I struggle with feeling like if I work for 4 hours, only one of those hours is actually productive. Bouncing between the code editor, Twitter, and Slack just isn't very productive. It's more like a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.
Over the years trying to get work done this way, it can eat at your self-esteem. I began to tell myself, "Well, I guess I just take a lot of time to get things done." Or find myself working 14 hour days and wondering how so much of that time got wasted.
I think we all suspect that something bad is happening when we're subjected to the notification systems on our phones, but it can be hard to pin down what that something is. And I certainly hadn't encountered a well developed a set of tactics to cope with a "something" I didn't even understand.
This book had some answers, and some additional ideas I really like.
Motivation = Discomfort
Why do we do what we do? Are we constantly seeking pleasure? Are we just avoiding pain?
This book presents some compelling evidence that the source of all motivation is just simple discomfort. If you put a person in a situation that makes them uncomfortable, they will be motivated to get creative and change their circumstances.
We pursue the distractions available through our phones because something is making us uncomfortable, and the phone is a temporary escape.
There's nothing we can really do about the urges we get to break our focus from the task in front of us. Distractions will happen, but we can affect how we respond to those urges. Managing distractions is managing discomfort. It's more like pain management than what we might think
Forget Todo Lists
Using todo lists to prioritize our efforts and create focus to get things done is intuitive. But it also has a pretty significant failure mode.
The trouble with lists is that the more you think about them, the more they grow, and the more you don't get through all the things, the more demoralizing the list gets.
Value-based, Time-boxed Schedules
Instead try this. Make decisions about what you need and what you value, and then create a weekly schedule that reflects this. Create time boxes on your schedule for you – things like meals, going to the gym, reading. Create time boxes for your relationships – time to call friends, bond with your partner, and grow your network. And time for your work – time to get things done that make money.
Treat these things as "best effort" rather than todo items. When the time is gone, the time is gone. You can evaluate yourself on how you performed and adjust your schedule for next week. Maybe some things need more time and some things need less.
Constructing a schedule based on your values is the greatest tool for eliminating distraction. Most of our weaknesses towards the distractions of our phones are a tantrum coming from deep down; rebelling against the time of our lives being spent in a way we don't approve of.
The little deadlines in a time boxed schedule provide a backstop that helps with focus. We begin to ask ourselves, "What's the best I can do on this with the time I have?" And since the time in front of us has a purpose, it becomes much less attractive to take away from that time with a phone break.
Further, the author points out, "In order for your phone to be a distraction, have to know what it's distracting you from."
Study your triggers
When we get distracted, it's accompanied by an impulse. Usually these impulses follow patterns. We don't get distracted 1000 different ways. We get distracted 1000 times 1 or 2 ways.
There's internal and external triggers. External triggers are generally easier to hack – turn off notifications from most of your apps and move anything messaging or news feed related off of your home screen.
Internal triggers are a little tougher. They come from a thought pattern and need to be handled with nuance.
One of the simplest effective responses to an internal trigger is not to outright deny it, but to delay it. If you have an itch to check Twitter or view stock market quotes while working on something, try saying to yourself, "I can check it, but in 10 minutes."
This allows you to get back to what you were doing, and if you really need to follow that impulse, you can do it 10 minutes from now. But most of the time, you'll find that you forget about the itch altogether.
I'm Experimenting With It
After reading this book, I was willing to start implementing. I've already created my weekly schedule and started sticking to it.
It feels pretty effective. Getting up early in the morning seems to make more sense. I designed a schedule that asks me to put time toward the things I care about and know are important in a balanced way.
Up until recently, I was working a lot. 14 hour days weren't uncommon. But after several months of this, I wasn't getting great results out of my work. It was getting very difficult to focus. There was lots of Twitter and checking crypto charts, and I think the root of it was being disheartened by the thought that "my whole life is just sitting in a chair in front of this screen." That belief created a type of weakness which amplified my distractibility.
Adding specific times into my schedule to create art and reach out to friends were the unlocks that gave me motivation to tune out distractions. It almost immediately became easier to contain work to a reasonable set of hours, get more done in those hours, and get to other things.
If you're confident that you are spending time the way you want to spend it, everything works better. Valuing the way you're spending time becomes concrete motivation to manage distraction triggers 10x more effectively.