A singular tree stands alone amongst a forest of similar trees. Photo: Death to Stock ‘Wild’ http://deathtothestockphoto.com

“All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad.”

Network, 1976.

Do you ever sit down to work at the computer or read a book and realise an hour later that you aren’t entirely sure why you haven’t achieved what you set out to do? You open up that novel you’ve been meaning to get stuck into, your word processing software to write or load up your emails to get organised and you soon realise that you are doing the absolute opposite.

Any momentary lapse of concentration, feelings of inadequacy or challenge faced while writing that report or putting together that project you are working on can be instantly alleviated by opening up the web browser of your choice and browsing to your favourite websites. Beeps, buzzes and vibrations are toying with our concentration. Having technology available to us on a daily basis can often feel more akin to dedicating your resources to avoiding sheer informational and sensory overload. When this starts to happen each and every day, it really can send your goals wildly off track and make you feel… empty.

In situations such as these, it’s often easier to think to yourself “If this was right for me, I wouldn’t be so easily distracted” - but from my experience, this is unlikely to be the case as it’s not just you, it’s a much larger problem. There is a massive industry developed around the primary aim of keeping you hooked to websites and services. Keeping page views and time-spent on services like Facebook and Twitter is exactly how tech and social media companies can charge for advertising (and part of the reason why so many of these same services are totally free to use).

Consider brands and products wishing to reach certain audiences - social media services, news websites and blogs know exactly who their audiences are and how to reach them, it’s a perfect match. It’s also the reason why click-bait headlined articles seem to always link you to 4-6 other ‘journalistic’ pieces of similar intellectual integrity (The Mail Online’s ‘sidebar of shame’ is perhaps the most recognisable and blatant example of this practice). ‘You won’t believe what happened next’ or ‘This one weird trick you won’t expect…’ - there’s an strategy here to keep you engaged for longer and if possible, coming back as many times each day as you can possibly handle.

Facebook and other social media sites use notifications and ‘news feed’ style timelines to keep you coming back, relying on an underlying human fear that you might have missed something important from that friend you were meant to meet later on, or a juicy message from that crush of yours. Making your heart skip a beat each time you see that little red notification is a key part of the business plan.

Mass-content websites like Reddit are perhaps the worst offenders, overloading your mind with information on a Borg ‘hive mind’ type level, with in-joke memes and tales of humanity interspersed with humorous anecdotes and a splash of the risqué. All of this packaged up and available to the user in bite-sized, easily accessible chunks.

All of these methods work because as a species - we want to remain informed, we don’t want to be left behind and we certainly don’t want to feel alone.

Frankly, I am sick of it. I’ll hold my hands up and say, I’m not going to take it anymore.

The challenge comes from taking control over how we use technology in our lives. So, here are a few methods I have come up with which we can implement to begin to wrestle back control. These certainly aren’t fool-proof or the only strategies, but it’s a start.

  • Make phone calls and arrange meetings with people where possible, rather than texting or writing long emails. This may seem obvious, but use any excuse you can to get off the screen and connect with a real human. Don’t want to disturb somebody who you know is in the middle of something? Leave a voicemail or send a text and let them call you back.
  • Email may be a part of your job description and you might have an obligation to respond to certain communications, but there is no reason why this has to take up your whole day. Writing an email has a funny way of creating further work. Simply sending one email, particularly work-related, can often result in several replies requiring further action, making days spent in Outlook pretty miserable. Set aside a time each day for checking email and responding to urgent communications within that time, then shut down your email client. Return to work and respond to any new emails the following day. The ‘Work Offline’ function can also be helpful, allowing you to respond to your inbox of emails and have all replies send at the end of each day. This trick also has the caveat of allowing you time to re-evaluate what you have wrote and not fire off anything incorrect or rushed.
  • If willpower alone isn’t enough, you can block social media and regularly visited websites. There are several software solutions, which can help you do this. SelfControl for OS X is one I’ve used myself previously. Alternatively, you can configure your router settings to block certain websites by domain - but this is probably something of an excessive option. By taking a stand, it no longer feels as if you are feeling separated, but that you have made a commitment to disconnect from the noise.
  • Similarly, if you find yourself distracted by your phone - turn it off, or go into Airplane Mode (or better yet, leave it at home or in another room!) Rather than concerning yourself with who has and hasn’t contacted you if you don’t have to, focus on other things without being distracted by beeps, vibrations or funny Snapchats. Since becoming a smartphone owner, I often feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of notifications I receive each day, each one becoming another reason to stop and start what  I am working on.

The truth is, we could likely all benefit from disconnecting - right now if possible. Go on, stop reading, I won’t be offended. Disconnection can give an incredibly liberating feeling by simply taking a stand.

Immediacy may be possible with modern technology, but it doesn’t always mean that it is always right. Reduce consumption of information; the ‘firewall’ of your mind requires concentration to grow, work and to learn properly. Try to avoid ‘empty’ feelings of wasted time or of feeling alone by focusing your energy elsewhere. We can continue to use technology for good and with benefit to our lives, but I believe that this must come with moderation.