When she really needs to focus on her work, Susie Alegre uses an app on her phone that blocks her access to social media sites for however long she requires.
Ms Alegre, a human rights lawyer and author based in London, says shutting off in this way enables her to better concentrate, because it stops her from getting distracted.
“I think it’s incredibly hard by willpower alone to have a smartphone and not waste a significant amount of time on it,” she says.
The app Ms Alegre uses is called Freedom. You can choose to block specific social media sites and websites, or turn off internet access entirely.
You pick how long you want the blocking to last for in hours and minutes. You can subsequently change your mind about this, and cancel it early. Or alternatively, you can tick the “locked mode” button, which then means that your block cannot be overridden until the time you scheduled is up.
Ms Alegre adds that she uses the Freedom app, as opposed to simply turning off her handset, “when I need to be contactable on the phone, but I really don’t want to be distracted”. Similar blocking apps now include ColdTurkey, FocusMe and Forest.
With the proliferation of social media platforms and devices vying for our attention, a growing number of people are looking for ways to help them resist the urge to continually check notifications and scroll through social media feeds.
This has seen a surge in popularity this year of an approach to productivity called “monk mode”. This involves dedicating yourself to a single task with no tech or other distractions.
The term has gone viral on TikTok, where videos marked with the hashtag #monkmode now have more than 77 million views, up from 31 million in May.
Ms Alegre credits the Freedom app with helping her focus on writing her book, a work of non-fiction appropriately entitled Freedom To Think, which was published last year.
“Ironically, my book is precisely about the challenge of focus in the digital age, and the way tech is designed to engage with our minds and interfere with our thought process,” she says.
Switching off from social media and the internet in general is not easy though, says Grace Marshall, an author and productivity coach. She points to the numerous studies in recent years that highlight their addictive nature.
“You get a ping on a device and it creates an open loop,” says Ms Marshall. “Our brain wants to close that loop by looking at the notification because we get a dopamine [a natural chemical released in the brain that makes you feel good] hit when we close that loop.”
Ms Marshall adds that interruptions from work emails can also problematic. “Tech is instant, with emails, and [apps like] Slack, Microsoft Teams, and messages. Often people feel like there’s an expectation to be instantly responsive.”
She believes that in order to protect people’s work-life balance, workplaces should establish guidelines around expected response times to messages or emails. “It’s not just about the focus and productivity aspect, it’s also about the mental health impact,” says Ms Marshall.
The founder of the Freedom app, Fred Stutzman, says he got the idea when he was at university and found himself spending too much time on Facebook and not enough time on his dissertation. The app now has more than 2.5 million users around the world.
He says “it’s not some sort of failing of our human capabilities” that so many of us can’t resist constantly checking our social media feeds.
“Meta [the owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp] employs hundreds of PhDs and behavioural scientists to make the app more stimulating. That’s not a fair fight for the average person.”
Mr Stutzman adds that he is pleased to “use technology to push back against technology”.
Freedom says it saw a big jump in users during the pandemic, with downloads jumping by 50% in 2020, and 500,000 new users joining in 2021. The social media sites that are most blocked are said to be Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
If you don’t want to rely on apps to boost your focus, Mark Channon, a productivity and mindset coach, advises making small changes in your daily routine to begin with. “If you want to create change and habits, make the behaviour tiny,” he says.
“If you don’t want to watch YouTube, create other habits that are good for you. Being able to manage distractions is key. After you sit down at your laptop in the morning ask yourself ‘what is the most important thing for me to complete today?’, and listen to that answer.”
Vladimir Druts, co-founder of FocusMe, believes social media addiction should be taken more seriously. “Society focuses on drug addiction or gambling. But I think a lot of time we don’t know we are addicted to our devices and our digital crutches.”
Mr Druts sees monk mode as a movement against an increased desire for instant gratification. “A lot of the stuff in the zeitgeist today is ‘hey get rich quick, make your millions in an instant’. Monk mode is a necessary contrast to say ‘you’re not going to accomplish anything unless you carve out the time every single day and just show up’,” he says.
In future, with the rise of artificial intelligence, the distractions from tech are only set to increase, adds Mr Druts. “AI is just increasing the amount of content that’s out there.
“We’re going to see exponential growth of apps vying for your attention. Monk mode is definitely going to be gaining steam.”