Monday, October 11, 2021

Removing Distractions Series: Set Your Intention

Actions to take: Quit mixing little breaks into your work time. Instead, set ambitious-but-realistic goals for getting tasks done quickly. Use the time you save for real breaks that allow you to genuinely rest your brain. Take 10 minutes in the morning thoroughly planning your day. If that plan is disrupted, spend a few minutes rewriting the plan rather than just trying to play catch-up.

This is one entry in a short series about removing distractions from your work, inspired by the Cost of Distractions post from early September. There are both productivity and mental health benefits to removing distractions while working on anything that requires focus.

No matter the amount of work we have to get done in a day, we manage to sabotage ourselves. When our load is heavy, we feel overwhelmed and find ways to avoid getting started. When our load is light, we stretch things out to fill our day.

It might not be obvious, but both of these techniques contribute to mental exhaustion. On days where we are overburdened, we not only have a lot to do, but we add stress by putting it off. We do fun* things to put off work, like checking social media or playing a quick game of solitaire. These activities add task-switching costs to our time and mental energy. Light load days can be even more draining. Because we need to stretch, say, 3 hours of work into an 8 hour day, we take lots of little breaks. We are constantly switching between our actual work and fun* stuff. We might check the same Slack channel or news site a dozen times while working on a single task. 

*Note: These activities are not actually any fun. They are just ways to kill time because we are bored or because we are dreading how much work we need to do. 

Stop this nonsense. 

Set your intention for each hour of the day. Decide that you will spend a certain amount of time really working and a certain amount of time really relaxing, rather than constantly muddling the two. Here is a quick how-to:

  1. Plan your tasks at the start of the day. 10 minutes in the morning can save you hours of procrastination throughout the day. Go beyond making a list of tasks to do—decide how long each task will take and when to do it. People generally have the most mental energy available at the beginning of the day and lose steam as the hours go by. Whatever you are least interested in doing, schedule it as early as possible. You will be much more likely to get it done that way.
  2. Work ambitiously, take breaks ambitiously. Work well for 45 minutes, really step on the gas. Do 2 hours' worth of work in that 45 minutes. Then take a real break, something that relaxes and calms your brain. My default is music and a walk. You won't need the break every hour, but you are welcome to take it as often as you like. As long as you commit yourself to hard work during those 45 minutes, you'll still get more done than you used to. If your office policy doesn't allow this, it is a bad policy. (Frankly, if you are managing people, you are probably exempt. That means you are not paid by the hour—you are paid for results.)
  3. Rewrite your plan for the day when necessary. Some days, the curveballs keep coming. You made a plan to do x, y, and z by noon. 12:00 rolls around and urgent issues have kept you from even getting started. When you have a minute to breathe, step back and reconsider your plan. Simply trying to catch up is the wrong strategy. When you feel behind, it adds stress and pulls focus from your work. Instead, rewrite your plan. Decide what should be moved to another day. Get deadline extensions if necessary. Just like the 10 minutes in the morning, you will save time and mental energy by spending these few minutes reconsidering your day.

People are willing to put off work and take little breaks all the time, as long as it is not a "real" break. They will take several 5-minute breaks over the course of an hour to chat with someone, poke around on the internet, or play a quick game of solitaire. But the idea of taking a single 15-minute break each hour is clearly over the line for them. This is the opposite of effective behavior. They are constantly switching tasks and engaging in "always on" brain activity. That is how you burn yourself out. 

Instead, set your intention. Do your best, most efficient work. When you gain extra time because of it, use that time for genuine breaks, not time killers. You will be more productive, more effective, and you will feel better at the end of the day. 

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