Despite all the benefits technology brought to my daily life, it also becomes hugely distracting if I don’t manage it well.
Planning to write a blog post, I’m receiving emails in one tab, Facebook messages in the next and Calendar reminders in the other.
Even if all those notifications, bings and reminders are turned off (I’ll be drafting a blog post shortly on why they must be turned off at all times), distraction doesn’t stop.
Deep work for success
However, deep work is critical for professional success in my job and highly likely it is in yours as well. Deep work, defined by Cal Newport in Deep Work as professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to their limit, includes writing, coding and research.
Entering Indiana Jones’ Temple of Doom – The Internet
Getting my inner Indiana Jones for deep work on, I enter the Temple of Doom. The internet.
Researching information for an article becomes like this coal cart rollercoaster ride Indiana went on, fighting off the thugs during that ride.
The rollercoaster being your research of down-bottom useless nonsense information to up-top quality data on the internet.
The thugs being Social Media, Reddit and backlinks to other sites, trying to get a grip on you and throw you of your research cart.
The Distraction Prevention Strategy
If I want to be productive, the only way is through deep work. Hence, I must develop a distraction prevention strategy. Without it, I cannot manage to ever get into deep work. Without deep work, I cannot produce. And without producing, there’s nothing.
I’ve developed this strategy iteratively, adjusting step-by-step to eliminate distractions one by one.
Turn off notifications
Notifications are an addiction. Really. If you have notifications enabled (for any app: emails, Facebook, any app), you’re not different to an alcoholic.
The alcoholic is not addicted to the alcohol itself. The alcoholic is addicted to the feeling he/she gets that the alcohol creates through the release of hormones.
Each time you get a message, email or Tweet and your phone notifies you instantly, you want to check it. You want to check it because your body releases a small shot of dopamine. You’re an addict.
The only way to prevent alcoholics from ever drinking again is them attending AA meetings and have them never ever again drink a single sip of alcohol.
The solution to my notification addition was similar. Remove notifications altogether, so my brain is not triggered the possibility of a dopamine shot when seeing a notification popup.
The only notifications I allow on my phone are calls and calendar reminders to manage my schedule.
Since the point in time I’ve eliminated all other notifications (Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter, Periscope, Instagram, Snapchat and many more) altogether, I cannot believe how I get anything ever done before.
I strongly encourage you, as a first step, to disable all notifications on your phone and computer from today – right now!
You suck at multitasking. Stop it.
If you think that you’re good at multitasking, you’re kidding yourself. Multitasking is one of the worst habits that has been introduced into our recent work habits.
Multitasking is not only handling two or more tasks at the same time. It’s also the frequent interruption of deep work with shallow work, for instance checking emails (shallow work) every five minutes whilst writing a marketing report (deep work) or answering text messages (shallow) whilst brainstorming your customer retention strategy (deep work).
Multitasking hasn’t been around forever. When the blade smith forged a sword (deep work), he focused on smithing a sword. Maybe a neighbour stopped by from time to time but he found time blocks of 45-60 minutes of uninterrupted work.
You wouldn’t be able to forge a sword by checking email after you throw the sword back into the fire. It requires focus.
Attention residue kills multitasking
Cal Newport popularised Sophie Leroy’s research titled “Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks.” (Organisational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol 109, Issue 2, July 2009).
Leroy argues that when switching from task A to task B, attention residue remains on task A whilst working on task B. Only time slowly evaporates remaining attention residue until your brain focuses solely on task B.
My interpretation (I’m more of a visual guy) of Leroy’s research in my artistic drawing below:
At any point in time, you only have 100% attention available. You can either dedicate this attention solely to one task or split it over multiple tasks. You can never have more than 100% attention on anything.
More importantly though, when you switch from Task A to Task B, your main focus switches but attention residue remains with Task A for some time.
I know this personally: just having sent an email that outlines technical issues to the support team I’m continuing writing my project management plan.
However, in the first couple of minutes of writing, some of my thoughts are still on that email. Have I outlined the issue with enough detail? Will the team be able to remedy the issue in time?
My focus on writing the plan lacks the attention residue that remains with the email. Without a sole focus on the writing, I can only do a mediocre job.
This is way checking emails every five minutes is not only distracting. It’s damaging to your work. You deliver at best good but could deliver great, if you’d stop checking emails.
The requirements to get important stuff done
- attention residue must not be present when starting a new task
- sufficient time must be given to let attention residue decline
- 100% attention must focus on one single task
The system that creates focus – Pomodoro
In the late 1980s, Francesco Cirillo came up with the Pomodoro Technique. It breaks down your work time in 30 minute segments. 25 minute work, 5 minute break. Most importantly, you can only work on one single task during the 25 minutes.
- Select a task you want to get done.
- Set a timer to 25 minutes
- Work on your one task until timer rings.
- Take a break for 5 minutes. Unrelated to work. A coffee, music, a quick walk. Then start again with step 1, if you finished your previous task.
This technique works wonders for deep work (definition: professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to their limit).
It worked wonders for my morning writing. I notoriously procrastinated every morning, getting up early but not getting deep work done. Shallow work was on the agenda: checking emails first thing in the morning, checking Facebook messages, maybe scheduling a few bills. But nothing productive. Nothing important.
This changed when I applied the Pomodoro Technique to my mornings. The conscious effort of dedicating a segment of time to a single task is profound. It changed my state of mind from being busy and having all these things to do to the really important. And I’m not the only one benefitting from this technique.
Speaking to Prof Penelope Mathew, Dean of a global Top 50 Law School at Griffith University, I was excited to hear about their recent Writing Retreat. Members of the Law School go to a venue that supports distraction free deep work, write for 25 minutes and take a break. Then repeat. The feedback from participants was unanimous. Nothing ever had boosted their focus and productivity to the same degree as the Pomodoro Technique did.
I agree. Pomodoro has been a revelation.
The tools we need
I like to be completely honest with you. You don’t need anything. If you’re confident to stay focused on one task, then go do it.
I’m not that kind of guy. From time to time, I still struggled with the Pomodoro. Whilst it creates intense focus, I easily got distracted by all kinds of stuff. Social Media, text messages, phone calls, you name it. To rid one of these problems, the internet, (turn your phone off to deal with the other two), I use Freedom
The app blocks access to predefined URLs. It not only blocks those but it also blocks any opportunity for me to deactivate this block, which would be tempting if possible. Facebook and Youtube had been my go-to sites in the early morning. Shallow tasks with no effort to undertake, hence so attractive to start the day with are now blocked and no longer interrupt my productive morning flow.
From 5 am to 7 am, Freedom blocks access to all Social Media sites as well as email. It truly provides freedom. Freedom from those productivity damaging distractions.
To apply the Pomodo Technique with Freedom, I can schedule a 25 minute session, that blocks access to the predefined sites. For you these might be different websites. Here a few that must be blocked to guarantee focused productivity on important stuff:
Social Media sites such as Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.
My Freedom schedules now block access to the distractions every work day from 5 am to 7 am on all my devices.
When to use Pomodoro – when not
Pomodoro is best suited for deep work. Work that requires focus and extended periods of time to get deep.
In my experience, it’s less suited for times of shallow work. Emails for example. You might think that you need to find time for your emails though. You’ll have time for emails sooner than you think, when you apply the Pomodoro Technique.
I can confirm Cal Newport’s finding in his book Deep Work that the human brain can only focus so much. More specifically, it can only focus about four hours a day on deep work. That leaves the rest of the day to shallow work. More than enough.
Pomodoro is the lifebelt you need to stay away from the maelstrom of shallow work.
In the end it’s about getting important stuff done. The Pomodoro Technique rids the attention residue influence on a subsequent task that can be counterproductive to quality and time required to complete that task.
Without the Pomodoro Technique, I wouldn’t be able to publish this blog post. I wouldn’t be able to be consistent in publishing weekly. And without it I would be sucked back into the maelstrom that is email.