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No sooner had I started a task the next thing I knew I was doing something else. I distracted myself by checking my email inbox every so often, and I was addicted to checking what was going on in the world on various news websites – constantly interrupting the original task. You’re perfectly right – this sounds completely insane. Somehow these bad habits had sneaked silently into my life.

News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.

Rolf DobelliAuthor, Entrepreneur

And then two lightning bolts struck almost simultaneously: a book and a blog post. I significantly changed my (digital) life as a result and within only two weeks I was able to get more done again, sleep better, and am significantly happier. The short version: news diet and productive smartphone use.

Lightning strikes
Lightning strikes

How my concentration was lost…

For years, I’ve been producing content on a fairly regular basis in the form of talks, books, journal articles, blog posts, podcasts, and contributions to open-source projects (To quantify that: 30+ books or book editions and about a hundred articles in various magazines within the last 20 years - that’s still one and a half books and five articles on average per year).

In the last few months, I ran out of steam, which made me personally very discontent. In early 2022 I published the last blog post, and in late 2021 the last articles. For the third time, I postponed the new edition of the arc42-in-Action book…

I had plenty of ideas, but somehow I couldn’t put them down on paper. Unfortunately, ideas alone are not enough: the ideas also have to be made into reality, structured, and written down in comprehensible ways.

Moreover, I was always a dedicated textbook reader, and binge-read a new book every few weeks. That, too, became more and more difficult for me - even though I was genuinely interested in the topics of the unread books on the shelf. Now, I could chalk it all up to the pandemic, my age (don’t ask…), or whatever. But finding bogus excuses is just not my thing.

“You’ve got to do something about that,” I told myself. At first, I tried to increase my productivity and creativity by getting up earlier. No such luck. Staying up later in the evening didn’t work either.

Then I tried what I’ve recommended (successfully!) countless times in my job as an IT consultant: A systematic analysis of the situation, a self-review. ​

The self-analysis

I tried to analyze my own way of working. I quickly noticed that it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to concentrate on individual tasks: No sooner had I started a task than I was already doing something else in between - or distracted myself with emails or various news websites. Likewise, I sat at preparing a lecture - and checked the INNOQ Slack channels in between. Furthermore, I continued to write on a slide - and took a brief look at my smartphone to see what’s been happening on WhatsApp or Signal. And since I was holding the phone in my hand anyway, I could read a few news items on BBC News there too.

Did you know that smartphone users unlock and look at their phones an average of 80–100 times a day (source: Cision Newswire, several other sources giving similar numbers)? I was one of them. News websites like CNN, WSJ, and BBC had me as a permanent customer.

For me, these context switches already had addiction-like traits. Even while I was watching a series (yes, I admit that I like to binge on one or two episodes), I would pick up the phone or tablet in between and casually check the news. Against my better judgment, I also checked my e-mails first thing in the morning before I even drank my first espresso.
And in my inbox, there were always various news summaries, from stock-market news, and international politics up to technology updates.

Unfortunately, all this news has done me more harm than good: For my coaching and consulting engagements, I don’t need to know anything about current domestic or foreign politics. For my software architecture and engineering workshops, neither stock market trends nor the details of international terrorist acts are of any value. My articles and books deal with software and software engineering, not with climate or politics.

A self-discovery

Constantly switching between (sophisticated) technical work, the news from around the world, and private communication on personal and professional topics, I would argue, cost me a significant amount of my ability to concentrate.

My brain (apparently) doesn’t handle frequent context switches well. Moreover, my brain must have unconsciously perceived distractions as something positive - and, like Pavlov’s dog, kept wanting more of them, at increasingly shorter intervals.

A (Pavlovian) dog
A (Pavlovian) dog

I noticed the lack of concentration myself. However, my own fainthearted attempts, with Pomodoro timer and calming sounds, clearly failed. Effective remedies from the outside had to come first, two major sources helped me:

While travelling to an architecture workshop, I sat on the train, not reading the news for a change, but attempting to read a book.

For some time now, I have been using the online service Blinkist to read short summaries of various non-fiction books, to find out for myself whether I is worth for me to read the original of these books in their entirety.

So – I’m sitting on the train and reading one of these Blinks, when I’m struck by a mental lightning bolt: I felt so caught by Rolf Dobelli’s explanations, caught in my concentration trap, that I spontaneously decided to get serious. Let me quote from this book:

News is not good for us: It clouds our mind, distorts our view of what is really important, robs us of time, makes us depressed and paralyzes our willpower.

Rolf DobelliAuthor, Entrepreneur

“Paralyze my willpower, rob me of time.” – That was precisely my problem. While still sitting on the train, I decided to try a strict break from any news (news, not e-mails or other messages) for a while.

However, that wasn’t enough: I remembered a blog post I had read a few years ago – about the productive configuration of smartphones, which has the promising subtitle Configure Your iPhone to Work for You, Not Against You. I therefore decided to optimize my iPhone for maximum productivity and to reduce or even eliminate distractions. ​

Drastic, but effective

  1. A (currently very strict) zero-news-diet.
  2. (Re)configure smartphone for high productivity and minimal distractions.
  3. Reduce distractions on tablets and computers.

Add to that slight changes I made to my daily habits: I’ve resolved (and managed for a few weeks now) to stop staring at my phone in the morning, and to stop using my iPhone at all in the evening after 8 PM at the latest (exception: setting an alarm for the next morning). ​

Zero News Diet

During the aforementioned train ride, I cancelled my subscription to my formerly favorite online news portal (the German “Spiegel-Online”) and deleted the associated app from my iPhone. I used the initial motivation to cancel additional news subscriptions and deleted the their apps from my smartphone and iPad so that I wouldn’t be tempted.

I have resolved very firmly not to read any news at all for a while. In other words, a zero news diet. That was really hard for me for two or three days. Yet, that alone was a startling realization for me: I was actually addicted to news and variety… and cold withdrawal is hard with any kind of addiction, as you know.

I purposefully invested the hours gained each day. As a kind of early reward for my zero news diet, I treated myself to an interesting non-fiction book as a PDF (by the way, the infamous “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by the great Daniel Kahnemann). The result: I was thrilled to have made good progress without any distractions.

To support my news diet, I instructed my browser (Firefox) to not present me with recommendations for supposedly interesting or important topics on new tabs or windows.

Firefox preferences: No more news suggestions
Firefox preferences: No more news suggestions

Reconfigure Smartphone

The above quote, “Configure Your iPhone to Work for You, Not Against You,” sets the objective: It’s the subtitle of a very long blog post by Tony Stubblebine. In addition to his many configuration suggestions, Tony also gives various advice for being more attentive and healthy, entirely worth reading in my opinion.

I summarize the things most important for me, which he illustrates in his article with many screenshots and explanations:

communication apps – unimportant ones need more “swipe” gestures
communication apps – unimportant ones need more “swipe” gestures
iPhone backgrounds in muted colors
iPhone backgrounds in muted colors

Reduce distractions on tablets and computers

You will find similar preference settings on your tablet and your computer, respectively. I set those to reduce notifications as much as possible:

Notifications settings, almost all turned off
Notifications settings, almost all turned off

In case you fall off the wagon

In case you want to be a bit stricter with yourself, there are various blockers for popular desktop platforms that can prevent access to certain websites or applications for certain times. These can improve your digital self-discipline. I tried ColdTurkey and like it a lot. However, I hope to become disciplined enough to stick to my new habits without this electronic tether… at least in the near future.

Furthermore…

Besides the aforementioned settings and the zero news diet, I like to listen to soundscapes for (supposedly) better mental focus when working intensively at my desk. I write supposedly because I like this kind of aural background, but can’t prove that it helps me in any way. My family, by the way, thinks it’s horrible.

If you want to try it out: My two favorites are Endel and brain.fm. Works on both smartphones and desktops (but please don’t say I didn’t warn you…).

I still haven’t gotten comfortable with Pomodoro timers, they annoy me more than they help.

Conclusion

Why don’t you start a self-experiment, and refrain from reading sports, politics, business, and technology news as much as possible for a while? Reduce your smartphone time drastically for one or two weeks, and enjoy the time gained with a good book, a personal conversation or dare to do a previously abandoned activity that has been left undone so far (due to a perceived lack of time…) Good luck – and I look forward to your feedback.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Jochen Christ, Joachim Praetorius, Jan Seeger and Ben Wolf for reviews and constructive comments. @m and Joy Heron have drastically improved readability and wording.

Update August 2nd: I mistakenly called Daniel Kahnemann “David” in the previous version – my bad (thanks, @ddd).

Update August 3rd:

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