A while ago, I wrote an article about thriving in uncertainty. In this article, I describe one of the key elements of success as the willingness and ability to always go the extra mile, doing just a little bit more. You might ask yourself, how is this related to distractions and productivity?
Well, it takes time and when it comes to the marketplace, the only thing absolutely all human beings have in common is… the number of hours in a day. It doesn’t matter if you are a hugely successful businesswoman like Jamie Kern Lima building an empire from the ground up, or a young graduate at the beginning of his or her career at an entry-level job, both have exactly 24 hours to do what they have to do.
Therefore, the essential question is:
How to maximise your time and move forward something meaningful to you?
I gathered the six following techniques to reduce distractions and help you achieve more. They come from my readings and my own, sometimes painfully learnt, experiences.
#1 busy ≠ productive
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport coins two types of work: shallow work and deep work. He describes them as follow:
Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate. (e.g. making the monthly sales report, sending the newsletter e-mail, filling-in applications, etc.)
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. (e.g. learning a new theory, creating a new process, defining a strategy, etc.)
In today’s usual office job, shallow work is inevitable and, in many cases, is taking a larger part of the office worker’s time compared to deep work. This is reinforced by the constant notifications from our different apps and IM’s fragmenting our attention as well as a deeper, more subtle cultural issue. Indeed, how do you measure the productivity of a office ‘knowledge’ worker?
In the absence of specific metrics, many will show their contribution to the organisation by being constantly busy doing ‘things’ rather than taking the risk of being labelled ‘unproductive’ while working deeply on a problem that has game changing potential for the organisation. When the organisational culture supports such mindset, employees will fall into shallow work, into being busy and the organisation created value, innovation and ultimately productivity, will drop.
While shallow work cannot be fully eliminated, it can be significantly reduced to leave more time for deep work. Here are some steps to help you gain control over it:
- Raise awareness: analyse your days and identify your shallow works. Also, your deep works.
- Identify your triggers: shallow work is often triggered by a distraction or a situation. identify them. (e.g. e-mail notification, boredom, etc.)
- Limit your triggers: deliberately avoid your triggers (more on that below)
- Assess importance and reduce: stop doing the shallow work that doesn’t serve you, delegate, optimise or automatise the ones you cannot avoid.
- Schedule your day: conscientiously plan deep work time on your schedule (more on that below)
If you follow those few steps you are off to a good start!
#2 The myth of multitasking
In the early 2000’s, multitasking was a widely used word in the corporate environment and those able to multitask were praised and elevated in the organisation. People were, and still are, juggling between their incoming messages, a main task, a colleague coming with a question, and so forth. In COVID times, multitasking has become even more present, as most of us are in our homes with children, pets and chores that also demand our attention. So, is multitasking really helping our productivity? I believe not and so do many experts that have conducted researches on the subject. Here is a good article on the topic.
If you are not convinced yet, try this fun exercise at home.
What can you do about this? Well, there are several elements of response. Like with shallow work, the key is for you to be aware when you are multitasking, but that’s not all… Can you remember a moment where you were so caught up in an activity that you lost track of time and even might have forgotten to drink or eat? This state is commonly called “Flow” state.
My experience is that there is no multitasking there! Let’s open this up and find out why that might be.
- You have a clear goal or objective you are striving to achieve, which help you stay focus.
- You have prioritised and set time aside especially for this activity. This means there is nowhere else you think you should be or anything else you think you should be doing.
- You are prepared. You have all the information, all the tools at hand. You are ready to get into it.
- Consciously or unconsciously, you have eliminated distractions. No pings and dings trying to catch your attention.
- You enjoy what you are doing, either because of the process itself or the result you aim to achieve by completing this activity.
We will look at some of those points later in this article.
You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it is distracting you from.
#3 The principle of least resistance
#4 the scheduling paradox
If you are anything like me, you have been trying to schedule your days one way or another and it always ended the same way… Stress and frustration!
Cal Newport believes that the problem resides in the way we look at scheduling rather than in the act of scheduling itself. Indeed, without schedule, there are no intentions, there are no priorities, we are easily distracted, time is, well… unmanaged.
My favourite approach to scheduling is box scheduling where you essentially divide the entire 24 hours of your day in “blocks” of time that you then allocate to specific activities. The granularity of your planning is up to you.
It looks something like this:
Frustration and stress come into play when you start seeing your schedule as a fixed, must-follow document rather than a blueprint of your goals and priorities in life.
What if something unexpected or urgent comes up and you have to prioritise it? Just review your schedule! Can you skip something, move it to later or the next day, reduce time of another block?
As you can see from my own schedule, the granularity is rather big, and every block is linked with one or more of my current goals and obligations. If I put them on my schedule, I am much more likely to follow through and I’m moving towards my goals, even if I do it for 45 minutes instead of the hour initially planned (more on that soon!).
This way of looking at it remove the stress and frustration linked to trying to stick to your plan at all costs and instead replace it with the confidence you are doing the right things.
Scheduling is not about constraint, it is instead about thoughtfulness
#5 the tools paradox
In today’s world of digitalisation, connectivity & apps, there is a multitude of tools available for virtually anything at your fingertips. This has led many of us to start using tools for a series of activities or tasks without asking ourselves: “does this tool actually serve me?”.
What I mean by that, is that using a tool has a cost. The cost can be measured in money you spend on the tool, but it might have many more layers to it as well. For example, the time you spend on the tool, the maintenance costs, the by-products, side-effects, etc.
Cal Newport coins two approaches to choosing to use a tool or not: The any-benefit approach and the Craftsman approach.
Why is this important? With such a variety of cheap and available tools, it is very tempting to start using (a new) one as soon as a new activities surface. This is what is described as the “any-benefit” approach. You have an activity to complete and a tool that can help you, therefore you start using the tool without giving much of a second thought about what it actually means for you or your business. On the other hand, the “Craftsman” approach will go back to the core factors and really weight the benefits versus the drawbacks you will experience from starting to use the tool.
Let’s take 2 cases:
Let’s say you want to be more physically active and you want to have a way to objectively make sure that your physical activity has increased.
The any-benefit approach could be to buy the latest smartwatch. Indeed, it is counting your steps and does a whole bunch of other cool things too!
The Craftsman approach for the case above might be to use his agenda and take a note daily of how long he has been walking.
Both tools are serving the purpose, but the smartwatch will have a series of drawback that will outstand the benefit (purchasing cost, regular charging, disturbing notifications, excessive information, plus you don’t get to wear this old-school watch you love so much!).
Now let’s say that you are on a fitness journey, training daily and preparing for your next competition. You want to know everything there is to know about your biomarkers to ensure peak performance!
In this case, it seems obvious that the Craftsman approach will guide you towards the smartwatch, and you might even combine it with an impedance scale for your bathroom.
When choosing a tool, do not only think about the benefit it brings, but also what it will mean for you to use it.
Only use a tool if its positive impacts on your issues significantly outweigh its negative.
#6 Digital productivity
When talking about deep work and distractions, it is impossible to avoid addressing our digital and mobile life.
In this section, I want to give you easily and immediately applicable techniques that will have a direct impact on your daily productivity. Ready? Let’s start!
Make yourself a favour and invest the time to go through your phone’s notification settings. For every app that wants to send you notification, ask yourself: “Is this important enough to let it interrupt me?”. Chances are, 90% of them are not!
If the notification does not require immediate attention from your side, deactivate it!
To illustrate, the only notification allowed on my phone are missed calls, text messages, IM’s, reminders, and alarms.
I challenge you to try! The first few days are strange, but trust me, you won’t switch them back on.
Do not disturb / focus mode
Your phone comes with integrated “do not disturb” mode, use it when you want even less distractions. It will mute all your calls and alerts, except for the one you have specifically allowed.
E-mail alert on your laptop
Beside the privacy risk of showing the preview of a confidential e-mail during a conference call, those constant pop-up windows on the corner of your screen are competing for your attention with the task at hand. Their effect is negative in any case. Either you will stop what you are doing to check and possibly answer it, or you will read the preview and ignore it for now. However, even if you ignore it and return to your task, those constant switch of focus are energy demanding and will increase your fatigue by the end of the day.
Turn the pop-up notification off on your e-mail client (e.g. Outlook, Mail, etc.). You will avoid distractions and end your day with more energy.
Do you also sometimes receive (or send, we are all guilty) one of those e-mails, where you can clearly see the sender did not put any thought whatsoever before sending it to you? And as a result, you end up reading an interminable mail thread or spend a significant amount of time answering to all the possible questions the sender might or might not have wanted to ask with the ambiguous e-mail?
The solution, while quite radical, is very effective… Stop answering!
As a consequence, one of two things will happen: you will not hear anything about the subject, or you might receive a new e-mail with a more detailed question. With time, it will increase the quality of the messages you receive.
NB! Please note that this is to be used with a dose of common sense and there will be exceptions where you will have to answer to such e-mail anyways.
Outgoing e-mail quality
As I said earlier, we are all guilty of sending short, laconic, ambiguous e-mails. While it seems to be efficient in the short term, it might soon turn into a never-ending e-mail ping-pong nightmare.
Make the extra effort to address all the possible open items. Think of it that way: “What is the most efficient reply to bring the subject of this message to a conclusion?”
A simplistic example would be if a colleague sends you an e-mail saying he would like to meet with you. You might answer something like “Sure, when would it be suitable for you?”. This will generate another e-mail from him with some proposals, to which you have to respond with another e-mail… And you are not sure what he wants to talk about yet!
A more efficient approach would be something like “Sure, I’m available Wednesday 14:00 or Friday 11:00. If this is suitable, please send me an invitation, which also describe the topic and what I need to prepare to have a successful meeting outcome. If those 2 options are not suitable, call me and we will work something out on the spot.”
You can see that the second answer requires more efforts from me, but the chance it will generate additional e-mails, and therefore, use my time and distract me from something else, is much more limited.