How to go offline in a digital world

In an era of increasing ‘digital pollution’, authors Imran Rashid and Soren Kenner share their advice for avoiding the potentially disastrous side-effects of information overload

Working remotely means spending a lot of time online. But it’s important to be able to draw a line when it comes to social media and being perpetually connected. Here, Imran Rashid and Soren Kenner, the authors of Offline: Free your mind from smartphone and social media stress, share their strategies for alleviating the side-effects of spending their lives online.

Why should team leaders be concerned about online overload?
Digital addiction – particularly social media use – can adversely affect mood and morale. The
addictive design mechanisms crafted by the tech giants affect everything from workers’ stress levels to sleep disturbance to lack of focus at work.

What’s the impact on your business?
Addiction to screens could be affecting your bottom line. One Business Today report found that 13% of total productivity is lost due to time wasted online or on social media.

Being constantly online also creates what psychologists call ‘decision fatigue’, which leads to “worse decisions the longer you go on,” says Kenner. “It refers to the fact that making decisions burns finite resources. That is because the process involves neurotransmitters and hormones that take some time to replenish, and therefore the more decisions you have to make in a day, the poorer they will generally be.”

What can you do about it?
According to Rashid and Kenner, we should all be striving to “regain mastery of the devices that have attained mastery over us” and make technology “human-centric” once more.

Kenner recommends starting your day not just with a to-do list of tasks, but with a schedule for
when you access – and when you block yourself from accessing – the most potent digital
distractions. These include social media, casual gaming and even email.

“For example, you could agree to a schedule that enabled emails from 9am to 11am and again from 4pm to 5pm and blocks social media except for a designated time block during lunch and perhaps a short period at the end of the day,” he says. “Doing so would lead to increased productivity and ability to focus.”

Anything else?
Rashid and Kenner have coined the term DFRAG (digital fragmentation syndrome) to describe a condition where the human experience of time, space and consciousness is constantly fragmented through digital interactions.

The key step to combating this, says Rashid, a qualified family physician, is to create an
infrastructure that has in-built triggers and behaviour patterns to cut through the digital noise. He
compares digital distraction to smoking – in offices, you have clear rules about where you can and can’t light up. “We need the same kind of conditioning when it comes to digital habits,” he says. “If you want to allow people to concentrate, then you have to make a distraction-free working space.”

One idea he recommends, is for every employee is to set an ‘unavailable notice’ online for when they want a period of focused work. “When you switch [it] on, other people will know, ‘Hey, this person wants to focus, I shouldn’t disturb him.’”

This also has a positive effect on individuals, encouraging them to take personal responsibility to digitally switch off while they complete a task and are more available. “After all, we know that about 50% of all the distractions in a workday are self-inflicted,” explains Rashid. “We have developed a behaviour where we distract ourselves.”

Is it all bad news?
To bring about meaningful and sustainable change, Rashid says bosses need to focus “on what you want to achieve instead of what you’re taking away”. He explains: “You have to focus on the positive sides of what you want to accomplish and that could be creating some specific rules for how you want to deal with specific situations. For instance, if you were to implement a mobile ban in workplaces, people would start focusing on what they are missing.

“Instead, explain that you want a workplace with more closeness, better relations and clearer
communication and with meetings that are not filled with distracted minds. Once you have the
structural conditions in place, then the final parts will be a lot easier, which are the individual choice and the ‘group habits’, also known as the company culture. This increases the chances of longer-lasting changes.”

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