smartphone-bedLast Monday morning I made a small change on my iPhone that has had a rather massive impact. I disabled my email server. That’s right, I can no longer check emails on my phone. I did more too. I disabled all my notifications, so there are no more red dots alerting me to check Facebook or Twitter, and I no longer know how many dozens of podcasts I haven’t yet listened to. When I look at my phone, I see a clean slate.

To cut a long story short, I look at my device when I choose to, not when it chooses me.

But wait, it’s not really that simple. During the day on Monday, after I made this somewhat courageous move first thing in the morning, I must have checked the e-mail app on my phone half a dozen times, only to be greeted with the empty set-up page. Old habits die hard, and this checking habit will most assuredly be one of them. Yet the positive consequences of this decision are already accumulating thick and fast. That background buzz of anxiety, expectancy, and frenetic checking has subsided. It’s being replaced with an almost zen-like calm. Was it like this all the time before smartphones?

What good does it do to check?

I have been semi-consciously moving in this direction for some time now. I like my tech, but our relationship was getting tempestuous. I don’t know why it took me so long to realise that reading my emails in those five-minute life pauses, those moments when you’re waiting for a bus or for your coffee to arrive, may feel productive, but it’s not productive. What are you going to do with that information? It’s rare that you can resolve anything that arises by typing back via your tiny screen, so all you’re left with is the worry and concern of finishing the unfinished thing you’ve become aware of when you next get the chance.

Why not save that worry for when you can attend to it immediately?

email manSure, those emails pile up in the interim, but so long as you plan ahead to “batch” your email time into discrete periods, you save yourself a lot of heartache in-between. This is the mainstay of much “productivity porn”, this idea of proactively batching tasks so they don’t pepper themselves throughout your day in unproductive ways. It seems obvious, but most of us seem content with allowing ourselves to let our technologies guide us, rather than the other way around.

I have now gone further than removing emails from my iPhone. I have resolved to only check and respond to emails at scheduled intervals, and to leave it all together after working hours and on weekends and holidays. The great fear of the pile-up is over-wrought. Get a good out of office responder, and you’re on your way.

The sweet spot is not so sweet:

But why do we check? And particularly, why do we check email? Email is a special paradox because so many of them, particularly in the work context, usually require us to respond in ways that aren’t really “fun” – in fact it’s usually more work. So why are we checking in the evenings, during our lunch breaks, when we’re in the middle of something important, or on a sunny Sunday afternoon? We check because our technology creates a special kind of sweet spot that we keep returning to. It combines novelty with recognition.

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Novelty is naturally rewarding to human beings – it’s that shiny thing that draws our attention. We’re wired to be alert to novel things. In my previous post on Smartphone as Emotional Supply I discussed how the notifications that come across them reward the same centres of the brain as gambling, because of the “variable interval reinforcement schedule” which is essentially the same thing that turns us on to slot machines. However, on the smartphone the novelty aspect meets our innate needs for recognition and validation in that sweet spot that really effectively draws us in. It’s not just the random interval, it’s that whatever is buzzing away in our pocket means someone wants something from us. It makes us feel wanted (because we don’t know yet, that it’s just an ad for Viagra).

The result of this constant need to check produces a consistent psychological buzz in our minds preventing us from being present and getting in the way of deeper thought. Our entire digital infrastructure, particularly in relation to social media, can get in the way of being mindful – I discuss this on the Digital Mindfulness podcast below.


Deep Work

As both a knowledge worker (academic, author, and researcher) and a deep worker (psychotherapist) I rely on having access to the deeper focussing functions of my mind. However, more and more I notice that when my attention is continually drawn to my iPhone, I have a harder time focussing on what I really need to do. In the consultation room this is less of a problem because I assure that my devices are turned off before a client arrives so I’m already in a quasi-meditative state. However, when I don’t have the external enforcement for that shut down, it’s more difficult. That is, when I’m alone in front of my computer settling down to write. There are just too many temptations present.

I have recently picked up Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: rules for focused success in a distracted world, and I would highly recommend it to those, who, like me, struggle to enforce periods of deep work. We know that the best of our work is not about answering e-mails, yet we let this connected-up world distract us nonetheless.

Deep Work

Newport notes that surveyed professionals spend 25 hours a week outside the work environment checking emails! That’s three full working days, outside of work! While for some this might show commitment, it may at the same time show a commitment to shallow work (see Nicholas Carr on this) rather than deep committed knowledge work.

Enough research has now come in to show us that multi-tasking is a false economy and that we need to be much more focussed on the individual jobs we are doing.

You have to honestly ask yourself. Are you being productive, or are you just being busy?

Busyness without focus has dire consequences. That seemingly innocent check of your Facebook, Twitter or email while you’re trying to concentrate on something big has wider consequences than you might imagine. Something called “residual attention”, that is, when an email alerts you to something that will need to be done, while you’re trying to concentrate on the task at hand, gets in the way. You can no longer give your deep important task the attention it needs. So better leave the checking for later, and let your brain get deep into the work.

Active or passive in relation to your tech?

Your tech is designed to attract your attention. Are you going to be passive to that? Are you going to let your phantom vibrations direct your attention? Are you going to let that ad for Viagra get in the way of you and your great unwritten novel?

It’s time for a change. It’s time to get in front of your technology and make active decisions about how you’re going to engage in it. Allow your smartphone to bring added value to your life, not to suck away your attention and your commitment to depth.

Five Step Action Plan:

  1. Choose when you are going to engage with your tech, and do it with intention.
  2. Set a timer (see Pomodoro for example) for periods of deep work, and stick to the clock by not multitasking during deep tasks.
  3. Turn off mobile devices when communing with friends and family.
  4. Be bored. Stand at the bus stop without checking. Wait for the coffee with your hands in your pocket. Practice non-distraction.
  5. Train your brain to learn to be present and gain more control of distractions. And yes, by the way, there’s an App for that. Headspace works just fine.*


    More on the psychodynamics of online life in my book, The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self.

    You may also wish to join my Author Page on Facebook to keep up with my latest blog posts, events, and news about psychology, social media, and technology.


* There’s all kinds of evidence to show how much meditation can help. This infographic from Positive Health Wellness cuts through the noise:

  • The Science Behind Why Meditation Makes You So Much Happier