Illustrations by César Pelizer for Bloomberg Businessweek.
According to Nielsen, the average American spends three hours a day staring into a phone or tablet. Factor in TVs and computers, and it’s up to about nine hours in the glow of a screen. That’s a lot of time that could be better used for professional gain. In his book, Digital Minimalism, technology and productivity expert Cal Newport offers advice on how to free yourself from the tyranny of email, social media, and other digital services. Here are six actions you can take now.
① Schedule Uninterrupted Work Blocks
Chart your workday in two-hour periods and quarantine tasks that don’t necessarily boost productivity—including meetings and phone calls—to some scheduled breaks between the blocks. “If you take a two-hour block and do literally no quick checks, your mind is operating at full capacity,” Newport says. It’s like having a cognitive superpower.
② Hang Out With Yourself
By pulling out our phones at the first hint of boredom, most of us suffer from what Newport calls “solitude deficit,” which could be partly responsible for a 5 percent jump in anxiety-related disorders from 2017 to 2018. One way to work in alone time and harness it for creative gain is to practice productive meditation. Do something physical, like jogging, to focus your full attention on a single problem. Two or three such sessions a week will tame your screen-check impulse, he says, and improve your concentration.
③ Send Fewer, More Thoughtful Emails
The typical office worker sends or receives roughly 125 emails per day, according to analytics firm the Radicati Group. That’s potentially many hours wasted on low-quality communication. Newport’s solution: Ignore every email that doesn’t require a response, and for those that do, write one that minimizes the number of subsequent emails—instead of “Let me know when you want to meet up,” try “Let’s meet at Rocko’s Coffee at noon or 12:30.”
④ Phone a Friend
Digital interaction isn’t a substitute for real-time conversation. “Our brains don’t really understand a ‘like’ or a ‘happy birthday’ on Facebook,” Newport says, adding that such gestures don’t add a sense of connection or belonging. If your schedule doesn’t allow you to meet friends face-to-face, give them a call. You’ll feel better.
⑤ Clean Out Your Toolbox
Newport recommends taking a 30-day break from any digital tool that isn’t essential to your work, including social media and video games. You can also probably do without chat services and attention-guzzling websites such as Reddit. When the detox is complete, set clear productivity and relationship goals, then reintroduce only those services that help you achieve them. Set some boundaries, too—for instance, check Twitter only on your desktop computer.
⑥ Get Crafty
As you scale back on your digital compulsions, make time for a hobby, whether it’s painting, playing an instrument, or even whittling. Use your hands productively, and you’ll create something you’re proud of. That’ll help you forget about whatever’s happening on your phone.
Clint Carter is a Freelance Contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek.