What are the most effective ways of combating digital distraction? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by David Kadavy, gentleman neuroscientist and behavioral economist, on Quora:

First and foremost, remember that "free" is expensive. If you aren't paying for something with money, you're paying for it in some other way.

Companies like Facebook, and what passes as a "news" outlet these days need your eyeballs to survive. If they aren't selling you off to an advertiser today, an investor is footing the bill until they sell you off tomorrow.

If you aren't focused on producing, you're becoming a product.

So, pay lots of attention throughout the day to what hijacks your attention. We have a "What You See Is All There Is" bias that prevents us from even being aware that we could be doing something else besides reading that inaccurate rage-porn article or playing Farmville.

With that in mind. Here are some actionable steps:

  • Have a designated "produce" time, where you work on things that are important to you without distractions. This can be really hard at first, so you might just try a 10-Minute Hack, and over time build up. Maybe you start with a one-hour block every week, and build up to a one-hour block every day. I don't check email or my phone until noon.
  • Redesign your physical-world relationship with your devices. The mere presence of your mobile distracts you. Make rules and rituals that keep your device far away from you at the right times. Stop using your phone as an alarm clock: it's too easy to derail your morning when you're most vulnerable (groggy). Get a real alarm clock, or I use my iPad (on which I don't allow messaging), and charge your phone in another room overnight. Carry your phone in a bag instead of your pocket, when possible.
  • Separate devices according to function. Just because a device can do certain functions, doesn't mean it should. You can take a nap in your kitchen, but you probably shouldn't. Find ways to separate devices according to the mind state you want to be in when you do the task. Get an alarm clock, get a separate timer for meditation, or for the kitchen. If you have more than one iOS (or Android) device, designate each one for certain things: my iPad is for long-form reading, Podcast listening, Relax app, and video chats with friends. There aren't any notifications allowed on it.
  • Make it easy to do what's good for you. Look at the home screen on your phone, and imagine how you feel about using each of those apps. If it's a time-waster, hide it. If it's good for you, keep it on the home screen. You'll prevent yourself from "accidentally" checking Facebook when you really meant to do something else. You can always switch screens or search for apps that you consciously want to use.
  • Use shock therapy. As much as you want to change behavior sometimes, it's hard. I have mastered my willpower over the years, but I couldn't stop wasting time on Facebook. So, I used a wristband to shock myself, and my urge to check Facebook went away. This set me on a road to take some of the above measures to help manage my behavior in the future.
  • Buy information. Companies hijack our attention because that's how they survive. If we collectively change the incentives, it will change the business models, and distraction won't be such a problem. Buy books, buy high-quality magazine subscriptions, donate to your favorite bloggers and podcasters (Patreon is a good outlet for this). That which we will spend our time and attention on, and that which we will willingly pay for tend to be different things. Remember that "free" is expensive, and buy information. Your attention will follow where your money goes, and that will work in a virtuous cycle.

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Published on: Apr 26, 2016