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17 Tips for Reclaiming Time Wasted Online

Can you concentrate long enough to get through them all?

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AMERICAN PET PROS spend a lot of time on smartphones. According to a PETS+ Brain Squad survey, they check their phone more than 50 times a day. It’s often the first thing they see after waking up and the last before falling asleep. In between, they spend an average of 4 hours absorbed in their phone’s glow.

Of course, there’s not much about this experience unique to those in the pet industry. In 2021, it’s how modern life is lived. Apart from the occasional forced break, we are online and connected 24/7, catching up on news, customer reviews and the location of the tacos we ordered.

The initial promise of an always-on, interconnected world was that it would be professionally enabling, personally enriching, and socially democratizing as it brought a world of useful ideas and data (such as peer-reviewed products) to wherever we were.

But the reality has been darker. The internet, and social media in particular, has been blamed for stoking our baser instincts — the constant overwhelming access makes us feel jealous or inadequate, exhausts us, fuels rage, robs us of time we could spend with loved ones or on important tasks, and given rise to concerns about social dysfunction.

Some of this concern is overblown and clearly hyperbole (it’s no small irony that in the information age, everything must pretty much be the worst crisis ever just to get our attention). But it’s also undeniable that we could all use the technology better.

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This is particularly the case at work. Productivity studies show we don’t work more than our parents; we just feel like we do. With so much of the world coming to us online and demanding our attention, the default setting for modern life is fragmented busyness that doesn’t seem to translate into getting important things done. The result is an edgy, distracted state of worry that hurts both job satisfaction and the bottom line.

Much of the coverage of social media’s impact makes it sound like this inability to focus is something new. But the truth is we’ve always been distractible. Our ancestors had to stay alert and shift their attention all the time; there was no evolutionary advantage to getting absorbed in a cave painting. Prolonged, solitary thought is not the natural human state, but combined with the knowledge-sharing power of the written page, it explains much of our ascent as a species. The power to contemplate and focus is why we are not still living in caves.

Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows” and “The Glass Cage: Automation And Us,” says the internet has simply returned us to our “natural state of distractedness” and facilitated our ancient obsessions over things like social status. Social media, in particular, exploits this weakness mercilessly.

This explains why focus is so hard — but also why it matters so much: Humans thrive on concentration and presence.

As high as the stakes are, tuning out the internet or even social media is not realistic for most small-business people. And amid the handwringing over the impact of digital tech on our lives, it can be easy to forget that the problem stems from the fact that smartphones are a diabolical mixture of bad and the very, very good. Despite its parasitical nature, much can be said of social media. It gives small-business owners a powerful marketing platform.

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To be sure, PETS+ readers are well aware of this duality: An overwhelming 94 percent in the Brain Squad survey said the rise of social media has been good for their business. Only 51 percent, however, believed it has had a net positive impact on their lives.

Here, we offer tips and ideas, gathered from pet business owners, experts, and our own mindful reading (we put our phones in airplane mode), to help you seize back control of your attention, your work life, and possibly your sanity to become a better, calmer, more productive pet pro in 2021.

TAKE AN INVENTORY OF YOUR TECH USE

Do an audit of your tech use and evaluate each item for its usefulness, working on the assumption that if something can’t justify itself from a professional or personal angle, it’s out. Exit the social networks you barely use and get rid of the apps that, when you think about it, have no benefit. Yep, that means Candy Crush may have to go.

Lorin Grow, the owner of Furry Face in Redlands, CA, said she took that approach to apps and her newsfeed on Facebook ahead of last year’s election, removing potentially distracting feeds and people. “You can actually control 90 percent-plus of what comes into your newsfeed. It’s initially laborious, but the great part of this means that I now spend a lot less time on social media overall. I monitor my business and my own groups, but the rest of it can wait. If it doesn’t serve as an informational tool, isn’t useful or isn’t industry related, I’m not interested,” she says.

GO MINIMALIST

Cal Newport, one of the leaders of the digital minimalism school of tech use, recommends a more aggressive approach: completely unplugging for a period of time to give your brain and emotions a breather so that you can reassess your digital needs. In “Digital Minimalism: Choosing Focused Life In A Noisy World,” he advocates a month-long digital detox — a period in which a person takes a complete break from all optional technologies. When it’s over, the idea is that you slowly reintroduce these technologies on your own terms. “You don’t go back to what you did before. You rebuild it from scratch, but with intention,” Newport writes. The key is to ensure that “all the tech you have is amplifying something that you really care about.”

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CONTROL THE CUES

To live with frequent notifications is to outsource decisions about how your attention is deployed to a motley collection of friends, customers and social media platform engineers, most of whom have no incentive to put your interests first: They want an answer to their email right now or more engagement for their app. Turn off your alerts – all buzzes, banners, pop-ups and French horn-playing ring tones. Then set a time to check incoming streams of information, especially email, on your schedule.

Pattie Zeller, owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, VA, sets aside “check-in times” with the first one early in the morning. “I then check in at lunchtime and again late afternoon (with a cocktail). I don’t let the internet run my life. I make it do the work it needs to do, and we only use Instagram and Facebook, preplanned using later.com,” she says.

USE “CALM TECH” TO FIGHT INTRUSIVE TECH

There are numerous programs that promise to combat electronic distraction: examples include Freedom, which temporarily cuts internet access; Anti-Social, which locks down Facebook and Twitter; and StayFocusd, an extension for the Chrome browser that turns off Twitter after 45 minutes of daily use.

Courtney Bryson, a pet photographer in Rutledge, GA, uses such an app for setting time limits “on my phone to lock social media after so many hours. I also stay off the newsfeed, only visiting my groups and business pages.” Meanwhile, single-task devices like the Kindle ensure your attention doesn’t get diluted (if you don’t download social media apps). Instapaper allows you to read articles later (offline if you want), confident you won’t miss out on anything.

CREATE FRICTION, OR “SLUDGE”

Triumphs of willpower are surprisingly rare in everyday human situations. The central force for eliminating bad habits such as excessive phone use, according to social psychologist Wendy Wood, is “friction”; if we can make bad habits more inconvenient, then inertia can carry us the rest of the way. And the more hassle, the more success, she says in “Good Habits, Bad Habits.” Thus, turning the phone off completely is much more effective than silencing it, not because you become any less curious about who might have sent a text but because powering it up is a drag.

Katherine Ostiguy of the Crossbones Dog Academy in Providence, RI, says she moved the apps on her phone to a folder so that she has to swipe and tap to access, in an effort to interrupt her social media habit. “It has definitely reduced my mindless access to social media apps.”

KEEP YOUR PHONE OUT OF SIGHT

Studies have shown even the presence of a mobile phone on a dinner table is enough to disrupt/degrade a conversation as the gaze of both parties turns repeatedly to the device. Truly being with a colleague or customer means picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. What applies to a dining room applies doubly to the sales floor. Leave your phone in the office or deep in your pocket.

ALL NEWS IS NOT NECESSARILY GOOD

As a civic-minded citizen, you have a responsibility to keep up with what’s going on in the world, but modern technology can basically bring just about every, single, thing that is happening on the planet to you, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Carefully prune your incoming information streams, balancing the importance of staying informed against the need to push back a tide of negativity (usually) that has no real benefit. In particular, go easy on the politics. While getting enraged about an issue may feel like you’re getting involved in something significant, in most cases you ultimately do nothing more than share a post, comment or hit a Like button. Angry emotions are also addicting. Something the social media operators know all too well. There’s also the risk of getting offside with certain customers if you let your political stripes show.

SET LIMITS

Set new expectations for email responsiveness. Feel like you’re drowning in email traffic? Use the start of 2021 as an opportunity to set a new status quo for email communication. Edelman, a global public relations firm based in Toronto, has a 7-to-7 rule that discourages employees from sending email messages before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. In a lot of these matters of communication and engagement, you have more choice than you believe — maybe you don’t need to be available on your days off.

Leel Michelle of Bow Wow Dog Bakery in San Diego, CA, does a twist on this that has the same effect of bringing her inbox under control. “My social media either has auto responders to answer common questions or to redirect to my email so I can keep communication organized in one place,” she says.

LEARN TO FEEL OK DROPPING THE BALL OCCASIONALLY

One of the more useful insights from neuroscience is that, to simplify a little, you only can ever focus on one thing at a time. Yet faced with a long list of fairly important tasks, we flit rapidly between multiple objects of focus. You feel bad about all the things you believe you should have gotten done but haven’t, so you dart between them (or dart off to Facebook instead) as a way to take the edge off the stress associated with each. But that’s a formula for never finishing anything. Instead, there’s a certain amount of focus to be found in just resigning yourself to the situation — in taking to heart the understanding that doing anything in your life necessarily entails for a short period neglecting most other things. “I’ve gradually come to understand, the real skill is to learn to tolerate ever more of this ‘anxiety of not accomplishing things’: to consciously postpone everything you possibly can, except for one thing which you then complete. And as you finish more and more, you’ll have less about which to feel anxious,” says psychology writer Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian.

OR USE OLD TECH

They are getting harder to find, but a phone that does nothing but make calls ensures you won’t be led astray by the digital off-ramps of a smartphone. Similarly, get a cheap alarm clock and move your phone charger outside of the bedroom.

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Implement a daily deep-reading habit, especially of fiction. The benefits are said to be twofold: to retrain your neural networks to sustain and find satisfaction in unbroken concentration and, in the case of good fiction, to introduce an uncertainty and ambivalence to your thoughts that is not generated by fact-based writing. “The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds,” writes Newport. “In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.”

EMBRACE JOMO

According to the entrepreneur Caterina Fake, who helped popularise the term “FOMO,” the fear of missing out is “an age-old problem, exacerbated by technology.” Thanks to Facebook et al., we’ve never been so aware of what others are doing, and we aren’t. How to calm your anguish? Try JOMO, or the joy of missing out, which is basically the reaffirmation that what you’ve decided to do — build a business, spend time with family — matters more. If FOMO arises from second-guessing your choices, JOMO means taking ownership of them — whereupon FOMO fades away. It hinges on the appreciation that there will always be a limitless number of cool or meaningful things you’re not doing. Feeling bad about that is like beating yourself up for being unable to count to infinity.

DIGITAL SABBATH

If Newport’s total breaks aren’t an option, try a “Digital Sabbath.” As the name suggests, it’s once a week and should involve the whole family. The key to stoking enthusiasm for the break is in presenting it properly, says Tiffany Shlain in her book “24/6: The Power Of Unplugging One Day A Week.” In fact, she doesn’t call it a fast or detox because of the negative connotations. “Don’t start by saying, ‘We’re all going to give up our phones.’ Start by having everyone write down a list of the things they’re always wishing they had more time for.” This is a way of giving yourself time to do those things. Carol Will of Lola & Penelope’s pet boutique in St. Louis, MO, says such breaks have worked well for her: “Saturday is social media free. Not always successful, but Saturdays are my personal favorite days. I’m thinking of adding one more social media-free day.”

OHMMMM …

Meditate. Everyone and their dog is doing it (literally). Your brain needs downtime, silence, a chance to be with your thoughts. Meditation teaches you to focus the mind without outside stimulation, strengthening self-awareness so you retain the capacity to choose, say, when to go online and when to disconnect. Don’t have time? Try five minutes a day. You “can’t meditate”? Nope: Spending those minutes getting distracted still counts; indeed, noticing when you’re distracted is the essence of meditation.

With a little more mindfulness and awareness in your life, it becomes easier to take stock before picking up your phone. It may just give you the opening you need to ask: Am I doing it because I’m bored, stressed or tired? Or do I genuinely need some information?

PRIORITIZE

As noted on the productivity podcast precisionchange.com, there is something questionable about the whole “information overload” complaint: If we couldn’t handle vast amounts of information, we’d have a breakdown each time we stepped into wild nature (think of the cacophony of sound, crawling bugs, moving leaves, 125 shades of green, wisps of wind, dipping temperatures, all being taken in simultaneously by your senses). The real trouble is that in the modern world, we have defined too many things as worthy of having the power to distract us. For a traditional farmer, this was no big deal — this month, I must plough the fields. Not so in the blurry world of ideas, hence Peter Drucker’s maxim that if you’re a modern worker dealing with large amounts of information, defining your work — staying aware of what genuinely deserves your attention — is the most crucial work you’ll do. If you don’t, your phone is waiting in your pocket to devour your attention.

REMIND YOURSELF THAT YOU PROBABLY WON’T EVEN ENJOY IT

Is there anything more annoying (and time-wasting) than falling for a clickbait headline? The ancient idea that what we desire isn’t necessarily what we enjoy has received support from modern neuroscience. Dopamine, it turns out, is probably better understood as a desire chemical rather than a feel-good drug — it can be triggered in huge quantities in the near-total absence of pleasure. This explains why attaining some long-sought after object or accolade often feels like a letdown from the pursuit.

Just bearing this distinction in mind, as you trundle through the day, can be surprisingly empowering: There’s at least a chance you’ll remember the next time you’re gripped by the urge to check a headline about “Zombie fires eating the Arctic.”

TAKE IN SOME NATURE

In a world of relentless, aggressive demands on our attention, U.S. academics Rachel and Stephen Kaplan argued, nature does something different: It exerts “soft fascination.” Soft fascination has two crucial components. First, it’s effortless: You don’t need to “try to focus” on the wind in the trees, or waves breaking on a beach. Second, it’s partial: It absorbs some attention, but leaves some free for reflection, conversation or mind-wandering. The result is what the Kaplans called “cognitive quiet,” in which the muscle of effortful attention — the one you use to concentrate on work — gets to rest, but without the boredom you’d feel if you had nothing to focus on. This helps explain why even just a trip to the local park may seize just enough of your attention to let the rest of your mind relax.

Pamela Mitchell is the Editor-in-Chief of PETS+. She works from her home office in Houston, TX, with Ty the Boston Terrier as her assistant.

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