10 ways to tackle digital overload

Busy mumMobiles, smartphones, iPads... our lives are packed with technology. These tools used to make life easier, but now we feel plagued by our phones, hounded by our inboxes and ruled by little screens. It's time for a digital detox.

Frances Booth, author of the The Distraction Trap, offers her top 10 fixes for digital overload.

1. Start small

Relatively recently we were learning how to switch our phones on for the first time (remember your first mobile?). But now, we've forgotten where the off button is.

With our phones next to us all the time, we allow near constant interruptions. It might ping! It might buzz!

We let our smartphones wake us up in the morning. We take them to the corner shop. We read them last thing at night before we go to bed.

We feel as though we are drowning in information overload, but still we don't press the off button.

Here's a challenge. Switch your phone off, just for five minutes, while you're reading the rest of this article. Yes, you might miss something. Yes, you've got important things happening in your life. Just try it.

2. Other people's demands can wait

What happens when you open your inbox? In it, are a list of demands, niggles, and calls for your time and attention.

If you check your email first thing each day and start scurrying around doing what other people ask, the clock can spin round to lunchtime with no time spent on the things important to you.

Flip things the other way round - and do the tasks that matter to you first - and your productivity will soar.

Try it tomorrow: spend an hour doing what you want to do first, before opening your email or social media accounts.

3. Manage expectations

We may blame the boss for the fact that we are constantly checking email. "They expect me to be there." Or we blame the children for the fact we constantly check our phone: "What if they need me?"

But often, the heaviest expectation is the one we place on ourselves. We expect ourselves to keep up with communication via text, Twitter and Facebook, as well as on email, phone call and in person. We log in every day because we feel we 'should'.

Managing other people's expectations is not that hard. Stop checking email constantly and people (even the boss) will quickly get used to a less speedy reply.

Managing other people's expectations is, in fact, not that hard. Stop checking email constantly and people (even the boss) will quickly get used to a less speedy reply.

If they want an explanation, say you're spending the time working. Explain that you're doing, not pretending to do.

Put an out-of-office reply on your email that explains that you check it, for example, twice a day. Set a predictable time that you will be available via your mobile for your children - during lunch and their school breaks, for example. If there is a real emergency, people will find a way to contact you.

4. Set a goal

If you weren't so overwhelmed by digital overload, what would you love to do? What would be fun to try? What would you like to spend more time on?

Having an incentive helps, so that each time you 'reach' for a digital distraction, you can stop yourself and spend time on what you want instead.

Think about what you love doing. Think about times when you feel in 'the zone'. Think about what you want to look back on at the end of the year having done.

Use your time for that, and send fewer emails. Post fewer status updates. Live a little more.

5. Account for the distraction factor

"I'll just check the Internet for five minutes..." you think. Then whoosh. An hour has gone. An hour!

While the task you logged on to do perhaps took you exactly the length of time you expected - five minutes - the rest of the time was taken by 'the distraction factor'.

Where do these distractions come from? That link you clicked on that looked interesting. A quick search for reviews of the restaurant you were about to book. The emails you answered while forgetting to send your own.

Watch the clock and watch out for distractions. Learn to assess how long a task takes with distractions factored in.

And for your children...

6. Scream louder

Could that screaming toddler and that sulky, non-committal teenager want exactly the same thing? Often, what they are both calling for is attention.

Imagine if you were a toddler trying to get attention, but your parent was always on their mobile. What would your toddler-style response be? Most likely, scream louder.

Imagine if you were a teenager sat next to your parent - wanting to discuss something - and your parent was always checking their emails on their BlackBerry. What would your teenage-style response be? Most likely, be uncommunicative.

Children are being forced to up the ante in the battle for their parents' attention.

Think about your child's response. Could they in fact just want your attention?

Make sure that your mobile or smartphone is out of sight (and preferably switched off) at points when you set aside time to give your - 100% - attention to them.

7. Set a good example

Getting your child or partner to look up from their screen and have a proper conversation may seem practically impossible.

But before you blame your children for being glued to their screens, check on the example you are setting.

Children watch their parents and copy their behaviour.

A classic example of digital devices damaging relationships is the phone on the restaurant table. This is quality time, interrupted. What you are saying here is 'there is someone more important than you'.

Your toddler grabs for your smartphone because they know it's important - they see that you always dive to answer it. Your two-year-old scrolls the iPad transfixed because they've watched you do the same.

By the time your child is a teenager, they've learnt many digital patterns from you. Be aware of the example you are setting.

8. Talk to your child about missing out

For older children especially, the fear of missing out is what keeps them checking and checking and checking again, particularly when it comes to social media.

Fear of missing out (termed FOMO by MTV who investigated the behaviour) means they worry they will miss the latest gossip, and they worry they will feel out of the loop.

Yet they're often exhausted by the need to constantly check.

Encourage them to stop and assess the information stream they are actually taking in. How much of this is what they would consider 'spam'? Can they tailor their feeds?

Another huge pressure young people may feel around social media is that of creating and maintaining an online persona. Discuss this with them and encourage them to develop an 'offline' sense of self.

9. Try a family digital detox

Suggesting you switch off altogether may cause uproar in your home on first mention. But once you try it - even just for one meal-time - you'll start to feel the benefit to your relationships.

A tech cleanse, or digital detox, is a great way to connect with each other, rather than be connected only to digital devices. It's also a great way to recharge.

Start small, and build up to longer spells switched off. Think of fun activities to replace digital activities - such as trips out or cooking together.

A digital detox could mean switching off on a Friday night for 24 hours. Or switching off on holiday.

If this is too much for your child at first, try boundary-setting. Limiting the amount of media use (with any rule at all) means they will cut down on their media consumption significantly.

And altogether...

Now breathe

10. When you make conscious choices about digital usage, there's a feeling of relief

You feel human, rather than frazzled. There is enough time. You know where you're spending your attention.

Your productivity will soar, your stress levels will drop, and you'll find you have little tolerance for distractions.

This is a great state to aim for.


Frances BoothFrances Booth is one of the UK's leading experts in digital distraction, and provides training for businesses and individuals. Frances is a former Daily Telegraph and Guardian journalist.

The Distraction Trap is a practical guide to help you focus in the digital world. It will show you how to break your addiction to digital devices and help you to feel human again.

Last updated: 11-Nov-2014 at 5:09 PM