Digital disruptions, random distractions, and 24/7 connectivity are killing our ability to focus—and that hurts our quality of life. Joe McCormack offers some simple, doable changes you can make in the upcoming year to reclaim your most valuable asset:
your time and attention.
Searching for a New Year’s resolution that will make a huge difference in your life? Joe McCormack urges you to look past the usual contenders—lose weight, join the gym, save money—and start noticing a bad habit (actually, a whole suite of them) that hurts most of us more than we realize. We’ve stopped discerning what we let into our sphere of attention, and it’s taking a toll on our relationships, our careers, and our quality of life.
“Slowly and without realizing it we’ve become slaves to emails, news stories, celebrity gossip, and endless social media alerts,” says McCormack, author of NOISE: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus “Digital distractions take us out of the moment, make us miss life’s nuances, and rob us of our potential.”
Thanks to what McCormack calls “noise,” we’re literally missing our lives. Days, weeks, months, and years pass by in a blur as real connections and meaningful work are replaced with mindless feasting on empty “calories” that make us mentally anemic and rob us of our focus.
The consequences are real. We tune out our kids (and they develop the same bad habits). We half-listen to our partners. We go through the motions at the office, missing the cues that lead to smart decisions and failing to do the “deep work” that leads to real success.
That’s the bad news. The good news is we can live richer, more rewarding, more intentional lives. We just need to be aware of what we’re doing—and what we’re not doing—and make some small, yet surprisingly high-impact changes around our relationship with technology.
The cusp of the new year is the perfect time to join McCormack’s “Just Say No to Noise” movement. In fact, adding a “noise management” component to more traditional resolutions may make you more likely to reach them. (If, say, you want to lose 20 pounds, cutting digital distractions frees up more time to prepare healthful meals and exercise.)
Here are a few tactics you might want to try:
Set a few reachable “North Star” goals. Think about some attainable goals you would like to achieve in the following year. They could be relatively simple to achieve, like going to bed by 10:00 p.m. each night, working out four days a week, or going on a day trip with your kids at least two weekends each month. Or they might be more ambitious, like writing a book, getting a big promotion, or changing careers.
Whatever your North Star goal may be, write it down and then make a public pact with a friend or family member so you can stay accountable. Think about how reducing noise will open up room in your life to make these goals a reality. The following advice will help you get there…
Try going a week without social media. Even better, give it two weeks. This may be tougher than you think because checking Facebook is a powerful addiction. But give yourself a relatively short time frame and it will feel doable. One caveat: You can’t compensate with TV. Do something productive, relaxing, or meaningful instead: Clean out a closet, go for a walk, meditate, write a letter to that great-aunt you’ve been neglecting. At the end of your social media moratorium, ask yourself how you feel. You might not even want to go back. If you do, hopefully you’ll be able to maintain more balance and self-control.
Set boundaries around work check-ins. According to research from McCormack’s firm, The Brief Lab, professionals check their phones 150 times per day and check their email 36 times per hour! That’s bad enough during the workday, but for many people the vigilance continues after business hours. To curb constant email checking, draw a hard line around your phone and computer use and don’t cross it.
“The 7-to-7 rule is a great way to do this. After 7:00 p.m., put away your devices for the night. Don’t pick them up again until 7:00 a.m. the next day. This habit reduces screen time and allows for other regenerative activities like reading, conversations, and exercise.”
Use 5-minute bursts of focus to stop procrastinating and start getting things done. You can either waste your entire day (yet again) by giving in to tech-fueled distractions, or you can resolve to be more productive with your time, starting now. Here’s how: Block off 5-minute segments of time to completely focus on and tackle one particular task throughout the day, starting and stopping on time. If you need more time, add another five minutes.
“Five minutes may not seem like a long time, but when you’re coming from a place of constant distraction, it can feel daunting at first,” says McCormack. “The Brief Lab found the average professional has an 8-second attention span. That’s why practicing bursts of intense focus is so important. It stretches an underworked muscle, and over time your attention span will increase.”
Nurture your relationships through present listening. Present listening means that you are in the moment, not racing ahead or looking back. It also means you’re giving your listening as a gift to the other person while expecting nothing in return. Be interested, ask questions, and remember that it’s not about you. Resist the urge to follow momentary emotions and thoughts. This lowers the noise around you so you both get the most out of the exchange.
“Present listening gives you power to reveal hidden insights, deepen understanding, and build stronger connections,” says McCormack. “Even when it feels uncomfortable, as it sometimes will, push through the discomfort. This is one of those changes that may seem ‘small,’ but it can have a huge impact on relationships both at work and in your personal life.”
Plan for unplugged weekends. It’s all too easy to waste weekends (or good portions of them) zoned out in front of the computer or the TV. In order not to do this, you need to plan ahead. When you don’t have an activity on the calendar you will probably default to digital devices. Of course you can’t (and shouldn’t) have every weekend booked to the hilt, but McCormack says at least two weekends out of the month should contain scheduled activities and events that will get you away from your devices and help you engage in the present.
“Get together with friends or family members and take a hike, or go on a road trip,” he says. “And there’s nothing wrong with scheduling ‘quieter’ events like staying in on a rainy Saturday for a board-game marathon, or cooking a big dinner together and inviting neighbors over to help enjoy it. These activities promote real-life bonding with people you care about.”
Commit to deviceless dinners. Dinner time can be a sacred time for families. Make a family pact to put down your phones, totally disconnect, and enjoy each other’s company while you share a meal together. Take turns talking about your day and really connect with each other.
Designate screen-free areas at home. The places your kids (and you) sleep, converse, and eat should generally be free of technology, especially screens. For example, replace the television in the living room with beautiful artwork or family photos. Replace the computer monitor in the living room with a cozy chair and some nice bookshelves to create a reading nook.
Every week get rid of something that isn’t working for you. Find an item you don’t use and don’t need and donate it. Clutter is its own form of “noise.” Plus, this practice helps you get used to thinking about what’s essential in your daily life and focusing intently on it.
“There’s a good reason minimalism and decluttering are such trends right now,” says McCormack. “In the same way that too much data overwhelms and paralyzes us, so do too many choices and too much stuff.”
Focus on getting brief in your workplace communication. Brevity has flown the coop in the age of endless emails and too many meetings. But you can learn to streamline your thoughts so you are more easily understood (and less exhausting to your colleagues and acquaintances).
“When trying to inform, explain, update, and convince, simplicity goes a long way,” says McCormack. “Focus on being lean, clear, and concise, whether you’re speaking or writing. Ask yourself: What is the single most important thing I want to convey in this conversation or communication? Then, tailor that email, voicemail, phone call, or presentation accordingly.”
Carve out quiet time at work. Prioritize it. A study conducted by The Brief Lab found that 64 percent of professionals reported having less than two hours a day of quiet, uninterrupted activity. Those quiet moments where we used to get lost in thought are largely disappearing as we obsessively consume information. We can fix a big part of this problem by wrenching ourselves away from screens as much as possible. We can also seek out quiet spaces at the office when we need to do “deep work.” And we can utilize tools like noise-canceling headphones or even an old-fashioned handwritten “do not disturb” sign taped to our door.
“The point is to get intentional about protecting quiet time. When you don’t shut out the world, you’re constantly aware of its endless demands. These will break your focus and make you feel anxious because you can’t stop what you’re doing and ‘fix’ them.”
Hone your impulse management skills. (You’re going to need them!) Despite your best efforts, there will be times when your mind gets yanked around, latching onto things that really don’t matter much. When you find yourself impulsively getting distracted at work, at home, or wherever, practice managing your impulses and staying focused. A few tips:
- Notifications. When you hear an alert on your phone, tell yourself “no” and get back to what you were doing. (And better yet, silence any digital noisemakers.)
- Passerby. When someone approaches your desk, your curiosity awakens. Now you have to either say hi or pretend you didn’t see them. Back to work. Say no.
- Ideas. Walking to get scissors, you start thinking of an appointment tomorrow and recall you haven’t accepted the invitation yet. Just say no and retrieve the scissors.
“Look back over the past year and ask yourself if you were as intentional as you wish you had been,” concludes McCormack. “If your answer is no, you owe it to yourself to awaken your awareness and begin mindfully creating the life you really desire. This is a game changer that will help make 2020 your best year yet.”
Joseph McCormack is the author of NOISE: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus . He is passionate about helping people gain clarity when there is so much competing for our attention. He is a successful marketer, entrepreneur, and author. His first book, BRIEF: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less (Wiley, 201
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