Achieving zero digital distractions: A year of hard work

How does the alcoholics anonymous group meeting start?

"I am ... and I am an alcoholic"?

This is my story. I'm not an alcoholic. I never touched the stuff, and never will. But I've been an addict to something as potent for a long time.

"Hi. My name is Adnan and I was a social media and digital news addict. I've been cleaning up for the past year and as of this year, I'm finally running clean".

We might be only 15 days in but I feel pretty good.

If you are anything at all like me, then you know what this experience feels like.

*start up computer and get ready to work*

*Open up facebook to check it out for a few minutes*

*20 minutes later*

"Ok time to start work"

And then about a two hours into the workday

*Tab out to browser, open a new tab, type "f"/"y"/"i"/"t"/"n" and hit enter to visit the digital "inlet" of my choice*

*click.. click.. scroll.. click.. scroll.. click.. checks time*

*15-30 minutes later*

*sheepishly restarts work*

Maybe this looks like your workday. Maybe you are more the "2 minutes every 10 minutes" type of person. Or you could be the multitasker! YouTube on one side, work on the other! Essentially, if digital media intake that's not related to whatever you are doing in that moment, constantly muddles its way into your day, you have a problem. A big problem. You are an addict too.

This isn't a post about how you can stop being an addict. Your journey, should you wish to take it, could very well be different from mine. This is just a story to share to say "hey I did it!".

It all started...

In 2008 when I started following Robert Scoble and Techcrunch and then worsened when I got my first android phone in 2009 (I think). Social media network launches were the rage. Everyone was going to make the next big photo sharing app. Everyone was going to solve every tiny social problem we had with an app. And I was going to be the one to try them all out. Every app, every beta site, every update. It was innocent, and exploratory at the start. I didn't realise what was happening to me though. The amount of time I was spending combing tech sites, watching YouTube videos, and browsing one social feed after another kept growing until it had soon started taking over entire portions of my day.

I think, at my peak, there would be entire work days where I probably worked 1 hour out of 7 and I would spend the rest of the day bouncing around from one corner of the internet to another.

Acceptance

Corny as this may sound, at the beginning of the year I accepted that I had a problem. That my need for feeds was swallowing up my ability to concentrate and work productively for long periods of time. Part of the realisation came from having a child and discovering that my distractions would not be forgiven by a baby. The number of hours that I could work had suddenly become non negotiable, and everything was more zero sum than ever before. Any minute spent not on work was lost. This was always true. But in the past, I might have been able to squeeze in some extra time. That was all gone. At the start of the year, I told myself that it was time to fix this and that within a year, I would no longer be visiting any kind of non work related resource at all. Zero. My first move towards optimising my 8 hours had to become this.

Setting the goal

I'm not someone who can handle cold turkey methods. As a long distance runner my mentality has been honed to think of challenges in lots of small chunks. One km at a time. One day at a time. One month at a time. The most important piece though is the starting point. Where did I even stand? I've used RescueTime (this is not a paid for post) for many years but never paid any attention to the stats. I'm not sure I want to see my stats from 2015 anyway. But I measured myself for a week in April, and on average I was spending over 2 hours and 20 minutes a day on distracting tasks. This doesn't account for me getting distracted by anything on my phone mind you although I know that would add about another 30 minutes. So taking all of that into account, close to 3 hours of my day was vanishing into the ether. All I wanted from a day was 8 to 8.5 hours of work. And out of that, 6 hours minimum would be spent on my day job. The remaining time was supposed to go into my side projects and here I was spending it on YouTube, Facebook, and various forms of internet rubbish.

The goal? 0 minutes a day within a year. This would mean reducing 15 minutes a month for a year. Surely I could do that!

Almost nothing moves in a straight line.

When you want to hit a goal, you don't necessarily achieve it linearly. Sometimes you start slow. Other times you start fast, then go smooth, then sprint. I actually took the latter approach for this.

  • At the beginning of the year, I told myself that the first goal was to drop to 1 hour and 30 minutes immediately. The largest chunk of time I was spending on social media was in the afternoon after lunch. This was easy enough to just force through and with a bit of willpower, by August I had gotten rid of any digital distractions in the afternoon
  • In the middle of the year, I made the move to less than 1 hour of distracting time. This took me about a month and a half to achieve and it meant cutting out the large chunk of time I would take at the beginning of the day to catch up on whatever I missed out.
  • The last part was arguably the most destructive that I had to get rid of and that was all those little 10-15 minute breaks I was taking in the middle of the day to check HackerNews or YouTube or anything else that caught my attention. This stuff was particularly hard because it would happen quite innocently. I might be reading something relevant to work and something in there would trigger a thought that would make me think "hmm maybe I can buzz 'x' on FB for some advice on this". And then Facebook's algorithms would take over and lead me down to a rabbit hole of fascinating and irrelevant material. This was hard and to ensure that I would have some help, I ended up making a small tool called "please-focus-already" that would block sites within certain time periods. I even added a function to my ~/.bash_profile that let me type focus on to start blocking these sites. And even though my will power broke down occasionally, by the beginning of this year, that impulse to visit some site just for the heck of it was gone.

And from April to the first week of January, this was my journey of gradually removing any distractions from my life. I've completely removed myself from getting distracted any time I sit down to actually do some work. I still have a little more to go in not letting myself get distracted when doing everyday life stuff like walking from the mosque or carrying my baby outside. But I'm almost there. The focus and the drive that comes with this attitude is incredible.

Final Notes

I've tried to get productive many times before in the past. Pomodoro. GTD. This app. That app. Trello. Checklists. Bullet journals. Name it and I've probably tried it. Over time I realised two things.

  1. These are optimisation tools and methods for people who are already productive or at the very least, disciplined in some form.
  2. With all the lifehack style writings in the world, productivity techniques began to feel like some odd kind of fetish or meta game. It makes you feel productive but ultimately the output ended up being me being productive in reading about and adopting a technique. Not actually getting my work done. Your mileage may vary but it was important for me to realise this and start the year's journey by saying the problem was with me. Not the tools.

Throughout this journey there has been one thing though that has kept me going. That's been this post of DHH's. This bit in particular is bookmarked in my brain:

During my undergrad, I created Instiki, Rails, Basecamp, and got on the path to being a partner at 37signals. Do you think I could fit all that and still get straight As and have lots of time left over for playing World of Warcraft? No.

This is the reality of it all. Most of us who say that life is stacked against us don't realise how good we've got it. Not to be preachy but reminding myself how much I'm wasting every single day has been one of the best routes towards achieving a healthy digital lifestyle. One that will finally give me the space to actually push forward in the directions that I care so much about.

If there's any other additional inspiration that you'd like, I've heard that Dr. Cal Newport's book, "Deep Work" comes highly recommended. I've watched a YouTube video of his on this topic and cannot stress how important every word that he speaks is.

Whether it be a new year's resolution or something that you've been wanting to do for a while, if you are going ahead with this, I wish you the best of luck!

cover photo credit: William Iven via unsplash.com