Nobody wakes up hoping to get little done in the day and to be distracted by a bunch of things that don’t really matter. Despite this, that’s what many office workers end up doing.
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about the “metric black hole” that so many of our activities fall into. This black hole is where the measurements of the costs for our activities fall into. Email seems productive because you’re pushing words around in the company, but most of the time it does little more than making you feel productive.
Here are 3 ways you can cut those distractions and pull productivity out of that black hole.
1. Take A New Approach To Email
Yes, email is the way most companies communicate. Quick messages are dashed off across the company with many people CC’d on them. It feels like something is actually getting done, but most often what you’re really doing is reorganizing under the guise of working hard.
To get on top of this productivity-stealing beast, you need to take drastic action. First, only check your email twice a day at the most and set a time limit. I use the Pomodoro productivity method and I allow only one 25-minute block per day to go through my email. Putting this time limit on email means that it can’t expand into all my available time.
When I was last an employee, and the lowest person on the totem pole, even the CEO understood me only checking email twice a day. A calm, rational explanation that I needed large swaths of time to focus on my work was fine with him. He even adopted the practice of only checking his own email at 11 AM and 3 PM and loved how much extra focus he had.
Second, start scheduling almost all of your email. I use Right Inbox to only send email at 4 PM, regardless of the time I check it. The only exception is when someone is waiting on something from me and they need a response right away. This helps ensure that you’re not playing email tag as you try to clear your inbox and replies keep coming in.
Third, never check your email first thing in the morning. The thing that email is really good at is telling you what everyone else thinks is important for you that day. It rarely has any bearing on what you need to do to push your projects forward. You should figure out the night before what your most important task is. Come in and do that until you have your scheduled email block.
Fourth, turn off all notifications on your email. Studies show that having these notifications on can cause you to get distracted from the task at hand. If you’re not focused, you’re not doing your work well. Just get used to waiting for your scheduled email times. Nothing will catch on fire, and if it does, the alarm will go off or someone will stop by your office as they run out the door in a panic.
2. Turn Off Notifications For Slack/Hipchat/Messaging
These can be great tools and many companies are diving into group-messaging tools with both feet, cutting out the need for email. The problem is that the expectation is for employees to have chat open most of the time and respond instantly to any message — no matter how trivial. I’ve talked with one manager who felt the most productive programmers were those that had a notification engine built into their code editors so they could jump to chat instantly from the task they were focussed on.
This is simply the notification problem with email exponentially increased. Simply because there is some benefit to a tool doesn’t mean that it’s a good tool.
Just like email, turn off all notifications on your chat tools. Then, quit the application in favor of scheduled checkins. I check my Slack channels twice a day — once just after my morning workout and once just after lunch. I’m already not focused on anything in particular, so there is no attention stolen.
3. Avoid Unnecessary Meetings
Finally, let’s talk about meetings. So often, someone can easily call a meeting with 10 people for 2 hours which, in terms of salary, costs thousands of dollars, but they could never approve an expense of half that amount. Why does no one bat an eye at this?
To curb the constant meetings, start by refusing to go to any meeting that doesn’t have a clear agenda 48 hours in advance and a single clear decision that you need to be involved in. Again, with my last full-time employment, as the lowest person in the building, I put this in place and managed to avoid most meetings.
When your boss asks you to join a meeting, show them your task list and ask which item needs to get bumped off the list for the meeting. Much of the time, your boss is going to say that the meeting needs to get bumped. When I’ve used this tactic, a 2-hour meeting turned into someone coming to get me for the 15 minutes that I really needed to be there. I weighed in and then was gone.
That super-important meeting often isn’t that important — it’s just that no one has challenged it yet. In the face of a challenge, people acknowledge that the interruption in the workday is worth less than moving projects forward.
Like I said at the beginning, there are so many distractions in your day. Cutting those distractions out and taking control of your day will mean that you get more done and don’t have to work all hours to be as productive as possible.
Featured photo credit: jpstjohn via flickr.com