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James Reagan

Conquering Distractions and Achieving Focus

A few years ago, I encountered a significant challenge in my life when I began studying computer science at university. While I managed the lower-division courses, the upper-division ones were considerably more demanding. Aware of the dismal pass rates in these advanced classes and being a person who is easily distracted, I knew I needed to make considerable adjustments to achieve success.

During this time, I came across Cal Newport's book, Deep Work, which profoundly influenced my life and work habits. I realized the importance of eliminating distractions, so I promptly removed social media and my smartphone from my life. Like most people, I spent several hours on social media and my phone daily, preventing me from focusing on my goals.

To make this radical shift, I deleted all social media accounts and exchanged my iPhone for a flip phone. I also found inspiration in books such as Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media by Jaron Lanier and The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. These compelling works motivated me to adopt a more focused and minimalist approach to technology, significantly enhancing my concentration.

I took it further by installing Void Linux (these were the days before I discovered NixOS) with a minimal window manager on an old ThinkPad laptop, using the console for all my work, and even opting for a plain, solid dark gray background. This radical approach was exactly what I needed to stay focused and achieve my goals.

I also modified my study environment by regularly reserving a private room in the library, where I spent many hours studying various computer science topics. This approach enabled me to pass all my classes and surprisingly lowered my stress due to a simplified lifestyle. Moreover, being less dependent on my devices granted me extra time to exercise, relax, and enjoy the company of friends and family.

Finding Balance with Social Media

Today, I maintain a more balanced approach to social media use, and I've switched back to my iPhone (partly due to my wife's rightful complaints about the "green bubble"). We are now a "blue bubble" household again, whew!

Social media has positive and negative aspects regarding your well-being, privacy concerns, and its broader societal impact. However, it can also be a force for good when used mindfully and with limits. For example, LinkedIn has allowed many individuals, including myself, to build personal brands and connect with hiring managers, leading to career opportunities.

On the other hand, platforms like Twitter can be problematic for your mental health due to their potential for fostering negativity, spreading misinformation, and creating an environment of constant distractions. While Twitter plays a significant role in disseminating current ideas in the tech space, its potential drawbacks should be considered. Therefore, I personally recommend reducing or eliminating your use of this platform to minimize its negative impact on your well-being.

Practical Steps for Reducing Screen Time

Americans spend an average of over 7 hours per day on screens, with more than half of that time spent on our phones. To tackle this issue, let's begin by addressing phone usage. To minimize distractions and reduce screen time, here are some practical steps that I have implemented, which you might also find helpful:

  1. Delete all social media apps from your phone: By removing these apps from your phone, you can limit your usage and avoid unnecessary distractions. Confine your social media interactions to when you're on your laptop and in work mode
  2. Reevaluate your social media usage: Monitor your screen time to see how much time you spend on social media platforms, and note how you feel after using them. It might be a sign that they're not serving you well if you feel irritated, sad, or stressed. Consider deleting your accounts if necessary.
  3. Customize your notifications: Remove all default notifications from your phone and enable them only on a case-by-case basis. For example, I have disabled all notifications and visual indicators (red dots) except for texting notifications from my wife and incoming phone calls. This way, you can check everything else when you're ready rather than being constantly interrupted.
  4. Establish a schedule for checking email: Set specific times during the day (e.g., twice per day) to check your email, which can help consolidate your time and focus on other tasks.
  5. Keep your phone away from your bedroom: By not taking your phone to bed, you can improve your sleep quality and avoid the temptation to browse social media or respond to messages late at night.
  6. Keep your phone away from your work desk: Likewise, this will reduce distractions during work hours, allowing you to maintain focus on your tasks. Research has shown that the mere presence of a cell phone can be distracting, leading to diminished attention and task performance.

By implementing these strategies, you can reduce screen time and minimize distractions, leading to a more balanced and focused lifestyle.