How to focus (and win) in today's distraction-filled world

Don't let modernity's ubiquitous distractions win against your life's work

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Distraction is modernity’s biggest blocker to our goals

Today I wanted to write on the increasingly difficult problem of interruptions in our modern world and some ideas on what we can do about it. First let’s see how bad the problem really is with some research.

Ninlabs Research has a fantastic post outlining the high cost of interruption. It’s worth a read and provides data which supports the concept of the famed maker’s vs. manager’s schedule, visualized below (in its ideal form, although as we’ll uncover reality is never so perfect).

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Based on a analysis of 10,000 programming sessions recorded from 86 programmers using Eclipse and Visual Studio and a survey of 414 programmers (Parnin:10), Ninlabs found:

  • A programmer takes between 10-15 minutes to start editing code after resuming work from an interruption.

  • When interrupted during an edit of a method, only 10% of times did a programmer resume work in less than a minute.

  • A programmer is likely to get just one uninterrupted 2-hour session in a day.

They also looked at some of the ways programmers coped with interruption:

  • Most sessions programmers navigated to several locations to rebuild context before resuming an edit.

  • Programmers insert intentional compile errors to force a “roadblock” reminder.

  • A source diff is seen as a last resort way to recover state but can be cumbersome to review.

Via Twitter

This high cost of interruption and the scarce amount of uninterrupted time in the day doesn’t just apply to programmers of course. It applies to everyone involved in a creative field. The trick, as productive people understand, is to minimize interruption and ensure you’re spending your uninterrupted time on the highest value activities.

Common sense, sure, but it’s sad how frequently it is forgotten by those who give in to the high cost of now or let others interrupt their workflow. A crazy thing has happened in modernity: we feel a need to get everything in real-time, and almost nothing actually requires this. As Seth Godin notes, this is costly:

The closer you get to the source and moment of information, the more it costs.

If you want to know how the stock market did in 2006, you can spend ten seconds and find it in Wikipedia. If you want to know about today, you’ll need to invest a few clicks and you’ll get the delayed results. Or you could pay a lot of money for a stock market terminal and get the current prices. Or you could even risk prison and get some inside information about what’s going to happen before it happens.

More than ever, there’s a clear relationship between how new something is and how much it costs to discover that news.

You can check your email twice a day pretty easily. Once every fifteen minutes has a disruption cost. Pinging it with your smartphone every sixty seconds is an extremely expensive lifestyle/productivity choice.

Sure, go ahead, stay hyper-current, but realize it’s not free.

The cost of interruption visualized

Tech industry pro Bruno Oliveira showing visually just how much impact disruptions can have on our time:

For sure there is neurological research about the above chart but I’ll spare you more data today, you get the picture. And despite the visualization talking about “geeks” I would argue this high cost of interruption applies to all workers in creative fields - so nearly everyone reading this. Especially in cases we are trying complex things that have never been done or working on something which requires a flow experience to do correctly. All the more reason to reduce things like meetings and let your team focus on deep work, work they feel good about at the end of the day and that actually moves the needle.

The myth of multitasking: focus or fail on important projects

Focusing is underrated, and has been for quite some time. Yet it’s the secret to great work and solving the interruption problem outlined above. Twitter, email, phone calls, instant messages, web browsing – they are all distractions and ultimately collateral tasks. They constantly call for your attention but they don’t make a real difference in accomplishing objectives from a production standpoint. And if you’re not a prolific producer, you’re never going to be successful.

No doubt, you have real work and serious projects that you want to get done – both personally and professionally. Finishing those projects is what brings the highest degree of satisfaction from life. Even for projects that will ultimately end up on the web, in many cases unplugging is necessary to get the best results.

Multitasking is a myth, really you are accomplishing nothing even if you are getting work done because it will be sub-par. And, there’s no point to completing projects that are sub-par in the first place. If you want to do anything that you will actually be proud of after completion, it’s all about focusing.

Also there is no sense in being more productive to produce results anyone else can. If you’re doing that, you’re relatively dispensable. There’s just no value in it. If you’re a knowledge worker of any sort, finishing just to finish without focus will create end products that get skipped over. Quality, not quantity wins the game of infinite choice.

Unfortunately focusing is perhaps a lost art, especially in my generation. I’ve previously shared my observations on millennials – but something not discussed in that thread was the fact that our generation grew up multitasking. We grew up working on projects and studying while browsing the web, eating dinner, and talking with our peers. I only learned self-discipline later in life, but I had to unlearn the habits I acquired growing up multitasking. You don’t have much to gain from it, because while you may feel like you’re getting more done, the results of your efforts suffer.

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Pro tips on focusing

Kill the sense of urgency, focus on creating inspiration/motivation instead

Too many people have a false sense of urgency with what they’re doing and pretty much life itself. That sense of urgency perpetuates a loss of focus. Urgency is not productivity, nor a motivator for the best results –  inspiration and motivation are far better.

Carve out as much time during you day for focused work as possible

This work is what leads to productivity, fulfillment and ultimately happiness. The collateral things are easy and anyone can do them, it’s the focused, unique work that’s valuable.

Focusing kills overthinking

By focusing on one thing, you’ll stop overthinking because your mind will have direction and purpose. Focus destroys the unfortunate by-product of “too much to do” by forcing you to take yourself to task with what is at hand. Your focus will cause you to take the first step, concurrently the hardest and most difficult of any project.

Focus is like a muscle

The more time you spend focused, the stronger this ability will get. If you regularly force yourself to focus on something – anything – on a consistent basis, the ability to focus on all else in your life will become easier.

Focusing is how you enter a flow experience

A funny thing happens once you focus yourself on a task you excel at. Bearing you’re passionate about it, you’ll inevitably enter a flow experience, where everything outside of your task ceases to exist, and you have consciously and unconsciously committed yourself to it. A flow experience is effortless, but it is only achieved through that initial focus.

Let the multi-taskers lose their time bit by bit, and instead learn to focus and ultimately produce better results on everything you do.

You helped yourself, now help your team overcome interruptions and finish projects

Distraction at work from colleagues, people you manage, or even people that manage you isn’t laziness, lack of discipline, lack of willpower, etc.: it’s disempowerment. Disempowerment means you aren’t missing anything, but lacking access to that which you have. Remove or heal from the disempowering forces in your work and life and you’ll “automagically” recover all the energy, discipline, willpower, etc., you thought you were missing, or had lost.

There are two main categories of disempowering forces: obstacles and triggers.

An obstacle is something that competes with your project for time or other resources, or that inhibits your ability to do your work. Distractions, conflicts, lack of resources, and lack of training or information are all obstacles.

Triggers are feelings that undermine your ability to do your work – fear and shame being the big two. In fact, these are most people’s major barriers to productivity, since, besides paralyzing you, they also obstruct problem solving. Once you help people overcome their fear and shame, they often speedily deal with their obstacles and get back to work.

The above analysis makes it clear why the two most common tactics for dealing with under-productivity – punishment and nagging – are inadequate.

Punishment includes actual or threatened punitive acts, and emotional punishment such as harshness or shaming. In any form, it increases one’s fear around one’s work, and therefore one’s disempowerment. It also increases one’s need to escape from one’s fears via procrastination. Other problems with punishment include: (1) we become habituated to it, so it eventually loses its power; (2) it at best achieves short-term compliance, and not the growth and capacity building that enables us to do our best; and (3) it’s fundamentally inhumane.

Nagging is what well-meaning bosses and colleagues often do instead of punishment. However, constantly asking someone, “How’s the work going?” is not only not helpful, it’s likely to backfire by adding to your colleague’s sense of fear around his or her project.

Here are some better techniques:

1) Ask if you can help. Better yet, suggest how you can help. Because underproductive people are often mired in shame and denial they will often brush off a non-focused request of assistance. But if you say, “How about if I handle the billing paperwork so you can focus on your blog post,” or, “How about if I handle the graphics while you focus on the text,” they might accept. At home, this strategy looks like, “Honey, why don’t you let me do the dishes and put the kids to bed so you can work on your project?”

2) Assist the person with problem solving, i.e., “Let’s make a list of what needs to get done,” or, “Let’s see whom else we can get to help with this project.”

3) Help them optimize their process. Many people who get struck on projects lack an effective process, which makes them more prone to distraction. Ineffective writers, for instance, often think they’re supposed to start at the beginning of the piece and proceed linearly to the end, which is a recipe for a stall-out. Far better to do what nearly all professionals do and work on whatever part of the piece (or whichever piece) seems most friendly, interesting and accessible at the moment. Then, when you feel the urge, simply switch over to another part. In this way you’ll cover the entire piece as quickly and easily as possible – in part because while you’re busy switching from easy part to easy part, you’re actually shedding light on, and “marinading,” the challenging parts so that they, too, eventually become easy.

Here’s the ultra-prolific Isaac Asimov – author or editor of more than 500 books and a voluminous correspondence – explaining how it works:

‘What if you get a writer’s block?’ That’s a favorite question. I say, ‘I don’t ever get one precisely because I switch from one task to another at will. If I’m tired of one project, I just switch to something else which, at the moment, interests me more’ (from his memoir In Joy Still Felt).

This and other optimized techniques will make your process not just way more productive, but way more fun.

4) Encourage them to look at their barriers. If someone can’t do their work efficently and without distraction, suggest they write about, or discuss, *why* they can’t. In other words, have them list their obstacles and triggers (most people come up with a list of two or three dozen). Remind them that people’s reasons for procrastinating or lacking focus are always valid. Always. It is simply a suboptimal response to those reasons.

Fortunately, many obstacles and triggers will be easily dealt with once they’re out in the open – and sometimes simply naming one is enough to defuse it. The rest can be split into the “moderately easy to deal with” and “hard to deal with” camps. Even with the latter, however, at least you’ll know what you’re up against and what you need to do, moving forward.

High performers learn to manage their internal dialogues and their moment-by-moment relationship with their work so they can catch any punitive or nagging thoughts as – or even before – they occur. This takes a bit of time and practice, but the yield, not just in terms of increased productivity but increased joy in your work, is worth the effort.

I hope this was useful for you and you are winding down 2020 as productive and mindful as possible. Say hi on Twitter if you enjoyed this.