Block Those Notifications or How to Better Protect Your Attention Span
Do you ever get started on a project only to be interrupted five minutes later by a notification? That notification leads down a social media spiral, from which you emerge only several hours later, disheveled and confused, and not any farther along on your original project. This is not meant to shame anyone about their attention span, as it can happen to anybody, any day of the week.
Even if you already use time blocking, and have designated a two-hour block to focus on your particular project — it’s still possible to get interrupted if you don’t have your notifications blocked. (Though, let’s face it, it’s much less likely to happen if you plan your time intentionally.)
The notification problem is so rampant since the internet is designed to capitalize on what Seth Godin calls, “the attention economy.” Analog tools can help in the fight to guard your attention, but capturing and holding your attention is often the purpose of your digital devices, backed by armies of software engineers, developers, and marketers. Rarely does the developer want to notify you for YOUR reasons. Nine times out of ten, it’s for their reasons.
Your best work requires focus for fuel, and focus blocks are the most readily available source for that fuel. But if you’re constantly being pulled out of focus by one more notification/distraction, and losing deep work time to social media surfing or solving the seemingly endless chain of urgent issues — your notifications are becoming a hindrance.
That’s why we decided we needed an app that builds on the way our brains work, one that’s designed to keep us on track. This is one reason we’re creating the Momentum app, based on our beloved Momentum Planning Method: to help you take back the finite and precious resources of your attention and time. And importantly, you still have time to fund it, and make it the best tool it can be, via our Kickstarter campaign until February 3.
Whether you prefer Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or plain old email, social media doesn’t have to be a negative influence on your life, if handled correctly. But it’s up to us to control the amount of time, energy, and attention we spend on the channels that distract us, rather than those channels controlling us.
How Companies Keep You in the Distraction Loop
The simple fact here is it’s not just you — and it’s not an accident.
Most apps and websites benefit from every minute you spend clicking and scrolling, and there’s no repercussions to them for making it difficult for you to concentrate. Only you have to deal with those repercussions. The tech economy we live in profits from your attention. While this is not breaking news to most, it IS relevant if you are trying to get something — anything — finished.
Every time you pick up your phone to check a notification (without suggesting all-out paranoia here) it would be useful to spend a moment imagining those legions of software engineers and telemarketers and their army of “time terminator” bots. One of the most frustrating aspects of this dynamic is that many of these notifications and pings we get online don’t even come from human beings, or real social interactions. For example, you may have noticed recently on Facebook that notifications happen not just for your own activity (i.e., when a friend directly interacts with you), but also for the activities of other people the algorithm thinks you might be interested in.
In an ideal cognitive functioning world, we could just decide on a rational basis when we want to spend time on the internet, and when we want to concentrate on important work. The reality is, however, that most people’s consciousnesses are vulnerable to getting side-tracked, often because we desire the stimulation that our social interactions online can give us.
Protecting Your Attention Span
While I personally use a number of tools that help me block out the noise, I am still ultimately “tool agnostic.” Our aim with Momentum is not to create a tool that makes it impossible for you to use your apps, but to gently guide you towards your higher purposes.
Given the difficulties most folks face with this modern dilemma of decreasing attention spans, here are some ways you can focus your attention and avoid getting too lost in cyberspace:
- Notifications are (probably) not your friend. Start by shutting off all notifications until you know you need the information.
- The internet doesn’t get to preemptively decide what’s worth your attention. If it’s more important than the work at hand, feel free to pay attention. If it’s less important, ignore it.
Interruptions vs. Distractions
Telemarketers have ruined the phone for us, and now the same is more or less true of our internet or tech devices. For me there’s a clear distinction between interruptions and distractions.
Interruptions hijack our attention, but not necessarily in a bad way. It might be neutral or even good, for instance, if it’s our partner or children. We opted into those relationships and those dynamics, and the way they draw us in. Spending time on the people you love is part of what makes you a whole, complete human being.
Distractions are the things we allow ourselves to do, but we didn’t enter into an agreement or relationship with. That might be Twitter (if you’re me) or social media writ large.
Notifications can be either of these, but you want to be sure you’re aware, before being distracted by them, which of these they are. And since a habit is hard to break, it’s a good idea to (initially, at least) challenge any habit that allows you to be constantly interrupted.
Help Is Available
Two more tips from my experience that may help you:
- Some websites and apps can act as cold-turkey blockers (with timers, and the like), or at least limit the amount of time and attention you spend on particular websites. I have used these myself (the Cold Turkey blocker app particularly), with some success.
- Schedule a recovery block and do something fun or relaxing that’s not social media. Example: for a long time, every day at 4:30pm, my inner elephant bellowed, “I want my dopamine!” and I’d dive briefly into Twitter (sometimes not so briefly). Eventually I realized I needed to schedule a recovery block at that point, to prevent me from falling into that rabbit hole. If I was intentionally using that time to recover, I was less likely to get sucked into Twitter.
Arrange your defenses to counter the impulse, or decide in advance how long your distraction dive should be. The point here is that aid is available to help you in that defense.
Momentum will soon be part of that aid. It’s your time, it’s your attention, and you deserve to be the one deciding what you make of it, and make with it.