Eliminating Digital Distractions

Life is so full of distractions. It seems everything is vying for our attention in one way or another these days, with most of it coming from our electronic gadgets.

If you take time to look up from your phone for a few minutes, you’ll find a sea of humanity with faces buried in their own device. It’s painful to watch.

Personally, I’ve come to a point where I’ve had it with the digital distractions in my life, so this is what I’ve done about it.

I Removed the Useless Apps from My Phone

There was a time I had more than four screens of apps on my iPhone. I know many people who have far more than that. I don’t know how they manage all those screens, since I could barely cope with the number I had. I’d regularly forget where an app was, which would usually be somewhere on the third screen, beyond two other screens of mostly unused apps.

Though I wasn’t aware of it, I’d made a game out of shuffling apps around on my home screens, hoping to one day land on the perfect combination that made perfect sense and put the universe back in order. Honestly, I think most of the apps on my phone back then got moved around more often than they were ever used.

Once this dawned on me, I decided it was time to purge. The first order of business was to get rid of the useless time-wasting “social” apps. I removed them from my phone without hesitation, deciding if I want to spend time on Facebook, I’ll make time specifically for it. Now, I’m lucky if I look at the site more than three or four times a month. I don’t miss Facebook and could probably go without it entirely if I decided to. I only keep it around to stay in touch with extended family and old friends. I intentionally pared my “friend” list down to less than 50 people that I actually know too.

After nuking the useless apps, I started an experiment with the remaining by moving the ones I didn’t absolutely need to a “folder” on the second home screen. If I used an app more than a few times in a week, it got “unpacked” and promoted back to the first home screen. After a month of this, I ended up with just 16 apps on my first screen — including the four I’d left in the dock as “must have” when I started.

For apps that I didn’t touch after two months, I completely removed them from the phone. I know if I ever need a particular app, I can download it again — where it will find its rightful place on the second screen with all of the other lesser used apps.

I evaluate my home screen every few weeks now to demote or remove apps if I feel they’re not serving a purpose. This has helped me stay laser-focused when I’m using my phone.

I Set All But the Most Important Apps to a Badge Notification

For the apps I keep on my phone, if I need to see a notification of some kind, I’ll set it to badge only. No sounds, vibrations, banners or alerts to distract me. I’ll check it on my schedule, thank you very much.

This includes email — both personal and work. I purposely decided I didn’t want up to the moment email notifications, and I’ve found it quite liberating. Now, when I see a badge on an app, maybe I’ll look at it, maybe I won’t. It pretty much depends on the number displayed on the badge whether I decide to act.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but they are few. The Phone app obviously needs notifications — otherwise my phone isn’t a phone. Same for goes for Messages. I communicate with my immediate family by text a lot, so I leave this notification enabled.

The only other notifications I allow are OmniFocus for task management, and Fantastical for calendars. I definitely need to be on time for meetings and appointments, and I must complete my tasks on time too.

Finally, I turned on “Do Not Disturb” mode between the hours of 10pm and 6am — which is when I go to bed, and an hour after I get up. That first hour in the morning with no distractions helps me get focused on my day ahead.

If you’re a notification junkie like I was, it’s hard to get used to working this way. But if you give it some time, you’ll find you’re picking your phone up a lot less and getting a lot more done during the day.

Give it a try. You’ll feel less tethered to your phone, I promise.

I Set Limits on Use

As a family, we’ve agreed to set limits on when and where electronic devices are acceptable. Never, ever can any one of us bring a phone to the table during a meal. This rule extends to restaurant outings too. Once food is on the table, all gadgets go away until after the last person finishes their meal.

If we’re in a family setting for the holidays or a birthday, all devices get put away in pockets and purses so we can spend time socializing face-to-face. It’s okay if a phone comes out for a photo or two, but if any family member gets caught zoning out on their phone, everyone else reminds them of the rule. It’s worked pretty well so far.

These are some of the ways I’ve started breaking the twitch to reach for my phone and check it. Sometimes I forget, but I find every day gets a little easier. If you’re looking to lessen your own digital distractions, give some of these a try yourself. You might find there’s a lot more going on around you than you realized.

Saying No

Saying no can be one of the hardest things to do.

No to an exciting new project. No to a volunteer opportunity in the community or at church; no to the extra helping of food at a meal; no to bad habits we’ve carried around with us all our lives.

There’s tremendous power in saying no. When we have the courage to do it, we stop stretching ourselves too thin. We make more time for our families. We become healthier by defeating the temptation to eat the extra cookie. We break bad habits that have held us captive all our lives.

These small wins add up over time and give us the courage to say no when we should more often.

It’s okay to say no. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It says you’re strong and willing to sacrifice for the important stuff.

It takes guts to say no.

I’m working hard to learn this habit. No extra projects; no outside distractions and commitments that burn me out and take me away from the family; no to using food to deal with stress; no to procrastination; no wasting time on things that don’t matter.

I’ve found it’s not easy. The temptation to give in is always there. I have to remind myself almost every day: “Is this thing worth what it’s going to take away from something else?

When I’m able to stay the course, I make room for plenty of yes in my life. Yes to spending time with family and friends; yes to being more focused and in the moment; yes to being mindful of those around me; yes to being tolerant of others; yes to making my health a priority.

It takes a lot of effort to say no. But in the end the good that comes from it far outweighs the bad we’re able to leave behind.

Spin Cycle

I’ve been around long enough to know life moves in cycles.

Things that were new and exciting one day eventually become dull and boring the next. The pursuit of shiny objects and interesting paths quickly fall by the wayside before you realize it. We move from one thing to the next and then another in search of a quick thrill, because we’ve become instant gratification junkies.

What if, instead, we intentionally slowed our lives down? What if we deliberately chose to look at the world in wonder like we did when we were young? What if we took time out to play like we did when we were children? What if we stopped to listen to what’s going on inside instead of burying our faces in smart devices that make us dumb?

We spend our adult lives working, chasing dreams, and running after material possessions we think will make us happy. But let me ask you; in all of your pursuits, are you truly content?

Is your soul really at peace?

If there’s any hint of hesitation in your answer, it might be time to step back, take a look at the bigger picture, and find what really fulfills you.

Your time on this pale blue dot is finite. It would be a tragic waste to get to the end and say “I wish I could have…” Maybe today should be the day you stop spinning cycles on unnecessary things that don’t matter.

The choice is yours. It has been all along.