Tech detox? Yes, but we really need better filters
- The Tech detox is a great start towards white collar sanity. But for a real productivity edge, better filters are needed. Here's my approach.
The "tech detox" is becoming somewhat of an enterprise meme, with executives realizing that their smart devices have a better purpose: at the bottom of a swimming pool, or perhaps a deep lake. In The Art and Science of the Tech Detox, Larry Dignan makes the (worthy) case for the vacation unplug.
But while a tech detox can do wonders for the white collar soul, the real problem is the routine we return to - lives chock full of notifications and pings, often of dubious value. There's no perfect solution, but better filters are a good start.
The individual productivity stakes are high. I'm somewhat of a "robots are taking our jobs" alarmist, insofar as I see the employment impact of AI as the most profound shift since the industrial revolution. As I consume the research, I'm on the lookout for advice on thriving amidst the machines. One of the central themes of such advice is: excel at creative work. This fits nicely into the career advice I give IT professionals: create differentiating work on your way to skills mastery (and, usually, give that work away to build a community around it).
The catch? Differentiating work (or deep work, as it is sometimes called), cannot be accomplished without the ability to unplug for periods of immersive research and creation. This opens up a discussion of "value productivity" versus busywork (no one gets a job offer based on how many emails they can respond to per month). I spelled that out in the career-defining consequences of value productivity.
So the tech detox, as refreshing as it might be, does not address the core problem of creating a sustainable productivity edge. Filters, on the other hand, have potential to do that. The problem for most professionals is that our filters are comprised of only two modes:
1. Smart devices on (when we are awake)
2. Smart devices off, or in quiet mode (when we are asleep)
This perpetual "on" state does little for our productivity. It disrupts our attempt to prioritize the needful (prioritization on the fly being our most important productivity skill of all). With effort, we can construct a more effective filtering setup. There are two aspects: design your filters, and let close friends and colleagues know of your new routine. You'll design your filters with the tools and platforms you are using for work and personal (iOS versus Android, Google versus Microsoft for email, etc). As an example to ponder, here's the filter stages I've designed.
The five stages of filtering that I use
1. "Completely on" mode - this might be first thing in the morning for me, or after I've published a piece. For me, completely on means:
- all devices on
- all social networks on
- email on
- diginomica instant messaging on
- all article newsreaders and backchannel news alerts on, sharing the most important stories or posting them to my #ensw newsfeed
2. "Somewhat on" mode - this might be when I am working on a piece but have plenty of time before a deadline. I may be adding quotes or links and don't need an immersive focus:
- all devices on
- no social networks open, but receiving and responding to work-related notifications on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook
- email on, but only checking every 15-30 minutes
- diginomica instant messaging on, so close colleagues and pending clients can reach me (more important since I'm not checking email constantly)
- all article newsreaders and backchannel news alerts on - BUT: might hold off on sharing interesting content until later
3. "Deeper work" mode - this is when I need to bear down on finishing an article, producing a video or podcast, or finishing a custom research project. It requires some immersion but is usually building on a structure I have already laid out. I might also use this mode when I'm out exercising, or at a conference during a keynote.
- some devices on, but usually either silent or vibrate-only
- no social networks open, but receiving work-related notifications on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. Responding only to something critical and time sensitive
- checking email rarely during this period, if at all
- diginomica instant messaging on (very important since I'm not checking email hardly at all)
- backchannel news alerts on - BUT: probably won't share or post anything unless it's hugely important. not checking newsreader.
4. "Immersive work" mode - this is when I'm in the hard phase of sythesizing research and ideas and need to come up with my own creative approach or position. I'd call this "do not disturb" mode, but there's no need to let folks know I'm busy - they simply can't find me during these times.
During this mode, I am pursuing total immersion so I can focus and come up with my best work. Usually in my life, that's no more than a 2 or 3 hour time block. It's often not during business hours, but it can be done during business hours if needed once or twice a week. I also use these settings during events when I'm in important sessions, interviews, or video shoots.
- phone on, but on silent. Check it only occasionally
- no social networks open, Receiving work-related notifications on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, but not checking often. Responding only to mission critical.
- no checking of email
- diginomica instant messaging on (only my work colleagues or pending projects can reach me)
- backchannel news alerts on - BUT: won't share or post anything unless it's an extraordinary situation. Not checking newsreader.
5. Weekend detox - I try to do a weekend detox for about 24-36 hours from Friday to Sunday. For me, the weekend detox may include immersive work, or it may be pushing away and getting outside. The key is the refresh/recharge. In my case, that means not checking email for that period, as it's email that really gnaws at my will to live if I don't pull back from time to time.
I do, however, go through my newsreader as this is usually a time of some immersive reading and research. I may share the best of those discoveries socially. It's whatever refreshes me and helps me as I plan for the following week and chill a bit. So the only difference between the weekend detox and #4 is: I might be checking my newsreader more, and being more active socially if I"m in the mood, perhaps mixing it up with whatever personal pics or things I didn't get to share during the week.
Taking action - what's next for your filters?
Your filtering system won't be the same as mine, nor should it be. For example, if you're not in the media business, you might not be as concerned with breaking news alerts. I need those because it may impact a story I am writing. Whatever system you design, it should have several key abilities:
- The ability to toggle and move quickly from one level of filtering to another
- The right notifications set up so that they can be easily turned higher or lower based on priority
- A good understanding with colleagues as to your unplugging habit
And, most importantly, results. Your filtering system should do two things for you:
- help you get more impactful work out the door
- keep you less frayed/distracted, with more control over your tech
Some devices, like the Apple Watch, may not be your friend here. The Apple Watch seems to bring along every phone notification, whereas ideally you could use the watch only for selective notifications. But that may change soon. Devices that can narrow your alert range into priority-only can be handy indeed. (For simplicity, I did not list a bunch of other apps that I use, and you probably have others such as your ERP or CRM systems that you may have alerts for, or choose to close during certain periods.)
The hardest part is the setup: yes, you'll need to spend some tedious time at the back end of web sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, adjusting notification settings in their archaic labyrinth to reduce your total notification volume. You'll need to unsubscribe from a ton of newsletters, and/or create additional email filters to route certain notifications. You can even experiment with sites like IFTTT to automate priority notifications.
If you have corporate collaboration and messaging tools, you'll need to fine tune those as well. Many enterprisey folks argue with me about this. They claim they can't set up this kind of filtering because their companies just won't allow it, and expect constant availability. That may be true in isolated cases - if so, get out of that company before it squeezes you into robot fuel.
But I know plenty of folks at big companies who have educated their team members on routines, such as, "I am never on email Friday mornings," or "I only check email three times a day," etc. If you can back up your routine by delivering kickass deliverables, folks will adjust to your eccentricities.
My only universal filter advice is that email shouldn't be your "always on" channel - unless you have a private email you can use for that, restricted to an inner project circle. The good news? Most companies are now using some kind of instant message or collaboration tech. As long as you can be reached on one channel at any time, you're usually okay.
Final thoughts - filters can be dangerous
Yes, every now and then I miss a time-sensitive issue due to my filtering tech. But that's a lot better than squandering my adult life in my email inbox while projects of import lie dormant.
That's not the real danger though - the real danger is that filters can lead to myopia. We run the risk of filtering out diverse points of view, or missing random content that has important tangential connections. Or worse: missing breaking news of import from another domain. Example: be sure to set up your weather alerts, including those that geo-locate based on your travel location. Tornado warnings should definitely be able to penetrate your immersive filters!
JP Rangaswami has written memorably about filters and their limitations. Eventually, you may need to build some randomness and cultural range into your filters, without bringing on a news deluge. For example, I subscribe via RSS to a few sub-Reddits that bring a range of eccentric stories into my purview. You may be able to get the same from Facebook or other social sites if you work at it.
By all means, take a tech detox. But when you're back from that island of bliss, I'd encourage a hard think about filters and how you might be able to protect more of your time - rather than being pummeled by notifications of questionable import. As Dignan writes:
It's fairly common to see someone checking their phone, not looking up and almost begging to be hit by a bus. When will that person realize that the text can wait?
When a bus is barreling towards you, everything can wait. The real productivity challenge is taking permanent control of the notification barrage.
Image credit: Detox smoothie before running workout © Dirima - Fotolia.com