Four Simple Behaviors to Protect Your Focus and Free Your Time from Behavior Scientist, Steven Michael Crane
Dear Genius Network,
I was so grateful for all your insights and the opportunity to join you last week. I wanted to try to offer you something of value in return, so I whipped up a few of my top tips, below. Let me know how it goes! I’m at stevencrane.me.
We all want to find that one choice that will eliminate hundreds or thousands of choices in the future. A small up-front investment in any of these should pay off handsomely within 1–2 weeks.
Here are four suggestions.
1. One choice that will eliminate 1,000 other choices with digital distractions
Take 5 minutes right now to eliminate distractions with one or more of these one-time behaviors:
- Turn off mobile notifications for apps that you really don’t need to get up-to-the-second information from
- Install Leechblock for Firefox or StayFocusd for Chrome and set up limits on the sites where you regret spending too much time (news, social media, etc.)
- Install the News Feed Eradicator to keep access to functional aspects of Facebook, but without the News Feed.
- Activate the built-in tools, Screen Time on iOS or Digital Wellbeing on Android, and set a recurring reminder or calendar event to take a couple minutes each Sunday to review your screentime from the past week and set limits to nudge you closer to what’s actually important for you
- And of course there’s plenty more solutions through our tool at https://screentime.stanford.edu/.
2. One choice that will eliminate 1,000 other choices around when to read online content
Use Pocket to postpone and batch articles online.
Install it on your phone and browser, then anytime you find something you want to read, save it to Pocket and give it your attention at the right moment in the future.
- Searchable, full-text archive of everything you read online
- Tags for topic organization
- Easy way to share to individuals or to your curated recommendation list (mine’s here)
- And most importantly to me, it will read the articles to you as an audio playlist. Using this, I’ve eliminated almost all screen time spent reading online content. I can instead listen to them while I commute, clean the house, or workout. The built in voices are quite good!
Bonus: Sometimes paywalls or academic articles stop Pocket from correctly importing the article, so it won’t read it to you.
Here’s your workaround:
- Copy-paste the text of the article and email it to yourself
- Open the email on your iPhone
- Use TWO fingers and swipe DOWN from the very top edge of your screen
- Siri will start reading it to you (and you can play/pause/adjust speed)
- (If that didn’t work, go to Go to Settings > Accessibility > Spoken Content to adjust the setting for that)
3. One choice that will eliminate 1,000 other choices in your morning routine.
Monitor your typical morning, and look for ways to set up your environment to eliminate decisions and inefficiency from your flow, to keep your mental energy for what’s most important.
- You could try this: Whatever your most common outfit is (whether you dress to work from home, the office, whatever), just get a bunch of versions (or copies) of that same outfit and never hesitate around what to wear in the morning.
- For example, I got rid of almost all my old socks and replaced them with 30 pairs of my favorite ones that I can wear 99% of the time. You never have to fold them or pair them up or worry about losing one. I like these ones.
4. One choice that will eliminate 1,000 other choices in your email inbox.
Take the time to set up and train some filters so your email program helps you manage your attention.
This one is the most complex to set up, but I promise it will pay off for most people (especially if you feel overwhelmed by your email inbox and don’t have a good system that works well for you).
When we used a technique called behavior focus mapping in BJ Fogg’s class to help us reduce screen time, I identified this as a high-impact, one-time behavior that I could get myself to do.
There’s a variety of ways to do it, but here’s my approach:
I have three main places where all my emails go:
- Inbox: only messages from actual people or urgent alerts land here. This is where I spend 90% of my inbox time, and with these filters in place, it’s not difficult to reach inbox 0 here almost every day.
- P2 label (priority #2): newsletters I actually care about, company mailing lists, non-urgent alerts. Check this once or twice a day when you need a break from more mentally taxing activities (I do it as a mid-day break outside while I soak up some sunshine).
- P3 label (priority #3): everything else like information streams that I want to option to monitor, but do not require regular attention. If I’m busy, I can just ignore this stream entirely.
You just create those labels, disable any current multiple-inbox setup you have, look at your “all mail” view, and then:
- Select all the messages you really don’t need at all, and unsubscribe from those
- Select all the messages that fall under P3, and set up a filter to automatically send those messages there
- Ditto for P2
- Then leave in the inbox whatever’s important, and work through that one as your main focus (using a “snooze” function will be crucial if you want to go for inbox 0)
Inbox 0 is never my goal for P2 and P3. Here’s my current message counts on those:
It’s an addictive reinforcement loop to clear those labels, and then have a couple trickle in, then clear it again. Instead, review them and mark the latest message as read, then next time you go back to that inbox, start from that one and work your way up. It’s also important that they are filters rather than a version of an inbox that’s always visible, so you don’t constantly see how many messages are in there or if you just got a new P2 or P3 message.
It might take an hour or two over the course of a week to set up and continue to train, and then just a couple minutes a week afterwards, but you’ll save many-fold more hours over time as you know what’s important right away when you open your email.
The real advantage of this that I’ve found is that far fewer new messages hit the main inbox, I don’t get into the reinforced habit of checking constantly and getting sucked in to news or other less-relevant distractions.
And it’s a fully flexible system (unlike Gmail’s automatic filters) so you could always set up a couple more filters if you needed to, or you can re-categorize messages to go to the right place if you find some are miscategorized over time.
Don’t delay! Do one of the above now!
For all these things, try them out! If they didn’t work, that’s fine. Be easy on yourself. You learned about a new tool and learned what doesn’t work for you. Just try something else in the same vein.
Let me know what ends up working for you!
If you want more ideas for personal efficiency and digital life optimization and security (I’ve got plenty), or if you need some help implementing these using behavior design, you can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at my website, stevencrane.me.