This Bad Habit Is the Reason You Can’t Focus

Is limiting "digital noise" the key to stress-free living?

If you were to guess how many hours a day you spend consuming information on some form of screen, what would you guess? Four hours? Five?

If you’re like most Americans, the number is probably a lot higher than that. According to a 2016 study from Nielsen, the average American spent almost 11 hours a day viewing media on screens – up a full hour from 2015.

Think about it: You’re on your phone when you wake up, while you’re commuting, and don’t even pretend you don’t check your phone or open some extra browser tabs at work to scroll through your feeds, read news, and watch a few viral videos. When you’re finally home after a long day at work, you spend the evening streaming Netflix, scrolling through Instagram, or both simultaneously.


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That’s a lot of time spent staring at a screen.

I’m guilty of it too – and in a world where so much of our social interactions happen online, it’s difficult to envision any other way (or even see why it’s a bad thing).

“What these individuals don’t consider is that while technology helps them in many ways, being constantly connected can have a negative impact on both their physical and mental health,” American Psychological Associate Director Lynn Bufka wrote, alongside an APA survey that claims Americans who check their phones the most also report the highest stress levels.

You’ve heard the term Fear of Missing Out before. Jargon aside, FOMO stems from our innate desire, as humans, to experience the very best version of life we can. If we’re not staying up to date on the latest information, watching trends as they evolve in real time and consuming news the moment it breaks, then we are missing out on something. The gratification of instant consumption lights up our brains with the help of our portable dopamine machines.

We read Fahrenheit 451 as high school sophomores. The citizens of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian future live life at full speed, pumping themselves full of adrenaline to become the fastest, most productive versions of themselves possible.

“Books cut shorter. Condensations, Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending,” Bradbury wrote, of the way the fictional society evolved in its media consumption. In that world, cars drove so fast that billboards stretched more than 200 feet long so drivers could see them as they sped by.

The book was published in 1953, but I think about it often while I scroll through Instagram and Twitter, speed-reading through captions, double-tapping, absorbing information at a lightning pace as if through an IV drip. My brain is the car driving 500 miles per hour.


FOMO is a side effect of innovation, a consequence of technology making every aspect of our lives infinitely faster.

“What initially was supposed to serve us and give us more time to enjoy life ended up controlling us and pushing to work harder, longer, and faster. What initially was supposed to connect us left us feeling more isolated than ever,” Dr. Michael Finkelstein wrote in a column. “And what initially was supposed to optimize our health ended up interfering with our ability to get and stay well.”

Yes, he’s serious: Our phones are making us ill. We know constant connectedness is coming at a cost to our posture, immune systems, mental health, and attention spans, and yet we keep doing it anyway – the convenience of fast living just feels too good to pass up.

But every action spurs an equal, opposite reaction, and every movement fosters a counter-movement. The “Slow Food” movement took root in the late 1980s, its creation a direct response to the culture of Fast Food and the idea that we must always stay moving, not even slowing down to eat. Italian Chef Carlo Petrini, often attributed as one of the driving forces of the Slow Food movement, advocates for mindful eating, a focus on nutritional ingredients, and a return to relaxing and enjoying conversation over meals. You’ve probably seen modern incarnations of these movements in the form of farm-to-table restaurants and events emphasizing community and gathering.


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Much like slow food, slow living is the world’s response to fast living, and its gospel encourages finding enjoyment outside of online life, urging participants to take the time to truly consider their relationships with others and the world around them. As the movement grows, FOMO is inspiring an opposite reaction of its own: FOBO – fear of burning out.

“I like missing out,” Calvin Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, told Fast Company. “Less can be more.”

Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown who purposefully does not use any social media accounts, even Facebook. According to Newport, social media algorithms are designed to be addictive.

“People feel like they’re losing their autonomy,” he explained. “They feel strung out… [Checking feeds] is feeling somewhat compulsory.”

In a thought-provoking blog post, Newport wrote about the ways we can gain more control over our lives – not by cutting ourselves off from the world entirely, but by strategically simplifying our digital consumption.

“Intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise, and optimizing your use of the tools that really matter, can significantly improve your life,” he wrote.


Think of it as a Marie Kondo approach to your digital life: Does it spark joy? If not, do you need to be checking it every five minutes?

While physical minimalism can free us from our obsession with things, digital minimalism – the strategic reduction of virtual noise in your life – can decrease our dependency on technology and allow us to connect with the real world again.


How to implement digital minimalism in your own life


Clean out your inbox, phone, and computer


If you’re anything like me, the downloads folder on your computer is a total nightmare, your Gmail inbox is terrifying, and your phone is cluttered with apps you barely even use.

Set aside some time to do a full clean-out of your computer, deleting the random files you downloaded two years ago, transferring photos to a cloud or hard-drive, and organizing your files in a way that is simple and stress-free.

If you’re not practicing Inbox Zero, take the necessary steps to get on top of your e-mail.

Lastly, it’s time to go through your phone. Delete the apps you barely use (or, at the very least, move them all into a folder so your regularly-used apps are most visible and accessible).


Recognize you can’t do everything


The problem with FOMO is that “missing out” is an inevitability in the world of 24-hour news cycles and endless social media feeds. Recognize that it’s okay not to be abreast of the latest information, and instead turn your attention toward making the most of your time. What do you do to create value? What do you do that you love? Center your focus on those parts of your life instead of giving time over to digital clutter.


Turn off notifications from social media


It’s okay to want Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter on your phone. It’s also okay to want to check them periodically throughout the day. Consider switching off your notifications for all social media apps, so your phone won’t light up every time someone likes your photo or comments on your post. This will give you the chance to check your feeds mindfully and periodically, instead of accidentally becoming sucked in every time you get a notification.


Go on airplane mode for at least one hour a day


Whatever your schedule, choose a minimum of one hour a day to shut down all screens and set all of your devices to airplane mode. Go for a walk, read a book, put on a face mask, or enjoy your time with family or friends. Knowing no notifications will come in while your phone is shut off will help stifle the urge you feel to check it while being “unplugged.”


Embrace boredom


We’re constantly over-stimulated, which means our general tolerance for boredom has dropped to fatal levels. (Who else has trouble even sitting through a stoplight?)

“Not doing anything, just enjoying ourselves and whatever is around us, is a very deep practice, because we all have an energy within us that constantly pushes us to do this or that. We cannot sit or lie still and enjoy ourselves or enjoy the beautiful sky. If we aren’t doing something, we can’t stand it,” Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in Planting Seeds, a book on mindfulness and compassion.


When the urge to check in comes, hold off and embrace the feeling of boredom instead. Allow yourself to exist in the world without stimulation.


What do you do to keep from burning out? Is Digital Minimalism something you would consider practicing?