How Do We Manage Digital Distractions During a PhD?

I’m incredibly interested in the push and pull of digital distractions that we encounter during virtually every waking hour of our everyday lives. It can be quite easy to fall into certain patterns of behaviors and social media habits, and this is very much by design (for example, this recent article from The Guardian: “Social media copies gambling methods ‘to create psychological cravings”). And once they become habits, they are much harder to see them for what they are — hopefully this post can be a reminder and a refresher to check what is and isn’t working for us.

Distractions are very much a part of life and can be perfectly fine and enjoyable in the right circumstances — but here are some tips and strategies on how to cope with digital distractions when they might feel a little too disruptive for our liking. With the right motivation we can certainly re-train our habits.

It’s hard to completely go into digital hermit mode. And FOMO — “fear of missing out”– can be a powerful impulse to cope with. Rather, I’m suggesting small tweaks to your daily routine.

1. Out of sight, out of mind. 








Do we really need to keep our devices always so nearby? There is some evidence that even the mere presence of our devices can remind us of potential distractions, even before they happen. Here’s one study to think about: “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity

2. Batch your tasks. 

Multitasking — that is the switching of different tasks — can be horribly inefficient. Instead, start thinking strategically about how to batch your similar tasks. Like writing blog posts. Or having just one 30-minute period to tackle emails. The rest can wait till another session. Much worse for you and your productivity is having that Facebook tab and email tab open so that you are prey to every single notification that comes up. It’ll still be there when you’re ready for it. If you’re interested in some of the research, here’s a good one to check out.

3. Do a distractions audit. 



Does just looking at the picture, with those bright red, insistent red marks make you feel a pang of anxiety?

One tip I recommend is to simply think for a moment: what sorts of things do you find most distracting during the course of the day? Personally, I find social media notifications considerably harder to tune out than email notifications.

This tip is a fancier way of saying something incredibly obvious — but try doing a quick and objective inventory of what notifications you really need on a daily basis.

Most of the time those apps ask you to turn everything on, and it’s just so much easier to say yes sometimes. But those small decisions add up over time. If you need more convincing, here’s a helpful Wired article (“Turn off your push notifications. All of them“).

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One quick and easy way to get a more objective account on the most time-consuming apps is a quick check of the battery via iOS.

Once you’ve had a look, you can then actually do something about it; here’s how to change those notifications on iOS, and notifications on Android. (As an added bonus: turning off all of those push notifications saves your battery, too)


4.. Some apps to help you focus more. 


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Freedom: One of the apps that I use all of the time when writing and working — works on your computer, phone, tablet all at the same time (helps to minimize cheating so you don’t sneak peeks on another device during your focus sessions).


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WasteNoTime: A useful, free browser add-on that helps you limit time on websites of your choosing for however many minutes or hours per day/week you set it to.


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RescueTime: Another helpful program that lets you take a real daily distraction audit. You can install it on your Internet browser or computer, and RescueTime will keep track of how much time you spend on a website, what percentage of your time on the computer is spent being “productive” or “unproductive” and other useful information (disclaimer: “productive” and “unproductive” can be subjective terms!).


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Moment: This is a newer app that can tell you how many times you check your phone a day, how many minutes or hours you spend on what apps. Useful but also make sure that checking your number of distractions doesn’t in itself become a distraction.


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Forest App: Much like a pomodoro timer, you plant a virtual tree at the start of your work session. But if you pick up your phone before that timer session has ended, your tree DIES. Using the Forest app can also have a positive impact in the non-digital world; you can earn credits that help to contribute towards planting trees through this non profit organization. 



5. Try a digital break every now and then.  

Have you recently been on a vacation away from the internet and social media, and if so, how did it feel? There can be an intensely liberating feeling from just not being beholden to our digital distractions from time to time. If you’re thinking about your own digital vacation, here is an interesting article from Alex Soojung-Kim Pang you might find helpful: “Rules for a Successful Digital Sabbath

We usually tend to sit a lot when we’re writing. I hate sitting for long periods of time and apparently science has backed me up on this — some research suggests that we probably should take breaks to revive our attention spans, especially during intense working and thinking sessions. 

Do you have other useful distraction strategies that work well? Or what about things that didn’t work for you? Let us know in the comments!


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg

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