Everyone complains about taxes. Where I live, going out to eat includes a 6% tax. State tax and federal taxes are included in the cost of gas. Taxes chop off a third of your paycheck. Your house has property taxes. Sadly, even books have tax. Those little taxes add up to a whole lot of money taken away from hard-working people.
These are taxes we see on a regular basis. Some we don’t see, like the many taxes on our time.
Think about the alerts on your computer, phone, or other devices. These alerts are robbing us of our precious time, and many of us haven’t been paying any mind to it.
Every notification, sound, instant message, and vibration pulls me away from what I’m doing. If I try to ignore them, a little voice in my head asks, “Who was that? What do they want?”
I’ll just take a quick peek at my phone…
My attention is robbed.
If I’m talking to someone else, these alerts steal time from both of us. We’re talking, I get a text message, my attention jumps to the message, and I come back to the conversation…
Sorry, you were saying?
Unlike taxes on money (which I can make more of), I can’t earn back time. It’s gone forever.
Seconds Into Minutes, Minutes Into Hours…
These little pulls on our attention, or “taxes,” may seem negligible, but over time, they add up.
A few seconds per hour adds up to minutes, minutes into hours, and hours into days. I’d be interested to know how much I’ve “taxed” myself over the years. It could be months. Maybe years.
Maybe I don’t want to know.
Both goods and interruptions have costs and taxes.
Buying a two dollar coffee with a five percent tax adds ten cents to the cost. The tax isn’t very noticeable until you add up all the coffee purchases you’ve made this year.
An interruption has a similar tax, but it’s harder to see. If you’re writing an email, and you get a text, you switch tasks; our focus goes to your phone. Even if you ignore the message, you need time to re-focus on the email. That time is the real cost of the interruption. Just like taxes, it’s not noticeable until you add it all up.
Switching tasks, also referred to as multitasking, can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.
Makes a five percent tax on coffee look like a joke.
The Multitasking Myth
Some people think they have to multitask to get more done, but the constant shifts slow us down.
Switching from one simple task to another simple task may only take a few tenths of a second, but this time tax can add up. Plus, switching could result in more errors, which costs you even more time..
The time tax significantly increases when you switch between more complex tasks. If you’re unfamiliar with the tasks, you also pay a large task-switching tax.
Stop and think of how many times a day you are interrupted at home or at work. Imagine each interruption costs you two minutes of time. How much time have you lost in attention tax?
Reducing and eliminating time taxes
After becoming aware of the cost of these interruptions, I looked to reduce the number of time taxes from my phone and computer. Here’s what worked for me.
When I receive an alert from any application, I ask myself if it’s something I need to know right this second.
Do I need to know right now that I received an email? If the email is about something that doesn’t need an immediate reply (which it is 99.9% of the time), I don’t need to know I received it. Besides, emails shouldn’t be used for real-time communications. If it’s important, a call or text would be more effective.
An email can tax my time in two ways. The email alert interrupts what I was doing, forcing me to switch focus. I may not reply immediately, but that doesn’t mean my brain won’t be dreaming up potential responses for the next ten minutes. When an email rubs me the wrong way, I’ll give even more focus to it until I am able to respond, creating a huge mental tax.
Email shouldn’t be treated like text messages. Responding quickly can result in fast responses from the sender, creating a time-sucking game of email ping-pong.
I turned off email notifications on both my phone and computer. Email can wait in my inbox until I’m ready to sit down and give my entire focus to it.
“But what about that 0.1% chance that’s a true emergency?”
Emergencies happen, but nobody will email me about it. They’ll call.
On my phone, I keep app alerts, and thus attention-taxing, to a minimum. If an app sends alerts often, I’ll disable them. If I can’t disable them, and I don’t use the app often, I’ll uninstall it.
Social apps tax your attention a million times a day by creating reasons to notify you. The creators of these apps are trying to draw you in with mentions, likes, popular posts, people nearby, etc. This is how they make money. The more time you spend on their app, the better it is for business.
Over time, I removed Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social apps. I missed them for a bit, but now I forget they’re gone. I find social media is filled with people doing normal things. Why do I need to check it? My attention is better spent elsewhere.
As a bonus, ditching apps keeps me from mindlessly scrolling through my phone while my brain looks for a distraction.
I only keep apps that add to my life, like Amazon Kindle, Audible, Feedly, Pocket, and PocketCasts. If I have downtime, those are my go-to apps. I like to spend my downtime learning instead of looking at pictures of what people are eating.
Texts and calls
One little ring of a phone can destroy my thought process, so texts and calls can wait until I’ve completed what I’m doing.
Some people avoid phone calls, but welcome texts. They believe texts are quicker than calls, since they only require a few seconds here and there. I find this more taxing than a call. Frequently picking up and putting down your phone is a huge tax on your attention. You respond, try to refocus on what you’re doing, only to receive another text a minute later. This frequent disruption never allows you to focus on anything. Just like emails, texts can wait.
What drives me nuts is when a text exchange becomes too long or turns into a conversation. I’d rather jump on the phone and knock it out. Quick things? Text. Want to talk about what happened yesterday in great detail? Do not text me for this.
If you text me “Hey, how are you?”, I’ll probably ignore it.
Talking on the phone for a few minutes will be a hundred times more efficient. It beats a thirty minute back and forth text conversation, which will continuously pull me (and the other person) away from what needs to be done.
When I need uninterrupted focus time, I mute my phone to or use airplane mode to block all communication. Airplane mode is more powerful than silent mode. If I pick up my phone out of habit, there’s nothing to see.
Sometimes the nuclear option is the best option.
My mind loves distractions, so I find ways to keep myself on task. Right now, my phone is behind me, muted. If my phone is next to me, I will pick it up, look at it, then wonder what compelled me to look at it in the first place. I feel like a lab rat pushing a lever and anticipating a treat.
Just having the phone near me can be a pull on my attention. Keeping my phone out of sight and out of reach prevents me from seeing if there may be something to distract me.
Question every app
When I receive an alert, I ask, “Does this alert add to my life, or is it taxing my attention and subtracting from it?” When an alert takes me out of the moment, I need to consider if it’s important for the long term.
Say I’m bidding for a book on eBay. I can setup alerts to tell me if I’m outbid. Those alerts may be worth my attention because they have potential value; winning a book in an auction will give me knowledge I can use for years. If my weather app tells me a hurricane is coming, that’s important. I don’t want to die before reading my new book.
What about general news alerts? Will that news be relevant five minutes from now? Five hours? Even five weeks from now? Most of the time, it won’t. Think of any huge news story from five years ago. Is it relevant today?
If an alert doesn’t offer a long-term benefit, I consider it an attention tax. I’ll silence the alert, or uninstall the application if I can. It’s easy to install an application again or turn an alert back on if I really missed it. Usually, I don’t.
Removing time taxes is ongoing
Removing distractions, avoiding multitasking, and controlling my own impulses did not happen overnight. It’s a steady process of removing the little taxes on my time here and there. Consider it a slow digital detox.
Start small, with one alert. Then work on a second one so you don’t go into withdrawal. I still fight with myself to remove alerts.
What if an important email comes in? You’ll need to know!
From my years of experience doing this, anything can wait.
This process is always in progress, and I still battle with shiny new apps. A friend suggested replacing email with Slack (a real-time chat program) for the writing group I run. I liked the idea at first, but had to say no. Slack would require frequent monitoring and responding multiple times per day. It would become a tax on my time and on the group members’ time.
Doing the writing group through email helps protect everyone’s time and allows us to keep a set schedule. Less distractions means an increase in focused writing time, which you need when doing creative work.
I’ve discovered I don’t have to be reactive, connected, and ready to respond at a moment’s notice. Nothing falls apart if I’m not available. Everything gets checked or completed when I can focus on it. My attention doesn’t need to be constantly taxed for every little unimportant thing.
When do get around to checking and responding to messages, I’m more focused on the response, and the response is better.
Guarding my time against these taxes is allowing me to do more focused and creative work. Work that I can look back on with satisfaction, work that I can show in the future.
I wish I had something to show for tending to all those alerts.