A: Limiting your time online and streamlining your to-do list could boost your productivity.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

I loved working, and still do. When my career took off in the 1990s, connectivity was exploding: mobile phones (albeit brick-like ones) were beginning to appear; media channels were popping up all over the place with satellite television; the computer was becoming affordable; and the internet was entering the mainstream (along with a new-fangled thing called email). I lapped up all the changes, and believed that the more I could do, the happier I would be.

By the time I reached my mid-forties, social media had arrived, and so too had physical and mental exhaustion. I became seriously ill, and my recovery put me on a road to discovering what I call “social health”: How to be fit and well in our hyper‑connected world. Cut to today and the average person uses at least seven devices or social feeds, with UK communications regulator Ofcom revealing that people pick up their mobile phones once every 12 minutes, or 80 times a day. The world has an obesity problem, but it also has an issue with “infobesity”: An excess of anxiety‑inducing information that neuroscience shows can reduce the brain’s ability to function. We may think we are on top of things, but the evidence suggests otherwise: Research has proven that it takes at least 20 minutes to regain concentration after coming offline. In other words, multi‑tasking is a myth and constant connectivity can be as bad for our health as overeating.

For me, the antidote to this overdose of data came from neuroscience. The brain has a cognitive limit of seven, which, simply put, means that if we go above that number on our to‑do list, we become frazzled. So, as a way of calming down my life, I decided to focus on six instead—a number that is highly relevant in both culture and nature, associated with efficiency, strength and connection (take the honeycomb, built by bees—on which the human race depend—or the snowflake, each one as individual as we are: both are hexagons). The first thing was to look at my day as a series of six episodes in which I wanted to get six things done. Asking myself which six things mattered that day helped clarify my priorities; cutting out choice cut out complexity. Then, I started setting aside time to be without a phone, even for just 20 minutes. At first, that felt dangerous, exposed. Now, it feels like it would have not so very long ago: Normal.

When I started to live by the simplicity principle, I worried that it would become like a diet: made for breaking. Instead, it liberated me. Rather than grumbling about how I was behaving, even my children and husband, who can see through me in seconds, couldn’t pick holes in it. They could tell I was calmer, less frenetic, possibly even more fun. It’s definitely nice not to feel stressed all the time, not to feel decision fatigue every day, nor to be dependent every single second on my mobile phone. I keep it simple—six minutes, six seconds at a time—and it works for me.

Nature has been key to my success. All the research shows that even looking at a picture of a tree calms us; no wonder sitting under a strip light in a window‑less office makes us feel stressed. I check weather apps constantly and if the sun is out, I’m in it where possible. I invest more in trainers than anything else these days, to go to appointments on foot, or even have walk‑and‑talk meetings. I think of digital detoxes as a kind of intermittent fasting. Of course, there are binge days, but there has to be abstinence too. It’s a new world now—one where humans and machines live together, cheek by jowl—and I want to make sure we all succeed in it. 


Julia Hobsbawm’s six rules of disengagement

1 DON’T MULTI-TASK. MONOTASK Do one thing at a time, giving it your full focus. 

2 JUST SAY NO Limit what you agree to do, because saying yes to everything is exhausting. 

3 SET ASIDE TIME TO BE OFFLINE Spend at least an hour a day, or three 20-minute sessions, working in a different way, whether using a notepad and pen or reading something on paper. 

4 ENGAGE IN PHYSICAL ACTIVITY FOR AT LEAST AN HOUR A DAY Remember to put your smartphone completely out of reach while you do this. 

5 BE YOUR SOCIAL SELF FACE TO FACE, NOT ON FACEBOOK You don’t have to delete your social media accounts, but consider how much time you spend online. 

6 SIT WITH YOUR FEELINGS FOR SIX MINUTES A DAY See what comes to the surface as priorities or anxieties, and trust yourself to know what creativity and productivity mean to you.