Distraction is inevitable in modern life.
On a typical day, everything looked productive in the morning; I created my list of to-dos in the task tracking app, got a coffee, then logged in to my workstation to start exciting projects with numerous ideas.
Things started differently than I expected when I logged in. The email app notified me I needed to reply to someone’s late last night email. After that, Slack notified me of the messages I tagged and 100 lines of conversations that took over 5 minutes to read. I am still trying to figure out what it was about.
Meanwhile, my phone continued sending me numerous notifications. On Facebook, my college friend showed a cute cat picture; on Twitter, Elon’s last widespread tweet about the Tesla price cut; on Pinterest, someone I followed shared a new bedroom design idea; On LinkedIn, someone got a new position. I am plugged into too many things. I need to focus on starting early in the morning.
Technology has given us opportunities to be more productive, but it has also brought a flood of information to distract us. Everyone is swamped with email, instant messages, and endless meetings.
I am tired of continuous rapid context switching and keep being distracted. Interruption kept occurring and continued the next day. I need a strategy to escape to find peace of mind in an isolated environment to concentrate on my task.
Multitasking Is a Bad Idea
One of the required skills for some jobs is multitasking. It sounds like an amazing skill to have: simultaneously dividing their attention into multiple tasks. For example, You can talk over the phone while driving a car.
However, consider a time when you are multitasking. Are you doing things in parallel or just switching contexts among tasks but thinking sequentially? Multitasking can lead to unexpected results than just doing tasks one after another.
Multitasking can result in time wasted due to human context switching and becoming prone to errors due to insufficient attention. — Wikipedia
Academic research also shows that multitasking is a bad idea. Joshua Rubinstein, PhD, and Jeffrey Evans, PhD, published the paper, Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. They performed four experiments to show participants lost time when they switched from one task to another. As tasks got more complicated, participants lost more time among more complex tasks.
Deep Work is Essential
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. — Deep Work By Cal Newport
Deep work improves your work quality and productivity
Context switching destroys the depth of your work quality and productivity. Deep work means only focusing on one task without being distracted. The attention to getting only one thing done enhance both productivity and quality.
On 11 January 2007, J.K. Rowling finished writing the last book of the Harry Potter series in Edinburgh’s Balmoral hotel. Why she stays in a hotel to finish her book? The answer is to create an environment so she can focus on working instead of consistently getting distracted at the home office. The last book she finished on time and delivered high reviews has proved that deep work is essential to work quality and productivity.
Deep work brings more happiness and satisfaction
What was the last time you focused on a task without getting distracted for over an hour? How does that feel? Does it bring you a sense of satisfaction with finishing something challenging?
Our mental model needs a feedback loop to keep us happy. Shallow work with something accomplished can be annoying. Deep work with one done at a time can build our mental model to keep up. You gain confidence when you look back and say, “I have done those already, so let’s continue.” Happiness and satisfaction are achieved with deep work by setting up a solid foundation for us to continue until the finish line.
The personal finance expert David Ramsey made the famous “snowball” method based on the mental model needs. The method suggests paying off the smallest debts as quickly as possible, then tackling the bigger ones. Although the suggestion could be more financially wise (you should pay off the largest with the highest interest rate), this method works mentally well as people concentrate on getting one debt paid off. You work on getting rid of one debt deeply, and the feeling of accomplishment encourages you to persist.
Timeboxing Comes to The Rescue
I embrace timeboxing strategy to find peace of mind and focus on things I want to accomplish. Timeboxing allocates a fixed and maximum unit of time to an activity. It is a popular project management concept but can be a powerful tool for many places.
The goal of timeboxing isn’t ignorance but to produce a better quality of your work while delaying the less urgent kinds of stuff. Do you need to reply to every email as soon as it arrives in your inbox? Can that instant message be responded to one hour later? If you don’t thumbs up a friend’s new job position posted on Linkedin, will someone fire you? No. If you rethink, many things are not urgent and can be delayed.
How to perform productively during timeboxing? All you need is simple:
- Create separate time block (timeboxes) on your calendar that is visible to others. It’s better to put the time block ahead of time to avoid conflicts.
- Define the precise plan and deliverables for the timeboxes. You’d need a plan ahead of time, timebox without a plan is not a good use of the time you blocked.
- Avoid any distractions from email, instant messages, or your social media. If you are on macOS, the focus mode is an easy way to get that sanity.
- Work on exclusively one task. NO multitasking.
- [Optional] Change the environment if you find the places are not suitable for deep work
- [Optional] If the work doesn’t finish on time as expected, have an exit plan to include that situation
Timeboxing is a Habit
Timeboxing can be a habit than just some ad-hoc time block for a random project. James Clear mentioned in his book Atomic Habits about the use of the Implementation Intention:
I will [Behavior] at [Time] in [Location]
The idea is simple and obvious. Block a time with frequency to perform an action. If you make this timebox attractive, easy, and satisfying, you get a habit of doing certain things. Having a habit is powerful.
- “I will read a book for an hour at 10:00 p.m. when my kid goes to bed at my home office.”
- “I will plan my next day’s to-do list at 5:30 p.m.”
- “I will practice tennis at 7:00 a.m. every Sunday at the nearest tennis court.”
There is much to unveil about keeping the habit, but many habits demand timebox and concentration.
Timeboxing is a strategy to be successful in deep work. It is also a commitment to book yourself a period without distraction. Timeboxing is the foundation for a new habit, so take your time to rethink, clear the annoying thoughts, and deep work with timeboxing. I hope you find it helpful to timeboxing your work, giving you peace of mind, happiness, and satisfaction.