I wanted to share a new strategy for managing time and attention that has dramatically improved my quality of life and well-being.
I learned about it from Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, and most recently, A World Without Email.
Cal and I both have come to believe that our attention is one of our most valuable assets, and learning to manage (and protect) it is an essential skill to develop if we want to lead healthy, joyful, and fulfilling lives in the modern world.
I’ve been a student of these kinds of strategies for many years and have benefited from several of them, including turning off notifications, batching email and social media checks, doing digital detoxes, and enjoying a “tech sabbath” one day a week.
What all of these strategies share in common is that they attempt to carve out time for focus from a background of distraction. The assumption is that we are online by default, so we must work to create blocks of offline time in order to be more productive, feel better, and preserve our sanity.
But what if we turned this upside down?
What if we assume that we are offline, rather than online, by default? What if instead of carving out time for focus from a background of distraction, we carve out time for distraction from a background of focus?
That’s what this strategy is all about. Here’s how it works:
- Instead of scheduling blocks of time for focusing and being offline, and being online and available for interruptions and distractions the rest of the time, schedule specific periods during the day when you will do online activities like checking email, browsing the web, or interacting with social media.
- During the rest of your day, stay offline and instead focus on “deep work,” completing important projects and tasks, reading a book, taking a walk, writing, learning a new hobby or practising an existing one, playing with your kids, etc.
The intention here, of course, is to spend more time in a state of focus, solitude (not necessarily being alone, but being free of input), and connection with ourselves and the world around us, and less time in a state where our attention is fragmented and distracted by digital tools.
I know this might feel radical for many of you. After all, we’re living in the 21st century. Why should we spend so much time offline? And how could we do our work or manage our social life if we did?
These are valid questions, and not everyone will be able to implement this strategy—at least not without some modifications. But, for those of you who can, or at least want to try, here’s how I’m doing it. Maybe it can also work for you.
I put my phone in Do Not Disturb (DND) mode all the time. I configured the settings for DND so that people on my Favorites list can “breakthrough” if they call. I also adjusted the settings for each contact in my Favorites list so I can receive text messages from them while in DND. This means that if my wife or our daughter’s school calls or texts, I’ll get the message—but I won’t be interrupted by random people throughout the day.
Then, I schedule specific blocks of time throughout the day when I get online to check email and Slack, check text messages, look up stuff online, quickly check my preferred social media accounts, etc. It doesn’t matter so much how frequent or long these periods are; it’s more important that I stick to them and don’t get online outside of them.
The rest of my time is then devoted to deep work (writing, researching, interviewing, etc.), exercise, hobbies, meditation, spending time with my family, and other offline activities.
If during an offline block, I have the desire or need to get online, I write that task down or create a reminder using an Apple Watch, and I do it during my next online block. If it’s time-sensitive, rather than abandoning my offline block right away, I’ll reschedule my next online block so that it’s at least five to 10 minutes in the future, if possible. This trains my brain to resist the urge for instant online gratification, which is like kryptonite for our attention, productivity, and well-being.
If this sounds even remotely interesting, and/or if you are feeling significant resistance, you’re probably a good candidate for trying this.
Here’s my suggestion: just do it for one day to start. And choose a weekend day when your online demands are lighter. If you like it, then add another day, maybe one during the week. If it’s the right strategy for you, you’ll know it—as I do. It’s had a profound impact on my quality of life, and I don’t think I’ll ever go back (intentionally) to the “online by default” way of life.
Let me know how it goes!