How to minimize your screen time (when your whole job is screen time)

I work as a freelance digital marketer and web designer. Emphasis on digital and web.

I work as a business software project manager. This business software is a cloud-based application, so the work is 100% online.

I also work as a project manager for a startup software. This software, too, is a cloud-based application, so this work is also 100% online.

I organize my 12-Week-Year notes and finances on Google Drive. I keep my calendar, my life, in GCal. And I open up WordPress and write/edit/chew on my bottom lip over these blogs 3x/week.

I even work out online, on a Peloton, where my sweat-sheened instructor is pumping their fist and cheering me on behind a glass screen.

Suffice to say, I clock a lot of screen time.

As much as I engage with digital minimalism and often yearn to toss my electronics to the wind, even I cannot escape the use of a digital device for the work I love, nor can I resist the novelty of it’s experience… So my title for this blog is a bit of a false promise. (I’m a marketer, baby, it’s what we do.)

But don’t worry. Though I don’t choose to eliminate my screen time altogether for the work I do, I have chosen to make my screen time more productive by eliminating distractions and making the screened device a tool instead of a source of entertainment.

This, in turn, reduces my screen time significantly, and I’m free to enjoy the present outside of work.

Here’s how:

Filter your colors

The first tip is by far the easiest: turn your screen into a tool by enabling a grayscale color filter.

The business software I use at work is brightly colored, all purples and oranges and blues, as are the spreadsheets we consult and the Discord channels we engage with. I noticed that post-lunchtime, my focus would shift from “strong and productive” to “fleeting and nonexistent” as I would get distracted by coworker’s chatter and swirl my mouse around the software home page, softly chanting prett-y co-lors in my head.

After an especially ridiculous round of distraction, i.e. I couldn’t think of my original task for minutes, I snapped on some headphones and investigated the Accessibility settings on my computer to see what I could do.

Turns out, you can enable a grayscale color filter that sucks all the color out of your screen, transforming something toy-like and shiny into a drab slab of sepia-toned glass.

This is available on Windows and Mac.

Oh boy, was this a game-changer for me. I don’t know why (these guys do), but this single action has to have improved my productivity, or at least my sanity, by a bajillion percent. Without its lustrous color my computer becomes a tool, like any hammer or pencil, and I use it like it’s supposed to be used. Instead of a portal into another world, I’m working on a machine to assist me in doing my job, and I’m able to do whatever I set out to do without so many distractions.

I’ve also enabled the ability to turn on and turn off color filters on my cell phone with a few clicks, and it immediately makes the device in my hand so much less appealing. If I notice myself checking my texts, GCal, and the weather five times in a row, looking for entertainment, I click on the color filters and tuck it away. (Great supporting article on this idea here.)

Turn your notifications off

If you’re a modern worker, you’ve got email- lots of it. And many startup-type companies ask workers to engage with Discord, Slack, Skype, or some other messaging application in order to quickly convey information to coworkers.

It’s not the existence of these network tools that bug me so much as the encouragement of notifications from these tools. Email and chat notifications are intended to help us “be more productive” and “stay connected”- but as we know, digital minimalism encourages us to observe the costs and benefits of supporting a goal like this with technology. Are we really “more productive” when we have our notifications on? Are we really “more connected” when we see every group chat message in real time? I think that we are both more productive when we turn our notifications off, and more genuinely connected when we decide on our terms, not at the beck and call of others, when to check in with work chats or email.

Consider this: When at work, how often has an email notification or a work chat ping informed you of something you couldn’t have found out about 15 minutes later?

If the frequency of this urgency is above 85%, you’re allowed to keep your notifications on and suffer. But for most workers, most people, things are not that urgent that they require an in-your-face, work-disrupting notifier.

Notifications remind me of someone placing their mouth directly next to your ear and whispering the message they contain. It’s just distracting enough that it throws your brain off track. And Dr. Gloria Mark can prove it.

Dr. Mark is an associate professor that researches work-related topics. Through her studies, like this one, she’s found that the recalibration process to getting back on track after your attention is pulled by emails or other work-like nuisances takes twenty three minutes. (She also reports that a cost-benefit analysis of email reveals that the tool “does not pay off.” Here’s a link to how I reacted to that news.) This means that if you’re working on one project, and a notification takes you to a chat with your coworker that you respond to, and you decide to check another chat or pop open the email that just came through, it’ll take you 23 minutes to reroute to that original project.

The likelihood of a notification conveying a message of true urgency is slim to none, so why have them on? If there is an emergency in your place of work, it is highly likely you’ll know about it through cues from your physical world, such as all of your coworkers grabbing their coats and hauling ass down the stairs. If it’s a non-physical emergency, wait until you hear about it through the grapevine or someone else tells you directly. Rely on the people from the top of this section, who have to be on their shit, to tell you about non-emergency urgencies.

Even if you work remotely, what would be so urgent that you either a) wouldn’t have your work chat or email open in anticipation of the event, like a client cancelling a few minutes before a meeting, or b) would need to address it right away this instance? Honestly? The difference between you accessing this email or chat RIGHT NOW IN YOUR FACE PAY ATTENTION, and the difference between you accessing this email in like an hour when you choose to open up that application again, is negligible.

You don’t need notifications. I give you full permission to turn them off.

(This applies to your phone, too. Digital minimalism asks us to review if we really need to have our command of ourselves hijacked with these notifications. Can we can trust ourselves to be the stewards of our news intake instead of the ping of a notification? Can we trust ourselves to check Snapchat whenever we want to, instead of whenever someone has a picture of their dog to show us? Remove any notifications not related to texting or phone calls, and you’d be surprised at how much lighter you may feel without them.)

Set times for email

Schedule your email time

Without the notifications to tell you you’ve got mail, you’ll need to decide when to check in on workplace communications of your own volition. With this in mind, I’ve started to incorporate what I call “admin time,” or time exclusively dedicated to checking my email, into my work calendar. I set up my work calendar with chunks of 15-30 minutes, twice a day, in which I give myself permission to check my email and catch up on the shuffle of information it requires (because isn’t email really just pushing information around from one spot to another?).

Instead of checking my email and letting my inbox guide my day, I’ve given myself permission to (and demanded of myself that I stick to) reviewing and addressing any pending, high-priority items for my clients first, before I check whatever big or small request they had in mind for me that day.

I typically have an hour or two of high-priority, deep-focus work in the morning, and then before lunchtime let myself check in on work chats and notifications.

Schedule your action time

These communications aren’t passive, though. They often require an action item from the intended recipient, like answering a question from a client or forwarding a document to a coworker. Furthermore, each new email or work chat holds equal weight. Yes, there’s starred or priority emails for some inboxes, but there’s really not a good way to filter by small requests like “Thoughts?” or big requests like “We’re pivoting in a completely different direction with this project, let’s hop on a call in 10 minutes to talk about it!!!!” from the 10 new emails you may have received.

YOU need to be the one using your precious brain power to first triage whatever comes your way, and then proactively address the action items required of you from there.

Here’s what I do: Once I open my email during admin time, I grab a piece of paper and a pen (you can also open up a new note or document, if you’re digital like that) and rank or sort whatever pending tasks come up. My list is filtered by client, for example, and often looks like this:

Client 1
– Record video in response to question and send

Client 2
– Respond to Jackie email
– Configure new workflow for purchasing

Personal
– Review Michael’s email about 401k
– Message team lead for help with Client 2

I then, more often than not, do not work on those tasks right away. I instead schedule time on my calendar to address whatever tasks came up- some for that day right after admin time, some later in the day, some for the next day, some by week’s end. If it’s important to you to communicate deadlines, you can email back and let the inquirer know you’ll have that task completed or response formulated by the end of the day on whatever day you scheduled time for. And finally, because I’m #teaminboxzero, I move the emails to their appropriate folder outside of my inbox, one for each client and one for internal resources, and by the end of every day I’m free and clear.

This system of pushing email-related action items onto my calendar, instead of trying to take care of them all right there right then and getting sucked into an hours-long project that butts out high-priority items, has worked wonders for my sanity and productivity. (If this kind of thing sounds interesting to you I HIGHLY, and cannot emphasize this enough HIGHLY, recommend David Allen’s Getting Things Done system.)

Setting time aside for email has helped me become more in control of my inbox instead of the other way around.

Dedicating chunks of deep work time to focusing on a client’s email request, instead of answering right at that moment, has made me a more focused project manager, able to deliver a higher quality product. And reviewing my GCal at the end of a productive workday (in black and white, of course) makes me one happy worker bee indeed.

Shut that shit down

I once heard of a business coach who worked exclusively from her home office, which she called her “den.” When she entered the den, she turned on the pink salt lamp on her desk-side table and said a prayer to start her day of work. After she had wrapped up for the day, she turned off her salt lamp and said a prayer to off-board.

When the lamp was on, she was working, and giving her full attention to her clients and business tasks. When the lamp was off, she was out- “emergencies” be damned.

This story reminds me of two things. The first is that we need to create strong boundaries between when we’re working, and when we’re playing. Because so much of our entertainment is also housed online, like social media applications, streaming services, or online video games, it’s more important than ever to have a real separation between when you’re focused on your digital work and when you’re present with your digital play.

I personally have different Chrome profiles or computer users for when I’m working for my main job, when I’m digital marketing, or when I’m just dickin’ around on the Internet. This helps me switch gears and fully leave each facet of my digital life in its place when I’m not engaging with it.

I also like this story because the business coach anchors into a physical touchpoint to start and end her screen-filled and mentally demanding day. I know some people who throw off their bra, take out their contacts and change into sweatpants the minute they get home from any event (you know who you are). I also know people who have to have to have to go to the gym right after work, or they’re a cranky mess the rest of the night.

What can you do to ground yourself into the very real and very exciting life you have here in the physical realm once you’ve done your work in the digital realm?

If you’ve had a tough day, find yourself rubbing your eyes from all the screens screens screens or just have a lot on your mind after coming off of a shift, find something you can touch with your fingers or feel in your body that can help ground you into the present moment post-workday. Could be a bracelet you keep swinging on your rearview mirror, could be a salt lamp you turn on and off at the start of the day, could even be a little theme song you hum when you shut your computer down (might I recommend the lyrics, “I worked so hard, I worked all day, I worked my little tushy off so now it’s time to play?”). However you choose to separate yourself from work, adding on a layer in the three dimensional may help you feel more calm at the end of a screen-heavy day.

Epilogue

After a tough client meeting or a long stretch of deep work, I’ll close my laptop and take a deep breath to center myself. Sometimes, instead of my coworkers’ conversation or whatever’s happening in the kitchen nearby, nature calls for my attention and draws my eye into the quiet of the world.

Out the tall, clear windows on the 26th floor, I look past the traffic and the buildings, the apartments and the pavement. I gaze at Lake Erie’s calm waters that stretch for miles without a person around, and some days I can catch the thin line where the horizon and the lake blur with clouds and oncoming snow.

I look out the window, one lady among a sea of workers, and everything goes still. I feel a string pull so tight in my chest like a cellist’s pluck, an ache to push my toes into green grass or feel small among snow-brushed trees. I remember youth in backyards with brothers and bugs, bonfires in high school and teary eyes gazing at stars for answers. I remember a time before computers, before cell phones, before comparison and before pressure. A time when I was small and unburdened with all of this.

Nature’s wild calls to me in these moments, hushed and patient. I can almost hear it’s soft voice, playful, asking me to join. The drumming in my chest grows quicker and my stomach pinches, the very soul of me yearning for what I cannot have, for what I feel as a human I’ve always deserved. For a time to be feral. For a time to be free.

“Amanda, do you have a second?” someone asks me. I open my laptop, and I start again.

WRITTEN BY 👇

Amanda Popovski

Hi, I write about digital minimalism, mindfulness, wellness, productivity, and habit-building.

Untitled design (12)