We are all becoming more aware of how the world is competing for our attention. The information age is fantastic, but our brains are not wired to take in everything. In fact, one of the powerful traits of the human mind is to shut out and ignore information so we are not overwhelmed by unimportant stimulus. Then we downloaded the Facebook app.
Tags, notifications, push notices, message previews, pinging…these are powerful psychological tools to manipulate your brain to pay attention to unimportant noise. Social approval, dopamine hits from reward systems, and random interruptions are all being used to capture your time.
I personally love social networks. Some of my closest friendships have been found and fostered through Facebook. But finding a healthy balance is somewhat like an addict trying to manage small doses. Any use can be a slippery slope when you’re dealing with such powerful substances.
I’m just as guilty as anyone of wasting time. To be honest, I’ve always been pretty good at it, even before Facebook. Productivity is something I’ve had to cultivate over time because I was a pretty lazy kid. I would have bursts of inspiration that would get me into things, but no work ethic to get me where I wanted to go.
As someone who’s had to cultivate this over time, I’ve learned a few things that don’t work, a few things that work but don’t make me happy, and a few things that work- and that I can feel good about. This is a pretty big topic so I’ll share the motivation, goal-setting, and organization stuff in future posts. (It’s good stuff! Things you’ve never heard before.) In this article, I just want to share my strategies for shutting off the noise. You don’t have to swear off social media in order to get back control of your brain. I’ll admit- these strategies aren’t perfect. You’re still playing with fire so you might get burned, but here are some tips that can get you set up in the right direction.
There was a time, not long ago, when nobody expected you to be accessible at every moment of the day. Before cell phones, we all knew you had to “catch people at home”. That’s why telemarketers used to call during dinner hours. Annoying as hell- but they knew you’d be more likely to pick up.
Now we are tethered, but I think we forget that we have control of the times we choose to be available. Enter: Airplane Mode. When I go for walks I usually listen to a podcast. I download it before I leave, then hit airplane mode and I know for the next 30-60 minutes I will not be interrupted or distracted.
The beauty of airplane mode is that after you turn it on, you can go in and activate certain features if you want them on. I use Bluetooth to keep music going while I write, but with everything else off, I know I won’t be messaged, pinged, or notified. I use it for walks, riding my motorcycle, meditating, reading, etc…
2. Set expectations.
One aspect of going offline like this is that you begin to set expectations for the people who contact you. My friends know the best way to contact me is through text or instant messaging, but even then it might be a couple of hours before I respond. Phone calls rarely get answered because I have a hang-up about talking on the phone (dad joke intended). I hate it. Like- really hate it. Emails might be a 48-hour response time.
If you jump every time someone says “frog”, you’ll set that as a standard that people come to expect. Then in the rare occasion where it takes you longer to respond, people will be more likely to be worried, offended, or otherwise impatient. I know to some of you this may sound rude or selfish, but honestly, why is it ok to be at the beck-and-call of everyone in your life? At no other time in the history of our species have we had that expectation put on us (aside from slavery or other abominations). Your time is yours. Own it and don’t apologize.
3. Avoid Default Mode.
Apps are designed to capture your attention and they are really good at it. Don’t download an app and leave it set up in default mode. Go into the settings and turn off all notifications that you can live without (which is probably all notifications). If the app doesn’t have those kinds of options, you have two other options for sanity: move the app to a secondary page or folder on your phone so you’re not staring at it every time you pick up your phone, or better yet- delete it.
Today’s default mode is to be constantly distracted. So don’t live in default mode.
4. Stack Your Days.
I pretty much only respond to emails on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Because of my work situation right now, I do scan every day to make sure there isn’t a work related email that needs a faster reply, but I resist the urge to clean out my inbox on any other day than those three. Meetings and appointments are stacked on Tuesdays and Thursdays as much as possible. I’ve found this to be a very valuable tool for keeping my mind less cluttered. If every day started with emails, interrupted by meetings and appointments I would feel like I was playing a game of tug-of-war, with me as the rope!
Stacking certain days for certain tasks frees up a lot of mental space. I know Tuesday is full of appointments, so I have no expectation to get any other work done on that day. Less pressure. Less guilt. Less mind-clutter.
5. Stack your spaces.
Some people call this my “man-cave”. Does this look like a cave to you?
It’s my study. I have a drawing desk for drawing. A writing desk for writing. A lounge chair for smoking cigars, reading, or watching lectures and Family Guy. I have a bench for playing guitar. It’s my space for creating. And it’s specifically designed for what I want to do.
Before I had a room to myself, I used coffee shops and a good set of headphones. It doesn’t matter what the space is, but find where you do your best work and make intentional use of specific spaces for specific tasks. This really helps your brain understand what it is supposed to be doing. When I sit at my writing desk, I feel like I should be writing. Find your place, and you’ll find your pace.
6. Create Something.
Some people don’t feel they are the “creative type”. I’m not so sure that’s true but we’ve been taught certain standards for what is considered creative. If you’re not an artist or musician, that’s ok. You can still journal. You can still make up funny parody lyrics to a favorite song. You can still try new hobbies- you don’t have to be particularly gifted to enjoy painting ceramics or putting googly eyes on pet rocks. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be something you create.
I look at this as reversing the flow of stimulus. Instead of just taking in information all day, now you’re in output mode. Reversing the flow like this can have massive effects on your sense of peace from all the noise we are presented with. It’s a hell of a lot more effective way to unwind than watching TV, which is just another stimulus vying for your attention.
If you really struggle with being a creative person, try devoting 10-minutes per day to developing some sort of creative skill. More on this in a future post, but you’ll be amazed at the progress you can make on almost any skill by devoting an uninterrupted, focused, 10-minutes every day. Even if it’s just keeping a journal, be sure to reverse the flow of information at least once per day.
7. Get Out!
Getting out into nature with your phone OFF is a powerful re-set. I sound like a hippie when I say this, but seriously; if you live in the city, make it a priority to get the hell out of it on a regular basis. Don’t let the pressures of the rat-race guilt you into being house and work bound. Taking off is not being irresponsible, it’s taking care of basic needs. Eat good food, exercise, breathe, poop, go out into the world- these are basic needs. Don’t let anyone guilt you into thinking you don’t have time for all of them.
These last two aren’t as direct as the above methods for muting the noise, but they have tremendous carry-over into the rest of your day.
The first is Meditation, which I wrote about here. If you think it’s silly or mystical mumbo-jumbo, think again. Hop on over to that post to see what I’m talking about. It’s a game-changer!
Meditation helps you learn how to sort through the noise and in a sense, let it pass through you without the stopping power that it might otherwise have.
The second bonus tip: read books. If you think you don’t like to read books, you probably just haven’t found the right book. For some of you, this might seem trite, but statistically speaking, I know a lot of people don’t read books. The long-form thoughtfully constructed structure of a book is not like any other source of communication. You cannot get the same fulfillment from listening to TED talks by the author. You don’t get the same mental growth from watching the movie adaptation.
There is no rule that says you have to finish a book. This one sentence changed my life. Sounds silly I know but I used to resist reading books because I was a slow reader and it might take months to finish a book. That’s a big commitment. Now I have zero guilt in putting a book down and getting back to it months later or never. As a result, I devour books these days because I’m much more likely to only read things I’m really enjoying.
How are you managing the noise? Is it a struggle, or have you found effective ways of managing the flood of information? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Oh- and thanks for giving me your precious attention. It means a lot.