Illustration by Naolito

Reclaim Your Time

A lack of time is not the problem, but constant distractions

Tom Sommer
Jun 14, 2017 · 4 min read

Last week, I was fortunate enough to visit the lead dev conference in London. I had the privilege to hear some great talks from my peers, including those I have admired since becoming an Engineering Manager.

Some of the speakers mentioned the constant challenge — especially for managers — of not having enough time to do all the things that are important. And it is true. Most of us have a big list of to-do items, a long reading list, or more than 100 tabs open in the browser. It does not matter whether you are an executive, an engineer or a team lead.

Quite naturally, we assume it is a lack of time that is holding us back. If only we had 4 more hours in a day, we could do so many more amazing things. And because we believe time is our scarcest resource, we tend to blame everything that is explicitly preventing us from ‘doing work’, like meetings. But are we overlooking a bigger problem?

We throw away our productivity by allowing ourselves to get distracted all the time.

Distractions Dominate Your Day

Observing my fellow conference attendees, I was stunned — although only a little surprised — to see a lot of people around me on Slack. Non-stop. Before, during, and after talks. On laptops, phones and tablets. Every time I glanced into the audience, I saw a flurry of activity on our messaging app of choice.

This got me thinking about the office and our behaviour there. And while it might not be as obvious as in a conference setting, it is equally as bad. The number of times we lose our focus at work by an on-screen notification is mind-boggling. Last year, the Slack team announced we spend an average of 320 minutes every weekday in the app.

Tools like Slack and Hipchat try their hardest to make you read every message in every room you are in. Preferably within seconds of the message being sent. Taking myself as an example, I have to click through every channel in Slack that has unread messages before my brain is happy to let go. Classic FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) — and I’m not even getting notifications in most situations.

Effects Of An Interrupted Life

The ongoing distractions we are receiving cause problems on multiple levels.

  1. Context Switching. Every time a notification pops up on the screen your brain is doing a context switch. This not only uses up some of your energy, but it also takes time to get back to the original task.
  2. Multitasking. Constant context switching ends up in doing multiple things at once. This is not only bad for your productivity, but also for your health.
  3. Lack of Flow. Due to the focus on multiple things at once, we only do work on a single task in short bursts. We will never get into a state of flow or deep work, which is proven to be the most productive way of working.

There is actually a pretty simple way of identifying when you are living an interrupted (work-)life:

You feel busy, but are not productive.

Eliminate Interruptions

The core question is, how do we make the most of the time we have? A popular idea is to cancel all meetings. The issue with this approach is, some (or most) meetings are necessary to work on the right things. Another option is to put in a couple more hours every day. That might be a valid approach for short bursts, but has the danger of burn-out in the long run.

Minimise your distractions in order to be able to do more things.

The biggest most impactful thing you can do to is to minimise your distractions — at least for part of the day. You will be able to do more within the same amount of hours. Of course I am not arguing to completely isolate yourself. There is tremendous value in being able to connect with your colleagues in different cities and time zones. However, turning off all notifications and apps when you want to get a single task done, will go a long way.

Summary

I have felt like I am extremely busy without accomplishing much a lot of times in my career. The urge to follow the pop-ups appearing on your screen is strong. What has helped me, is the ability to identify these situations, turn off notifications and re-focus on my task at hand.

We complain about not having enough time for all the things we want to do. But instead of making the most of the time we have, we throw away any chance of productivity by allowing ourselves to get distracted every minute of the day.

Reclaim your time. Eliminate all possible interruptions and focus on a single task. You will be amazed by how much more you can get done.

The Ascent

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Tom Sommer

Written by

Writing about Leadership and Personal Development. Director of Engineering @ Redbubble.

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