Productivity Lessons Part 6 – Unplug Switch Off

01 May / James Eastham

I’ve spoken in the past about the pitfalls of technology in the 21st Century. I dedicated a whole blog post to why you should turn your phone off right now. There is a deeper side to why you should turn your phone off, aside from the social implications. That’s the dreaded notification!

Let’s start with flow

Flow; also known as being ‘in the zone’. Flow is a state of mind in which you have no distractions, time seems to slow and you are attaining unbelievable levels of productivity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian-American scientist widely credited with recognizing and naming this concept. He even published a book, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced this feeling at some point in our lives. You will be sitting working on a specific task and before you know it 4 hours have passed by and you’ve nailed it! That’s flow.

“a deeply rewarding and optimal experience characterised by intense focus on a specific activity to the point of becoming totally absorbed in it.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

You may even have experienced it during a sporting activity. Time seems to slow down, everything seems easy and things just seem to work. That’s it, flow rearing its beautiful head again.

What has this got to do with ‘unplugging’?

Flow is a state of mind. It is commonly achieved when you are focused solely on a specific task that is right at the peak of your current ability level.

The peak of your current ability level; so you need to be performing a task at your absolute upper limits. To perform at this level, the focus is imperative. If you struggled to catch a ball, you’d need to immensely focused to have somebody throw a ball at you and for you to pluck it out of the air. No distractions, no external factors just you and ball.

Now let’s try catching this ball again, but this time you have somebody giving you a slight shove in the back every couple of minutes. Does that make it more difficult to catch the ball? It most definitely does.

Let’s move this to a more likely day to day scenario as, whilst catching is a useful skill, it’s not vitally important for most people in daily life.

Your boss is pressing you to complete a report by the end of the day. You know you have 3 hours to get it finished off and it’s well within the realms of possibility if you focused.

You get to work, the first 15 minutes are great and you are making great progress. Things are going great.


Oh, your friend Gemma has just posted a photo of her new dog. She’s cute. Now, What exactly was it you were writing about?


H&M has a 30% sale, fantastic. you can get some online shopping done later. Ahhh shit, you’ve lost your train of thought again.


Pointless notification X has just interrupted your flow again, you stop working and lost your train of thought.

This continues for the next two hours, almost constant notifications getting in the way of your work. How can anybody possibly come close to getting anything done with this happening?

Take back control

We all could benefit from a little more control in our working lives, especially when it comes to technology. Imagine a world in which you are left to get on with your work with no outside forces vying for your attention.

For most people, ignoring your boss/colleagues is not the wisest idea for ongoing employment. But to take a leaf from the Stoic’s; control what you can.

So whilst we can’t control the interruption from our boss, we can control our Facebook notifications on our phones.

Whilst we can’t control Geoff coming over and standing by our desk for a chat, we can control his want to do that by donning a per of headphones.

Whilst we can’t control emails/phone calls from clients, we can set expectations on response times and when is the best time to get in touch.

To test a theory

After spending quite a bit of time thinking about how much distraction affects a day of work, I decided to take a reasonable drastic step. I disabled every single possible notification from my phone and un-installed every social media app. Taking back control so that I choose when I get notified instead of it being thrust upon me.

I had found that first thing in the morning when I get up and work without looking at my phone is one of my most productive times of day. So why not try to replicate that throughout the day?

The skeptics among you would say I can still go and check social media simply by opening a new tab on my laptop. That’s true and is where a little bit of self-control comes in. You can download browser extensions and plugins that will physically stop you navigating to certain websites. I’ve always had pretty good self-control so didn’t see this a necessary step.

So what did I find?

An incredible increase in focus and the number of things I was getting done on a daily basis. I can’t really put into words the level of increased productivity I found from such a simple change.

Instead of letting your notifications control me, I controlled my notifications.

The downsides

There are downsides to this approach, namely your perceived lack of care in people’s interactions with you.

The internet and social media have hard wired us to expect instant gratification in absoloutely everything. Whether that’s sending a message and expecting an instant response, or trying to remember the name of the rooster in the Disney film Moana (it’s Hai Hai, if you’re interested). Any piece of knowledge or any person is just a couple of finger taps away.

Think back to a time not too long ago, when the only way to keep in touch was a letter? Or the only way to find out any piece of information was to take a trip to a library.

Somehow, the world now expects instant responses to all of their questions.

That can cause problems when you’re off the grid. I’ve missed invites, not picked up shopping because I didn’t see the message and generally just not been quite as responsive as I would normally to my friends and family. Which is fine, as long as you have set the expectation.

The importance of setting expectations

From when I started to disable notifications I let everybody I value know what I was doing. I also told them, if it is something hugely important call me and I will pick up the phone. If you just want to ask me about my weekend, however, send me a message on Facebook and I will pick it up as and when I am ready. Not before, as soon as I have a spare fifteen minutes to waste away.

Now, I tend to have set times during the day when I run through emails/messages, etc that are outside of when I am sat in front of my computer. Waiting for the kettle to boil is a fantastic time to spend the few minutes you would ordinarily spend waiting.

To be clear, this can be a dangerous road and an element of self-control is needed. I’m advocating spending a couple of minutes checking messages and emails when you have a spare couple of minutes. If this develops into a fully fledged finger aching scroll through a news feed, then you’re wasting time that could be better spent.

Just give it a try

What harm is there in trying it for a week? Turn off your notifications on your phone, even have your phone at the other side of the room whilst you work. If you don’t see any huge benefits, then turn them back on. But I’m fairly confident you’ll surprise yourself.

Actionable tip – For one week, try turning off all notifications on your phone and when you are focusing have your phone out of arms reach.


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