Boundaries: Disruptions, Distractions, and Deep Work

Think about your daily rhythm… from the moment you wake up in the morning until you turn off the light and fall into bed: how many tasks, texts, alerts, emails, notifications, do you think you complete? Probably hundreds. Maybe thousands. Every interaction with another person, every email sent, every text received, every acquaintance you run into at the grocery store… every one of these points of contact demands at least a fraction of your attention. Some more than others, but each of them costs you something.

In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, the author provides an illustration of tangled pen scribble, like spaghetti noodles on the page, with arrows pointing in every direction from the center. I’ll speak for myself and say this is the pattern- or lack of any discernible pattern whatsoever- I fall into if I’m not creating structure and discipline in the way I plan my time, and especially in the way I deal with digital communication. I make tiny bits of progress in about a million different directions. My phone certainly doesn’t help. Each time the phone even lights up, my attention is pulled away from what I’m doing. We’ve all heard time and time again how our brains are becoming addicted to our phones in much the same way we can get addicted to over-eating, shopping, and even alcohol. The same neuro-feedback loop that keeps us coming back to the pantry when we’re bored or sad keeps us coming back to our phones, and the built-it reward mechanism of ‘beep- notification- like- engage’ guarantees we’ll stay hooked.

Every time we look at the phone, we interrupt our focus and that moment can cost hours throughout the course of the day. Experts say it takes something like 25 minutes to get back into a state of deep focus after a distraction like a notification from your phone pulls you away from your task. Think about how many emails you get, how many texts, how many apps on your device are programmed to grab at your attention every few minutes. It’s impossible to find flow state, to get into what Cal Newport calls “Deep Work” if you’re jolted in and out of concentration that often.

Here are some of the best practices I’ve found to solve for this and set boundaries around digital interruptions throughout the day. It requires some practice and some courage to disengage from the expectation of immediacy in modern digital communication, but that extends both directions. I don't often engage immediately with texts, emails, or calls but I also don’t expect that others will be available at my whims. It’s a practice not only in boundary setting, but in restoring some sense of privacy and dignity to our interactions with one another in this bizarre digital age when we’re always expected to be on available.

  1. Ringer off, always. Now, I don’t have children or others who rely for essential care, so I can get away with leaving the ringer off just about all the time. For parents or caretakers, this may simply not be feasible. But even then, can you set an hour or two a day where the phone is on “Do Not Disturb”, and only those critical contact can get through to you? Having a few uninterrupted hours each day to catch up or dive into deep work can make a dramatic difference in your ability to focus and your productivity.

  2. All notifications are turned off. Not one single app on my phone has permission to give notifications unless I specifically request them. I have some notifications set for my calendar so I don’t miss calls or meetings, and my fitness app is allowed to remind me to move and log my meals, but that is it. It doesn’t take long to check my email, read texts, or see if I have any missed calls, but if I got an alert every single time something came through I would never be able to focus. No social media app, no game, nothing is worth sacrificing my sanity, and that is exactly what would happen if my phone was pinging all the damn time.

  3. Family Time: I don’t text or call people after about 8pm or so every night. We engage with people all day long, and I really believe time at home with your family should be spent with your family. If I’m texting while my partner and I are watching a show or having dinner, I’m bringing every person on the other end of those texts to the room with us and sitting them squarely between she and I. There are times that we’re both on our phones while we’re together, and I may scroll through Instagram or catch up on the day's news while we’re on the couch together, sure, but I’m not going to be texting or calling folks socially “after hours”. As much as I want dedicated time with my family, I want to respect and prioritize the same for others.

  4. Works ends when work ends. I’ll check work email between 9am - 6pm. That’s it. Unless there’s a specific project or deadline for which I need to be “on call”, I’ll reply to email during those hours. I’m a web designer, not a surgeon. No one needs me in the middle of the night, and they probably don’t need you then, either.

Keeping these boundaries as best I can has lead to greater focus, increased productivity, and more time spent in deep work every day. What boundaries have you set around digital communication, and how have you been able to keep your phone from taking over your whole life? I’d love to hear your best ideas!