This is my first blog post here on DEV, and actually my first blog post in general!
I just wanted to share some insights that I've collected after making use of some "techniques" to reduce the daily distractions and increase the productivity and time for myself.
I am originally from (south) Italy, but constantly moving around Europe and changing my "habitat" every 6-9 months for the last 3.5 years. At the moment, I am completing my M.Sc Computer Science degree in Helsinki, and joined a company in January as an intern to (also) work on my thesis.
I have always been interested in psychology and psychological "tricks", self-improvement techniques and ways to change/improve habits. I was also quite "unhappy" with the amount of time I was spending doing tasks that were bringing no concrete value to my life, e.g., scrolling Instagram/Facebook feed WAY TOOO MUCH, accessing emails several times per day, trying to reply to messages as soon as they arrive so to always be responsive and available.
The only two things that I was enough good in doing were to plan my time every week in a very detailed way and stick to the plan, and to focus while I was studying and/or working on something that required full attention.
For the former, I have been using a tool as simple as Trello with a combination of boards and lists to prioritize items over the day, the week and the month. Lately, also to set monthly goals and to check how close I went :D.
Concerning the latter, the capability of deep-focusing on a task, by following the pomodoro technique, I have been turning notifications off from all my devices for the whole time I needed to focus. Of course in periods of high stress and heavy workloads, that meant also 12+ hours per day for a couple of weeks including weekends.
Nevertheless, using this approach I was able to keep focus for almost the entirety of the time, while also enjoying side effects like drinking more water (during every small break I would fill my bottle of water and put it next to my pc, well under my eyes. So benefits of drinking A LOT of water and also to stand up and walk very often). Mates and people around me started to understand that if they needed to reach me for non-urgent matters, they could either send me a message (that I would visualize in batches afterward) or talk to me during the breaks. It was kinda "weird" seen from the outside, but once I made it routine I managed to get lots of work done.
Being a very critic person, towards others and also towards myself, I was quite happy with the level of productivity I reached during focus periods. However, I started to feel quite uncomfortable with how I used to spend my time when I was NOT focusing on some deadlined task. With this, I mean that there was still lots of junk time in my day that I could have spent in much better ways than I was doing. For instance, daily commuting time was entirely spent looking at what other people were doing on social media rather than analyzing how my life and my week were going.
But then, after it had been laying on the shelf for too long, I started reading the amazing book "The power of habit", written by a New York Times reporter named Charles Duhigg. It has been very very very inspiring and insightful about how 90% of the things we do are nothing more than habits, and not the result of more or less complex brain activities.
I am not going to give in-depth feedback of the book since it is not the main goal of this article (even though I STRONGLY recommend it). Anyway, the book needed to be read, and even though I had promised myself several times that I would start, I never managed to. I thought I was "too busy". So this time I was very motivated to start reading it, and I forced myself to allocate ~ 30 mins every evening before going to sleep, as the very last activity of the day. In this way, I finished the book in ~ 1 month, reading at the average pace of a dozen pages per time, usually from Sunday evening to Thursday evening. 30 mins were something which was not too superficial that would not get me "into the zone", but at the same time not too hard to keep doing it every day.
The book makes a very insightful example about mobile notifications: once we see that we have received a notification, our brain starts craving to read that notification. This goes totally subconscious in our brain and surely affects all the other functions of the brain, including focusing at 100%. So, for instance, even if you want to ignore notifications, but your phone screen keeps lighting up or keeps vibrating (if you put it screen down without disabling vibration), your willpower will in the end be defeated by your brain or, in order to resist the temptation, you could not allocate 100% of the brain energies to the task at hand.
So, after finishing the book, I decided to make concrete steps towards improving my time when I was NOT focusing on anything specific. And since the main problem for me was exactly the impulse that I needed to answer messages as soon as I received them (especially if coming from "desirable sources" ehm ehm), what I did was to keep the iPhone in "Do Not Disturb" mode 24h. If properly configured, it still forwards notifications from, for instance, calls from favorites list or from numbers that try several times in a limited timeframe to reach you. Another action I took, was to set time limits to the applications that were decimating my time the most. Such applications were basically Instagram and Facebook. Messaging applications did not need time limits since for them the story was different, and improvements could be made just by allocating slots of time to answer messages in batches (and fortunately I do not receive thousands of messages per day :D).
SPOILER ALERT: the average daily time went from > 1h to < 30 min, quite a good achievement so far.
More than one month has passed since I tried to introduce the aforementioned changes. The amount of joy coming from the fact that you are succeeding in something you wanted to succeed in, is probably the best fuel to keep going on, as also explained in the book. A habit can be changed only if there is an appropriate reward. In my case, the reward is two-fold. The main one involves the better ways of spending spare time without being obsessed and possessed by the devices that you are supposed to possess. Secondly, an increase in self-confidence since I now understand that, in the proper way, any good habit can be introduced and any bad habit can be removed/changed. Overall, I managed to concretely increase both the QUANTITY and the QUALITY of my time, as well as the perception I have to not continuously waste a lot of time anymore. Of course, by nature, I will keep monitoring how I am doing, what could be improved and what further waste should/could be removed. But over the last month, I can consider myself already lucky enough to have made some of the right changes, at probably the right time, since currently working hours take already a huge part of the day out.
I enjoyed so much the process, that I even decided to write a short and simple blog post about it. Something that would have never crossed my mind before last month :D
I did not spend a lot of time in refining the text and taking care of minutia, but I hope it is easy to read and understand :)
I am so much willing to hear your stories, what your main pains were, and how you managed/are managing to transform them to gains :)
Cheers from the cold, snowy Finland!