Mind Hygiene – tips to avoid digital distraction

Written by Jane Orme, Bluefruit Software Engineer

Many people, myself included, have developed some “bad habits” (possibly even addictions) when it comes to mobile phones or digital notifications. It can be especially hard when you work with computers all day! Recently, I attended a conference for women in tech; Women of Silicon Roundabout. One of the seminars that really stood out for me was by Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina, addressing mental wellbeing and tips to help us with our digital behaviours.

Dr Dedyukhina explained how addictions are formed, with a trigger (the notification) leading to an action (checking the notification), and this gives us a reward (a dopamine hormone) that reinforces the action. Several studies in pigeons have demonstrated this perfectly – where the pigeons intermittently get a treat when pressing a button and learn to compulsively press the button repeatedly (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1333221/). This cycle is what enables app notifications to dictate what we focus our concentration on. A variable reward only adds to the cycle – you get a buzz from seeing a new “Like” on a post on Facebook, or feel hopeful that a new email is a good one only to find it is a junk email.

Our primal brains are used to being alert – keeping an eye out for danger. Similarly, we are kept on alert waiting for a new notification and occasionally this can lead to repeatedly refreshing a page to see if there are any new updates or checking our phone.

Studies have shown that keeping a mobile phone in the bedroom reduces the quality of sleep. Keeping a mobile phone on your desk at work even reduces performance on IQ tests (see https://news.utexas.edu/2017/06/26/the-mere-presence-of-your-smartphone-reduces-brain-power) and reduces concentration.

Can’t remember who acted in a particular film? Or how to get somewhere? We trust our own memories less – looking up answers or maps on a search engine. The part of the brain responsible for memory gets less use and less growth; and ultimately this reduces brainpower, creativity, and makes it harder to learn new things.

We are also not as good at multitasking as we think we are, with studies shown that it can reduce productivity by up to 40% (http://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx)! Notifications, context-switching, and interruptions all reduce our effectiveness at work. Without the chance to be bored, our brain doesn’t have as much chance to process and remember things effectively or to be creative.

Tips for taking back control:

Disable notifications – put yourself in control of when you check for them. Remember the pigeons!

● Manage the time when you check them – either by rationing the time when you check your phone/social media or delay checking for messages. Complete a task before checking your phone.

● Keep the phone out of meetings, off your desk, and out of your bedroom. If you need to concentrate, hide it or go to a “quiet area”.

● Eat away from your desk – just having a screen near you will mean you can’t switch off.

● Manage expectations with colleagues and family as to when they can contact you – even if this is turning off your work phone at the end of the work day.

● Allow time to be bored – so you can be more creative.

● Do more things that produce natural dopamine that are a healthy obsession; reading a book, playing a musical instrument, walk in the countryside, or exercise.

P.S.: If you are coming across from the Women of Silicon Roundabout conference – we are still hiring talented Software Engineers and Testers!

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