We live in a freewheeling carnival of light and sound. It’s easy to be seduced by the razzle-dazzle of our modern wonderland; before you know it, you’ve spent a whole day immersed in the time warp of YouTube, Facebook, email and Google. You emerge dazed, confused and wondering where your time went and what you actually accomplished.
“We’ve never lived in a time when it is so easy to be distracted,” says Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners Inc., a global management consulting firm, and author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. “People sit at their computers all day distracting themselves and getting nothing done.”
Such is the dilemma of the 21st century. How do you utilize technology—a necessity for work and life—without letting technology monopolize your time? According to experts, balance can be achieved, but we must mindfully control technology so that it doesn’t control us.
“You own your space. You own your mind. You own your interruptions,” says Todd Duncan, author of the New York Times best-seller Time Traps: Proven Strategies for Swamped Salespeople. “Instead of being reactive to technology, manage it and own it and be proactive.”
While there are seemingly endless ways that technology can pose distractions, there are surprising ways that it can help your time management, too. There is a way to get in, get out and move on with your life. Let’s solve a few of the biggest time-wasters.
Managing the Email Avalanche
In the business world, email is a must. But reading and responding to emails can be a huge time suck, interrupting us throughout the day as we try to complete core tasks. According to a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute and International Data Corp., the average worker spends 28 percent of his or her workweek managing email. With most smartphones offering email access, it seems that we’re permanently tethered to our inboxes, and many people feel compelled to read and respond to emails immediately.
Productivity expert Julie Morgenstern, author of Never Check E-mail in the Morning, suggests weaning off your inbox addiction by designating the edges of your day as a no-email zone, using alarms on your phone as timers and reminders. “Completely avoid email for the first 90 minutes of the day and the last 90 minutes of the day,” she says. “I find that will break the habit. And it’s also a huge benefit for those particular two blocks of time.” Use those 90-minute blocks to tackle complex problems, because it’s easier for your brain to shift from what Morgenstern calls “legato” (deeper) thinking to the “staccato” (shallow, quick) thinking that we use to process email.
At night, avoiding email—or anything on a screen—is essential for quality sleep, she says: “A lot of our sleep deprivation is because we’re overloaded with energy from the light and information of our computers. It’s like drinking a Red Bull before you go to bed.” After you adjust to these initial intervals, you’ll be able to create more 90-minute concentration blocks throughout your day so you can focus on important tasks.
Filtering email is an important but underused function, Duncan says. He suggests creating a priority inbox for messages from your most important contacts, such as your boss, partner or top clients. Then you can tend to the most pressing needs before the rest. He also likes the email program SaneBox, which uses past interactions in your inbox to determine the importance of incoming messages.
Our experts also observe that many people waste time communicating via text or email when a phone call or in-person meeting would more quickly and clearly get the message across. Morgenstern says to avoid using email for brainstorming, high-value decision-making and when tone really matters in interpersonal communications. “If the tone comes across poorly, it’s going to cost you time on the other side with cleanup,” she says.
Bregman agrees: “We are in danger of replacing relationships with transactions. The relationship is very important. You need to have those relationships in order to effectively manage the transactions.” So if you have a healthy relationship with a client, then using email for simple transactions—setting appointments, confirming contracts, etc.—is fine. But don’t rely on email or texting to form the relationship itself.
Duncan concurs. Communicating “over the phone versus email is five times more effective; meeting in person is 10 times more effective than talking on the phone,” he says. “Technology cannot replace the human connection.”
Making Peace with Your Smartphone
That isn’t to say the phone is without its own set of challenges. With alerts constantly beeping for emails, apps, voicemails and texts, not to mention the distractions of mobile web browsing and plain old-fashioned phone calls, smartphones are one of the biggest enemies of productivity today. According to a recent study by eMarketer, Americans spend more than 23 percent of their time on mobile phones.
Just as with email, Morgenstern suggests determining certain periods of time throughout the day when you’re “on.”
“In those moments, you’ve got an open door,” she says. “You can have your alerts on and your phone out and available, and you’re there to take whatever comes at you.” But when you’re “off,” such as when you want to focus on work, spend quality time with the family or engage in an important conversation, put your phone out of reach and either mute it or completely turn it off. Some phones also offer a “do not disturb” mode that allows only emergency calls to come through.
“If you can plan and switch consciously, then you’re really using tech to its advantage, and it’s not leading you, but you’re in control of it as a tool,” Morgenstern says.
Another idea is to disable all alerts on your phone and simply check your texts, emails, apps, etc., when you feel like it. “I don’t want other people to have control over my time,” Bregman says. “We’ve allowed other people to take control over our focus, direction and time.”
Resisting Clickbait Temptations
Another difficult situation is when you need to use the Internet for a productive purpose, such as doing research, and you’re tempted to stray from your task by “clickbait” links, pop-up ads, paid search ads and more.
In such scenarios, Morgenstern suggests being very mindful and focused about your goals. “Before you go online, think of it as a meeting with an agenda,” she says. “Ask yourself, What am I going for? How long is this session going to last? How do I know when I’ve achieved my results? Predefine what success is going to look like.” She also advises using a timer to limit how long you’re online; use the one on your phone or use the handy Google timer function by entering “set timer for X minutes” into the Google search box.
Bregman recommends online time-tracking tools such as RescueTime, which can be very eye-opening. “At the end of the day, you look at it and say, Wow, I spent three hours on YouTube instead of doing my research. That data helps you make smarter decisions tomorrow,” he says.
If you need to use other programs on your computer but can’t resist surfing the net and wasting time, check out apps like Freedom, which blocks Internet access for up to eight hours at a time so you can focus on the matter at hand.
One way Bregman stays productive is to designate devices for distinctive uses. “What I love is a Wi-Fi-only-enabled MacBook Air with a 12-hour battery life,” he says. “The keyboard is efficient, and I’m not going to be surfing the web or watching movies on it because of the battery life.”
Meanwhile, he reserves his iPad only for workout sessions. “I still sort of want to return it,” he says. “Ultimately it’s so distracting. Any efficiency I save from using it is not worth the distraction.”
Another great tech tool for anybody working in an office is a quality pair of noise-canceling headphones. Not only do they block the sound of chatter and ambient noise, but they also send a clear signal to co-workers that you’re in the zone.
Morgenstern is a big proponent of the app Eternity Time Log Lite, which tracks the way you spend your time. “In this world of tech, we lose track of our time,” she says. “We’re so fragmented; we don’t know where our time goes.” With the app, a user creates categories for different activities—work, family time, reading, etc.—and clocks the amount of time he or she spends on each activity. “It will give you a report at the end of the day or week on where your time goes,” she says. “Just timing themselves raises my clients’ consciousness, and they are less prone to distractions. They will stick with something longer. And it gives great insights.”
Morgenstern also uses the app Sleep Cycle with clients. When placed on a bed at night, it measures sleep cycles and wakes you up at the optimal time for feeling rested. It also reports on your quality and quantity of sleep so that you can improve sleep patterns. “There’s a vicious cycle, because the less sleep we have, the worse our judgment is, and the less efficient we are, the longer our workdays,” she says.
Ultimately, the biggest lesson is to know when to turn technology off and embrace the important things in life.
“You have to make conscious choices of things you do away from a computer to engage your whole brain,” Morgenstern says. “Who wants to live in a screen when you can have a full 360-degree human experience?”