You hear it all the time: screens are distracting us, dumbing us down, turning us into slaves to technology we no longer know how to live without. While some of us can actually remember life before, they're such an integral part of our lives that many of us can't fathom getting rid of them.
However, the data is alarming: a Nielson study found that the average American spends eleven hours looking at the screens of their electronics daily (up from eight hours in 2009) and that often includes multiple screens at the same time: splitting attention between them, say between the TV and your smartphone.
The end result of all this digital distraction may be a reduction in overall productivity, since research has shown that we don't actually multi-task effectively; we get a lot of little things half-done with just as long of a to-do list the next day.
Productivity expert Robby Slaughter, a principal with Accelawork in Indiana says "What makes screen time so distracting is our ability to switch between productive and unproductive uses of the same screen." In the past, he points out, your computer usually only served a couple of purposes, say for work or school.
Now, screens are gateways to all manner of information and entertainment. And the size of a screen can actually impact how many outlets you have vying for your attention. The bigger the screen, the more you can see. "If you've got a video playing in a corner, a notification popping up, or something interesting that pulls away your focus, you'll get less done."
Pennsylvania-based productivity expert and author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, Laura Vanderkam says that "Everything about screens are designed to keep you on them longer." A constant stream of fresh new content "designed to get us to feel insecure or curious or like there's something we need to find out," keeps you hooked or coming back. "It's the constant novelty, the feeling that we need to know something that's there." And the longer your attention is held fast, the less time you may be putting into your own work.
As part of her next book, Vanderkam polled 900 people to ask how they spent their day. She found that "people who reported that they felt relaxed about their time, and were doing what they wanted, were checking their phones about half as much as the people who felt starved for time, hurried or rushed."
While she admits that some people may already have the kind of stressful jobs or family situations that drive a need for excessive phone checking, the results are compelling that people who interact less with their phones and tablets reported feeling more relaxed.
However, she points out, it's not the screens that are to blame but rather "when you are using it as a way to fill time that is not in alignment with your larger goals." She recommends that entrepreneurs aim to fill their lives with "the things you want in it first," such as a book club, or volunteering. "You're going to spend less time on social media because you have less time to fill," she explains.
If you have an assistant, or someone who can share work with you, she recommends delegating your inbox to them for a first look and only handling that which is absolutely necessary.
Slaughter is a fan of "timers and rewards." He mentions the well-known Pomodoro method of setting timers to focus for a set period of time and then breaking and giving yourself a small treat to reinforce the process. He also suggests you "limit the purpose of each screen." So, while you can watch Netflix on your laptop, you've also got a TV. "Make your computer your work screen, and stick to it!"
Social media blocking apps can force a blackout when work duties call, but you still have to exercise the self-control to set it in the first place.
Both he and Vanderkam recommend putting your phone into airplane mode whenever you need a break. She points out that oftentimes we look at our phones just to check the time but once it's captured our attention we get engaged with texts, emails and other notifications that would not register if it was in airplane mode.
Better yet, if you know a particular app sucks you in, take it off your phone altogether.
And if you still struggle, she recommends keeping an inventory of how much time you spend on your screens. "Sometimes accountability is helpful," she says. "You don't want to spend three hours watching TV shows you don't care about."
Most dramatic of all, Slaughter reminds, "You don't need screens all the time. Declare screen-free date night or dinners."
By taking the time to investigate your screen time usage, you might just recapture some wasted hours to pour back into the things that matter most.