Distractions are an inevitable part of today’s world. We cannot escape them and no amount of hacking or clever tricks will keep them at bay for long. Technology is evolving to make these distractions more and more pervasive as the competition for our attention becomes more competitive.
It feels the more we fight against these distractions, the harder they fight back. We download a new social media app and it defaults to notifying us about everything our friends do. Our companies encourage us to use services like Slack, that just add more channels of distractions.
What can we do about this? There seem to be two options. Either we allow all these distractions to enter our lives and just live with them, or we can run away and become a digital recluse. None of these options has ever felt right to me.
There is a middle way. A way that means you do not have to turn away from the digital future and become a digital recluse. A way that allows you to balance focused, undistracted work with connection with the outer world. A way to be able to get the important work done while allowing yourself to be receptive to the wider world. That way is time blocking.
Time blocking is nothing new, it is something most focused content creators use every day to get important stuff done. Depending on how much work you need to get done, you could set one or two hours in the morning for focused work. A period of time where you turn off all notifications and just focus on the work in front of you. Whether it is the blog post you are writing, a presentation you are designing or the plans for a new business venture. You spend one hour of complete undistracted time, working on the most important work you have to do that day. If you are clever, you will repeat this process in the afternoon too.
Most jobs outside of knowledge work jobs involve some form of time blocking. A surgeon performing surgery is not transplanting a kidney with one hand while responding to his boss’s email in the other. A pilot of an Airbus A380 is not performing her final approach while at the same time answering a question from her colleague in Dubai on Slack. The surgeon and pilot wouldn’t dream of allowing these distractions interrupt such important parts of their work. So why do so many information workers allow interruptions in their work?
I would class myself as an information worker. I am certainly not performing such critical tasks as kidney transplantation surgery or landing the world’s biggest commercial aeroplane, yet I schedule two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon for my critical work. During that time, I write my books or blog posts or plan out my online courses. This means I get four hours each day to get a lot of critical work done. And I do get a lot of work done. During my focused work periods, I do not allow any distractions, I think of these periods as being just as important to my work as a pilot does when making their final approach to Hong Kong airport or a surgeon when removing a kidney from a patient.
I know many information workers will argue that part of their job is to be receptive to interruptions throughout the day. That may be the case, particularly if you work in customer service or other people focused work. But if your work also involves work that requires focus and quiet time, then it is your responsibility to find the time to do that work.
I have been doing blocked focused work for over 10 years now, and I have never had anyone complain I did not answer the phone or replied to an email quickly enough. By giving myself this 2 hour period consistently, my clients and friends have learned there are likely to be a few periods in each day when I will not be responsive. And they are perfectly fine with it. I think many people believe they are so important that the world, or at least their company, will be destroyed if they don’t respond immediately to a message, phone call or email. Sorry to disappoint, but that is not true. Your value to your company and the world at large is not that you are responsive, but the work you bring to the world. That is your value.
Solving problems, communicating your ideas and building amazing things, that is where the value is. There is no value in responding to an interruption within thirty seconds. This is the attitude you need to adopt. Your value to your company is in what you create. For you to create anything of value, you need to be able to focus on the work at hand, and not allow any distractions to get in the way while you are focused on that work. You do not need to be doing focused work eight hours a day. All you need is two to four hours each day and it is your responsibility to find those hours.
Take a look at your calendar and find a period of time each day where you have no meetings or appointments and block that time out. All you need is between one and two hours. During those hours put your phone on ‘do not disturb’, close down your email and get on with the work you need to do. If you need to, tell your boss and colleagues what you are doing and ask them to respect your focused time. When your productivity and creativity sky-rockets, it won’t be long before everyone in your team starts to follow your example. That is how you create real value for your company.
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Carl Pullein is a personal development and productivity specialist, presenter and author of Working With Todoist: The Book as well as Your Digital Life, a book about using your technology to achieve greater productivity. Carl works with clients all over the world to help them focus on the things that are important to them and to become more successful, productive and creative.