Sometimes, the difference between a productive day and time wasted can come down to an hour: an hour’s extra sleep, an hour’s exercise, or an hour’s deep work can have a profoundly positive impact on how you work and live. This January, we’re looking at ways to have a more productive year in a new series called Power of an Hour.
Last month, Apple introduced its ‘Screen Time’ feature, which lets users access real-time reports about how much time they spend on their devices.
Haven’t looked at it yet? You should. Whether you check Screen Time on your work or personal phone, your reaction will probably similar to mine: “Yikes!”
Many of us really do spend large chunks of time on our devices – computers, tablets, smartphones – both at home and at work, often without even realising it. On the job in particular, emails, notifications, internal messaging systems and the internet can take up huge parts of the day.
But this kind of technology can make us less productive, not more. That’s where daily, mini tech detoxes at work can help – even just for an hour.
The power of a (brief) tech detox
Studies have shown the bad effects tech obsessions can have on health, happiness and productivity: the screens strain our eyes. The 24/7 work messaging culture makes us depressed and stressed. The internet preys on our most obsessive and addictive tendencies.
In 2012 American researchers looked at email, perhaps the most pernicious and hated tech distraction of the 21st Century workplace. They put heart monitors on office workers and found that those who accessed email on the job, switching among multiple browser windows and applications, experienced higher heart rates and higher stress.
Of course, there’s no way to go fully off the grid. You can’t not check email at work. Ghosting on social media or flushing your phone down a metaphorical toilet is “abdicating responsibility for navigating the world we live in”, says Pamela Rutledge, a psychologist who specialises in media.
Instead, it’s about learning to cut corners throughout the day, being more mindful and freeing up time that lets you treat the technology as just another task.
“Freeing up cognitive bandwidth and energy – that’s the goal,” says Rutledge.
Multi-tasking is an illusion
Finding a tech-free hour at work isn’t a matter of hiding in the broom closet, meditating in a ’mindfulness’ room or locking your iPhone in a drawer either. The trick is to stop trying to multi-task – particularly between tech devices and applications.
“Neuroscientists have clearly shown that the human brain is not designed to multitask, but serial task,” says Sandra Sgoutas-Emch, psychology professor at the University of San Diego.
Your brain needs time to catch up and refocus on each new task, and “studies show that focusing on one task at a time allows your attention to be maintained and complete the task more efficiently”.
Taking a short tech detox each day helps your brain do this, Sgoutas-Emch says.
But trying to go cold turkey – as some top CEOs or tech gurus do – could do more harm than good
Time is gobbled up by the tiny tech interactions that seep into every work hour. Yet constant switching between devices, activities and browser windows builds anxiety and creates distractions.
“The increased volume means we have to switch tasks more often,” says Matthias Holweg, professor of operations management at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. “Every time we switch from one task to another, we lose set-up time, so are less productive overall.”
Without a small tech hiatus, it’s hard to break that cycle. “Our brains crave instant gratification: checking WhatsApp, Facebook or email every 10 minutes,” he says. “But that is antithetical to productive work, unfortunately.”
How to do it
The good news is that experts are here to give you a game plan. Creating an hour each day at work that keeps you off the digital grid is simply a matter of smart planning.
Nearly every expert interviewed for this piece recommends only checking your email at certain points throughout the day. That means turning off on-screen notifications that pop up in the corner with each email or setting up multiple ‘out-of-office’ emails per day. Then pick two or three times each day where you sit down and plough through your inbox.
You can apply the same strategy to other digital distractions, like social media or smartphone use. And you can also plan short interludes where you are not interacting with any technology at all.
“Schedule times during the day to take a walk outside – leave your phone,” says Sgoutas-Emch. “If the weather is bad, walk around the building and speak to colleagues. Take a real lunch.”
Tech isn’t the problem – per se
Not every job involves sitting in front of a computer or being tied to a smartphone, and not everyone has a personality type that glues to them to the grid. Plus, much like getting more sleep, shoehorning an extra unplugged hour into your day doesn’t really address the bigger problems that cause your bad habits in the first place.
But trying to go cold turkey – as some top CEOs or tech gurus do – could do more harm than good.
“If a person has a habit of smoking, and they’re away from their cigarettes for a while, it creates tension,” says Gloria Mark, who led that 2012 study about email and who’s an informatics professor at the University of California, Irvine.
Freeing up cognitive bandwidth and energy – that’s the goal – Pamela Rutledge
Depending on your job, eliminating (or even significantly reducing) tech may also be totally unrealistic. But Mark thinks organisations also have a responsibility to ensure employees don’t become tech slaves.
“For example, releasing emails at certain times during the day,” she says. “Batching email could help because it changes the expectations.”
Instead of employees being bombarded with distracting messages that make them more stressed and less efficient, email would become just one more task. And workers would get to it when it made the most sense, rather than feeling pressure to reply immediately.
It’s a topic that’s been explored before: a 2017 law in France made it legal for workers to ignore work email outside of working hours, and New York City mulled over a bill of its own last year. Volkswagen stopped sending employees off-the-clock emails way back in 2012.
Although there’s no full escape from technology for many of us, the power of a work-day hour away from it isn’t to be underestimated. We can find that extra time through smarter scheduling and using digital tools differently. Otherwise, says Rutledge, this technology ends up being more trouble than it’s worth.
“Having to continually redirect your attention is more cognitively fatiguing,” she says, “than the thing you have to get done.”
Bryan Lufkin is BBC Capital's features writer. Follow him on Twitter @bryan_lufkin.
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