Smartphone convergence has built a dark playground

A few years back I read a wonderful two-part piece on procrastination by Tim Urban on

Tim wrote about an aspect of procrastination he called “the dark playground”. Read the linked piece to learn about it, but in summary it’s the tasks which are not important and not urgent which you suddenly find the compulsion to do when you have something hard to do: a work assignment, homework, writing, whatever.

Some examples are things like reorganising your bookshelves, web surfing, checking your email or social media, and so on. Harmless on their own, but when undertaken at 2am when you have work due at midday, the “dark” part of the dark playground becomes clear.

For those of us who work independently or as freelancers, the call to the dark playground can be pernicious. Not only can it result in lower quality work, but it can also prevent us from taking on challenging longer-term projects where we could make a real impact on the world. Those kinds of projects are rarely subject to a hard deadline set by other people, which makes getting going even more challenging than a standard work project.

Over time, I have found a number of approaches to limiting my time in the dark playground. Using web blockers like Freedom, replacing dark playground time with a quick walk or making a cup of tea, or switching to another important and/or urgent task so that I’m at least not burning work time for no reward.

These are all great, but no single change to my habits has had a bigger impact on my productivity than keeping my smartphone out of reach and out of sight.

Smartphones are an amazing feat of technological convergence; they enable us to rapidly things that used to require a host of other separate devices. They also allow us to do them wherever we are.

Only 10 years ago, I used a host of devices and objects that have since been replaced by a single smartphone, or at least removed the need to sit at a computer:

- Camcorder
- Still camera
- Music / MP3 player
- Books, newspapers and magazines
- Email client
- Social media clients
- Maps / GPS device
- Calculator
- Old-style mobile phone (simply for calls or SMS)
- Notepad
- Alarm clock
- Radio
- Web browser
- TV (live or with video player)
- Handheld games
- Fitness tracker / step-counter

This convergence has brought us amazing convenience and allowed us to capture thoughts and experiences in a way never before possible. However, the smartphone also puts the dark playground within immediate reach of any procrastinator.

How many of the features on that list would you say represent important or urgent tasks? The phone and messaging, perhaps. The others are handy, sure, but when work needs to be done, they impede our lives, they don’t enhance it.

Through Freedom I have helped to reduce my time with social media, but I found myself continuing to be drawn to dark playground time on my smartphone when I had any work stress.

It’s a classic trigger — behaviour — reward cycle. The trigger was work stress, the behaviour was grabbing my phone, and the reward was seeing social media notifications or consuming lightweight content that had nothing to do with my goals.

Recently I received a smartwatch for my birthday. I mostly use this for fitness tracking and reminders, but it also allows me to receive calls and messages, even while away from my phone.

The tiny screen and interface, not to mention the lack of a web browser, mean the watch quickly stopped being a toy and started being a functional device I can use without it becoming a distraction.

I found that the ability to be contactable, even without my phone nearby, which has made a real difference. I have started leaving my smartphone on its charger at the far end of my house or in my bag while working.

I’m still getting messages and calls, but when I am triggered by work stress, the phone is no longer nearby. This reminds me in the moment that I need to do my walk or make my tea, breaking the procrastination loop.

No, it’s not always perfect. Sometimes I find myself drifting to the web on my computer instead — easy to do when you work mostly using a computer. But careful use of Freedom ensures I block the most common online time sinks.

I’d love to hear how you are managing to be productive and avoid procrastination in the age of smartphones and online media.

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