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16. How to Manage Distractions Without Sacrificing Anything Important

It sounds ridiculous, at first, to think of the economy as governed by time rather than money. “The economy is powered by paper bills of no real value and a bunch of numbers in a bunch of computers!” they cry, as if this is somehow of greater value than time.

And sure, money is still important. Companies would much rather you give them money and then spend your time consuming their product or service than use the free Spotify tier. But as we become more connected than ever before, as companies can reach wider and wider audiences online with little (or even no) starting capital, it follows that there is a greater number of products being marketed to us every day. Many industries (those with low barriers to entry, anyway, which do not include healthcare, education, or internet service providers) face increased competition, which is how we as consumers can now demand free or nearly-free software and entertainment from most vendors.

Thus, companies begin to value our time almost as much as they value our money. Our time results in their money anyway because Google AdSense, and most people (maybe not you, Dear Reader, but most people, I think we can safely say) are too lazy to download ad blockers and too morally opposed to piracy to try Popcorn Time.

The upshot of this is that lots of products and platforms are vying for our attention and we are more distracted than ever because Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat are very, very good at keeping hold of our attention once they have it, since that’s what they’re paid to do. This is probably not news to you, and since you’re reading this, there is a good chance that it is making you feel as though you have no time in your day when in fact you have plenty to work with.

But this is very important!

But this is very important!

I’m only twenty-four as of this writing, so I am hardly qualified to make any “back in my day” statements yet, but back in my day, I remember spending a couple hours at a time reading the latest Harry Potter book without social media interruptions to distract me. I remember working on my homework from beginning to end and accomplishing it much faster because YouTube was not a thing.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many advantages to having so much access to the wonders of modern technology, and I think it a silly notion to remove it from our lives entirely. We can schedule, communicate, and plan more efficiently than ever. We can pay a bill instantly. We can access an unfathomable collection of information and entertainment in seconds, wherever we are. Even physical goods are just one overnight shipment from Amazon away, and with such constant access to a video camera on our phones, we’re guaranteed to catch more important memories and significant events on video than ever before.

But the analogy between technology and Promethean fire only gets more apt as technology itself becomes more powerful (Windows 10 is roughly 50 million lines of code, all executed in seconds by modern computers- impressive, yes?). You can burn yourself if you don’t watch what you’re doing with it. So here are a few tips to avoid that happening:

  1. Delete mass social media apps off of your phone, and don’t use the mobile browser to go find the sites. The problem with smartphones is the same feature that’s so great about them: we can use them absolutely anywhere. That means that if an app is on your phone’s home screen (where you’ll be seeing it every time you unlock your phone), it holds much more power over you and your time than if you only allows yourself to access it when you can sit down at a computer. The first step in getting that social media platform out of your schedule, therefore, is to delete the app and resist the urge to go to the mobile site on your phone. I’ve found that the apps that are most subconsciously addictive are the ones where you can simply scroll through a long feed of information. These are what I think of as “mass” social media apps, like the Facebook app, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Snapchat (if you can stomach that last one for more than ten seconds). Mass social media apps are mindless, designed to show you a bunch of things you agree with, and generally used to kill time more than to accomplish anything of value (when really you should just let yourself be bored). Personally I have found that I dramatically cut down on social media time by doing this alone. I left the apps I use for one-on-one and small group direct communication on- that is, iMessage and Facebook Messenger for friends, Slack for my Bloc mentors and fellow students, and GroupMe and Skype for communicating with coworkers at T-Mobile and Upscale Academy- and find that my social media usage is much more reasonable when I’m directly talking to people, which is after all more natural and less needlessly-abundant communication.
  2. Use your tech with intention. Rather than whipping out your phone, tablet, or computer because your brain is bored (which is acceptable and completely normal), only look at a screen when you have an intent for what you’re going to do on it. If you’re responding to a text, that’s a justifiable reason to use your phone (in my opinion), assuming you’re not at work or school. Don’t sit down at your computer with no idea of what you’re going to do- that tends to lead to the rabbit hole of YouTube or the dread social media apps mentioned above. This applies to times you need to get work done- I primarily use my computer to write either code or words- but it also applies to when you’re kicking back and relaxing at the end of the day. Unless there’s something specific I’m looking for on YouTube, I generally try to avoid it because it’s easy to fall into the clickbait trap, and anyway I often feel less than entertained after the fact. Go directly to the book, music, movie, TV show, or game you planned to be entertained by, and the fact you made the choice and didn’t allow your brain to be perpetually distracted by butterflies- er, sorry, “links you might be interested in”- will still prevent you from feeling that distracted, frazzled feeling you often get from social media after the fact if you’re anything like me. If I focus on anything, even entertainment, it’s better that perpetual distraction.
  3. Meditate, enjoy nature, eat healthy, talk to people in person, exercise, and be a homo sapien. Your body is not designed to be in the dark, sedentary, alone, and hunched over all day long. Take a walk. Meditate and enjoy the notification-free calmness. Go running or lift some weights. Eat some fruits and vegetables. Talk to people in person- which is still the best social media app going. You are a human being, not a robot. By that same token…
  4. Schedule - both work time and play time. Some folks have a hard time getting work done. I tend to have a hard time taking a break from work. Between my full-time job at T-Mobile, my freelance jobs as a web developer, and my software engineering coursework at Bloc, it’s easy to convince myself I need to work all day long. But if I do, I get burnt out and wind up completely out of it for days. Whether you’re normal or you’re like me, the solution is balance. I find that as the day wears on, my brain slowly loses steam no matter how much coffee I drink, so the best time to try and tackle software engineering problems or do any creative writing for me is in the morning. Midday is when I still want to be productive, but have less brain power to work with, so I can usually blog (rant), pay bills, or run errands. Evenings are when I’m pretty much spent, so a book, a movie, whatever TV show binge I’m in the middle of wiht my fiancee, or a video game- not social media hopping- keeps my brain doing one thing at a time, but without too much stress. Similarly, if my commute to work is in the morning, I try to use that time to listen to an Audible audiobook or a podcast on Marco Arment’s wonderful Overcast app. In the evening, I’m more likely to be relaxing to some music.

This has all been immensely helpful for me. I feel more productive, more present, and more satisfied with how I spend my time. I hope this article has been worth yours!

Dan RiceComment