How to turn off in a world that’s always on

Wednesday 19 February 2020
Nir Eyal and Cal Newport – two of the world's top minds on the problem of digital overload – share their advice on breaking our tech addiction and releasing our creativity
Someone pressing the power button on a laptop

It’s no secret that many of us spend a lot of time on our phones.

They’re usually within an arm’s reach, often the first thing we look at in the morning if we use it as our alarm clock. Our own personal weather forecast. A helpful distraction when we find ourselves on a long journey.

We pick up our phones an average of 58 times per day, with most people spending upwards of three hours looking at their phone screen each day. According to Apple’s Screen Time app, I received more than 1,000 WhatsApp messages this week alone, mostly during working hours. That’s 1,000 chances for distraction and a break in focus – 1,000 opportunities for a good thought to be forgotten.

We’re working in a world of digital overload, distracted continuously by messages and unable to sit and have a good old-fashioned think. Surrounded by constant stimuli, research suggests that millennials can’t focus for more than eight seconds without getting distracted.

That’s the attention span of a goldfish.

In his recently published book Indistractable, which was shortlisted for CMI’s Management Book of the Year 2020, Nir Eyal writes that he was overlooking important moments in life simply due to the habit of constantly being around his phone.

“I love sweets, I love social media, and I love television,” writes Eyal. “However, as much as I love these things, they don’t love me back. Overindulging on something sugary after a meal, spending too much time scrolling a feed or bingeing on Netflix until two in the morning were all things I once did with little or no conscious thought – out of habit.”

Eyal says that “the overuse of devices can have negative consequences” – for him specifically, it meant that he “prioritised distractions over the most important people in my life.” It created distance between himself and his daughter, often because Eyal was working or replying to the many emails pinging up on his phone during their time together.


Long story short, we can’t concentrate. We’re living in what Cal Newport, a techno-sceptic author, has dubbed a “distracted world”, unable to complete “deep work” – the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. This deep concentration is something Newport thinks is necessary to “wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity”. We’re forgetting the value of going deep, and it’s impacting our ability to work. By surrounding ourselves with technology that can distract us nearly constantly, we’re stopping ourselves from actually thinking about things in a productive way – something that completely counters modern-day working needs. “The ability to perform deep work,” Newport argues, “is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming valuable in our economy. The few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.” Only those who can cut through the noise will be able to work in a way that adds value.


So how can we stop thinking shallow and start going deep? Step one, says Newport, is a 30-day digital detox. That sounds like a stretch, but only after that will you be able to work out the line where tech stops being useful and starts being a distraction. Only then can you begin to add technology back into your life methodically. And this isn’t just about utility. It’s also about autonomy, gaining back control of addictions to certain apps and giving yourself some breathing space. Like any detox, ridding yourself of technology for a set period can provide clarity and perspective.

However, beware the pitfalls of going cold turkey. Eyal himself “tried a ‘digital detox’, and started using an old-school cell phone so I couldn’t be tempted to use email, Instagram and Twitter. But I found it too difficult to get around without GPS and meeting addresses saved inside my calendar app. I missed listening to audiobooks while I walked, as well as the other handy things my phone could do.” Eyal continued with his digital detox, subscribing to print newspapers and even buying a 1990s word processor that couldn’t connect to the internet – but the same thing happened: he kept getting distracted.

During his digital detox, Eyal discovered something. “We all know eating cake is worse for our waistline than having a healthy salad. We agree that aimlessly scrolling our social media feeds is not as enriching as being with real friends in real life. We understand that if we want to become more productive at work, we need to stop wasting time and actually do the work. We already know what to do: what we don’t know is how to stop getting distracted.”

Eyal realised that in order to become truly ‘indistractable’ from the white noise of tech, we need to understand why it is that we’re becoming distracted in the first place. Is it because we’re anxious, sad, stressed? Looking for these internal triggers will help us understand what it is we’re seeking distraction from.


As there’s so much content out there begging for your attention, it’s tough not to give in. If you’re finding it difficult to resist the distraction of social media, there are ways to limit the time you spend on certain apps or websites. Internet plug-ins for productivity and focus such as Freedom, StayFocusd and Limit can give you control over when, and for how long, you can stay scrolling. Some smartphones now have the option to schedule downtime away from the screen.

But remember, you don’t need to rid yourself of technology completely; the internet is one of the most important inventions of recent times and has changed the way we communicate forever, making it quicker and easier to contact almost anyone in the world. It’s just about finding a balance. Trade in the hours you may spend on mindless scrolling and instead start to think about technology as a powerful resource.

Nothing can give us more time, but following Newport and Eyal’s advice can help us to stop wasting it.

Do you have any tips for staying focused and productive? Get in touch with us via email or LinkedIn and let us know!

Interested in the links between technology and mental health? We have just the article for you. Or you can read more about Nir Eyal’s book, which was on the long list for this year’s Management Book of the Year Awards.

Image: Unsplash