Why is it so hard to switch off?

It’s clear that switching off email and mobile phones helps us focus on creative thinking. So why don’t we do it more? This post looks at some of the reasons why and suggest ways of beating your online addiction.

It should be so easy. Do one thing at a time, focus your thinking for clear creative thoughts to emerge. Let the incubation process work unhindered. Increase your attention span. Concentrate. Think deeply to solve complex problems. Add richness to your ideas. Draw from your memories, experience and knowledge. Allow your brain the time to connect things and create new ideas and patterns.Surely if we know all this, we should just do it, right? So why don’t we?

Impact on creativity

One of the key reasons we indulge in so much screen time is to stave off boredom. When we find ourselves with nothing compelling to do, out comes the smartphone. Dr Teresa Belton, an expert in the impact of emotions on behaviour and learning, explains that society has “developed an expectation of being constantly occupied and constantly stimulated”. She warns that being creative “involves being able to develop internal stimulus,” and “that Nature abhors a vacuum and we try to fill it.” She argues we need “stand-and-stare time”, in order to give us time to think and observe the world around us. The screen “tends to short circuit that process and the development of creative capacity”.

However, researchers at the Nijmegen Unconscious lab in The Netherlands have shown that being distracted for a while from a main creative challenge causes you to end up generating better ideas, and more of them, versus if you just worked straight through. This distraction allows for an ‘incubation break’, allowing your brain to process thoughts and reveal connections and ideas you may have missed if you’d stayed focused on a single task.

Impact on health

A study has shown that almost half of 16 to 34-year-olds check messages in bed on a smartphone, laptop or tablet computer. It rises to 87 per cent for 16 to 24-year-olds. A staggering 68 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds never switch off their mobile phones, meaning they are always connected.This has knock-on effects for our health. Researchers have discovered that two or more hours of exposure to backlit devices suppresses melatonin by up to 22%, which can lead to trouble sleeping at night.But it’s not feeling tired that should concern us. Sleeping for seven hours or more a night can reduce the risk of fatal heart attacks and cardiovascular disease by up to 24 per cent.Even business is taking note. Worried about the work-life balance of their workforce, Volkswagen decided to only push emails to staff 30 minutes before they are due to start work and stop them 30 minutes after they are due to finish work.

Impact on relationships

Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield is worried that because social media sites such as Facebook encourage us to live in the moment, they could change our brains. Because the human brain will adapt to whatever environment in which it is placed, “an environment where you are constantly on the alert to the actions and views of others, will surely be changing your mindset in correspondingly new ways. But if you’re anchored increasingly in the present, consequently constantly catering for and to the demands of the outside world, that inner narrative might be now even harder to sustain. The mind might remain more child-like, reactive and dependent on the behavior and thoughts of others.”

Sherry Turkle argues that we are being ‘alone together’, only paying attention to the bits that interest us.There’s also a danger that we develop a tendency to leap before we look — failing to fully consider the potential impact of our online actions.

All cyborgs now?

There appear to be a number of key reasons why we find it so difficult to detach ourselves. In a TED talk, Amber Case explains the concept of the ‘Second Self’, an alternate reality where we have digital profiles to maintain, virtual relationships to manage. Case also talks about ‘ambient intimacy’, where connectivity is only a button away, and ‘social punctuation’, exemplified by turning to a communication device when in the middle of another social exchange.

The endless possibilities offered by online technology exert a pull that is difficult to resist. Through the digital looking glass we can go anywhere, speak to anyone. We can download any music track, watch any film or TV programme. We can play games against thousands of online opponents, immediately.

And we all have short attention spans, evidenced by the popularity of short-form media such as Twitter and Vine. Instagram too — it only takes a few seconds to take and post a picture.It’s worse for the digital natives – those who have grown up since the launch of the internet. How can they possibly be convinced of the benefits of switching off when it’s the only life they know?

Productivity failure

Many of us believe we are simply multitasking, but many studies have shown this to be an inefficient way of getting things done. The only time multitasking does work efficiently, David Meyer says, is when multiple simple tasks operate on entirely separate channels—for example, folding laundry (a visual-manual task) while listening to an audiobook (a verbal task).

We also engage in ‘continuous partial attention’, as described by Steven Johnson in his book Everything Bad is Good for You: “It usually involves skimming the surface of the incoming data, picking out the relevant details, and moving on to the next stream. You’re paying attention, but only partially. That lets you cast a wider net, but it also runs the risk of keeping you from really studying the fish.”

It’s also a case of having too much to do, or more frequently perhaps, too little to do. When we have too little to do we fill our time with busywork, checking email, social media and web stats multiple times in the misguided belief that we are getting things done. When we have too much to do we tend to procrastinate and flit between tasks in panic — often leading to email apnea (shallow breathing or breath holding while doing email), which apparently affects 80% of us.

Around 80% of us have imagined a phone vibrating in our pockets when it’s actually completely still. Almost 30% of us have also heard non-existent ringing.

A study found that our perceptual systems have adjusted their bias to a level that makes misses unlikely. This is also related to our quest for new experiences — mismatches were particularly common among people who scored highest on a novelty-seeking personality test. These people place the highest cost on missing an exciting call.

Are we addicted?

Withdrawal symptoms experienced by people deprived of gadgets and technology can be compared to those felt by drug addicts or smokers going “cold turkey” according to this study. Almost four in five felt significant mental and physical distress, panic, confusion and extreme isolation when forced to unplug from technology for just one day.

Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman says prolonged screen time can lead to reductions in attention span because of its effects on the brain chemical dopamine, which is produced in response to “screen novelty”. Dopamine is a key component of the brain’s reward system and is frequently implicated in addictive behaviour and the inability to pay attention.

To put this in perspective, the release of dopamine forms the basis for nicotine, cocaine, and gambling addictions. The inhalation of nicotine triggers a small dopamine release, and a smoker quickly becomes addicted. Cocaine and heroin deliver bigger dopamine jolts.

But we should be careful of mislabeling this. As Vaughan Bell argues on his Mind Hacks blog, “people become addicted to substances or activities, but it’s impossible to become addicted to a medium. You can be no more addicted to the internet than you can to language or radio waves.”

Bell draws a comparison with Japan, where almost exactly the same problems have been named ‘hikkikomori‘. “One of the key characteristics of hikkikomori individuals is that they isolate themselves and occupy their time with the internet and video games. But the Japanese, rather sensibly, identify the core problem as social withdrawal, and the excessive solitary activities as symptoms – just ways in which isolated people try to fill the void.”

So we can’t be addicted to the internet, per se, but we can be addicted to something like online gambling. And gaming companies may exploit this. According to this article in The Atlantic, “Gaming companies talk openly about creating a “compulsion loop,” which works roughly as follows: the player plays the game; the player achieves the goal; the player is awarded new content; which causes the player to want to continue playing with the new content and re-enter the loop.”

The availability of instant feedback may also be a significant factor. Write a blog post and you are tempted to check back every few minutes to see how many readers it gets, or if anyone comments. If you’re notified of the comments, and you get a criticism or particularly good insight, the temptation is incredibly great to reply straight away, therefore losing your flow. Should we just leave these things longer in the faith that they will sort themselves out? Will others reply on our behalf, and perhaps offer a better reply than we could? Is it better to let go once you have written your work, so others can interpret it and add to it as they wish?If you work on a website, you may be tempted to check stats every so often. If you send a tweet you’re curious to see if anyone retweeted it, or replied. Worse still, disagreed. It can look like a quest for validation, for approval. Leaving it longer before you consider feedback can have advantages. That way you don’t bend and sway to every opinion, but respond to the most significant or popular feedback.

Am I addicted?

To recognise addiction, Psychotherapist Ronit Herzfeld recommends watching someone’s reaction when you ask them to stop engaging in it for a period of time. Maybe they say they can quit whenever they want to, but don’t want to right now. “It doesn’t matter if the person is addicted to alcohol, pot, exercise, work, or anything else; when people are in denial about their addiction, they are not lying to you, they are lying to themselves.”You can also ask yourself if you feel bad about spending so much time online. Have you regretted it on a number of occasions? I know I have — several times I’ve found myself cursing myself for flicking through tweets or emails as my two-year-old daughter tugs at my leg, asking me to play with her.In any case, you don’t have to be addicted to want to make a change. If you’ve read this far you’ll probably have a personal interest in doing something about it.

Going cold turkey

I recently spent a night in the woods to see if it made me think any differently. I signed up for Wild Camp, whose organisers quoted research claiming that four days in nature, & corresponding disconnection from technology, increases creative problem solving by 50%. Given that I’m in the creativity training business I thought those figures sounded pretty significant, so I quickly signed up.

Wild Camp gathered 20 or so people together in a 60 acre Sussex forest to switch off our phones, abandon email for 24 hours and sleep under canvas. We listened to the sounds of the forest, looked closely at the undergrowth and wildlife, and traded stories and experiences.

I can’t say I felt my creativity multiply significantly, however I did manage to work out how to erect my newly-purchased tent, so my creative problem solving skills clearly weren’t lacking. It was interesting to meet others and experience new things. And I think that’s what I got from it creatively — new perspectives and material to draw upon for future creative activity, for example this post. Having said that I only spent 24 hours away — it would be interesting at some point to see what happened over a four-day period.

I found another recent experience much more immediately noticeable. I spent the day in London, and during the hour-long train journey to get there, I ran down my iPhone battery through constant emailing, tweeting and reading RSS feeds. As a result my battery was dead by mid-afternoon, and I wasn’t due to get home until late that evening. As soon as my phone died, I began having ideas — good ones. I wrote over 8 pages in my notebook, something I’m sure wouldn’t have happened if I’d been able to check things on Google or browse emails and Twitter feeds.

Switching off for short periods

Psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert recommends that we “gain a sense of control by setting reasonable and attainable goals related to limiting your use. For example, if you typically spend five hours a day online, then try cutting it down to three hours.”

Then what? Is it OK to go three hours without, then binge-consume as many tweets and emails as possible? You wouldn’t go about quitting smoking like that.

I would say it depends on the scale of the problem. If you feel your inability to switch off is particularly serious, then you should look at behaviour change over a prolonged period of time. If you feel it is a relatively minor issue, you can adopt some working practices to maximise your productivity and creative thinking abilities.Both come down to spending time away from the stream, however.

Batch it up

One of the most quoted strategies to get things done is batching: check email only a few times per day, and work in big chunks. Author Cal Newport tried forcing himself to batch, but found it difficult. “It requires that you plan ahead to make sure you have the material and information needed for focused blocks. It also requires careful communication. Answering emails, for example, is complicated when you need those emails to include all of the information needed for the next actions to be taken. (It’s much easier to use email for informal back and forth dialogue.) Because of this, tackling my inbox during the experiment was surprisingly draining.”Batching is more than just switching off and on with two or three-hour intervals. It requires you to be really organised, to plan ahead, and this is why so many people abandon it — despite its advantages in terms of productivity and quality (Newport says “if you survive the annoyance, there’s also no avoiding the reality that your work will be of a much higher quality”), doing it is harder than not doing it.

Set your schedule

One of the best ways of avoiding distractions is to work unsociable hours. Many people recommend getting into the office early, to get some quiet work done before the office starts buzzing. Graham Allcott, author of How to be a Productivity Ninja, tried working 5-9 instead of the traditional 9-5. This could mean 5pm-9pm, or alternatively 5am-9am.

Put time in your calendar when you want to focus on something, and treat that time block with just as much importance as you would a client meeting.


To promote clarity of thought, clear your desk. If you don’t want to clear your desk, work at another — go to a coffee shop (without a wifi connection), or a library.The same goes for your online desktop. If you’re going to write, for example, you only need a simple word processing application. I wrote this post on Ommwriter, which aims to create the optimal writing environment with simple backgrounds, ambient audio tracks and reassuring keystroke sounds. And of course Medium is an excellent writing experience — albeit one that requires you to be connected to the internet. Really you don’t need anything but a text editor.A good app to help you clear unnecessary windows is Concentrate, which enables you to configure a different set of tools for each task so you can quickly shift between tasks that require different mindsets. So you could activate “Writing,” and the app would automatically close your email client and Internet Browser, block you from social media sites, launch a text editor, and set your Skype status to “away”. You can even set up spoken messages to keep you on task.

Build willpowerI’ve heard many people recommend meditation as one of the best ways of improving willpower. Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, supports this view. It’s all about breathing: “Your mind will inevitably wander. That’s not a problem; it’s part of the process. When you notice your mind wandering, let it point you back to the breath. Each time you notice the mind daydreaming, or planning, or worrying, or whatever the mind does – that is an opportunity to cultivate awareness, and bring your focus back to the present moment experience of breathing in and breathing out.” Try it while visiting

Willpower is also recommended for improving creativity.Monitor progressIf you’ve ever tried to lose weight or get fit, you’ll know that it can be motivating to monitor your progress over time. TrackTime allows you to audit how you’re spending your time on your computer. Log time spent on websites, view time spent in individual applications, and if your timeline shows you constantly shifting between apps and tasks, you’ll be able to identify the most common timewasting culprits and address them.


Photo Credit: miss karen via Compfightcc

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