Last month, I wrote about how a goal-oriented approach to using technology can help you become more focused and productive.
Using that guidance, I’ve now broken negative habits and built new ones that support my goals.
Want to know how I changed my relationship with screens in ways I used to only dream about?
Before we get started, though, remember that learning to balance productivity and technology isn’t easy. It’s like learning a language — you can read about how someone else learned French, but you won’t be able to speak it until you learn for yourself.
So, keep in mind that I’m not sharing my habits so you can adopt them verbatim. Instead, I hope they’ll give you some ideas about changes you might like to make in your own life.
Break the negative media cycle
One of my worst technology habits is the “media loop.”
Here’s how it goes:
I pick up my phone in the evening to check Instagram. Then I jump over to Facebook … and after I get bored there, I hop over to Reddit. Before I realize it, I’ve lost an hour and I’m back on Instagram again.
The problem isn’t the circular behavior itself. The problem is how it makes me feel.
Some evenings, loading up on cute animal GIFs is exactly what I want to do. But other days, it feels more like a trap.
The more I scroll, the worse I feel. The worse I feel, the more I scroll.
I used to have a hard time telling the difference between those two outcomes. But I’ve realized that when I’m scrolling on my phone, my intention is to relax and de-stress.
So, when I’m glued to my phone, I ask myself: “Am I fulfilling my intention of relaxing?”
If the answer is “Yes, this is great,” then I watch cat videos to my heart’s content. But if the answer is “No, this sucks,” simply having asked the question makes it easier to set my phone down and walk away.
Combat your muscle memory
Since recognizing my standard “media loop,” I’ve identified several different ways my automatic responses promote distractions.
For example, muscle memory led me to check Facebook and Instagram more often than I wanted to: I would open up my phone and navigate to the apps automatically.
To fight this habit, I moved all my essential apps to my home screen and buried my more troublesome apps in a network of folders, making them harder to find.
Even with this new setup, though, sometimes muscle memory creeps back in. So, whenever I feel that my muscle memory is getting too strong, I scramble my apps.
Now that I’m aware of my muscle memory loop as well, I have the opportunity to reflect and ask myself: “Is this really what I want to do right now?”
Remember to breathe
Did you know that most people hold their breath when they check their email?
Writer Linda Stone first documented this in 2008 during her informal study, where she found that 80 percent of her subjects held their breath while waiting for their email to load.
Go ahead, check your email. Did you remember to breathe?
Holding your breath indicates that you’re stressed. And of course you are … who knows what might appear in your inbox today? Criticism from your boss? A new project from your most demanding client?
Of course, this isn’t limited to just email. Anywhere you can refresh to see new content has the potential to create the same stress response.
To fend off the stress, I began a very simple habit:
Before checking my phone each morning, I take 10 deep breaths.
I’ve found that practice helps me put off checking my phone until nearly 9:00 a.m. — that’s a miracle, right?
Breathing deeply, even just for 30 seconds, helps relieve the stress response and create space. And it serves as a reminder to put yourself first.
Your intentions and goals are more important than anything that awaits you on that screen.
Make time for reflection
The natural next step was to add more time for reflection into my schedule.
After all, I’d just given myself an hour (or more) back in my day. Now I needed to answer the question: “What am I going to do with my time?”
I decided to add two simple habits: journaling and walks.
I challenged myself to write at least one page every day for a month. I don’t have to write anything specific or meaningful; I just have to write.
My walks are much less structured. Some mornings I walk to a coffee shop almost first thing. Other days I walk in the evening, when I head to the nearby grocery store to pick up ingredients for dinner.
On the walks, I don’t look at my phone, and I bring a notebook to jot down whatever comes to mind.
Journaling and walking both feel so easy, but before I realized the importance of goals and intentions, I had a hard time sticking with them.
Changing my perspective has shown me the value of those habits. They bring balance to my day, and I feel more confident about my intentions than I have in a long time.
Be realistic about what you can accomplish each day
Every morning, I write down my tasks in my planner. That’s not a new habit, but now I aim to be realistic with my time.
For the past few years, I would fill my to-do list with a dozen things that needed to get done, and expect that I could finish them all in one day.
But that routine doesn’t match the way I work. I like to delve deep into projects, and follow the ideas that interest me. Sometimes things take more time to accomplish than I thought, and sometimes they take almost no time at all.
So, I’m learning to give myself time to chase the interesting ideas. After all, I’d much rather under-schedule than under-deliver.
Use mental “hooks” to stay focused
I don’t really go for productivity “hacks,” but there are a few tricks I’ve learned that have proved indispensable to me.
I make sure my to-do list contains only defined tasks
If I need to write a report, for example, I might have “gather email data” and “write website section” as two separate tasks.
Breaking down a task requires you to think through it, and thinking through a task primes your brain to work on it. Before you even begin, you’re already thinking about the first and second steps you’ll need to take.
Sometimes, though, you simply can’t get around tackling a nebulous, intimidating task. In that case …
I spend an hour working on that big project and set a timer
The point of the timer isn’t to track your time; it’s to create space for your brain to focus.
After about 20 minutes, I typically forget all about the timer. Nonetheless, I know that this is time I’ve set aside to accomplish a task, and it’s easier to let go of distractions when I know I will have time for them later.
I leave cliffhangers
This is popular advice for authors I picked up from Ernest Hemingway:
“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck.”
I apply this tactic to just about every project.
Which habits will work for you?
I hope this post has helped you think about how you can build a more goal-oriented relationship with your tasks and technology.
My final tip is:
Don’t be too hard on yourself.
If you get lost in Reddit for an hour or binge Netflix all weekend, don’t sweat it. Learning to use technology in a focused, productive way takes time and practice. You can experiment and course-correct as you find what works and doesn’t work for you.
As long as you remember that goals and intentions come first — before email, texts, or Twitter — you’ll be surprised by how much you can change.