This past year, I’ve tried to create more time in my life to do things that matter to me. (Er, things aside from work.)
That’s a very simple statement, but it’s been incredibly difficult for me to manage.
Why? Because it requires being extremely intentional with how I spend my time.
Most people don’t naturally live their lives in a way that leads them to be intentional. If they did, less people would be drowning in debt, ice cream, and other (possibly tasty?) regrets.
Instead, most of us are floating around, trying to figure it all out while barely keeping on top of it all.
At least, that’s how I feel on most days.
So often I hear the complaint: there’s not enough time in the day.
Or, I don’t have time.
I’ve covered this before, but time is the most important asset we have. Unlike money, we can’t get it back. Once we spend it, it’s gone.
Therefore, it’s up to us to prioritize what we spend our limited time on so we can live more fulfilling lives.
As I’ve discovered, that’s a tall order. It’s so much easier to mindlessly surf the web (aka Reddit) and find other distractions.
Most of these things won’t matter 10 minutes from now, though, which is kind of sad.
I mean, what does scrolling through Instagram for 30 minutes really do for you?
We probably want to think it gives us a mental break. Oh, I’ll check on this one thing for 10 minutes and then get back to whatever is more important.
But we usually end up getting sucked in for far longer than we anticipated, mess our work schedule up, sigh, berate ourselves, and bury our heads in our work until the cycle repeats again. And again.
The truth is, many of us are addicted to distractions in some form or another, and if we’re self-aware enough, then maybe we can figure out how to prevent it. And by preventing it, we can focus more of our time where it’s likely to have the greatest impact.
What I Learned from Deep Work
I think it’s helpful to start with Newport’s definition of deep work so we’re all on the same page:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Let’s contrast that with shallow work, for more context:
Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Hmm. Which of the two do you spend more time on? For most people, I’d argue it’s shallow work.
In this ever-connected world of ours, we can distract ourselves with one simple click or tap. Social media? Check. Mobile games? Check. Email? Check. Looking through adorable pictures of our pets? Check.
But…is this easy access a good thing? Clearly, distractions are taking away our ability to focus on our work. If you were to monitor how much time gets sucked away by distractions throughout your week, you’d probably be some combination of surprised and disappointed.
I know I’m not alone in having more aspirations than I have time for, and yet, when my brain is taxed, turning to distractions is easier than turning to the list of “shit I should really be spending my time on.”
Newport explains this well:
“Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires.”
Yeah, that sounds about right. But here’s the information that made me stop in my tracks:
Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, Nass discovered, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life – say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives – is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the ‘mental wrecks’ in Nass’s research, it’s not ready for deep work – even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.
Wow. That’s insane. We’re damaging our chances of success (defined as being able to devote more time and focus to work that truly matters to us) by distracting ourselves. Yikes!
So uh, if you needed a good, legitimate reason to get away from social media or anything like that… there it is!
How Can We Be More Intentional About Spending Time?
I went over a few solutions in a previous post, but to summarize:
- Get super, super clear on your values and where you want to dedicate your time
- Clear out existing things in your schedule that don’t align with those values to create room for the better stuff
- Use those values as a barometer for saying “no” to opportunities and requests
- Become more mindful of your habits – if you catch yourself going into distraction-mode, acknowledge that, and see if that prompts you to change your behavior
- If you can, start the day with the task that will make the biggest impact toward your goal (so if you want to write a novel, then dedicate the first hour or two of your day to writing to make sure you fit it in)
Newport offers other solutions in the book, although the biggest one is to schedule your online time. This sounds strange, especially if you’re a freelancer, because your job kind of consists of being online more often than not, but the idea behind it is to be intentional about your time.
In his words, “Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs; it’s instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward.”
Another Takeaway: Where You Work is Important
Equally important (if not more so) as how you work is where you work.
For that reason, I liked the other solution presented in the book, which is to carve out a special space solely dedicated to ‘deep work’ time.
Newport uses Carl Jung as an example here. Jung had a specific retreat away from his home that he visited to think about important topics when he wasn’t meeting with clients and giving talks.
Here’s a lesson learned the hard way for anyone out there that works from home: an office space is absolutely essential. Whether it’s a second bedroom or a large closet, have a dedicated space where you can work in peace.
I say that because for the past few months, I’ve been working out of a kitchen. This house has one bedroom (and one closet), and while I was previously in the living room, it wasn’t much better. The entire area is open, so at any given time I have my pets distracting me, or the neighbors, or a noise, or food.
It has been an awful way to work, and I have no doubt that it’s contributed to my loss of focus on more than one occasion. I miss having a dedicated work space, and I didn’t realize how critical it was to have until I didn’t have it anymore.
I fixed this by creating a tiny office in the hallway. Even though the space is small, it gives me freedom to walk away from work and stay away after I’m done for the day. It’s much better than working in open areas.
I also purchased noise-cancelling headphones, which tune out extraneous noise so that I can get into work mode quicker.
Re-frame How You Think About Your Time
If you can’t stop checking social media, then I invite you to think about the situation differently.
I already wrote about how it’s important to say “no” when other people ask you for your time. If what they’re asking of you doesn’t align with your values, or if you’re not compelled to say hell yeah to the opportunity, turn it down in favor of focusing on what does matter.
So why not think of distractions in the same way?
Sure, Twitter may not directly ask you for your time, but you implicitly give it permission to steal a few hours of your life here and there every time you engage with the platform.
Newport says it well here:
“…these tools are not inherently evil, and some of them might be quite vital to your success and happiness, but at the same time also accept that the threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention (not to mention personal data) should be much more stringent…”
If we can guard our time against people, we can sure as hell guard our time against the allure of technology and other distractions.
For example, if you find yourself opening a social media app on your phone (or going to a website that serves as a distraction), take a second and think about what else you could be doing with your time.
In other words, quantify what a distraction will cost you. What is it taking you away from? And more importantly, how is it affecting you afterwards? Is a distraction worth the trade-off?