One of the biggest obstacles people face today when it comes to attention management is learning to control their technology. While it may seem that technology is here to make our lives easier and more efficient, big tech companies have discovered ways to steal our attention without us even noticing. The result is most of us are living in a state of constant distraction, allowing repeated interruptions that derail us from making progress on our projects, our priorities, and the significant results in our lives.
We should adopt technology for our convenience, not to keep us in a state of “always on” that erodes our attention and pulls us off course. In this article, I’ll share ways I have uncovered and developed for my clients to take charge of their technology and regain power over their attention.
For more than 20 years I’ve been helping CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, executive assistants, engineers, marketers, and all kinds of other professionals to stave off burnout, while becoming happier and more productive every single day. And one of the most important steps my clients take is learning to control their technology.
Control Your Email
For most knowledge workers, email is the most prominent form of communication in our workday. Unfortunately, it is also one of the biggest forms of distraction. I find many people end up staring at an inbox with hundreds (or thousands!) of unread emails and spend most of their time in reactive mode trying to catch up, or they’ll just give up on email entirely. Luckily, there is a better way to manage email without the stress of an overflowing inbox.
Your Inbox Is for Receiving Messages, Not Storing Them
Many people use their inbox like the junk drawer in their house: they allow things to build up with little or no system for organizing things, and then they attempt to dig through the mess when they need something.
Rather than try to work with a cluttered and inefficient space, think of your email inbox as the place where your incoming messages live, and the purpose of your inbox is to read those messages, make a decision about them, and move them out of your inbox as quickly as you can.
If the emails require an action you don’t have time for now, capture the action item in your task manager (learn more about this through my Empowered Productivity™ System) and then delete or file the email out of your inbox.
Filter Your Email
One reason people find themselves buried in email is because they get so much more email than they could ever reasonably read in one day. An excellent way to manage this is to make use of smart filters. Here are some ways to use technology as the solution, rather than the problem:
Take advantage of your security software—The best way to make sure Spam never interrupts your inbox is to make sure your security software is up-to-date and active. Flag or report any suspicious emails as junk or spam to filter them out of your inbox without you ever seeing them.
Use an unsubscribe service to get rid of unwanted robomail—Before we know it our email inboxes tend to fill up with emails from automated marketing messages (what I call robomail) that we no longer want or need. Rather than take time to unsubscribe from these senders individually, use a service like unroll.me or bulc-club to stop receiving emails you don’t need.
- Unroll.me: This free service gives you a list of all your subscription emails so you can quickly unsubscribe to those you no longer want. Visit their website and click “Get Started Now” to connect the services to your inbox(es) and start clearing them out.
- Mailstrom: This subscription service allows you to unsubscribe and delete thousands of messages in just a few clicks. There’s a free trial with a quick sign-up on their website.
Use a filtering service to help manage wanted robomail—Even the emails we do want tend to become a distraction. If you’re tired of using your personal email address for every online form, you can use a service to create unlimited unique email addresses for use on websites that you don’t want to send messages to your primary inbox. so I recommend using a diversion tool which creates individual email addresses on the fly via a browser extension, and diverts any messages you might want out of your primary inbox, and combines them into a single daily digest. Two options you can check out: Throttle and Bulc.club.
Use Your Email Rules
Nearly every email service comes with often-overlooked features that can help you to manage your inbox more efficiently. These features address two of the most common challenges I see when it comes to work email in particular:
- There is an overwhelming flow of emails coming in steadily throughout the day and it feels impossible to get ahead of them.
- You’re included on a lot of emails you don’t really need to be on and they clutter up the important stuff.
Here are two ways to use rules to overcome these challenges:
- Create a rule to prevent email from hitting your inbox during the workday—This rule can help make sure that you control the flow of email throughout the workday, which allows you to stay in proactive mode rather than shifting into reactive mode. Another tip is to simply work with your email in offline mode until you’re caught up.
- Send unwanted email directly to trash—This rule makes sure you don’t waste time you could be using to process emails for figuring out what is trash anyway. Setting up a rule that filters the trash for you frees up time to be more productive with the email that makes it to your inbox.
Learn how to create rules using the links below:
- To learn how to create rules in Outlook, click here.
- To learn how to create rules in Gmail, click here.
- To learn how to create rules in Apple Mail, click here.
Control Your Phone
Most people nowadays carry around a pocket full of distractions in the form of a smartphone. Here are a few simple ways to make sure your smartphone doesn’t stand in the way of your personal productivity:
Put Your Phone on Do Not Disturb
This does not mean silent or vibrate. It means when you are in meetings or working on projects where you want to maintain your brainpower momentum, put your phone in Do Not Disturb mode so that you choose when to get the information from your device, not the other way around.
For iPhone—You can put your iPhone in Do Not Disturb in two ways:
- Access the quick control panel (usually by swiping up from the bottom or down from the top right corner of your screen, depending on the model of your phone) and select the moon icon. Tap the icon again to remove your phone from DND.
- Go to Settings > Do Not Disturb and switch the toggle button. From this screen, you can also schedule DND times and set other features like allowing calls to come through DND if someone calls twice within three minutes.
For Android—Simply swipe down from the top of the screen and select Do Not Disturb.
Be Selective About Push Notifications
If you “allow” every app and service on your phone to send you notifications, your phone will be dinging and buzzing all day long. The information is on your phone when you need it—think very carefully about whether you want it to be in “push” or “fetch” mode. Review the notification list on your phone and turn off any notification settings that aren’t absolutely critical—this includes email alerts!
Configure Your Email Fetch Settings to Manual
In the earlier section, we talked about ways to manage your inbox. This includes being deliberate about how you access email on your phone. Email on your phone has fetch settings, which determine how your email is downloaded to your device and how often. “Push” or “fetch” send email to your phone at set intervals of your choosing (ex: every 30 minutes) whether or not you are looking at your inbox.
To reduce constant email stress and distractions, put the email fetch settings on your phone on “manual” so that you only get email when you decide you want it (when you open your inbox). This will make it easier to manage and process your inbox.
Don’t Fall into the Text Message Trap
With more blending of work and personal life, and especially with the recent uptick in remote working environments, text messages are now becoming a common form of work communication. While they can be helpful for urgent or time-sensitive issues during work hours, text messages are often used in less effective ways and are pushing the boundaries of work-life balance.
For topics that require a detailed response or contain information that you’ll need to refer to later, shift the conversation to email or a team communication channel. If you use your personal cell for business but would also like to create more boundaries around personal time, consider a virtual phone number from services like Google Voice, Skype, Grasshopper or others. Then you can silence or forward these calls when necessary. Read here about why I call this my secret weapon for work-life balance.
Control Your Team Communication Tools
Many workplaces are shifting to the use of team communication tools like Slack, Basecamp, or Microsoft Teams to funnel communication and file sharing, in an effort to make collaborating more efficient. What I see with many clients is that if they don’t set clear boundaries before rolling out a new platform, it can actually add to each employee’s workload rather than reducing it. (P.S. My favorite of these is a lesser-known option called Twist.)
The best way to ensure your team communication tool is effective is to develop standards and rules with your team for how you will use the platform before launching. This will make sure everyone is aligned with the dos and don’ts of the tool and can also help keep one another in check. Visit maurathomas.com/tools for a template to set up your rules.
Control Your Social Media
Giving advice about social media can be a tricky situation. There are always new networks with changing rules and social media often plays a different role in people’s lives (and in the workplace). In general, here are three pointers that apply no matter the changes to the social media landscape:
Don’t “Take a Break” with Social Media
It may feel like you’re stepping away from work when you slip into a social media network, but the bottom line is that if you’re still looking at a screen, it’s not giving your brain a break. If you need a mental break, your brain needs a different activity: go for a walk, do a quick meditation, get a healthy snack, or get outdoors. All of these activities will be more restorative than scrolling your friends’ social media updates.
Put a Timer on Your Social Media Time
Pay attention to how often your time on social media is taking you away from your productive time. If you’re not sure, set a timer, make tally marks, or track how many times a day (or how long) you’re on social media. Then think about how that time may have been used to make progress on your projects and goals to determine whether social media is standing in the way of your personal productivity.
Pay Attention to Your Feelings
If your social media time leaves you feeling angry, jealous, inferior, or with any other negative emotions, this is a good sign that it might be time to take a break and spend time with things that make you feel good. Nothing feels better than making progress on what’s important to you! Read more about Two Ways To Tell if Social Media Deserves Your Attention.
For more strategies on how to get back in the driver’s seat of your life, take Maura’s online Empowered Productivity course. Click here to learn more and sign up.