Most of us walk around with a device that is so common, that it’s not even considered a luxury anymore. But these palm-sized computers are actually the most powerful double-edged sword ever invented. An internet-connected smartphone gives you access to some 10,000 years of human knowledge. It can be an incredible force for good and provides education, connection, and entertainment. It can also be the source of misery, radicalization, exclusion, information bubbles, and if nothing else distraction. The irony is not lost on most people. The information age has given us the technology to process and put out information at speeds never seen before, but at the same time, we are all wasting more time than ever before – and most of that is wasted via technology. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can make better choices, and there are tools to help us enforce those choices.
We’re talking about the recent global phenomenon of app blockers or site blockers. These are free-to-download apps that give you control over what you see online and at what times. Students using a blocking app can quickly learn how to block YouTube during study hours, office workers can use the tech to block email notifications or distracting websites during work hours, and even parents are finding blocking apps helpful as they block social media during family time. A blocking app is a tech tool that fights fire with fire. But they don’t impose anything on you. You must decide what to block and give the app permission to do so. Interestingly, the act of making these choices is rated by psychologists as one of the best things you can do to begin a virtuous cycle of productivity. Choosing to reject things you know cause distraction is a powerful signal to the brain saying “No, we’ve got stuff to do! Now pay attention.”
The virtuous cycle begins with the choice to block a site. Then after doing some solid work for a few hours, you might notice that you’ve gotten quite a bit accomplished. After seeing how much you’ve accomplished, you’re encouraged to continue knocking stuff off your ‘to-do’ list, and the cycle continues. The result is productivity. –And happiness. It’s extremely satisfying to look at a ‘mission accomplished’ weekly work schedule on a Friday afternoon, and to be able to congratulate yourself on a week well spent. Then going into the weekend, you can enjoy non-work activities without any feelings of guilt, and treat yourself to a few rewards. These rewards could be things such as some extra TV time, an ice cream, a few hours of mindless internet use – it doesn’t really matter. A reward is whatever you decide is a reward. ‘Treating’ yourself is important and marks the final step in the virtuous cycle because, like any animal, humans are trained via rewards. Don’t neglect to allow yourself some ‘me’ time… if you’ve finished what you need to finish.
Distraction is a plague that affects virtually all of us these days. Countless hours of wasted time leads to the guilt we mentioned previously, and also to overwork, as people work evenings or weekends to make up for the wasted time. Distraction is also making us work harder – but not smarter. When we focus on a single task our brains can process the information related to this task with relative ease. But when we jump around, we aren’t multitasking, we are task switching which is extremely energy depleting and tiring. This has been proven by numerous scientific studies and is one of the reasons why you should definitely give a blocking app a try. It took a while to get consensus among scientists and experts but it’s generally now accepted that internet addiction is real. It may not be the same type of addiction as a physical one such as being dependent on alcohol or narcotics, but psychologically it is very real.
A large chunk of people under the age of 15 in particular, have grown up in a world where things move so fast that they say it’s hard to sit through an entire episode of some show on Netflix or Hulu. Instead, they prefer five-minute YouTube videos or and even shorter one on TikTok. There’s probably nothing inherently wrong with choosing short bursts of entertainment over a 2-hour movie or a half an hour TV episode, but binge-watching anything can become problematic. The problem with YouTube is that it quickly figures out what you like, and the algorithms quickly suggest other videos that you might like. And much of the time, the algorithm is correct! Without imposing limits on a site like YouTube, people of all ages can get sucked into hours of time-wasting binge-watching… This often then leads to – as we mentioned above – feelings of guilt and overall, an unhealthy relationship with multimedia and technology. The good news is that these seemingly insurmountable challenges can be conquered. With a little bit of brain re-wiring, using virtuous cycles and rewards as encouragement – and by using the ‘guardrails’ of a blocking app – we can all begin to get a grip on our tech addiction, and take back control of our most precious resource: time