If you feel guilty about your technology habits, you’re not alone. Over the past few years, we’ve learned that the average American checks their smartphone 52 times a day, consumes nearly 10.5 hours of media in their waking hours, and has a shorter attention span than a goldfish. It also seems like every other week, there is a new study, report, or book that shocks (and chastises) us for our inability to focus.
There are good reasons for growing public concerns about digital devices. As former Google product manager Tristan Harris told Wired magazine, “technology steers what 2 billion people are thinking and believing every day.” But repeatedly hearing that the internet is “hijacking our minds” can be discouraging.
So instead of dwelling on the alarm bells, I like to highlight the benefit of focus and the possibilities that it brings. When we actively choose to declutter our thoughts, much as when we trim the excess from our homes, we often experience greater creativity, productivity, self-awareness, and insight.
How to reclaim your brain
In our information economy, we’re both overtly and subconsciously encouraged to devour as much content as possible. We hear that knowledge is power, so we feed on a never-ending online buffet. If we do choose to disconnect, FOMO sets in.
However, there is a difference between intentionally pursuing knowledge and mindless online snacking. “Excessive consumption and inflow inhibit creativity, negatively impacts our ability to deep work and reduces our cumulative output,” writes Srinivas Rao, author of An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake.
As the CEO of JotForm, I believe in consistent, creative output. It’s my responsibility to keep raising the bar for our 5.1 million users and 150 employees. And over the past 13 years, I’ve learned how to tune out life’s myriad distractions—to channel my voice and vision. Ultimately, achieving sustained focus is essential for all entrepreneurs, and it starts with some mental decluttering.
Start by exploring your thoughts
When I arrive at the office each morning, I sit down at my computer, open a blank document, and write at least three, nonstop stream-of-consciousness pages. The process inevitably begins with random thoughts and banal observations, but eventually, new ideas start to tumble out. I end each session by turning the useful parts into a team email or a plan to implement my ideas. These morning pages, as author Julia Cameron calls them, have become a nonnegotiable part of my day—and an essential, mind-clearing tool that I recommend to everyone.
Embrace in-between moments
When was the last time you waited in line without glancing at your phone or drove without listening to anything but the traffic? According to Dr. Sandi Mann, a psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, letting our minds wander freely engages the subconscious, which activates new neural pathways. “Boredom gets the creative juices flowing,” Mann told CBC Radio. “And when we try to get rid of all our boredom, we’re perhaps eliminating our creativity as well.”
Talk it out
Conversation can also provide a mental jump-start. In his book, The Geography of Genius, author Eric Weiner describes Vienna’s 1900-era coffee houses as “idea factories,” where discussions flowed freely, artists found inspiration, and even social movements took root. Talking about ideas is often more productive than consuming them because you’re both absorbing different perspectives and contributing your own. A good discussion can clear out the creative cobwebs and set you on a more intentional path.
We often think that creativity requires a wide-open field: no rules or boundaries. But constraints typically encourage more divergent, innovative thinking. For example, instead of holding a “blue sky” brainstorming session that fills a whiteboard with assorted suggestions, try narrowing the scope. Or if you’re trying to solve a specific problem, limit your content consumption to articles, podcasts, and even films that explore the same topic.
Automate and systematize
Establishing robust systems isn’t an exciting task, but automating repetitive processes—in both your life and your work—will free up valuable time you can use to think and create. Write standard email responses, set up a weekly grocery delivery, and eliminate as much hands-on busywork as possible.
Change your state
Despite our best intentions, we’ve all fallen into that zombie-like state of mindless web surfing or Instagram scrolling at one time or another. That’s when it’s time to change course. Go for a walk, or get a cup of coffee. Take a nap, if possible, to reset your thoughts and break unhelpful patterns. Talk to a colleague. There’s no need to feel guilty, but it’s incredible how quickly the brain gets to work when you give it some much-needed breathing space.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.