On working without distractions.

 Over the last decade, I’ve spent many hours, days, and weeks thinking and doing around the project of being more productive. I’ve read most major books on productivity (over 50), experimented with every major ‘productivity app’. I’ve read studies, took extensive courses, and tried on whole new systems every 3–4 months. I even created my own productivity tools and systems.

At the end of last year, something shifted. I’ve found that the answer doesn’t lie in any new app, course, or book. The perfect combination of focus, performance, and a high level of wellbeing are not going to come to us from tools that promise them. No app or new system will address the underlying problems. At best, they’ll give us a jolt of energy that will push us a little bit further to discover the real answer. At worst, they’ll lead us down the wrong path.

Of all the things I’ve learned and read, I’ve distilled three principles that guide me to be focused, effective, and healthy. Even while juggling 5 or more big projects at a time, working in different environments, with changing conditions. These are general principles, and for each, I will give specific examples that apply to me or people I know. For you adopting them they may look quite different (and that’s ok).

Big idea #1: Know your priorities

What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.
— Dwight Eisenhower

Let’s dive in.

Every day, I start with 2–3 hours of important work, before I open an email or do any other activity. Important are the things that move you towards your goals. Your KPI’s at work, your specific goals in the business, your 12-, 6- and 3-month plans. For me, today, what’s important is building my business and writing.

Then, I shift to things that are urgent. These are requests, requirements, demands that have a specific deadline, expressed or implied. Working with my clients, responding to important emails, executing things that fulfill what’s most important to others.

We normally do the opposite. By the time we’ve done everything requested of us, the day ends or we’re too tired or distracted to focus on the things that matter to us. And the more effective we get at executing for others, the more requests we’ll get.

Finally, if you have the time left, do the rest. All the other things that are neither urgent nor important. Or just stop working and enjoy your life, because if you’re done with both important and urgent stuff, you’ve earned it!

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you will prioritize activities every day, for the rest of your life. And your ability to focus, be effective, and healthy is your own priority only. If you don’t act on it and protect them, no one will.

In short, rules for prioritizing are actually rather simple:

  • Important things always come first
  • Urgent things come second
  • Everything else comes last

Big idea #2: Limit the number of inputs

Working remotely for the last 7 years I’ve looked at a lot of shared screens. A look into a person’s desktop is deeply personal and reveals a lot about how they work. And almost every time, I see an environment that’s completely unsuited for deep productive work and being effective, with many open tabs, an onslaught of notifications and distractions. And with lines between home and work blending further than ever, this has become a problem that many more of us are experiencing.

Consider that absolutely everything that is displayed by your devices is a request for your attention. Every single pixel of the screen you look at wants something from you. From the hundreds of notifications, through the icons that are always on your screen, to the stuff you only look at occasionally. Every single one of these consumes a tiny bit of your attention, whether you’re conscious of it or not. And the more you dilute your attention across many of these often very unimportant things, the less you are able to focus deeply on one specific important task.

That’s why many famous writers, like J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Quentin Tarantino, Stephen King and George R.R. Martin is known for their reliable productivity still use either pen and paper, typewriters, or old-school pre-internet computers.

While I don’t think you have to ditch connectivity and convenience to get things done, there are some simple tweaks you can make to the way you work to support your focus and health.

Clean up your workspace

Image for post
A rare screenshot of Windows, coming from a designer.

Close apps you’re not using

Block distracting websites and apps when working

Take regular breaks

Keep your phone away

Bonus idea: Stay curious and catch bad habits as they form

It can seem tiny and innocent. But unchecked, these habits slowly add up to fill your day with automated activities, undoing all the work you’ve done to stay focused and healthy.

So stay curious and keep questioning everything you find yourself doing automatically.

One of the biggest takeaways I have from my journey with productivity is that technology is not always the right solution. Despite hundreds of apps designed to help people meditate and build better habits, I still use an old kitchen timer and pen and paper for both. There are simplicity and flexibility in old-school tools that are rarely achieved with digital technology.

And remember, just the fact that you are easily distracted is not wrong and doesn’t make you a stupid or lazy person. Don’t blame yourself for not having the mental tools to get out of the digital wasteland, none of us are born with them and people are just now realizing how big of a problem this is. Our brains are genetically wired this way and most technology companies today are built around extracting that design to their benefit.

So stay present to your own goals, stay curious, and see if you can consciously use all this technology to your benefit!

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