Earlier this week, I locked myself in a cabin in the Shenandoah Forest more than 4 hours away from my house. The purpose was not to set myself up to be the subject of a horror movie or to do a monastic retreat.
I needed to get work done.
Like most highly productive people today, my average day is a cacophony of notifications, alerts, scheduled calls, and rushing from location to location to get everything done as quickly and efficiently as possible. When you have your fingers in lots of projects and a lot of people depend on you, there is a good chance your day looks like this, too. It can be the best way to delegate, manage, and execute across time zones and ambitions.
But it is not conducive to getting good, quality work done.
Distracted work time breeds distracted thinking. Distracted thinking breeds distracted products.
The difficult trade-off about being a highly effective person in the world today is that there have never been more demands on your time and energy from more places (i.e., people on the other side of the world can ping you on your phone at a moment’s notice, remote work opens up freedom to move around at the price of your uninterrupted phone, traditional business hours are a thing of the past, and having an office and boundaries at the office only works for the people who work with you in that office) and the ability to do quality work uninterrupted by distractions has never been more important.
The Catch-22 manifests itself as a generation of ambitious, high-achieving people running around like crazy accomplishing little compared to what they could do if their time was focused.
For me, this was getting everything on my calendar done and simultaneously worrying about when I would have time to sit down and work on my major writing projects. The worry at the back of my mind would eat away at my ability to focus on other work and would keep me from scheduling in sufficient time to go deep on existing work. It was a lose-lose across the board.
On the less-drastic end of the spectrum, this manifests itself when you have many demands for your time but you fail to compartmentalize them or schedule them in appropriately. You take calls as they come up, meet people as they say they want to meet you, go to the gym when you get time, and do leisurely activities when your phone is not blowing up. Instead of scheduling things in and letting them stay where they ought to in the calendar, the empty calendar fills up beyond what a full calendar would allow.
(Remote work is particularly pernicious for this…given the freedom to make their own schedules at work, many people choose to let the schedule make them, not the other way around.)
The devil exists in the white space on your calendar. Grant Cardone
In order to reach our peak productivity, we have to schedule in time to work on fewer things.
The author Cal Newport calls this “deep work,” and it is the ability to master complex subjects and produce at an elite level. The type of subjects that allow for great success in the new economy are those that cannot be learned in between checking email, looking at Twitter notifications, and responding to Slack. They are subjects that require focus and long periods of uninterrupted time to learn and for which to produce quality work.
“if you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to e-mail, or put aside a few hours after dinner to catch up on an approaching deadline, you’re robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration. Even if these work dashes consume only a small amount of time, they prevent you from reaching the levels of deeper relaxation in which attention restoration can occur. Only the confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day to follow. Put another way, trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had instead respected a shutdown.” Cal Newport, Deep Work
Deep work time only comes from periods where you can turn off and plug into what I have heard called “the genius zone.” This is where, when an interesting idea comes up in your mind, you can follow it to an explicable form which you can then apply, write about, or investigate further.
Schedule in Single Issue Time
Eventually, I decided that the only way I would make sufficient progress on all of my work was to capture the largest deep work monkey on my back (for me, writing 40,000 words of my new book) and schedule it into a few days.
I booked 3 nights at an Airbnb 4 hours away from my house (4 hours made it far enough where going felt like an investment but not so far that I had to devote entire days to travel) that explicitly did not have wifi (I am disciplined but I do not trust my discipline when my will wears weak and I want nothing more than a distraction from my work).
(This is a particularly useful strategy for writing. If you do not think you can produce quality work in extended periods of time, keep in mind that 25,000 mediocre words are better than 0 good words and can always be edited into good words.)
This did a few things:
- I no longer had to worry about when I would get to writing. I would not feel bad for spending hours on other work and not getting in an hour there or an hour there to write.
- I would not have to feel bad if I decided to unplug for a day to write. I could tell others days in advance that I would not be reachable during these few days and set up an email autoresponder letting people know I would not be reachable.
- I could let ideas for the writing stew in my mind up to the days I would have to write without having to frantically do research as I was writing.
While I was at the Airbnb, I had hours of uninterrupted time to focus, allowing me to produce at a quality rate of production. When I felt distracted, rather than putzing around on the Internet or going to the neighborhood coffeeshop (the American coffeeshop is the Mecca of distracted work…why people think it is a good place to get quality work done is beyond me), I was forced to go on a walk or to redirect my attention back to my work.
The time worked.
Lessons for Quality Work
Understand how your time works and what kind of work is required for what kind of time. As you become more competent and more ambitious, you naturally get more demands on your time. As you indulge these demands, you become less competent if you do not have a quality system set up to triage and mange work.
Use Your Calendar
If you do not use your calendar, somebody else’s calendar will use you. Your calendar is a place where you can outsource your mind, lower the number of taxing decisions that you have to make at any given time, and gives you plausible deniability for turning down commitments (“oh, you want to have a meeting-without-any-clear-outcome at 3 on Tuesday? I already have work scheduled on my calendar that time, sorry.”).
Know What Type of Work Goes Where
Imagine you have three different types of work in any given week: responding to calls, emails, messages; meetings; and focus-oriented work (this can be product development, writing, software development, whatever).
The focus-oriented work is the most valuable work for you and your long-term success. Schedule it in with plenty of buffer time and make sure it goes somewhere on your calendar that it will not be forgotten or rescheduled.
Meetings have to fit into other people’s schedules, so use your focus-oriented work as your own positive constraint on the schedules of others.
Responding to messages should come last. If something is truly an emergency and requires an immediate response, people will call your cell phone. Most emails can sit for a few hours, don’t worry.
If you have the ability to delegate work to others, delegate as many meetings and response time to other people. Younger, less-experienced colleagues have a lower opportunity cost, so to be taking up correspondence with a business partner or a client on your behalf might actually be valuable for them, even if it is a time-suck for you.
Delegation helps you reduce your meeting and response-time commitments, opening up more calendar space for focus-oriented work.
Schedule in High-Value Time with Skin in the Game
For your most high-value focus-oriented activities, do not give yourself an out. A few hours at home scheduled in to write or to study can be interrupted by a roommate or a spouse or a phone call. Schedule in this time at a cost to yourself so that you do what you have to do to extract every minute and dollar of value from that time.
In my case, this was actually renting a place far away that took time, money, and energy to get to. This made it that I had no choice but to work, lest I bear a cost for flaking.
Focus-oriented work is the most valuable work you can do. Do not let other people’s calendars keep you from living out your most valuable time.
I write regularly on education and accelerating your career at zakslayback.com.