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Losing too much time to your smartphone and social media? Here are some tips for refocusing yourself on what matters.

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America’s jewelers spend a lot of time on their phones. According to a recent INSTORE Brain Squad survey, a typical store owner will pick up their phone more than 200 times day. Their smartphone is often the first thing they see when they wake up and it’s usually the last thing they glance at before falling asleep. In between, they spend something like 5 hours absorbed in its glow.

Of course, there’s not much about this experience that is unique to jewelers. In 2021, it’s how modern life is lived. Apart from the occasional long-haul flight, camping trip, or natural disaster that brings down the grid, we are online and connected 24/7, catching up on news, customer issues, our stock portfolio, the current location of the burrito we ordered and the latest zinger from our favorite political pundit.

The initial promise of an always-on, interconnected world was that it would be professionally enabling, personally enriching and socially democratizing as it brought a world of ideas and useful data (not to mention peer-reviewed products) to wherever you were. But the reality has been darker. The Internet, and social media in particular, has been blamed for stoking our baser instincts – the constant overwhelming access makes us feel jealous or inadequate, exhausts us, fuels rage, robs us of time we could spend with our loved ones or on important tasks, and given rise to concerns about social dysfunction.

Hardly a month goes by, it seems, without one new book and several magazine articles informing us that life these days moves too fast, bombarding us with too much information. We’re told that our brains are being hijacked and remolded. We read that teenagers are on the “brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades”. We face a “coming dark age”, cautions Maggie Jackson in Distracted. She fears an “attention-deficit future” in which we’ll live shallow, joyless lives, robbed of our powers of “deep focus”.

Much of this is overblown and is clearly hyperbole (it’s no small irony that in the information age, everything must pretty well be the worst crisis ever just to get our attention). But it’s also undeniable that we could all use the technology better.

“Please let me know how since I have never gone on Facebook and got off in less than two hours,” lamented Alexander Rysman, owner of Romm Diamonds in Brockton, MA.

“It’s virtually impossible right now (to bring it under control),” said Becky Bettencourt of Blue River Diamonds in Peabody MA, speaking just before the election. “I really have to make an effort to put on blinders when I log on to do social media marketing.”

Anyone who owns a smartphone knows the feeling of what it’s like to fall down a rabbit hole, or to be with someone but not really be with them as they flick through screens. It’s probable you won’t even finish this article (a 12-minute read) without checking your phone at least once. It’s likely too you find the compulsiveness with which you check your phone a little discomforting. The machine that seemed like a miraculous servant, has become our master.

Our days are now fragmented by a constant drip of digital stimulation – some positive, some funny, some mundane, some that causes anxiety or outrage – but it often leaves us exhausted and emotionally wrought by the end of the day.

Productivity studies show we don’t work more than our parents, we just feel like we do. With so much of the world coming to us via that little black box and making demands on our attention, the default setting for modern life is distracted busyness that doesn’t seem to translate into getting important things done. The result is an edgy, distracted state of worry that hurts both job satisfaction and the bottom line.

Writing in The Atlantic, technology researcher Linda Stone attributes this to the cognitive cost of “continuous partial attention.” “In small doses, continuous partial attention can be a very functional behavior. However, in large doses, it contributes to a stressful lifestyle, to operating in crisis management mode, and to a compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively.”

Much of the coverage of the impact of social media makes it sound like this inability to focus is something new. But the truth is we’ve always been distractable. Our ancestors had to stay alert and shift their attention all the time; there was no evolutionary advantage to getting absorbed in a cave painting. Prolonged, solitary thought is not the natural human state, but combined with the knowledge-sharing power of the written page, it explains much of our ascent as a species. The power to contemplate and focus is why we are still not living in caves.

Nicholas Carr, the author of The Shallows and The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, says the Internet has simply returned us to our “natural state of distractedness” and facilitated our ancient obsessions over things like social status. Modern technology, and social media apps in particular exploit this weakness mercilessly.

It explains why focus is so hard — but also why it matters so much: Humans thrive on concentration and presence.

“Attention is our most precious resource, even more important than time,” says business coach and blogger Ed Batista, “because time merely passes, while focused attention makes things happen.” The ability to focus is contingent on our freedom from distraction, but that is not possible if your attention is being dragged away by a beeping, buzzing box promising excitement every two minutes.

As high as the stakes are, turning your back on the Internet or even Facebook is not realistic for most jewelers. And amid the handwringing over the impact of digital technology on our lives it can be easy to forget for a moment that the problem stems from the fact that smartphones are a diabolical mixture of bad and the very, very good. Despite their parasitical nature, much can be said of social media sites like Facebook too. They give each jeweler his or her our own powerful marketing platform to search out and find customers even thousands of miles away.

“Social media has been a huge source of brand awareness and leads for The Diamond Reserve We believe you cannot do it enough,” says owner Kaeleigh Testwuide in Denver, CO. “I think staying sane for me means using my team to help manage this, trusting that they know how to represent our brand, and making sure they are properly trained.”

As Testwuide implies, the key to successful use is to upend the master/slave relationship. To put yourself in control and make sure this powerful machine is doing what you want, and not the other way around.

The idea that you should be deliberate in your choice of digital use is endorsed by Facebook, which recently published research to answer the question, is social media bad for us? Their answer: “Users feel worse after logging on if they’re using it to passively scroll through others’ updates, rather than interact with others.” In other words: take control.

Of course, Facebook offering such advice is not all that different from the corner crack dealer advising you to consume responsibly. FB’s business model is based on addiction. Every second you spend on a platform—reading a post, watching a video, rating content—becomes a new data point in your online-behavior profile or a hint to a social connection that can be sold advertisers.

(And you possibly thought it was so cute when Facebook urged you hand over your date of birth and answer its cute little polls about your likes.)

Jewelers have told us they think social media has made their lives better through its ability to connect them with customers, community and friends and relatives (in the 2019 Big Survey, 49 percent of jewelers said their lives were better as a result of social media, versus 17 percent who said it was worse). They’ve also told us they’ve tried to bring control to excessive social media usage. And mostly failed.

There’s no reason to beat yourself if that includes you. You never had a chance.

While social media environments are interactive and provide give sense of control, you’re little more than a rat in a possessed psychologist’s conditioning box. The engineers and web designers at Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple have absolute control over not just every stimulus available to you but virtually all your response options. The shape and color of the buttons you press, the timing of each notification you receive, and the content of every piece of information that reaches you have often been tested through a data-driven process of mass experimentation to maximize their power.

Behavorial Scientist magazine described what it called a “methodologically brilliant” Facebook experiment on peer encouragement that was done in 2016 on 48.9 million unsuspecting users to test which prompts most effectively encouraged their friends to post more frequently.

The attention economy is carefully engineered to trigger emotions, invite social comparison, and most important, keep you on the site. All friction is removed. That’s why you can scroll down your Facebook and Twitter news feed for hours without finding the bottom, and why the next video on YouTube and Netflix automatically starts playing after you’ve finished the current one.

And in this slightly creepy enterprise, the big tech companies’ biggest ally is you. The truth is that half the time we’re desperate to be distracted, and gladly embrace the interruption. Charles McGrath, writing in the New York Times has argued that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as opposed to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, correctly foretold our future: it was our addiction to mindless pleasure that would doom us, not state coercion.

But let’s not dwell on our universal weaknesses. In the pages that follow, we offer tips and ideas, gathered from jewelers, experts and our own mindful deep reading (we put our phones in airplane mode), to help you seize back control of your attention, your work life, and possibly your sanity and become a better, calmer, more productive jeweler in 2021.

In the modern world, we’re called upon to be our own information architects. Here are some ideas on designing a life that will allow you to harness the amazing power of digital technology without being sucked into its black rabbit holes.

1. Figure Out How Much Time You’re Spending on Your Phone

First up, recognize your dependency. Once you know how much time you’re spending on your phone, it’s easier to make bigger changes (e.g., spending entire days or weekends screen-free). But many people underestimate exactly how often and for how long they get distracted. To quantify it, simply swipe right on your iPhone or tap “Digital Wellbeing” under an Android phone’s Settings to see how your use is trending.

2. Take an Inventory of  Your Tech Use

Catalog the technology you’re using and evaluate each item for its usefulness, working on the assumption that if something can’t justify itself from a professional or personal angle, it’s out. Exit the social networks you barely use and get rid of the apps that, when you think about it, have no benefit. Yep, that means Candy Crush may have to go. “Unsubscribe and delete, delete, delete,” is how Todd Tinder of Tinder’s Jewelry in Bowling Green, VA, describes his approach to keeping his digital use under control.

3. Go Minimalist

Cal Newport, one of the leaders of the digital minimalism school of tech use, recommends a more aggressive approach: completely unplugging for a period of time to give your brain and emotions a breather so that you can reassess your digital needs. In Digital Minimalism: Choosing A Focused Life In A Noisy World, he advocates a month-long digital detox — a period in which a person takes a complete break from all optional technologies. When it’s over, the idea is that you slowly reintroduce these technologies on your own terms. “You don’t go back to what you did before. You rebuild it from scratch, but with intention,” Newport writes. The key is to ensure that “all the tech you have is amplifying something that you really care about.” Denise Oros, owner of Linnea Jewelers in La Grange, IL, says such a review convinced her she could get off Facebook. “My store is still represented, and my customer base has increased, but that personal time vampire has been the recipient of a silver bullet,” she says. “I can put more hours into reading for pleasure, creating new designs and actually having a conversation with a friend/customer instead of liking a post.” Other jewelers opt to cut their use down dramatically but still keep a strictly controlled toe in. “I set up times daily when to post and look for responses,” explains Elizabeth Saba of Presley & Co. Fine Jewelers in San Diego.

4. Control the Cues

To live with frequent notifications is to outsource decisions about how your attention is deployed to a motley collection of friends, colleagues and strangers, most of whom have no incentive to put your interests first; they want an answer to their email right now or more engagement for their app. Turn off your alerts: all buzzes, banners, pop-ups and French horn-playing ring tones. Next, identify what triggers you to grab the phone. Is it your first spoonful of cereal in the morning or setting the alarm before you go to bed? When you sit down to do important work at your desk, switch your phone to airplane mode. Then set a time to check incoming streams of information, especially email, on your schedule. Even if that’s every 10 minutes, which it shouldn’t be, you’ll still be reclaiming some power.

5. Create Friction

Triumphs of willpower are surprisingly rare in everyday human situations. The central force for eliminating bad habits such as excessive phone use, according to social psychologist Wendy Wood, is “friction”: if we can make bad habits more inconvenient, then inertia can carry us the rest of the way. And the more hassle, the more success, she says in Good Habits, Bad Habits. Thus, turning the phone off completely is much more effective than silencing it, not because you become any less curious about who might have sent a text, but because powering it up is a drag. Delete apps from your phone. Christina Baribault-Ortiz, owner of Baribault Jewelers in Glastonbury, CT, uses a slightly watered down version of this approach.

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“Social media is not on my home screen. I have to swipe over two screens to make the effort to get to it,” she says, adding that her family also maintains “a no cellphones in our bedrooms” rule.

Attention! How To Stay Focused In A Distracted World

6. Keep Your Phone Out of Sight

Studies have shown even the presence of a cell phone on a dinner table is enough to disrupt/degrade a conversation as the gaze of both parties’ turns repeatedly to the device. Truly being with a colleague or clent means picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. What applies to a dining room applies doubly to the sales floor. Leave your phone in the office or deep in your pocket. “We have lockers, and I put my cellphone in there during the day,” says Karen Fitzpatrick, of Harris Jewelers in Rio Rancho, NM, although she concedes it’s been harder to get staff to follow her example.

7. Use “Calm Tech” to Fight Intrusive Tech

There are numerous programs that promise to combat electronic distraction: examples include Freedom, which temporarily cuts Internet access; Anti-Social, which locks down Facebook and Twitter; StayFocusd, an extension for the Chrome browser that turns off Twitter after 45 minutes of daily use. Meanwhile, single-task devices like the Kindle ensure your attention doesn’t get diluted. Instapaper allows you to read articles later (offline if you want). Ditto is a large button that clips to your belt or blouse and vibrates when you get a text or call from designated people in your address book. Yes, it’s a glorified pager, but it allows you to stash your phone in your bag, out of sight and reach, while giving you reassurance you’ll be contactable for, say, an emergency involving a VIP customer. Mary Wheeler of Mary Wheeler Designs in Cohoes, NY, recommends Hootsuite “to post from to minimize distractions.”

Attention! How To Stay Focused In A Distracted World

8. All News Is Not Necessarily Good

As a civic-minded citizen, you have a responsibility to keep up with what’s going on in the world, but modern technology can basically bring just about every single thing that is happening on the planet to you. Carefully prune your incoming information streams, balancing the importance of staying informed against the need to push back a tide of negativity that has no real benefit. In particular, go easy on the politics. While getting enraged about an issue may feel like you’re getting involved in something significant, in most cases you ultimately do nothing more than share a comment or hit a Like button. There’s also the risk of getting offside with customers if you let your political stripes show. “I remind myself to just keep scrolling and not to be tempted to engage in areas I should not,” says Kim Hatchell, manager of Galloway & Moseley in Sumter, SC. “It’s fine to have an opinion, but voicing it too strongly in areas that are volatile always risks offending a customer.”

9. Find Substitutes

Stopping something you do habitually requires filling the void. Jonathan McCoy of McCoy Jewelers in Dubuque, IA, said that after uninstalling many apps, he found time for new hobbies: “I’m learning to draw and code.”

10. Out of House, Out of Mind

When you can’t trust yourself to not get sucked in or just find the time requirements of social media too onerous, consider outsourcing the task. “I hired a media management firm. Now I just get to hear about the results,” says Ralph Vandenberg of Vandenbergs Jewellers in Alberta, Canada. Meg Rankin of J. Rankin Jewellers in Edmonds, WA, did the same, hiring a local company that works under her direction. “It has been the best thing we ever did,” she says. Caveat: You can’t abdicate the job totally. As Melissa Quick of Steve Quick Jeweler in Chicago, IL, notes, social media demands authenticity. “We are strong believers in having it be our voice and vision. When I don’t commit enough time to our social media platforms, our engagement goes way down and our followers stagnate.”

11. Set Limits

Set new expectations for email responsiveness. Feel like you’re drowning in email traffic? Use the start of 2021 as an opportunity to set a new status quo for email communication. Some companies use a 7-to-7 rule that discourages employees from sending email messages before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. In a lot of these matters of communication and engagement, you have more choice than you believe – maybe you don’t need to be available on your days off.

12. Use Old Tech

They are getting harder to find, but a phone that does nothing but make calls ensures you won’t be led astray by the digital off-ramps of a smartphone. Similarly, get a cheap alarm clock and move your phone charger outside of the bedroom.

13. Remind Yourself That You Probably Won’t Enjoy It

Is there anything more annoying (and time-wasting) than falling for a clickbait headline? The ancient idea that what we desire isn’t necessarily what we enjoy has received support from modern neuroscience. Dopamine, it turns out, is probably better understood as a desire chemical rather than a feel-good drug — it can be triggered in huge quantities in the near-total absence of pleasure. This explains why attaining some long-sought after object or accolade often feels like a letdown from the pursuit. Just bearing this distinction in mind can be surprisingly empowering.

14. Embrace JOMO

According to the entrepreneur Caterina Fake, who helped popularize the term “Fomo,” the fear of missing out is “an age-old problem, exacerbated by technology.” Thanks to Facebook et al, we’ve never been so aware of what others are doing, and we aren’t. How to calm your anguish? Try “Jomo,” or the joy of missing out, which is basically the reaffirmation that what you’ve decided to do — build a business, spend time with the family — matters more. If Fomo arises from second-guessing your choices, Jomo means taking ownership of them — whereupon Fomo fades away. It hinges on the appreciation that there will always be a limitless number of cool or meaningful things you’re NOT doing. Feeling bad about that is like beating yourself up for being unable to count to infinity.

15. Digital Sabbath

If Newport’s total breaks aren’t an option, you could try a “digital Sabbath” to put some distance between you and social media. As the name suggests, it’s once a week and should involve the whole family. The key to stoking enthusiasm for the break is presenting it properly, says Tiffany Shlain in her book 24/6: The Power Of Unplugging One Day A Week. In fact, she doesn’t call it a fast or detox because of the negative connotations. “Don’t start by saying, ‘We’re all going to give up our phones.’ Start by having everyone write down a list of the things they’re always wishing they had more time for.” This is a way of giving yourself time to do those things, she says.

16. Meditate

Your brain needs downtime, silence, a chance to be with your thoughts. Meditation teaches you to focus the mind without outside stimulation, strengthening self-awareness so you retain the capacity to choose, say, when to go online and when to disconnect. Don’t have time? Try five minutes a day. You “can’t meditate”? Nope: spending those minutes getting distracted still counts; indeed, noticing when you’re distracted is the essence of meditation. With a little more mindfulness and awareness in your life it becomes easier to take stock before picking up your phone. It may just give you the opening you need to ask: Am I doing it because I’m bored, stressed or tired? Or do I genuinely need some information?

Attention! How To Stay Focused In A Distracted World

17. Read More

Implement a daily deep reading habit, especially of fiction. The benefits are said to be twofold: to retrain your neural networks to sustain and find satisfaction in unbroken concentration and, in the case of good fiction, to introduce an uncertainty and ambivalence to your thoughts that is not generated by fact-based writing. “The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words, but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds,” writes Newport. “In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.”

18. Prioritize

As noted on the productivity podcast precisionchange.com, there is something questionable about the whole “information overload” complaint: If we couldn’t handle vast amounts of information, we’d have a breakdown each time we stepped into wild nature (think of the cacophony of sound, crawling bugs, moving leaves, 125 shades of green, wisps of wind, dipping temperatures, all being taken in simultaneously by your senses). The real trouble is that in the modern world, we have defined too many things as worthy of having the power to distract us, hence Peter Drucker’s maxim that if you’re a modern worker dealing with large amounts of information, defining your work — or staying aware of what genuinely deserves your attention — is the most crucial work you’ll do. If you don’t, your phone is waiting in your pocket to devour your attention.

19. Learn to Set Things Aside

One of the more useful insights from neuroscience is that you can only focus on one thing at a time. Yet faced with a long list of fairly important tasks, we flit rapidly between multiple objects of focus. You feel bad about all the things you believe you should have gotten done but haven’t, so you dart between them (or dart off to Facebook instead) as a way to take the edge off the stress associated with each. But that’s a formula for never finishing anything. Instead, there’s a certain amount of focus to be found in just resigning yourself to the situation — in taking to heart the understanding that doing anything in your life necessarily entails neglecting most other things for a short period. “I’ve gradually come to understand, the real skill is to learn to tolerate ever more of this ‘anxiety of not accomplishing things’: to consciously postpone everything you possibly can, except for one thing which you then complete. And as you finish more and more, you’ll have less about which to feel anxious,” writes psychology writer Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian.

20. Set If-Then Rules

In study after (peer-reviewed) study, one teachable skill stands out as crucial for habit change: deciding on “if-then” rules in advance, says Kerry Patterson, a former business management professor at BYU and author of Change Anything. Decide what are the “crucial moments,” such as when you find yourself instinctively reaching for your phone when a less-than-fun task presents itself. Formulate a rule, being as specific as possible: “If I find myself reaching for social media, I’ll first spend just five minutes on this job I’m trying to avoid.” True, a strong will makes it more likely you’ll follow the rule. But merely knowing that you need to formulate one in the first place makes a huge difference. In one study, it increased the proportion of people who stuck to an exercise plan from 39 percent to 91 percent.

Attention! How To Stay Focused In A Distracted World

21. Take Proper Breaks

As author and workplace consultant Tony Schwartz has argued, we tend to vastly underestimate the importance of restoration in human life. We operate on a multitude of rhythms, from the seasonal to the circadian (or daily) to the “ultradian” — the peaking and dipping of energy every two hours or so. Each cycle must alternate between exertion and rest if we’re to function well. To concentrate on a task, you need to block out distractions, but once that blocking function is worn down by fatigue, you are more likely to act on impulse, to shirk tasks that prove too challenging or to become irritable. Schwartz recommends working in bursts of 90 minutes followed by half-hour breaks if you can. Note, however, that it is only activities such as stretching, taking in a dose of nature, or social ones such as chatting with colleagues, that have been shown to deliver energy benefits. “Cognitive breaks, such as checking social media, aren’t really breaks at all; given the load they place on your brain, you might as well have continued working,” Christian Jarrett, a neuroscientist and author, explained at the creativity website 99u.

22. Take In Some Nature

In a world of relentless, aggressive demands on our attention, nature does something different: it exerts “soft fascination,” say academics Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. Soft fascination has two crucial components. First, it’s effortless: You don’t need to “try to focus” on the wind in the trees or waves breaking on a beach. Second, it’s partial: It absorbs some attention, but leaves some free for reflection, conversation or mind-wandering. The result is what the Kaplans called “cognitive quiet,” in which the muscle of effortful attention — the one you use to concentrate on work — gets to rest, but without the boredom you’d feel if you had nothing to focus on. This helps explain why even just a trip to the local park may seize just enough of your attention to let the rest of your mind relax. Trisha Corleto, owner of Lowell Jewelry and Loan in Lowell, MA, is lucky to be within 30 minutes of the coast, and it’s there she heads when the digital overwhelm gets too much. “I hit the beach with the pup and enjoy the sea. Remembering that it will pass and get better,” she says.

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23. Use Time Blocking

Newport recommends that to take control of your time, you give every minute in your day a job. His preference is blocks of at least 30 minutes. “Most people tackle their workday using what I call the list/reactive method,” he writes on his blog.

“This casual approach has you fill the time between scheduled meetings and calls by reacting to emails and occasionally, when the mood hits you, trying to make progress on items plucked from an unwieldy task list.” But in doing it this way, you let other peoples’ agendas drive your activities, and the balance between the urgent and the important becomes skewed and you don’t really move the needle on the things that matter, he says. Time blocking, by contrast, gives you that control. It also provides you hard evidence on how much time you really have available, and how long things really take. Rebecca Larson of Barry Peterson Jewelers in Ketchum, ID, makes social media “a planned task as if you were going to the gym” and sets certain hours in her daily routine for “scrolling and trolling.” She also utilizes Facebook’s business platform to monitor multiple platforms at once.

24. Work Like Jefferson

During the first week of 1776, with the Declaration of Independence about to be adopted, Thomas Jefferson began keeping a meticulous record of temperature changes during the day. This odd time-management choice wasn’t made because he couldn’t focus, says Joshua Kendall, author of America’s Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built A Nation. Instead, his obsessional habits and industriousness were a response to an anxious personality. “A mind always employed is always happy,” Jefferson liked to say. The happiest among the obsessives Kendall profiles are those with self-awareness: They chose to embrace their compulsions, accepting the downsides. It is certainly not a prescription for a peaceful life, but it hints at something worth keeping in mind when considering self-improvement advice, such as that offered above: It is essential to understand that any approach must reflect your personality. It is far better that your own psychological quirks are directing your life than the commercial concerns of a software engineer in Silicon Valley. Take control the best you can!

25. Use Old Tech

They are getting harder to find, but a phone that does nothing but make calls ensures you won’t be led astray by the digital off-ramps of a smartphone. Similarly, get a cheap alarm clock and move your phone charger outside of the bedroom.

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