forbes puts it: “people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time”. Even when they think they are good at multitasking, heavy multitaskers are actually worse at multitasking than those who tend to do one task before starting another.
So you might be committed to single-tasking as much as possible. But even small interruptions in concentration can make us far less productive – studies have found that when your attention is constantly moving to the next new stimulus, your ability to do “deep work” is impaired. (Deep work is “the ability to focus on a cognitively demanding task for an extended period of time”). If you’re focusing on producing a report and your email inbox is pinging away, you can’t fully concentrate. The negative effects of this interrupted concentration holds even if your focus is always shifting in your down time, not just when you’re trying to work. If you spend a lot of time on social media or with notifications enabled, your choice of relaxation method might not only not be relaxing, it might be harming your cognition and ability to concentrate in general.
Okay, I get it, but what’s so special about the morning?
Well, honestly, if you start the day with a flood of information, decision and interruptions, you’re setting yourself up for a day of distractions and poor productivity.
We stick our smartphones under our noses the second we wake up, and we get bombarded with inputs first thing, when our brains are still adjusting and coming to life. We get all those tiny hits of dopamine that leave us either dependent on that for the rest of the day, or deflated because we’re not getting any more. Imagine taking a stimulant drug the minute you wake up. We’re doing the digital equivalent of that first thing every morning but we all just think it’s normal. It’s going to scramble your focus and flow for the day.
It can also set up a ton of worry for the day ahead. If you check your social media and email and find out that there are a few things that need to get done but you can’t do anything about them right now, instead of starting the day on a productive, optimistic note, you’re already bogged down in stress, and your attention is going to keep returning to those little problems that you need to deal with (or that you can’t do anything about).
A simple solution?
If you don’t take your devices into the bedroom at night, you can’t look at them as soon as you wake up. Or when you’re trying to get to sleep for that matter. The blue light from screens is well known to be a stimulant that can keep you awake. Sleep is obviously important for our performance at work and in general, so keeping devices out of reach for at least an hour before and after sleep is crucial to good rest and real focus for the rest of the day.
If you remove screen-staring from your morning, you can start the day in a peaceful state of mind, instead of a stressed one. You can keep the structure of your thoughts whole and integrated, rather than shattered into tiny pieces that you spend the rest of the day picking up. And you’re more likely to spend the day doing things that matter, and are actually productive, as opposed to things that feel productive but are ultimately empty.
So, what are you waiting for? Why not try it as an experiment, and let us know how it goes?