The latest time management research shows that managing attention may be more important than managing time, and we need to find ways to eliminate the constant distractions in our lives. Here's how to accomplish more and better work with smarter time management strategies.
According to current time management research, if you want to accomplish more and better work, you should quit social media now.
Get off of Facebook, and step away from Instagram. While you're at it, put your phone on do not disturb, and stop responding to so many emails. They are all insidious distractions that destroy your focus, diminish your productivity, and hinder your ability to use your highest-level skills to produce your best work.
You need to create a solitary work space where you can completely avoid distractions and multi-tasking. The lure of social media, incessantly buzzing phone notifications, and incoming email messages are generally the biggest culprits in breaking our focus, so they need to be banished.
Hold the phone a minute!
I bet you're thinking that's ridiculous and completely impractical advice that goes against everything you've learned about building a business.
Don't you have to be active on social media to connect with your customers? Haven't you read all kinds of tips about promoting your business on social media on this very website? Shouldn't you respond to customers with thorough answers and in a timely manner?
What if I suggested that both are true?
Time management research shows that you need to create and then vigorously protect periods of focused work if you're going to make the most of your highest-level skills. However, you do also need to provide excellent and timely customer service, and connecting with people in your niche on social media can be helpful if you want to promote your business online.
With some purposeful planning, both can be done.
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I've always been pretty protective of my work time. I've learned to guard my work hours from other demands, and I'm pretty good at saying "no" when I need to. But, after reading Cal Newport's book, Deep Work, I've realized that while I'm good at getting to work, I have a lot of sloppy habits while I'm working that prevent me from getting the most out of that work time.
I can get sloppy with my attention while I'm working, allowing myself to drift from one task to another. This failure to manage attention can shatter our ability to do high-level work. Newport's time management research shows that shifting attention hurts our productivity more deeply than we realize.
When I'm in the middle of writing an article, and I let myself surf over to check out what's happening on Instagram, it's not just the time spent surfing on Instagram instead of writing that is problematic. The effect on my brain caused by the distraction also hurts my ability to do my best work when I return to the primary task of writing.
When you shift your attention from one task to another, you create "attention residue" in your brain. That means, when you return to your primary task, you remain distracted by the previous task for quite a while. If you have a habit of jumping from task to task while working, your ability to focus will be vastly diminished because some of your attention will be left on the previous task.
Intensity plays a role in productivity. You can be successful without putting in ridiculously long hours as long as you commit to deep work. Cal Newport says that three to four hours per day, five days per week of deep work can turn out a lot of valuable work.
That, to me, sounds like something worth striving for and worth the effort to change my habits.
While you might not know the term "deep work," if you're a craft artist, you probably know the feeling of being immersed in deep work.
Think about times you've spent in your studio when you were completely immersed in your craft. You've been working, probably for an hour or more, totally uninterrupted. There's nothing on your mind except executing your craft to perfection. The world has completely melted away, and you're using highly developed skills, completely engaged in using your craftsmanship at the very best of your ability. That's deep work.
If you want a more succinct definition, deep work, according to Cal Newport, is "Professional activities performed in the state of distraction free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit."
Deep work creates high-value output that isn't easy to replicate. It's required to create the kind of work that can only be done by someone who has your most complex skills. Deep work isn't easy, but it can be extremely satisfying.
The kind of work you do when you're distracted or multi-tasking is shallow. That work generally doesn't create a lot of value, and it could be done by almost anyone with a bit of training.
The work you can produce when you're deeply focused represents the most valuable skills you bring to the world. These are the things that are special about you and that you can uniquely offer your customers. The work you do when you're distracted represents far less valuable work that almost anyone could do.
Doesn't it make sense that you'd want to spend a good chunk of time producing the kind of work that is valuable and unique to your special set of skills instead of being mired in tasks that almost anyone could accomplish?
First, let me say that if you have young children and you work from home, accomplishing long chunks of totally uninterrupted, focused work time will be a challenge. If I had read the book Deep Work when my kids were younger, I might have tossed it in the pile of productivity books that completely frustrated me instead of adding it to my list of favorite books on time management research and strategies.
I still find it tough to do really focused work in the summer and at Christmas break when my kids are off school. I plan my yearly work schedule with that in mind, keeping my toughest projects for the school year, and saving easier jobs for the summer.
You need to have a certain degree of control over your time in order to achieve deep work. If you don't have that control because you have young children or other responsibilities, but you want to achieve this degree of focus, the first step will be to consider ways of carving out time that you can largely control. That may mean getting up earlier, working in the evening, finding childcare (perhaps bartering time with another parent), or, as I do, adjusting your work seasonally.
In order to carve out some designated times when you work on these higher level tasks, you can begin to set yourself up for success by answering the following questions:
Where will you work?
You need a quiet place to work distraction-free. Working at a table in your kitchen while your family wanders in and out is not conducive to deep work. I'm doing that as I edit this article. My boy's favorite YouTuber is yammering on in the background, which isn't spectacular for my concentration.
To do your most focused work, find a spot where you can close the door and shut out the world.
How long will you work?
Deep work is tough work, so don't expect to spend eight hours a day, five days a week immersed in deep work. You won't be able to sustain it, and given other priorities most people have, it probably wouldn't be practically possible anyway.
Time management research shows that three to four hours of highly focused work is about the most people seem to manage, and even that amount takes time to work up to and requires a good degree of control over your schedule.
Look at your own schedule and determine when you can fit in focused work sessions and for how long. If you're a recovering multi-tasker, you'll need to start with shorter times and work your way up to longer sessions.
As much as possible, schedule your sessions; don't leave them up to chance. If you leave it up to whenever you have a free spot in your day, it will likely never happen.
How will you work?
Determine the best workflow and tools to help you work at your best. For example, I use OmmWriter when I write articles. It's designed to help minimize distraction, and it helps me to stay focused and get the words out.
If I wrote directly into my website's page builder, I wouldn't focus as well. Instead of just getting the words out, I'd be distracted by setting up headings and subheadings and checking the general look of the page. Plus, since I need to use the web page builder in my online browser, I'd be that much closer and more tempted to click onto another tab and surf on something unrelated. The right tool and workflow helps to keep me focused on the job at hand.
How will you support your work?
Determine what you need to support your work, and put those things in place. You may need coffee, healthy food, good sleep, or childcare. Think about what helps you to show up ready to work in a focused way, and do your best to implement those things.
Getting into a state of focused work and staying there can be a challenge. Here are a few strategies to get and keep your focus.
Building rituals and routines around your work can help you to ease the transition into deep work and also let your mind leave work when you're finished, so you get needed breaks and rest.
Maybe you always go for a brisk walk before starting a focused work session. Perhaps you sit down and enjoy a good cup of coffee before you start work. Time management research shows that these kinds of rituals build habits that connect the work with the ritual, which helps your brain transition into the work more easily.
Similarly, you can establish a routine for ending your work. If you're working on your laptop, you might make a note of the next step you'll need to do when you resume your work, do one quick email check to ensure there isn't anything pressing to deal with, shut down any programs you have open, and then close your laptop for the day. If you're working in your studio, you might develop a routine of cleaning and putting away your tools, putting away any raw materials, and generally tidying your workspace before you finish.
Finishing routines do add a few minutes onto your work day, but they can provide a powerful signal to your brain that your work is done, and they can make it easier to start work the next day. Without these finishing routines, work can seem open-ended or disorganized.
If I don't shut down my laptop, I can leave with the thought that I might come back to it later, which means my mind is never fully rested and away from work. If I don't tidy my workspace, when I return, I'll need to start from a disorganized, disheveled space, which will inhibit my ability to dive into deeper work quickly.
Limit Your Availability
Here's the part about deep work that seems to challenge and worry people the most. You can't focus deeply if you're constantly interrupted by notifications of new emails or social media posts. However, we live in a society that has come to expect immediate responses even for queries that are not time sensitive. If we're going to protect our focused work time, we need to find a way to balance these conflicting demands.
Manage Your Social Media Time
I haven't actually left social media. I find it's extremely helpful for my online business, and some of the time I spend on it is time well spent. However, I also tend to waste a lot of time on my personal social media accounts, and the business social media work I do, for the most part, couldn't be considered deep work. It's shallow work that is necessary and supports my business, but it is not deep.
I don't allow any social media to send me push notifications on my phone because I don't want my phone constantly beeping and interrupting my work or even my life in general. I check my business-related social accounts daily and contribute to them regularly, but I do it at set times that are not my best, most focused work times.
I did find my personal Facebook account was causing a lot of distraction and wasted time, so I took that app completely off my phone. I don't use Facebook heavily for business, so that wasn't a big consideration. Those who have established a considerable business presence on Facebook may not be able to drop the app as easily. I still check it on my laptop, but removing it from my phone has made a huge improvement in how I spend my time.
Cal Newport takes a harder line on social media. He suggests you consider whether you'd be better off leaving social media entirely.
He observes that while there is a push for any kind of creator or maker to promote their work on social media, he questions whether the impact of the marketing is worth the time spent and the distraction created by being active on social media. He feels that many creative entrepreneurs would be better off preserving their time to create more of the kind of high-level work you can only do when you're not constantly distracted.
How you'll handle social media is a decision you need to make based on your own business needs. For me, it doesn't make sense to leave entirely, but it does make sense to put limits on it. For others, particularly those who don't sell online, or those who have other effective ways to market their business, it may not be the best use of your time.
Reduce Email Distractions
Beyond social media, the other huge source of constant distraction for many people is email. Do you get a push notification every single time you receive a new email message? If you do, your day is probably broken up by constant distraction.
Remember, time management research has shown that switching tasks leaves attention residue in your brain, so even if you quickly glance at the email notification but decide not to act on it, you've still lost focus from the primary task.
I have my email set up so I'll get a push notification if I receive a customer service-related message, so I can deal with those messages in a time-appropriate manner. Everything else goes straight to my inbox with no notification. I check that email once per day. That's it.
The odd time someone in my personal life expresses shock that I haven't read an email quickly. Usually it's my husband asking if I read the email he just sent, and he should know me better than that by now. Infrequent email checks has never been a problem for me, and prevents constant distraction throughout the day.
Not everyone will be able to check email as infrequently as I do. However, it's worth thinking it through to determine which emails actually require quick responses and which do not. You can tame your email distraction, by prioritizing those emails that require immediate response, versus those that can wait.
Setting up chunks of uninterrupted focussed work time will be easier for some than others, but it's worth the effort to make it happen. If you think you can't possibly find that kind of time, try rethinking your assumptions. It seems a shame for the world to lose out on your best possible work because you were busy fielding emails and surfing social media.
If you want to really commit to managing your attention and using your work time better, Cal Newport's Deep Work is an excellent resource.
It's full of practical strategies that help you get over the objections and challenges you will face when you first implement this new way of approaching work, so you can find the time, space, and strategies you need to settle in and produce your most valuable and highest-level work and still have time left for fun.