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See How Easily You Can Minimize Distractions and Maximize Efficiency

See How Easily You Can Minimize Distractions and Maximize Efficiency

If you maximize efficiency, you will provide more value to yourself and others. You will meet goals faster and more consistently. You will live a fuller life, whether that means increasing your wealth, leisure time, or time with family. Fortunately, you can max out your efficiency, or “get in the zone,” by following three simple rules: establish a conducive environment, pursue intentional focus, and eliminate inevitable distractions. These key actions direct your focus to the task at hand and minimize attention to distractions.

I teach and lecture at a major university, write scholarly articles and computer programs, and take PhD. level classes. That is just my “day job.” At night, I like to spend time with my wife and our families, read, write for my blog, and participate in outdoor activities. Just like you, I have big dreams and must work efficiently to meet my goals. But I don’t have the will power to relentlessly work long, mind-numbing days. Perhaps you don’t either. If I want to meet my goals, I must work efficiently.

I haven’t always realized this—it’s actually a new insight for me. In the past, I believed the nonsense about “putting in the hours.” The standard advice goes something like this: “Write down all that you need to do and then do it!” This is most unhelpful because I can’t do that. I am too easily distracted.

I realized that to-do lists, while they have their place, are not the key to efficient production. Instead, I simply needed to annihilate the enemy of productivity: distractions. I knew that if I eliminated distractions, then I would achieve my goals and have more time to pursue other interests.

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Since this insight, I’ve reduced that idea of annihilating distractions to three simple keys. If you do these things, then you’ll maximize efficiency.

Establish an Environment that Is Conducive to Productivity

First, you must establish an environment that is conducive to productivity by removing potential distractions. This means that your desk must have nothing except what you need, including your desk drawers and computer desktop. Any unnecessary item in your work area makes you less efficient. It can physically, mentally, and emotionally hamper your productivity. You have to move the book you don’t need to make room for a needed document. The unfinished spreadsheet on your computer desktop distracts your attention and you need a few seconds to re-establish your momentum. Your cluttered desk drawer makes it harder for you to find what you need and adds more stress to your morning.

Decluttering your workspace is simple. Simply take everything in, on, and around your desk, put it into a huge pile, and put back only the things required for your daily tasks. Throw away everything else or store it somewhere else. It’s that simple.

Application: My desk has a computer, lamp, and whatever I’m working on at that moment. That’s it. I also keep my computer desktop uncluttered. I have no permanent icons on my desktop. When I start working on a particular project, I create shortcut icons to the important files and add these to the desktop. When I am done, I delete them. My desk drawer contains only the supplies that I need on a normal work day (pen, highlighter, labeler, stapler, paper clips, alligator clips, and rubber bands). I keep a legal pad and “collection” basket on a shelf below the desk and out of sight. My waste basket sits beside my desk.

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Remove the clutter from your workspace. This frees your mind, allowing you to be more creative and productive by eliminating many potential distractions before your work even begins.

Achieving an Intentional Focus

Focus rarely appears unexpectedly. Instead, it is intentional. You can achieve focus through a willful effort, but only for a limited time. Fortunately, the “limited time” is enough.

Parkinson’s Law tells us that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” This law is a consequence of distractions, which continuously steal value from our lives. What could have been two hours writing a blog post and two hours playing Frisbee with my wife turns into four hours of blogging. You must intentionally counteract this tendency.

Contrary to some who recommend strict deadlines for work (i.e. I’ll stop working on this project at 3 p.m.), I recommend working on projects for as long as you like, but working intensely. This gives you needed flexibility to make intuitive judgments about your time as the work moves forward but eliminates feet-dragging. Working in short intense bursts and taking frequent breaks, known as “pulsing,” allows to work efficiently while maintaining your mental energy. You must defeat Parkinson’s law not through strict deadlines but by working intensely or not at all. Commit yourself to working intensely for a manageable period of time, taking a brief break, and then starting over.

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Application: I use the Pomodora technique, working 25 minutes, taking a five minute break, and then repeating. During my short break, I might get a drink of water, check my e-mail or Twitter feed, or step outside. I only have five minutes, so I don’t worry about these activities getting out of hand. These breaks are refreshing and allow me to start another 25 minute session with a renewed focus. I use the Tomate Timer for Ubuntu to manage my sessions; CherryTomato timer is available for Windows and Mac. But it doesn’t matter what software you use, just find a system that works for you.

While working, make sure that you maximize your focus by working in intense, short sessions with deliberate breaks. This leads to tremendous efficiency, gives you more time to pursue other interests, and adds value to your life and others’.

Develop a System for Dealing with Inevitable Distractions

Despite your efforts to build a distraction-free workspace and work in short, focused sessions, distractions appear that you must deal with. You think of an idea for another project or someone interrupts with a bit of important information. You must collect this information for later, but in a way that does not disrupt your current efficiency. I find the collection system proposed by David Allen helpful for this.

When an important distraction appears, you must get that information off your mind quickly, but ensure you deal with it later. I quickly jot down these distractions and toss them into the collection basket that sits on a shelf under my desk. I go through my collection basket a couple of time each day, reliably, efficiently, and deliberately addressing these potentially disruptive distractions.

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Application: While writing this blog post, a couple of other good ideas came to mind. I simply jotted those ideas down and tossed them into my collection basket under my desk. Since then, I’ve added them as post ideas in my Nevernote software. Because I put the ideas into a system that I trusted, I freed my mind to continue working on the current task without trying to remember it for later or taking care of it now.

Distractions are inevitable. You must build a system that allows you to quickly continue your current work session, but ensures the information is stored and used later. A simple collection basket allows you to do this.

You Can Maximize Efficiency and Offer More Value to Yourself and Others.

You can and should work more efficiently. You deserve more than dragging your feet for eight hours every day. Fortunately, efficient work doesn’t require super-human willpower. It simply requires setting yourself up for success. You must take three steps to maximize your efficiency. No step is difficult, but all require deliberate action. First, you must remove potential distractions from your workspace. You need to deal with these distractions before they slow you down. Second, you must work in intense bursts. If you don’t, your work expands to fill the available space, infringing on time for family, leisure, and entrepreneurial side projects. Finally, you must plan for dealing with the unavoidable distractions that might disrupt your otherwise productive sessions. Quickly jotting down the information and tossing it into a collection basket allows you to get back on track while trusting that you’ll take the necessary actions later. Take these steps, maximize your efficiency, and create relentless value.

What do you think? Have I missed any important keys? How have you implemented these ideas? How else do you maximize efficiency?

Featured photo credit:  chess via Shutterstock

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Last Updated on March 21, 2019

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

Most gurus talk about habits in a way that doesn’t help you:

You need to push yourself more. You can’t be lazy. You need to wake up at 5 am. You need more motivation. You can never fail…blah blah “insert more gibberish here.”

But let me share with you the unconventional truths I found out:

To build and change habits, you don’t need motivation or wake up at 5 am. Heck, you can fail multiple times, be lazy, have no motivation and still pull it off with ease.

It’s quite simple and easy to do, especially with the following list I’m going to show to you. But remember, Jim Rohn used to say,

“What is simple and easy to do is also simple and easy not to do.”

The important things to remember when changing your habits are both simple and easy, just don’t think that they don’t make any difference because they do.

In fact, they are the only things that make a difference.

Let’s see what those small things are, shall we?

1. Start Small

The biggest mistake I see people doing with habits is by going big. You don’t go big…ever. You start small with your habits.

Want to grow a book reading habit? Don’t start reading a book a day. Start with 10 pages a day.

Want to become a writer? Don’t start writing 10,000 words a day. Start with 300 words.

Want to lose weight? Don’t stop eating ice cream. Eat one less ball of it.

Whatever it is, you need to start small. Starting big always leads to failure. It has to, because it’s not sustainable.

Start small. How small? The amount needs to be in your comfort zone. So if you think that reading 20 pages of a book is a bit too much, start with 10 or 5.

It needs to appear easy and be easy to do.

Do less today to do more in a year.

2. Stay Small

There is a notion of Kaizen which means continuous improvement. They use this notion in habits where they tell you to start with reading 1 page of a book a day and then gradually increase the amount you do over time.

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But the problem with this approach is the end line — where the “improvement” stops.

If I go from reading 1 page of a book a day and gradually reach 75 and 100, when do I stop? When I reach 1 book a day? That is just absurd.

When you start a habit, stay at it in the intensity you have decided. Don’t push yourself for more.

I started reading 20 pages of a book a day. It’s been more than 2 years now and I’ve read 101 books in that period. There is no way I will increase the number in the future.

Why?

Because reading 40 to 50 books a year is enough.

The same thing applies to every other habit out there.

Pick a (small) number and stay at it.

3. Bad Days Are 100 Percent Occurrence

No matter how great you are, you will have bad days where you won’t do your habit. Period.

There is no way of going around this. So it’s better to prepare yourself for when that happens instead of thinking that it won’t ever happen.

What I do when I miss a day of my habit(s) is that I try to bounce back the next day while trying to do habits for both of those days.

Example for that is if I read 20 pages of a book a day and I miss a day, the next day I will have to read 40 pages of a book. If I miss writing 500 words, the next day I need to write 1000.

This is a really important point we will discuss later on rewards and punishments.

This is how I prepare for the bad days when I skip my habit(s) and it’s a model you should take as well.

4. Those Who Track It, Hack It

When you track an activity, you can objectively tell what you did in the past days, weeks, months, and years. If you don’t track, you will for sure forget everything you did.

There are many different ways you can track your activities today, from Habitica to a simple Excel sheet that I use, to even a Whatsapp Tracker.

Peter Drucker said,

“What you track is what you do.”

So track it to do it — it really helps.

But tracking is accompanied by one more easy activity — measuring.

5. Measure Once, Do Twice

Peter Drucker also said,

“What you measure is what you improve.”

So alongside my tracker, I have numbers with which I measure doses of daily activities:

For reading, it’s 20 pages.
For writing, it’s 500 words.
For the gym, it’s 1 (I went) or 0 (didn’t go).
For budgeting, it’s writing down the incomes and expenses.

Tracking and measuring go hand in hand, they take less than 20 seconds a day but they create so much momentum that it’s unbelievable.

6. All Days Make a Difference

Will one day in the gym make you fit? It won’t.

Will two? They won’t.

Will three? They won’t.

Which means that a single gym session won’t make you fit. But after 100 gym sessions, you will look and feel fit.

What happened? Which one made you fit?

The answer to this (Sorites paradox)[1] is that no single gym session made you fit, they all did.

No single day makes a difference, but when combined, they all do. So trust the process and keep on going (small).

7. They Are Never Fully Automated

Gurus tell you that habits become automatic. And yes, some of them do, like showering a certain way of brushing your teeth.

But some habits don’t become automatic, they become a lifestyle.

What I mean by that is that you won’t automatically “wake up” in the gym and wonder how you got there.

It will just become a part of your lifestyle.

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The difference is that you do the first one automatically, without conscious thought, while the other is a part of how you live your life.

It’s not automatic, but it’s a decision you don’t ponder on or think about — you simply do it.

It will become easy at a certain point, but they will never become fully automated.

8. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Marshall Goldsmith has a great book with the same title to it. The phrase means that sometimes, you will need to ditch certain habits to make room for other ones which will bring you to the next step.

Don’t be afraid to evolve your habits when you sense that they don’t bring you where you want to go.

When I started reading, it was about reading business and tactic books. But two years into it, I switched to philosophy books which don’t teach me anything “applicable,” but instead teach me how to think.

The most important ability of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. The strongest tree is the willow tree – not because it has the strongest root or biggest trunk, but because it is flexible enough to endure and sustain anything.

Be like a willow, adapting to the new ways of doing things.

9. Set a Goal and Then Forget It

The most successful of us know what they want to achieve, but they don’t focus on it.

Sounds paradoxical? You’re right, it does. But here is the logic behind it.

You need to have a goal of doing something – “I want to become a healthy individual” – and then, you need to reverse engineer how to get there with your habits- “I will go to the gym four times a week.”

But once you have your goal, you need to “forget” about it and only focus on the process. Because you are working on the process of becoming healthy and it’s always in the making. You will only be as healthy as you take care of your body.

So you have a goal which isn’t static but keeps on moving.

If you went to the gym 150 times year and you hit your goal, what would you do then? You would stop going to the gym.

This is why goal-oriented people experience yo-yo effect[2] and why process-oriented people don’t.

The difference between process-oriented and goal-oriented people is that the first focus on daily actions while others only focus on the reward at the finish line.

Set a goal but then forget about it and reap massive awards.

10. Punish Yourself

Last two sections are pure Pavlovian – you need to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. You are the only person who decides what is good and what is bad for you, but when you do, you need to rigorously follow that.

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I’ve told you in point #3 about bad days and how after one occurs, I do double the work on the next day. That is one of my forms of punishments.

It’s the need to tell your brain that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that they lead to bad outcomes. That’s what punishments are for.

You want to tell your brain that there are real consequences to missing your daily habits.[3]

No favorite food to eat or favorite show to watch or going to the cinema for a new Marvel movie- none, zero, zilch.

The brain will remember these bad feelings and will try to avoid the behaviors that led to them as much as possible.

But don’t forget the other side of the same coin.

11. Reward Yourself

When you follow and execute on your plan, reward yourself. It’s how the brain knows that you did something good.

Whenever I finish one of my habits for the day, I open my tracker (who am I kidding, I always keep it open on my desktop) and fill it with a number. As soon as I finish reading 20 pages of a book a day (or a bit more), I open the tracker and write the number down.

The cell becomes green and gives me an instant boost of endorphin – a great success for the day. Then, it becomes all about not breaking the chain and having as many green fields as possible.

After 100 days, I crunch some numbers and see how I did.

If I have less than 10 cheat days, I reward myself with a great meal in a restaurant. You can create your own rewards and they can be daily, weekly, monthly or any arbitrary time table that you create.

Primoz Bozic, a productivity coach, has gold, silver, and bronze medals as his reward system.[4]

If you’re having problems creating a system which works for you, contact me via email and we can discuss specifics.

In the End, It Matters

What you do matters not only to you but to the people around you.

When you increase the quality of your life, you indirectly increase the quality of life of people around you. And sometimes, that is all the “motivation” we need to start.

And that’s the best quote for the end of this article:

“Motivation gets you started, but habits keep you going.”

Keep going.

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More Resources to Help You Build Habits

Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Sorites paradox
[2] Muscle Zone: What causes yo-yo effect and how to avoid it?
[3] Growth Habits: 5 Missteps That Cause You To Quit Building A Habit
[4] Primoz Bozic: The Lean Review: How to Plan Your 2019 in 20 Minutes

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