10 ways to tackle digital overload

Mobiles, smartphones, iPads... these tools can make life easier, but maybe it's time for a detox. Frances Booth, author of The Distraction Trap, offers fixes for digital overload.

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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.

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

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. Tomorrow, try this: spend an hour doing what you want to do first, before opening your email or social media accounts.

3. Manage expectations

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? 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'.

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

6. Pay attention

Could that screaming toddler and that sulky, non-committal teenager want exactly the same thing? Often, what they are both calling for is 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 100% of your attention to them.

7. Set a good example

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

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. 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. 

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.

Frances 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.

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    Last updated: about 3 years ago