Amy Blankson: 4 strategies to reclaim focus in an always-on digital world

November 22, 2019 Jess Huckins

6-minute read

Amy Blankson

Last week the Workhuman® Dublin office hosted Amy Blankson, two-time Workhuman® Live speaker and author of “The Future of Happiness.” She joined us to discuss well-being around technology in the digital era and how we can use our gadgets to their best and highest purposes – while still keeping our sanity.

“We have never been so overwhelmed and fragmented before in our lives. With the number of tools around us – text messages, social media, emails, phone calls, and occasional Slack messages perhaps – the message wheel doesn’t stop. It continues constantly,” she said. “How do we operate in a space with our full potential, our full creativity, knowing this is something that will be around us for years to come?”

Being human in a world of tech

Amy noted she’s not concerned about robots taking our jobs – instead, she’s worried about people turning into robots as we move through our working lives. Too many humans are defaulting to their devices to gain a sense of peace. But while technology can give us insights into happiness, it can’t create it. “And happiness leads to greater success, not the other way around,” she said.

She pointed to the “know/do gap” – many of us know we’re spending too much time looking at screens, but we fail to do anything about it. While Amy’s book highlights five strategies for balancing productivity and well-being in the face of technology, she had time to share four with us during her talk. They are:

1. Stay grounded.

While some of us might be tempted to run away to the woods to escape technology’s hold on our brains, Amy insists this isn’t the right method. “We need to learn to live with tech, not away from it,” she said. “It’s about learning to recalibrate.”

Even though we want to have fewer distractions, we invite them in. We let our phones notify us of anything and everything because we’re addicted to the ping of dopamine we receive when we feel like someone needs us. In fact, Amy says the average person spends about 2.5 hours every day just unlocking and locking their phone.

The solution is to give intention to our attention. Amy gave us an exercise – to write down something we want to do but haven’t because we have “no time.” Here’s what mine looks like; you can replace the underlined phrases with your own.

I want to write a book, so therefore I am setting my intention to spend less time scrolling social media.

This works because consciously setting an intention down on paper helps divert attention away from technology that distracts (Instagram and Facebook) and give focus to technology that helps reach a goal (Microsoft Word and years of digital drafts, notes, and outlines).

Amy also offered one quick tip to increase productivity at work: Simply place your phone where you can’t see it, such as behind your laptop or in a drawer. This diverts the 10% of your brain wondering if anyone needs you back to the task at hand.

2. Know thyself.

Amy explained that our brains can only process 40 of the approximately 11 billion bits of information it’s receiving at any given time. This means if you’re focusing on the negative, you’re effectively blocking out the goodness and killing your own mood. Limiting beliefs, impact bias, cognitive dissonance, “fake news,” and screen time can cloud our vision and prevent us from being at our mental and emotional best.

Determinants of happiness

We have the capacity to change how we process information because whether we have a fixed or growth mindset helps to shape our outcomes, as Dr. Carol S. Dweck explains in the book “Mindset.” In fact, whether we’re happy is only 10% dependent on our circumstances – our genes and perception are responsible for the rest. We have to know ourselves well enough to recognize when we’re letting our brains run with a story that may or may not be true.

3. Train your brain.

Amy’s third strategy is to balance our on- and offline lives by priming our brains for positivity. This means developing a habit or two – such as journaling, sharing daily gratitude, performing acts of kindness, meditation, or regular exercise – that keep you present, engaged, and focused. It’s important, too, to involve the whole family.

“We do a lot of practicing these habits every single day,” Amy said. “Starting in the morning, we do something called ‘future-forward gratitudes,’ where driving to school we ask the kids, ‘What are you excited about today?’ We bookmark it by asking them to say their gratitudes at bedtime. We try to build these things in a very natural way in our family.”

4. Create a habitat for happiness.

Because brains are excellent at mirroring emotions and actions when a bunch of humans are together in a room, Amy says it’s important to set boundaries on tech use in the workplace. Visual contact shapes our connections with each other, so putting a screen between people hinders how well we can bond and work toward shared goals. We also tend to check our phones if we see other people around us pulling out theirs.

“If we’re going to be leaders to shape the future, we actually have to think about – very intentionally – ‘How will my behavior create a ripple effect in my environment?’,” she explained.

Amy’s suggestion is for teams to write a tech charter to identify which means of communication are appropriate in specific situations and the expected response time for each method. For example, text messages should only be used in urgent situations, and the expected response time is 15 minutes. Tech use during work time, in meetings, on weekends, and on vacation – along with what happens if those policies are violated – should also be addressed.

Write a tech charter

“Personally, I’ve tried to be more purposeful in not having my phone out every hour of the day,” Workhuman VP of Global HR Niamh Graham said as Amy transitioned to the Q&A portion of her presentation. “One of the things I used to do is have my phone as my alarm, so that meant I was checking my email before I went to sleep, checking it again in the morning time – so, I’ve bought an old-fashioned alarm clock that I’m using now to try to switch off.”

To dive deeper into these strategies and learn more about the fifth one, “Be a conscious innovator,” check out Amy’s book.

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About the Author

Jess Huckins

Jess Huckins is a content producer at Workhuman. She launched the Workhuman Book Club and writes white papers, checklists, video scripts, and other content, focusing primarily on the data fueled by gratitude and recognition. Jess lives in Salem, Mass., where she enjoys adventuring outdoors with her two border collies.

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