Minimizing Digital Distractions

By David Leffler

Fish don’t know that they are in water. They spend their entire lives swimming in it, yet because it is part of their environment every moment of their existence, they have no concept or awareness of water.

You are swimming in “water” too. Every day, every moment of your life, you are in it—it is all around you, but you have very little awareness of it, or at least the extent of it.

Allow me to explain.

The Evolution of Water
In the 1970s you had your IBM Selectric, an electric typewriter that allowed you to change typefaces by putting all of the type on an interchangeable mini-globe. Then came the IBM Mag Card Selectric Composer, which permitted users to save up to a few thousand characters on a magnetic card for later revision.

With both of these products there was just you and the typewriter, together producing a document.

In the 1980s personal computers were widely adopted in mainstream businesses after IBM came out with its own version using Microsoft’s DOS operating system. Right about here things started to get interesting. This was no longer a dedicated typewriter. Indeed, there were a number of word-processing software products that could be installed on it, but it was an open platform for which all manner of software could be designed, including, ahem, games.

So maybe you did play a game or two during your workday. What’s the big deal? After all, computers back then could only run one program at a time, so to switch from your word processor or spreadsheet program to a game program, you had to shut down your first program before opening the game program. (Right about now any Millennials reading this column are most likely gasping, “You had to shut down one program to open another program? How primitive!”)

Microsoft’s Windows operating system came into wide use with Windows 3.1, which was released in 1992. With Windows you didn’t have to shut down one program to open another—although sometimes you might have thought you did, given how often the early Windows operating systems crashed. So, you could leave a game program open all of the time, slipping into it and out of it depending on the proximity of your boss. All other manner of programs could be running as well, so that you could be switching from one to another and another as often as you liked with the mere click of your mouse.

In 1995 the Internet hit the mainstream with the introduction of easy-to-use web browsers that allowed non-techies to surf the World Wide Web. Now computer users not only had multiple windows to contend with but a porthole looking out into an entirely new world. The term “time sink” doesn’t begin to describe the ability of this window to suck away hours of your day.

In the last few years social media sites have sprung up on the web, and many people feel compelled to check them every five minutes. Finding out whether you’ve been poked on Facebook has become a matter of some urgency, though I can’t say why.

How is a person to get anything done? How can you even have a coherent thought with all of this distraction?

But wait, there’s more.

While you’re sitting at your desk, you hear a ring that doesn’t sound like a typical phone. That’s because it isn’t a phone, it’s a cell phone. So in the middle of all of this cacophony of multiple tasks and distractions you can be interrupted to have a conversation with a friend or client.

But wait, there’s even more.

In the last few years texting has spread like a fever in a sealed cabin where everyone drinks out of the same cup. You can look anywhere, and there is someone texting. (In a recent survey, 11 percent of participants under 25 admitted to interrupting sex for texting; I always worry about what I call “suicide by texting,” in which someone who is furiously texting crosses the street into a speeding car.

Texting is the ultimate distraction machine because it doesn’t have to be initiated by you as would browsing the web, and people are much more at ease with sending a text than they are with making a phone call.

There are many other technical marvels that demand our attention, like iPods, digital cameras, and TV on your cell phone.

Just to show you how deeply we are into all of this without knowing it, note that Aldous Huxley predicted in 1925 that “more cinemas, more newspapers, more bad fiction, more radios, and more cheap automobiles” were inevitable; given distractions such as jazz recordings and the gramophone, many people would “go through life with the intellectual development of boys or girls of fifteen.”

We are engulfed in oceans of digital data in one form or another, growing greater year by year. So Mr. or Ms. Solo Attorney, how do you deal with all of this?

Swimming Lessons
I have a sister who lives in a community of less than 2,000 people in northern Arkansas. After a recent visit I flew back on a morning flight and reached New York City in the afternoon. While sitting in a taxi in Midtown Manhattan on my way home, I was suddenly struck by the sounds and intense activity of the city. There was this background hum that I had never been so acutely aware of before. I think that there was more activity in one square block than in the entire town where my sister lives. The effect was overwhelming. Yet, living and working in New York City I had never been so aware of any of this, and indeed, I quickly settled back to obliviousness once I had been home just a couple hours.

My point is that you first have to be aware of the “water” before you can take steps to keep from drowning in it.

Our office computer is the main culprit here, and your e-mail program is the heart of evil. To reduce its power over you, set certain times during the day when you will check your e-mail. It needn’t be more than two or three times per day. You may think otherwise, that to give good service you have to be continually aware of when e-mails come in and be ready to instantly respond. Not true. If you get back to people within a couple hours, that’s good service. Really.

To exercise this amazing display of willpower, you will need either to turn off your e-mail program when you are not actively checking e-mails or minimize the program and turn off the audio and/or visual notifications that your e-mail program gives when a new e-mail arrives.
What to do about the porthole window? The web has tons of information to appeal to any interest, so it can’t fail to draw you in if you let it. Most lawyers have a continual need for it during the day, however, so turning it off is not an option.

Here’s a novel idea to conquer what seems to be an insurmountable problem: Use a timer. Get one of those kitchen timers and every time you need to use the Internet, give it a crank up to ten or 15 minutes (or whatever time you think is right) and let it tick away while you are browsing. If it hits zero and you are still browsing, you have a chance to see if you got lost in web space, and hopefully stop. If you are still doing legitimate work, then crank the timer up again to what you believe is a good estimate of how much time you’ll need to finish the work.

Too radical, you say? Impractical? Crazy? Well, what do you call some people’s bad web habits of wasting hours each day on the web? To combat this, you’ve got to bring out the heavy artillery. Besides, the hope is you’ll find yourself sufficiently trained at some point that you can throw your kitchen timer into a drawer.

As for social media sites and texting, I say just go cold turkey. I found myself spending too much time on Facebook, and for two weeks I didn’t check into the site. Nothing terrible happened, but I did realize how much time I had been wasting. Now I check it once a day or even every couple days, which saves me time and makes me feel much better. Tell friends and family that you are cutting back on texting, so they shouldn’t text you unless there is a real need. Odds are that if you text a lot, you are half the problem because you are engaging in exchanges that you enjoy and promote.

The Next Wave

This column is just a start because you know that somewhere out there some enterprising folks in a garage are cooking up “the next big thing,” which inevitably will be another time sink that you will have to find a way to resist. A rising tide might lift all boats, but it also can drown those who aren’t prepared to swim.
  • David Leffler is a member of the New York City law firm Leffler Marcus & McCaffrey LLC, which represents clients in business matters and litigation. Prior to that he was a solo attorney for more than a dozen years. In his spare time he blogs at You may write to him at

Copyright 2010

Back to Top