If you’re like me, you can’t read enough about how to maximize your productivity: Deep Work. The Hunter Method. No Meeting Wednesdays. While the optimal time for achieving your best work varies across individuals, there’s a consensus that you need to have laser focus while you’re doing it.
For a while now, I’ve been following that advice. As soon as I decided that I wanted to write a book, I started to devote 15 minutes a morning to doing just that. Over time, those 15 minutes blossomed into 30 and then 45. Once I was laid off, I began devoting several hours a day to my writing.
But a month or so ago, I discovered a fatal flaw in my system. No matter how dutiful I was about prioritizing my writing, I did one thing when I first woke up that was absolutely deadly for my flow: I checked my phone.
To be clear, it was really more of a scan than a deep dive: I’d quickly scroll through my emails to see if there were any burning platforms…I’d look at any updates on assorted social media platforms…I’d check personal texts and chats.
I told myself that this mini “phone time” was essential. After all, my mother is now quite elderly. Perhaps something happened to her during the night. I’m in close “What’sApp” touch with various friends back in the States, and often miss out on threads that happen while I’m asleep. I’m also self-employed. So I’m always at the beck and call of clients.
But the problem wasn’t the length of time I spent on the phone. It was how distracting it proved.
Because once I’d digested the updates from assorted platforms, I couldn’t turn them off in my brain, even once I put the phone down. I’d find my mind darting back to a meeting I needed to prepare for later that day… a funny tweet I wanted to share on social media…a text I needed to send a friend. Which, of course, defeated the whole purpose of having dedicated writing time in the first place.
Before I knew it, my carefully constructed “laser focus” was gone. Or at least diminished.
Then I read this brilliant article by New York Times technology writer Kevin Roose about his cell phone addiction. Roose went so far as to hire a consultant to help him “break up with his phone.” This person encouraged him, for example, to change the lock screen on his phone so that it displayed three questions: “What for? Why now? What else?”
I didn’t feel that my problem was that serious. But I did know that I had a problem.
So I instituted one tiny change: I no longer allow myself to check my phone until I’ve finished my writing and executed some of the other key markers of my morning routine like journaling, meditation, and stretching. In practice, that amounts to not looking at my phone for the first 1.5-2 hours of my day.
It was really hard at first. Like an addict, I’d find myself making excuses to sneak a peak. But after the first week or so, I began to find this digital detox a relief.
Postponing my phone time had two other benefits. First, I’m an extrovert, so I love being connected to the world through social media. But – much like my rules about dessert – the joy of checking my phone is now all the greater for putting it off. Second, my writing time is also now that much more focused and productive. A win-win, as they say.
I’ve always prided myself on being the consummate multi-tasker. But I’m coming to question whether that personality trait is really an asset for productivity. So I’m wondering: what small habit have you changed that had a much larger impact on your life?
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