To do your best work, stop fragmenting your attention.

Last year, I was introduced to Slack, the new way to communicate among teams. If you’ve never heard of Slack, in essence, it’s chat rooms that anyone in your company can join. But instead of calling them chat rooms, Slack calls them channels.

I hated it. And not because I disliked the app, it’s actually quite nice. It has a great user interface and makes you want to use it. You can also respond with a like, emoji or GIF when words can’t explain your feelings. Millennials and non-millennials alike seem to be enjoying this quite a bit.

I disliked the introduction of Slack because it represented yet another distraction. Another tool that would give me a slight communication benefit at the expense of focus. I didn’t only dislike Slack. I disliked Slack and every unnecessary meeting, email, instant message or “quick question” interruption at my desk.

To understand why this is such a big problem, at least for me, let’s spend 100 hours in meditation together.

It started with a meditation insight

Lucky for you, I’ve already done this part. So, we can skip the meditating part for this conversation.

Two years into my consulting job, I took 2 weeks off from work to meditate. I joined a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. This is the real deal, 10 days in silent meditation. No reading, writing or talking. No electronic devices permitted. The only exception? An alarm clock, so that I could wake up at 4:00 a.m. to get ready for the first meditation session at 4:30 a.m. During this 2-week vacation, I spent 10 hours each day meditating.

If there is one thing that I took from that time, it was that most of the stress in my life comes from a fragmented mind. Fixing this is something that is within my power. I control my mind, I control what goes into it and what I chose to focus it on.

I went back to work the Monday after the meditation retreat ended. Although nothing drastic changed, I started to notice little things. I noticed, for example, how the “new email” notification on my phone and my laptop affected me. That little notification indicated that I had a new email to read. It asked me to decide between checking the new email now or keep working. Without any information about the email, I had no way to know how important it was. This created a source of conflict and anxiety in me.

It took me 10 days of silent meditation to be able to observe how this small situation caused anxiety. It may seem a minor issue, but this would happen dozens of times throughout the day. The cumulative effect is quite damaging.

You may not have spent 10 days as a hermit meditating, but whether you realize it or not, notifications like these are driving you crazy.

Disable your notifications

The tools are not bad in and of themselves. In fact, thank goodness for email. The problem is really about people and expectations. (Slack, it’s not  you, it’s me.)

Let’s go back to my post-meditation retreat realization.

I knew that email notifications were (1) distracting me from the task at hand, and (2) causing me anxiety. I pondered this for a while. As a proud quick-responder, I used to respond to emails within minutes from having received it. I considered it a core part of being a responsive and caring team member. As a consultant, clients were paying hundreds of dollars per hour of my time. Responding immediately to their requests seemed crucial.

After enough deliberation, I concluded that my 5-minute email response expectation wasn’t helping anyone. If it only took me 5 minutes to think up and type an answer, it definitely was not an enlightening thought. I should carve out longer time to answer the difficult questions that really stretched my thinking.

I turned off my email notifications. This dreaded notification popup was no longer there.

outlook-new-email-notification

I wish that I could tell you disabling email notifications fixed my problems right away. It didn’t. In fact, it was worse for a while. I was nervous that a new important email would have come in. But over time, this changed, and I found myself focusing for longer stretches of time.

As a side benefit, I started spending less time in my inbox overall, since I could batch my responses. Another benefit, group email chains would be more complete by the time I got to them. Often questions asked would have been answered by a colleague, no longer requiring my response. Double win.

I haven’t turned back on email notifications on my work computer nor on my phone ever since. The last 5 years have been much happier thanks to that.

Batch all communications

I’ve continued to use Slack at work. However, similar to email and IM, disabling all notifications is key to allow time for focus. By batching all my Slack reading time into 2-3 reading blocks during the day, along with emails and IMs, the rest of the day can be freed up to think through the more intricate problems.

Handle the urgent and important

What about urgent and important issues, you may wonder? The truly urgent and important items should be a rarity. If many things are urgent, then nothing truly is.

Given that urgent issues are rare, they merit being handled using a different process. Urgent communications should not go to the same Inbox as everything else. For urgent issues, people should have a different mechanism to reach the right person. For time-sensitive, critical customer issues, our customers have a 24/7 support line that will get the right engineer on the issue within minutes. As such, truly urgent issues don’t rely on a single point of failure, me, remaining slave to my phone or computer. It is crucial to find such a reliable mechanism for any important type of urgent issue.

Give your best to each situation 

Reducing notifications and other distractions to a minimum is crucial in order to be present and do good, mentally challenging, work. A fragmented mind will lose to a focused mind in just about everything. If you’re a knowledge worker, your work requires you to be truly present and contribute your best thinking.

Disabling notifications and blocking out discrete, time-bound chunks of time on your calendar for all communications helps you regain your sanity. It allows you to regain long, uninterrupted blocks of time to do deeper thinking and planning. It allows you to bring your better self to all settings. When in a meeting, you don’t need to peek at your Inbox or Slack. You are physically at the meeting because you thought that it was an important meeting to attend, so make sure that your mind is also present. When talking to a colleague, that’s all that you should be doing. When reading and responding to your email or Slack messages, do just that, and give others the very best thinking that your mind can muster in your email responses. No half-assed responses.

Being ‘too busy’ is not productive. Prioritize and focus on what matters.

Productivity has been a topic of huge interest to me over the past few years. In fact, when having a discussion with a friend, I told her that my goal is to help people be more productive. Not happy, productive. If people are productive, my thinking went, they would be doing the things they love and thus be happy.

I may have gotten my thinking reversed, but one thing is still clear. To be successful at work, and in life, you must spend your time on the right things. You must be confident in how your spend your time to eliminate two common fears. (1) Fear of wasting your time or (2) fear of not having enough time to do things. Managing your time is critical because you can’t get any more of it, you’ll always have 24 hours in a day. Being productive, then, is about focusing that time on the most important things and deprioritizing the rest.

Be clear on what is important to you

First, you must be clear on what matters to you. What is it that will truly bring the change that you need in your life? What are the actions that will help you accomplish those goals? You must clarify what you want to accomplish. Sit down and make a plan. If you have difficulties, find resources to help you. But don’t skip this step.

If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.

– Jim Rohn

The book Designing Your Life has been a great asset for me. It helped me crisply define a work view and a life view. Combined, my work view and my life view help me define a true North which I can follow as I navigate through life. An interesting insight I had was that although my work view and life view are compatible, I have ignored aspects of my life view due to focusing only on my work view. Taking the time to reflect on this helped me identify the right priorities to focus on, both inside and outside of work.

As you grow older and hopefully wiser, you will pursue different passions and your interests may change. Just make sure that you are true to yourself and what really matters to you.

Make time for what matters

You may have already defined what is important to you. It feels like January 1 when you have your list of resolutions that you know, for sure, you’ll stick to this year. Except that February 1 comes around and you don’t even remember what your resolutions were. Life happens. You still only have 24 hours in a day and this just didn’t fit in. It isn’t enough to know what matters to you. You must make time for what matters most to you.

I like the framework of Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand. I first heard about it in this YouTube video. Take the 2 minutes to watch if you haven’t already.

Identify your rocks. Know what you must do to get to where you want to be. Don’t let anything else fill your jar and prevent you from accomplishing your most crucial goals. Block your calendar ahead of time, remove distractions, and allow for ample time to work on your rocks. Once you’ve spent enough time on your rocks, you can take care of the pebbles and sand. But not before.

Identify the key next step and just get started

Once you know what’s important and have blocked time for it, do the work. If you feel stuck on an important task, clarify what the next action needs to be. David Allen’s Getting Things Done defines a project as anything that takes more than one action to accomplish. This is important, you can’t do a project. You can only take an action. If you feel stuck, break down your project into discrete actions that you can take. Then bring out your favorite tomato-shaped timer and get that next action done.

Beware of the ‘urgent’ trap

We often confuse urgency and importance. Habit 3 of The 7 Habits book focuses exclusively on this point. Let’s define these two things.

Important things help you move closer towards accomplishing a goal.
Urgent things are time-sensitive, if not done quickly you may never reap benefits from it.

A common pitfall is spending time on urgent things that are easy to do but don’t significantly help you to accomplish a goal. Just because something is urgent, time-sensitive, doesn’t mean that you must do it. That is the equivalent of filling up your jar with Pebbles and Sand before trying to put in the Rocks.

A common example is allowing email and text notifications interrupt your focus. Presumably, before getting the latest email or text, you were working on something important. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have been working on it. Yet, you allow your brain to shift its focus momentarily to check the email’s subject line or text. Your brain switches its focus to the notification, scans it, and decides that it is not important. You then switch your focus back to the task at hand. This constant distraction interrupts your thought process and makes you much less effective. Even worse, it makes you much less creative and engaged during meetings. The same happens when your colleague stops by your desk with a quick question. You can take this as an urgent request and let is stop you from completing other important work. Or, kindly ask them to send you an email (sand) which you can respond to in a bit after completing your current task (pebble or rock).

As you go through your day, don’t confuse urgent with important. Be proactive and work on the truly important today so that it doesn’t get crushed among many urgent things tomorrow.

If all else fails, talk to a friend

If you’ve done all of the above and still feel tired and disoriented, get help. Go see a friend, a family member, a coach, a therapist, a priest, anyone. Don’t try to get answers from them, but rather go to them to gain a new perspective. We all go through moments of confusion and stress, times in which we struggle with clarifying what we should be doing. Use other people’s experiences to form a perspective that works for you. You may need to do this again many times over the next decade as you keep learning, growing, and gaining more insight and responsibility. Accept it as a part of life and enjoy the journey.

Don’t run away from discomfort at work. Clarify, remove obstacles and find purpose.

There will be times in your career in which your work won’t push you into that magical state of flow. The work that you are doing will not hit that balance of challenging without stressing you. You may be working on a project that doesn’t challenge you enough. You may be comfortably project managing a simple initiative. You may be executing on a plan instead of brainstorming a grand idea. Alternatively, you may be stressed because your company asks you to do work that’s not exactly fitting to your strengths. Your contribution feels forced, uncomfortable, and stifling. Your instincts will want you to run away from such a situation. To switch roles, change companies, or ask for more work. Anything to get back to that feeling of productivity and contribution that you may have felt before. Yet, first take the time to step back and reflect on what is happening.

Do you need to do this work? If the work that you’re doing doesn’t necessarily fit your skills or experience level, it may be wise to postpone or delegate the effort. Don’t assume that because you were asked to do this you must do it now. Clarify the relative priority of the project or task. Explore options to defer or delegate the work and do other work instead.

Is this work necessary for your growth? Maybe you are new to the company. Or maybe you are moving to a more senior level of contribution. These two situations can feel similar. You may feel that you are not contributing as much as you are expected to. However, you first need to learn the ropes before you can contribute at a higher level. After that initial ramp up period your contribution will be drastically improved. Discuss the situation with your manager to ensure that her perspective is the same as yours. Also, be patient.

Is this a temporary situation? Consider whether this is a temporary situation due to an uncommon business situation or transition period. There may have been a slow growth quarter in the company or a change in priorities causing you to be ‘stuck’ with this work. While you wait for work that’s a better fit for your skills, consider working on an ‘extracurricular’. You can volunteer your underutilized skills to help on other projects. Often having another project that plays to your strengths can give you the boost that will get you through not-so-good phases in other projects.

The bottom line is to not confuse a temporary situation that doesn’t allow you to be at your peak with a situation that you must escape. You may be able to defer or delegate the work, push through the situation to develop new skills, or find temporary relief in other work that plays to your strengths.

It’s your turn to be that "someone" who makes a difference

Longing for something causes no harm, but the inability to turn that desire into action harms many.  When you come up with something you most definitely want to pursue, you may be at a loss at first, it may seem impossible.  However, seek to understand what you need to achieve this goal.  Do you need a mentor?  Do you need to gain a new set of skills?  Do you need to first learn about a new industry? If you think “someone else would have done it” or could do it better, you need to stop and realize that “someone else” is too busy minding their own business, and it is your turn to be that person that makes a difference in some area.  So find that drive and get moving.

Problems are only daunting when you don’t know what’s the next actionable item that will get you closer to your goal.  As such, always think, what is the very next step I need to take to get one step closer to my goal?  Once you have that figured out, just go ahead and take that one step.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
– Lao Tzu

Once the journey is over, you’ll look back and be glad you took that first single step, then the second, and the third.  But if you never take the first step, you’ll always wonder “what could have been if?”

Be Busy, But Only With Purpose

There is a lot going on in our days, and we tend to put so much pressure in being better, doing things better, making a big difference, and more. This is something I often do, and then when all is said and done and I go to bed at night, oftentimes there is uneasiness. And then I go back to the fundamentals… I ask myself a few questions, which sometimes are harder to answer than others:

  1. Is what I’m doing something that makes me happy?
  2. Do the things that keep me “busy” matter to me?
  3. Am I making progress in the areas I care for?
  4. Will I be able to make better contributions to society through what I am doing or the skills I’m learning?

Sometimes the answer for some of these questions is… “uhmmm… maybe?” and that can be acceptable, but at least asking myself these questions helps me evaluate the true meaning of what is keeping me busy. Sometimes I am busy and flustered by things, and at the end of the day I realize… none of the things that kept me so busy truly mattered or made a different in my life, my happiness level.

“Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing”
Lao Tzu