28th September 2016

How to Control Distractions From Technology

In 1987, economist Robert Solow quipped, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

Solow wasn’t the last expert to note the discrepancy between the vast amount of time and money our society has invested in electronic information-management technology and the seemingly scanty benefits we have received in the form of measurable increases in productivity. In fact, Erik Brynjolfsson analyzed this discrepancy in a 1993 article that popularized what has come to be called “The Productivity Paradox.” In the words of Yaacove Cohen, CEO of harmon.ie, “Information technology that was designed at least in part to save time is actually doing precisely the opposite. The very tools we rely on to do our jobs are also interfering with that mission.”

You and I experience the Productivity Paradox as technology overload, a phenomenon that occurs when the addition of new technology reaches the point of diminishing marginal returns. Our lives have become saturated with technological tools to the point of overflow. One new piece of software or one new feature on our smart phones can tip the scales and send us spiraling down and actually decrease our productivity. Think about the last time you purchased a new phone and how long it took you to learn to use it efficiently. The period of diminished productivity you experienced is a classic case of technology overload.

It is important to remember that each of us experiences technology overload in a highly personal way. You and your colleague working in the exact same work environment can experience technology quite differently. That means it is important to consider your own Productivity Style when deciding on strategies to minimize distractions. (Want to find out your Productivity Style? Click here to take the Productivity Style Assessment®.)

But first, let’s look at some data on the biggest digital distractors. Here’s how they were ranked in one survey:

  • Email processing – 23%
  • Switching windows to complete tasks – 10%
  • Personal online activities such as Facebook – 9%
  • Instant messaging – 6%
  • Texting – 5%
  • Web search – 3%

How would you rank your biggest digital distractors? For my client Yvette, the greatest culprit was definitely email. As an Arranger, Yvette prefers to get her work done with and through people. As a result, email is like chocolate candy for her. It is a connection to her colleagues and a very efficient way to communicate with large numbers of people. So she loved the sound of the email notification alarm – it meant she had a new connection. But constantly responding to the distraction of new email was eroding her productivity. You may have the same problem as Yvette—or perhaps you find that the allure of Facebook or the flow of text messages from your friends and work colleagues is the distraction that shatters your ability to focus.

Thankfully, we aren’t helpless in the face of technology overload. There are a number of strategies you can use to take control of the technology that surrounds you and make it work to your advantage. The following list offers a number of ideas about how you can personalize your effort to reduce the amount of technology-driven distraction you experience during the day.

Strategies to Keep Technology From Distracting You


Technology Tips:

  • Check and respond to email at “low productivity” times. Follow the natural rhythm, of your day, and avoid your email inbox during those periods when you tend to do your highest-quality work.
  • Cut the tether to technology: leave your cell phone, your laptop, and/or your tablet in your office, your briefcase, or your purse rather than carrying them with you everywhere

Tools to Try:

  • Use RescueTime, an application for both your computer and mobile devices. It lets you temporarily block websites you deem distracting, tracks time spent on tasks, and alerts you if you are spending too much time on a specific task.


Technology Tips:

  • Plan and designate specific time(s) to check and respond to email. For example, you could decide to check email in the morning, before lunch, after lunch, mid-afternoon, before you leave the office, and once in the evening.
  • Communicate the time(s) you check email with colleagues, managers, and direct reports, so they will know when-and when not- to expect a prompt response.

Tools to Try:

  • Use AwayFind, an application that works across email platforms and will halt your daily barrage of email notifications, except for the ones that include senders and keywords you designate as urgent.


Technology Tips:

  • Turn off the sound on all of your technology tools. Free of beeps, pings, and buzzes, you can scrutinize and respond to new messages according to your own schedule and preferences rather than feeling you must jump every time a machine demands your attention.
  • Designate an email-free day once a week—for example, you might declare that you will observe “email-free Friday” every week. On that day, instead of emailing your colleagues, pick up the phone and actually enjoy connecting with them.

Tools to Try:

  • Use WriteRoom, an app for Macs that runs in full-screen mode and blocks out all other distractions on the computer, leaving you with only the text.
  • If you are not a Mac user, use JDarkRoom. It is a free cross-platform application that imitates the functionality of WriteRoom, allowing you to work in full-screen mode distraction free.
  • Use Camouflage (Mac) or Dropcloth (Windows) to hide the clutter on your desktop, thereby minimizing distraction.


Technology Tips:

  • Turn off the computer screen, keep your email program closed, and/or close your Internet browser.
  • Turn your phone over so the screen is not visible. Reducing or eliminating visual distractions will make it easier for you to focus on the task at hand without being interrupted by your technology tools.

Tools to Try:

  • Use Think, an application for Macs that when launched will ask you which window you want to focus on, bring it to the front, and darken the rest of the screen so you can focus.
  • Use Isolator, an application for Macs that can completely hide other windows and blur everything behind your active window.
  • If you are a Windows user, use JediConcentrate, which works like Think. When you enter concentrate mode, the window you are working on is illuminated and the rest stays dark.