The online world is amazing. Every week we get new awesome tools that can make our lives better. From dropping email and using instant communication methods like Slack, to automating parts of our lives with services like Zapier. There is so much to be thankful for and amazed by online.
There is also a subtle trap in all the amazing tools that show up in our lives. Not a trap by those who offer us these new tools, but a trap in our reasoning as we decide which tools we’ll use in our workflows.
We choose to use a tool if there is ’any benefit at all’ regardless of the costs associated with that tool.
Most people know that their attention is a finite resource. The ability to really dig into client work, or writing, or study is something you need to cultivate and to do that you need large swaths of time where nothing interrupts you. This comic shows how it works for a programmer.
Yet knowing this we try to multitask which really means we shift quickly and frequently among tasks but rarely do any of them well. We let our focus get interrupted by an open Slack channel and our Twitter feed scrolling by on a second screen. Facebook can notify us of incoming chat requests.
We essentially enable ourselves to be less than effective (I don’t like the word productive) because there is some benefit somewhere to the tools we have in our arsenal.
If you want to truly get times of deep focus here’s how you should be setting up your tools.
Turn off your email. No it’s not good enough to just turn off notifications and badges, though that’s a great starting point. If you’re employed somewhere you may think my advice is going to be a problem since everyone expects an instant reply to emails but it’s probably not going to be the problem you think.
Years ago I worked at a non-profit and I was pretty low on the totem pole. Despite this lack of any authority, starting day one I only checked my email at 11 a.m. and at 3 p.m. I would not open my email any other time of the day. At first I’d have people come over to my work station 10 or 20 minutes after an email was sent wondering if I got their message, and I explained how I worked with email.
Even when the CEO came in and I explained that I needed big swaths of time with no distraction to really dig into a programming problem he bought into it and learned to just wait. There was no problem at all with my email policy once I explained the rationale behind it.
Now that I work for myself I use the Pomodoro method and I only devote one 25-minute block a day to my email. On Tuesday only I devote two blocks to email because I really spend one of those working with my CRM, Contactually. Despite getting close to 100 email messages some days about possible projects or other opportunities I still achieve Inbox 0 in that single 25-minute block.
Let’s define Inbox 0 though, because even when I work with my email I treat it very differently than most people.
First off, just because someone sent you an email doesn’t mean you need to respond. Email is simply a way for others to tell you what they think is important for you to focus on in the day. Just because someone sends you a request to work on a project doesn’t mean they ever need to hear from you about it. The responsibility is on the email sender to send you something that’s compelling enough to respond to. Just like you’re not required to pick up your phone because someone calls, you’re in no way required to respond to every email you get.
Second, even when you reply to emails you should have a bunch of email templates to make that reply take seconds instead of minutes. I’ve got a bunch. When the project doesn’t look crazy but is a bad fit for you send them a ‘no thanks’ email that recommends colleagues or other services they could use for the project.
Third, schedule almost all email to send later. This stops you from playing email tag all day. I know you’ve been there. By the time you get to the last email you’ve got five new ones in response. This just gives you a never-ending inbox which sucks. Also, scheduling means that the person that emailed you at 9 a.m. just as you’re checking your inbox doesn’t have unrealistic expectations set. They still get a response a few hours later.
Now we’ve mostly cut ourselves off from email so of course that brings us to instant messaging systems like Slack or Hipchat.
While there are many great things about instant messaging systems like Slack (or Skype or …), there is also a huge cost to productivity. These are, in theory, turned on all the time ready to notify you of something someone needs at a moment’s notice no matter what you’re currently working on.
Yes using these tools means less email in your inbox. Yes they look way prettier than email. Yes they allow others to find similar answers via a history search. Yes they let remote workers have a water cooler.
Despite all of these awesome things the worst thing you can do for your focus and effectiveness is to leave them on, generating a stream of notifications all day. Again, change your mindset with the tools — how do they best serve your business and productivity?
You should keep all messaging off most of the day. Even when you’re in my email block I don’t have messaging applications open. The focus of the email block is to complete my email not answer a bunch of chat messages.
This goes for text messages from friends as well. Turn off iMessage on your Mac. When friends keep texting you put your phone in airplane mode. When I do this I let my wife know so that if she has an emergency she can FaceTime me on my computer.
Choose a time or two per day to check in with the messaging apps you have. I choose just after lunch and just after I get back from my workout. Then turn off messaging for the rest of the day and get back to work.
You need to ruthlessly guard your focus and messaging apps shouldn’t make it into your day except when you let them.
Twitter, Facebook, or any other social network is built to be addictive. I know, I regularly find myself having three seconds where I’m waiting for something to happen on my computer and I default to opening Twitter.
You may want/need to be on social networks for your business. I need it to interact with my readers, but I don’t need it 32 times a day. At most I need it once a day.
Check your social networks once or twice a day at a time you decide works for you. I’m terrible at this so I use Self Control. I check social media and then I turn it on for eight hours. You may also need to delete social networks from your phone — I know I need to. If you’ve blocked your computer but just pick up the phone to check and find you waste time getting sucked in (which is what the applications are trying to do anyway) then remove them.
Contrary to popular belief you will miss nothing important when you don’t check social media regularly. Those photos, messages, things will still be there later.
Now what about calls from clients or prospects? Could you guess that I don’t think you should answer your phone when you’re working? My wife has a special ring and her calls are the only ones I answer because she only calls when there is something important to talk about.
You should only take scheduled calls from clients. Yes that means if a client just happens to call you one day you shouldn’t answer the phone. I let it go to voicemail, and I rarely check voicemail. For me current clients should know that the best way to interact is via our project management system because I told them that in my project success document. I even assigned a task to them to read it and don’t start working till that task is resolved.
When any client asks to talk send them a meeting link with a service like Calendly. For me this allows only meetings on Tuesday and only one meeting on a Tuesday. If your schedule doesn’t work for a prospect in your initial call to talk about the project then you have a good reason that working together is a bad idea. Your schedules aren’t compatible and which means you can’t serve them well.
This all goes for home too
All of the above goes for you at home as well. When you get home take your phone out of your pocket and put it somewhere that’s not easy to get at. I put mine on top of the fridge and tell my kids to remind me not to touch my phone.
All too often we do okay at cutting distractions at work only to let a bunch in at home. Is a successful week at home marked by a bunch of chats with people that are nowhere near you or is it marked by quality time with your children, spouse, friends?
The latter is what constitutes a good week for me. Take a stand at home and cut out the distraction.
It’s all about your mindset
Everything here is about a mindset shift. Email is there to serve you and your business, not let other people tell you what’s important for you to do in the day. The same thought applies to every tool in your life.
Just because there is some benefit to the tool doesn’t mean you should be using it. Step back first and weigh the costs to your effectiveness. If it’s not a net benefit, just don’t get involved. If you must, schedule the times to check it. If you can’t do that then use some tool that blocks them for you so you can’t check even if you wanted to.
It’s all about constructing the ideal work environment for you so you can get your work done.
But my job is…
If you’ve got a job in sales or some other job where a major part of you doing a good job is using one of these tools regularly then of course you should do it. A sales person needs to take sales calls. Someone that’s selling on-call support should be answering their phone to offer the service their clients have paid for.
But almost everyone overestimates how much people need to get in touch with them and what the negative effects of cutting off lots of that communication will be. There is likely to be nothing bad that happens, in fact you’re likely to get way more work done of a higher quality so there is a net gain for your business.
Start cutting out the distractions around you today so you can focus on doing your work right. Only use the tools that help you do your work better and only use them on your terms. Forget being ‘normal’ and run a business that is awesome.