In 2007, my parents gifted me with a shiny black Macbook (that still works today!) before beginning my undergraduate studies. At this time, Facebook was becoming very popular, especially for those who entering university. Needless to say, my first month of university was a series of friend requests and “creeping” profiles of new acquaintances. In lectures, rows of students would sit with their laptops making notes but also scrolling through Facebook. Evening study sessions involved Facebook breaks, aimlessly scrolling and making status updates. Remember when Facebook used “is” before every status?
- “Catherine is going to eat.”
- “Catherine is ready for bed.”
- “Catherine is excited to go shopping!!!!”
It got to the point that I was so distracted by Facebook that I found it impossible to stay focused when writing a paper or studying for an exam. My friend suggested an app called SelfControl to block certain websites, like Facebook. I would set the blocker for about one hour so I could focus on my tasks, which definitely increased productivity. I even tried a few different Pomodoro apps to structure my work periods. Below is an example from Pomodoro Timer for Mac:
- Have a single task you would like to achieve.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes, working on NOTHING ELSE but the task.
- When the timer rings, reset the timer for 5 minutes and take a break. DO NOT do any more work or think about work.
- Repeat Steps #2-3 three more times. At the end of the fourth 25-minute working session, take a longer break.
- Repeat Steps #2-4 as many times as you like! 😉
Over the last decade, my use of a smartphone has sharply increased, especially with the use of cellular data and WiFi. The ability to search for the answer to any question, communicate with family and friends and scroll through social media has meant that my phone is never out of reach. I now rarely look at social media websites on my laptop, but instead will be doing work on my computer and use my phone for enjoyment. According to a study by Flordia State University, short notification alerts “can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind-wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance.” Even though my phone is usually on silent, the notification banners and lit up screen immediately pull me from any task. I am distracted by my phone at all points in the day, from getting ready in the morning, at work, during meals and especially before bed. I rarely watch a television show without looking at my phone, so as a result I usually have no idea what is going on in the show. And don’t get me started on trying to have a conversation with someone who is glancing at their phone.
What Can I Do About It?
Using phones and thinking that we can respond to messages or scroll social media and still have a conversation is something my husband and I discuss all the time. In fact, we have even set boundaries in our home as we are trying to demonstrate a healthy relationship with technology for our daughter. For example, we have a strict no phone rule during meals, when watching a show together, immediately after work and when doing things together as a family, like going for a walk. Sounds simple enough, but it is something we continually bring up and talk about. We agree that quality family time is important and that always being attached to our phone and the Internet is massive distraction.
One of the recent tools I have started using is Screen Time app limits on my iPhone. I started this during the summer when there were daily updates on social media about the back to school plans. The 24-hour news cycle was toxic and taking a toll on my mental health. I even tried a week of no social media, except for a few minutes everyday. It was shocking how often I absentmindedly grabbed my phone to scroll social media. When I instituted the app limits, I found I often hit my limit. I usually extend the limit, but it at least makes me aware of how much time I am spending on the app. This is especially useful before bed (I can’t get away from looking at my phone before bed!) because it forces me to just put the phone down and close my eyes.
Is the Internet really a productivity tool or merely an endless series of distractions?
As a teacher in a classroom, I have found that the Internet is a wonderful productivity tool for collaborating, communicating and creating engaging lessons. I have never really been bogged down by e-mails in my personal or professional life and found that my day-to-day interactions with students are not distracted by the Internet. But that changed during Spring 2020 remote learning and now in my new eSchool position. The first few weeks as an eSchool teacher was a constant stream of e-mails, planning, explaining technology and setting up technology. I would start working on a task and the Outlook notification for an e-mail would pop up and I would pull away and look at it, pulling focus from my task. Then the e-mail would lead to looking up the answer to a question, or downloading student login information to use an app like Seesaw or Raz-Kids. Then replying to the original e-mail, then remembering I had to reply to another e-mail…
One evening during my first week as an eSchool teacher, I was attending an online seminar as part of my Skate Canada Official continuing education. The meeting was not mandatory, but was useful information and a refresher for new judging guidelines this season. Since it was a lot of old information, I decided to “multi-task” by opening up about ten Chrome tabs that included planning for eSchool, reading about best practices for creating an instructional video then answering messages on my phone, sending Snapchats to my sister and adding to the conversation during the skating Zoom meeting every once and a while. Then it started. I asked my husband if he felt ill from the pizza we ordered for the dinner that night. Was I getting sick? The meeting was over and it was late, so I tried to go to bed, but my head was spinning, like I had a million Chrome tabs open. I finally fell asleep around 2:30 a.m., only to have my daughter crying out at 3:37 a.m. She decided she was ready to start her day (she is usually an early riser, but more like 5:00 a.m.!). How would I manage the day on one hour of sleep? By slowly down and enjoying a nice cup of coffee.
I obviously needed to make changes to how I was managing my time to avoid another evening of disrupted sleep. It has taken a few weeks, but I think I have finally found a good routine. At work, this involves checking e-mail first thing, then closing the e-mail and checking it at the start of every hour. Then I dedicate a solid hour to planning and preparing lessons, but nothing else. Before lunch, I check my Seesaw notifications and try to not get triggered by the growing number of unapproved posts. I focus only on the task at hand and try to spend 30-60 minutes approving posts. Another problem we run into is constant workplace disruptions by asking questions to our colleagues. These questions are always valid and helpful, but the timing pulls us away from our task and the re-focus period is very long afterwards. To combat this, we have started using the Cisco Jabber communication app for messaging between colleagues. Here is a snippet of a conversation with classmate and co-worker Amanda:
Learning to prioritize tasks will continue to be a work-in-progress this year as we adapt to distance and online learning. Productivity tools are only helpful if the user has a plan to incorporate the tools in their daily routines. And we need to start focusing on the idea that “Single-tasking Is the New Multitasking”. I will always use a good old-fashioned pen and paper to-do list, but incorporating some of the ideas I outlined in this post will hopefully avoid sleepless nights in the future!
Until next time,