Being present, managing time, and avoiding distractions

Some tricks that help me stay sane when the internet is calling

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Going into 2019, I want to spend more time on people I care about, activities I enjoy, and personal growth and self-reflection. While I believe that the internet, smartphones, and social apps will have an overall positive effect on society, they’re also causing us suffering: Distractions, information overload, and isolation. But thankfully, we own our smartphones and social media accounts, not the other way around. How can we make them work for us?

In this article, I’ve put together some of the changes I’ve made in the past few months to enable myself to do more of what matters to me, and to be more present in my day-to-day activities. I’ve tried to focus on incremental changes and avoid dramatic overhauls like deleting all of my social media accounts.

At the core of my strategy is to focus on things that are important to me and eliminate intrusions that are merely urgent.

I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent. — Dwight D. Eisenhower

The reason I’m writing about this is because I hope to start a conversation and get your ideas and feedback on how we can all be more conscious about the time we spend, especially on the internet and mobile devices. Time is one of the few things of which we all have a limited amount, and the only thing we can do is make the most of what we’ve got!

So let’s get into it — here are some of the changes I’ve made recently:

1. Always keep my phone on silent

Notifications are tiny tasks imposed upon you by someone else. In the best case, a notification is an important note or call from a loved one. But the overwhelming majority of the time it’s a banal Facebook like, work email, or a needy ad from a sketchy app. Unfortunately, by the time you’ve felt your phone vibrate, seen the screen flash, and checked to see what it is, you’ve already been distracted from what you were doing.

So my first, most effective distraction reducer has been to keep my phone on silent, with vibration turned off, all of the time. In a matter of weeks after doing this, I went from anxiously waiting for the next ping to leisurely checking in every hour or so to see what had come in. Plus, I save some time at the movie theater since my phone is already silenced.

2. Selectively configure notifications for noisy apps

The next step in this strategy came when Apple released Screen Time, a feature in iOS 12 that lets you keep track of how much each app notifies you. When I checked Screen Time, I was surprised that most of the notifications I got were not important or interesting: Likes from social media, non-urgent emails, and suggestions for upcoming events. In one week, I was notified by Gmail 300 times, none of which actually needed urgent attention.

I was able to use Screen Time to determine which apps send me the most useless notifications, and turn them off. I’ve ended up completely disabling alerts for Instagram, Medium, Twitter, and email. I still check in on those things a few times a day when I want to, but I don’t miss getting blasted in the face by every little thing.

iOS 12 Screen Time app, image from 9to5Mac

3. Wear an analog watch

Recently, I’ve been placing a lot of emphasis on being present in the moment. I noticed that checking the time on my phone would often result in me starting to browse something else out of impulse. My anxiety about not knowing the time or being late to my next engagement was taking me out of the moment.

I recently started wearing an analog watch, and it’s been a massive improvement. When I’m in a meeting, I no longer have to check my phone or laptop to make sure I’m not late to the next thing. Importantly, because it’s not a smart watch, anyone I’m with knows that I’m only checking the time and not getting distracted reading something on my wrist.

The watch I wear roughly 24/7

The particular watch I have is a Swatch Skin Irony, which I love. It’s thin, light, and resilient enough that you can wear it literally all of the time: Sleeping, typing, playing sports, sitting in a hot tub, etc. Its design also works for basically every occasion, so I don’t have to worry about changing watches when I go out. It’s relatively inexpensive and doesn’t need charging like a smartwatch would. It’s just a companion that’s with you everywhere and does exactly one thing: Tells you what time it is.

4. Use a calendar for everything

Ironically the next thing that helped me avoid distractions and stay present involved using technology more: diligently using a calendar app for both work and personal life. It’s a bit of up front effort to actually write down all of the things I plan to do: Dinners with friends, meetings with coworkers, errands, trips, and everything else. But the result is that I no longer have to worry about missing a commitment or double booking myself, which used to happen all of the time.

I now have the peace of mind that I can reliably look at today’s date in my calendar and know exactly where I need to be and when. I can also look future plans and identify if I’m overcommitted, allowing me to solve the problem ahead of time by rescheduling or canceling something. I haven’t thought too much about my choice of calendar app, but I’ve tried a few of the ones recommended online and found Google Calendar to work best for me.

5. Record tasks and followups with Things

My calendar reminds where I plan to be. A todo list app tells me what I plan to do later. After looking at a bunch of apps, I settled on Things, and I could write a whole post about how much I love it!

The moment I think of some task or want to follow up on something, I throw it in my Things inbox and put it out of my mind. Later, I triage my inbox and decide if it’s something urgent I need to do today, something I can file away and look at later, or best yet, something I can delete right away. The best feature of Things is how it enables you to triage tasks and focus on what is important right now. If you send yourself a lot of email reminders and then snooze them, you might find Things to be a big improvement for that same type of workflow.

A nice promotional image from the Things website. I love the app’s low-clutter design.

Writing down everywhere I want to be and everything that I plan to do was initially a scary proposition, and it’s easy to fall into a hole where you get overwhelmed by all of the stuff you’re trying to accomplish. But what I’ve realized is that recording a todo item or event doesn’t necesarily mean I’m committing to actually doing it, as long as I allow myself to delete or cancel things. What it does do is stop that idea from nagging at the back of my mind while I’m doing something else.

6. Intentionally taking time for breaks and social media

Not every minute of my life has to be productive or planned out, and it’s important to remember that. So I make sure to give myself as much time as I want to do the things that used to feel like distractions: I’ll sit down and intentionally browse instagram, watch youtube, take a nap, or check up on Reddit memes.

The biggest benefit from doing all of the work earlier in the article has been that I don’t feel as guilty or anxious about those things as I used to, since I don’t feel like I’m doing them at the expense of something important. I know that the things that I need to get done are tracked somewhere, and I can get back to them later.

Conclusion

A few years ago, I was a disorganized mess, and I was afraid of all the work it would take to make a change. But after putting in some work to set up my environment and create a system tailored around my preferences, I feel like I have much more time for what really matters to me.

Given how much this has improved my life, I want to keep improving! So I put it to you, dear reader: What has helped you be less distracted, worry less, and get more out of your time?