Attention is the new gold rush.
Companies are all vying for our attention, from social media and endless scrolling to media platforms and auto rolling the next episode. They want eyeballs on screens. As a species, we have never had a time where we can be as easily distracted as we are now.
These distractions prevent productivity. Thus, resulting in having to work longer and cause ourselves more stress because we can’t achieve the output required in the same amount of time. Flow is something that has increasingly been offered as a method to counter this. Flow is ‘being in the zone’, the optimum state of work where things just click, we’re enjoying what we are doing and time just disappears as we power through tasks. In flow, we have unfettered access to our brains premium resources running at full speed.
I like most suffer from getting distracted and having waves of low productivity which as a small business owner, entrepreneur and freelancer means I won’t get paid. However, through trial and error, I have found several techniques that seem to be very effective at reducing the compulsion to be distracted and increasing the amount of time spent in this flow state.
Step #1: Physically remove your phone
I have my phone on Do Not Disturb (DND) all day and all night. The only time it ever comes off is when I’m expecting a text from a friend or loved one that I can’t miss. But using DND all the time doesn’t help, because it just leads me to continually tap the top of the phone to see if I have any notifications. Sure, some days I’ll manage 30 mins without checking, but most days it is very hard not to tap, tap… tap away.
By allowing yourself to check the phone, by bowing to the desire to get that quick dopamine release your brain craves, you are weakening your resolve and making it harder to spend longer lengths of time not engaging with your device.
The most effective way I have found to encourage better phone behaviour and improve my relationship with Apple’s addictive iPhone is to actively place it in a different part of the room. I tried putting it out of view, behind my laptop screen or under a notebook. But it was too easy to reach, and I found myself still subconsciously reaching for it.
I now place it physically out of reach, far enough that I have to get up from my desk chair and walk over to where it is (on a shelf).
At the start, I still found myself reaching for it. Attempting to grab at it or just a wandering hand that would tap a phone shaped hard-drive on the desk expecting it to light up at any moment and give me that sweet notification gratification. But the time between doing that grew longer and longer as my brain wouldn’t get its reward from pixels lighting up.
It is far easier to stop yourself from standing up and moving across the room than it is to stop yourself reaching out or into a pocket. By removing your phone from the immediate vicinity, you can take back a level of control of your attention.
Action: put your phone far enough away that you have to get up physically and walk over to it get it. Make sure it can’t buzz to draw your attention to it.
Step #2: Find your Prime Time
When it comes to finding your best working hours, it is not uncommon to hear the terms early bird and night owl thrown around. But in my experience, these are too limiting and change as time goes on.
For all of my university life, I was a night owl, preferring to stay up late into the evening and only completing my work at the very last minute before it was due. I was sleeping in till midday before starting the cycle all over again.
Then when I started my first company, Currikula , I switched to becoming an early bird. This change wasn’t overnight mind you, but it wasn’t many months before I was regularly getting up at 6 am to get everything done.
But now, I am somewhere in-between, waking up around 7:30 am and starting work around 9 am. This shift has become the norm due to a fundamental change in how I approach work. It is no longer about how many hours I spend at my desk but how many productive and effective hours I spend at my desk.
Those hours where it is most comfortable for you to work, where you find yourself hardest to distract or most focused on the task at hand are your daily Prime Time hours. They might be when you have the most energy or when you have completed some of the necessary life chores freeing up your brain’s attention span.
My Prime Time hours are between 9 am and 12 pm. Those 3 hours I find it easiest to get work done, to slip into flow and tick off tasks on my to lists. But yours might be 1 pm-3 pm. Or 7pm-10pm. Finding the hours that are easiest for you to work in and around is a simple way to increase productivity.
The best way to determine when your Prime Time hours are is to see how long you can go without looking at your phone in different parts of the day. How long can you spend time without needing that dopamine attention reward? The longer you can do, the more likely you are in your Prime Time state.
Once you have found the hours, you can remove obstructions, such as getting rid of calls or needing to respond to emails. As we’ll talk about in the next section, we’ll look at blocking your time and how this can take even more advantage assigning tasks to different parts of the day.
By clearing the slate for pure work during your personal Prime Time, you get the benefit of biological support. You get to feel good about digging down and getting the job done. And you get to flex the distraction prevention muscles.
If you have trouble remaining distraction-free even with your phone in a different physical location, then reduce the amount of time that you are aiming to be undistracted for. I found it hard to spend more than an hour without some distraction when I first started. But as you practise the amount of time that you can achieve will increase. Being able to spend time in flow and focus on deep work is a skill that benefits everyone.
Action: Find the hours of the day that you find it easiest to focus on. Where you can most easily tell distractions to piss off and cultivate that time with practice to increase its length. Working in these Prime Time hours gives you an advantage when it comes to avoiding dopamine seeking interference.
Step #3: Block your time
The concept of blocking your time is not new. I learnt of it from the seminal authority on deep work and focus, Cal Newport. His strategy of blocking off different hours of his day for various tasks went a long way to helping me engage in work and rapidly improved productivity.
However, I found that it was tiring to build into a habit and difficult to maintain due to the micro-level of detail he advises. At the same time, my productivity shot up during the days where I used it. I would end up feeling worn out the next day due to the higher levels of stress keeping to the schedule required of me.
So I’ve ended up adapting it to fit more comfortably with my lifestyle and work practises. Combining it with the concept of Prime Time hours, I have managed to make it work for me.
Which, realistically, is the goal of any techniques or tactics that you learn reading blogs or books, isn’t it? All very good hearing what the author has to say about it working for them, people they know, or people they’ve heard about. But fundamentally, to make a lasting impact, it needs to work for you. More of this at the end.
When it comes to blocking your time, all you’re trying to do is place similar tasks into one time chunk (a block). Got some design work to do? Then only design should be done in that block: no answering emails, no posting on social. You can drill down even further and make it so that only specific design work, such as client A’s work, is undertaken in that block. You would then have a different block for client B’s work.
You are scheduling these blocks so that you limit the possibility of distraction. Put all the activities that hold the capacity for entertainment in their own block. Emails, social media posting, internet research, calls etc. should be placed into these blocks of time.
The most important piece of work that you need to accomplish that day, the work that requires the most focus, or the work that if achieved means that the day has been a success needs to be completed in your Prime Time block. This will give you the best chance of completing the task and of making sure that you do your best work.
When it comes to blocking time, you must consider time for relaxation. Reward yourself for completing other blocks without distraction. Much like the Pomodoro technique, you could allow yourself 5 minutes of phone time, or social media scrolling after completing every block. The important thing is that you’ve earned your reward. You are creating a link between effort and reward rather than instant gratification.
How do you create blocks?
The first step is to isolate your Prime Time block and assign the task or group of functions that are most important to your day to that block of time. If you achieve nothing else in the day, but you get those tasks done, then the day should be considered a reasonable success.
Next, group together the other pressing but not immediately required tasks. Do this as tightly or as loosely as you’d like. But remember to avoid putting emails, calls, social, or easily distracting tasks — like research in with things you need to focus on doing.
With your Prime Time block sorted, and a few other blocks, space them out around the rest of your day. Perhaps your Prime Time is mid-afternoon and the task today is to write a pitch for a potential investor. I would schedule the research for that pitch in the afternoon before, in a small block, to make sure I had all the tools required beforehand for the following mornings Prime Time session. I’d also add in any other small tasks to a large morning block, or create a series of smaller chunks if the tasks were large enough and distinct from each other. For example, an hour spent on replying to customer service emails. An hour spent on writing a new blog post. 30 mins are answering endless emails, updating social media statuses etc.
These are significantly looser than the blocks that Cal Newport recommends, but for me that works better. It lets me be more flexible with my time as long as I accomplish whatever I have scheduled for my Prime Time. For me, that has reduced stress and made the rest of my work more enjoyable. During the coronavirus lockdown, it has been particularly useful as it allows flexibility but maintains a singular point of consistency (the Prime Time block).
- Move your phone far enough away that you physically have to get up and get it.
- Find your Prime Time and put the most critical work of the day in that block of time. Cultivate your focus to increase the length of your Prime Time and ability to avoid distractions.
- Block out the rest of your time as loosely or as finely as suits you to create a work structure that breaks tasks into similar groups, minimises distraction encouraging work and allows you to focus.
- Make sure to reward yourself for achieving your goals and schedule in blocks of relaxation and specific distraction enjoyment time.
Making it work for you
Returning to “making it work for you” interlude I briefly mentioned earlier. I would suggest that you adapt, change, modify, break down and build up any of the recommendations I have made here. Experiment to see what works for you. I found the physical distance from my phone was an effective way to reduce distractions, but you might have more substantial will power and not need it to be so far away, or less will power and need it to be in a completely different room.
We’ve all had different experiences that change how we approach work so using what you know about your own habits to inform and change the techniques and skills you learn to make them work for you will allow you to get far more out of them than if you implement them as a blanket, one size fits all approach.
ps. This blog post was written, edited and posted in this morning’s Prime Time.