I had high hopes for this article when I first started writing 8 hours ago. I knew I would need to do a lot of research, a task that appeals to my desire to learn new things. I found the topic exciting and knew that any of my findings could be applied to my own work. Turning the concept into sentences seemed simple enough.
One workday later, all I have to show for my enthusiasm is a few scattered thoughts and a spotless kitchen.
In the process of trying to write this article I have:
- Deep cleaned my kitchen
- Responded to non-urgent Slack messages
- Organized documentation
- Messaged friends
- Checked my emails anywhere between 6-10 times (I received 0 emails)
I wish I could say this day was a total anomaly. If only I could boast about my super-concentrated, well-planned, always-put-together work life. After all, I work for a productivity tool. I write about time management. Am I a failure at my job if I let myself give into distractions?
Some would say yes. I would disagree. Here’s why: the average person is distracted or interrupted every 40 seconds when working in front of their computer. Most people can’t go a minute without splitting their attention.
When I discussed writing this article with my boss, he immediately perked up and asked if he could draw a dirty dish licking someone trying to get work done. We all have our distractions.
I’ve done a lot of reading on productivity for my job. In all honesty, I find most of it to be repetitive at the best and detrimental at the worse. Hustle culture and the #thankgoditsmonday crowd worry me; there’s nothing positive about glamourizing unhealthy work habits.
On the other side, most articles say a different version of the same thing: set small goals, avoid multitasking, separate yourself from distractions, use your phone less and your day planner more. Good advice? Yes. Good advice most people take? Nope.
As I continued my search for something different, something that could potentially resonate, I stumbled upon an article by psychologist Adam Grant. In it, he claims that time management isn’t a solution to productivity woes, but rather the cause. And I agree with him.
Before you stop your time trackers and I am removed from my job at a time management tool, let me explain.
Productivity isn’t a good goal. As Grant notes, “Productivity isn’t a virtue. It’s a means to an end. It’s only virtuous if the end is worthy.” If we don’t believe in what we’re doing, it becomes harder to concentrate on the process of doing it. He claims that time management, the practice of setting a time goal for completing a task, reminds us how little time we have to accomplish tasks. Instead, he argues for attention management: “focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places and at the right moments” or, rather, “prioritize the people and projects that matter, and it won’t matter how long anything takes.”
I started reconsidering a conversation I had with teammates about the different kinds of distractions we faced at work. Could each of those be solved through an attention management approach? And did that mean I should do away with my timer?
Since I do most of my work from home, non-work-related distractions abound in every room. Considering my earlier cleaning session, I asked myself: what, at a values level, was causing me to put off writing my article?
Sure, I enjoy a clean-living space, but the burnt on stains I diligently scraped off my stove top had been there since I moved in 8 months ago. It isn’t really about the cleaning. It’s about nurturing connections with my roommates, through cleaning.
I expend my time and energy doing things that will make them feel valued. When work tasks feel less critical on a values level, I’ll subconsciously put them aside to do things that feel more important at their core. When I worked in an office, I remember coworkers putting aside time to help others with their tasks even if they weren’t related to their jobs. It’s easy to find these distractions no matter the work environment.
When I pushed my cup-licking-drawing boss for an answer on why he’s distracted by cleaning, he came up with a similar, values-based answer. For him, mental health is a core value.
“When I’ve felt overwhelmed with some huge long-term thing, it would sometimes cripple my ability to cut it into smaller manageable pieces. In those cases, I’ve definitely just stood up, at first usually pacing and thinking about the thing, then gradually noticing something like a full laundry basket.” Even if putting things aside isn’t favorable in the long-run, in those moments he’s saving himself from an anxious reaction.
So how to overcome this distraction? I began brainstorming reasons for writing beyond it being a necessity of my job; getting the article done on time would make my coworkers lives easier, and I could point to it friends asked about productivity.
While those were a good start, I wanted to also figure out the thought patterns that drove me to seek out other tasks. I grabbed a yellow legal pad and set it next to me, ready to note down any thought patterns that came up through the rest of my day.
“Attention management also involves noticing where you get things done,” Grant notes. Researchers found that humans achieve more on bad weather days since there was less temptation to go outside. However adverse weather isn’t something you’re always able to plan around.
As I bask in the sunny, spring weather of Toronto that punctuates what has felt like a 5-year winter, I can’t claim I wish the weather were unpleasant in service of my productivity. Instead, I considered the environmental factors I can change.
The International Interior Design Association (IIDA) surveyed 1,206 full-time U.S. employees to find how office design impacted productivity and worker happiness. Beyond discovering a direct correlation, the IIDA identified 2 factors nearly every office worker wanted in their work environment: privacy and quiet.
Controlling your environment is particularly tricky if you’re not in control of your workspace.
When I worked in an open office environment, I would often bump into coworkers on tight deadlines who had taken refuge in a nearby, quiet café, escaping from the echoing noise of a concrete loft, filled with 70 plus people. The more unappealing a task, the more optimal environment you’ll need. Don’t be afraid to leave the office or push for an environment that’s more conducive to work.
As I write, I’ve realized the white noise of my downstairs neighbors combined with the slightly legible voices of my roommates makes it challenging to concentrate. After putting on headphones with my white noise of choice (trains), I’ve been able to focus much better on writing.
Can You Just Requests & Urgency Bias
As my day continued, I started to feel mounting stress. Usually, this would be enough to tear me away from a task. However, I had made a conscious choice to focus on managing my thoughts today. I reached for the yellow note pad and started to jot down all the different stressors that threatened to impede my progress.
A common theme among them was ‘can you just’ requests. Notifications from Slack that had popped up in my screens periphery, reminding me that someone, somewhere wanted to borrow my attention, but just for a second.
When people are given the option to do a larger, less urgent, but more important task, over a less important, but quicker one, people will overwhelmingly opt to do the shorter job
Instant communication makes this sort of request simple: responses are expected to go out as soon as messages come in. These small tasks take away attention which can be challenging to regain. Research has shown it can take over 20 minutes to refocus.
Urgency bias, our brain’s tendency to favor tasks that seem urgent over tasks that are urgent, is closely associated with these requests. Meng Zhu, an associate professor of marketing at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School, found in her research, that when people are given the option to do a larger, less urgent, but more important task, over a less important, but quicker one, people will overwhelmingly opt to do the shorter job.
I thought about potential remedies. Having already noted down all the issues, I had a record of the small tasks I would eventually need to handle in the future. Since none of the messages were urgent, I drafted a canned answer and closed Slack.
The last distraction cuts to the core issue of time management. Say you set a goal to increase your productivity by 25%. After a few months of blocking out distractions and training your focus, you’re now able to complete the workload of an 8-hour work day in 6 hours. What are you going to do with those 2 additional hours? Probably more work.
Historian Ruth Cowan showed as such in her 1983 book More Work for Mother by looking at the impact of vacuum cleaners and other mechanized devices. For those tasked with cleaning, increases in efficiency didn’t result in more leisure time but instead a higher societal standard of cleanliness and domestic organization.
When jotting down notes about distractions, I had a continual feeling of unease. I recalled days when I’ve been productive and finished my work earlier. On them, I’ve felt a mounting sense of guilt. What if I hadn’t been ambitious enough? What if I’m not actually doing enough? What if my work isn’t good enough? In a swift reversal of fates, what should have been relief, morphed into anxiety.
It’s easier to make myself busy with work that isn’t impactful, rather than improving my efficiency and working less.
I give into distractions partially because I worry I’ll guilt myself into taking on more and more until the stress of it all becomes too much. Concurrently, the promised outcome of productivity – more time to spend on activities of my choosing – rings hollow. It’s easier to make myself busy with work that isn’t impactful, rather than improving my efficiency and working less.
Former productivity guru and creator of the Inbox Zero system, Merlin Mann, voiced similar sentiments in an essay he published before disappearing from an industry he pioneered: “abandoning [my] priorities to write about priorities … I’ve unintentionally ignored my own counsel to never let your hard work fuck up the good things.”
Returning to Grant’s attention management technique, it’s important to acknowledge these feelings as a distraction. By focusing on them, there’s too much consideration of time over values. To get things done, it’s necessary to shift focus and realize that it’s alright to let go of conventional ideas of productivity.
So does this mean you shouldn’t consider your time at all or shouldn’t use a time tracker like Toggl?
Toggl is a tool. Attention management is a way of thinking. We create flexible tools so that people can customize them to their needs. I use Toggl precisely so I don’t need to think about time.
Even as I write this article, I timed how long I was able to work using the attention method rather than a time management method. However, I wasn’t actively managing my time. I only let the timer run in the background.
The only times I checked in were when I hit significant stalls. Each time I realized I had been working for over an hour straight and taking time away from my computer would make the writing process more manageable.
The timer wasn’t a reminder of how little time I had left. It was a reminder of how much I had accomplished. For me, having that record available was a reminder that what I was doing was enough. And it gave me permission to quit when I was done instead of continually padding my day with useless busy work.