How to block out distractions and do your best work
23 March 2018
Colony guest Matt Sandrini explains how to be more effective when everything seems too urgent to be able to focus on your business.
We live in the world of constant communication about work, which makes it nearly impossible to actually do the work.
Slack, notifications, emails…we are constantly bombarded by information, requests, and updates. Whenever we get a break, we actually look for trouble and go on Facebook, scroll through Instagram, or go on LinkedIn and look for more ways to interrupt our flows and get more information.
This means that we're constantly interrupted throughout our day.
It's like a 24 hour meeting without an agenda.
We live in the world of constant communication, where everything is important and urgent, and so nothing is neither important nor urgent.
See, urgency and importance are only relevant to what you choose to leave behind. With constant interruptions throughout the day, it's easy to get lost in an infinite list of unimportant tasks.
The cost of constant interruptions
What is the real cost of constant interruptions?
Firstly, a constant state of urgent firefighting. If you're working only based on someone else's requests, whether from clients, coworkers, or anyone else, you're always reacting and can never actually be proactive and lead your company, your team, and your client towards a successful outcome. You're always waiting to get feedback first and then react on it, rather than taking the lead and then using actual feedback to tweak and adjust.
Reactive mode means always working on the urgent rather than what's really important. Always working on the immediate, rather than what will make a difference a month from now, or a year from now.
Meaningful work becomes impossible. You can never get lost in a flow state where you effortlessly leverage your strengths, as you can rarely find enough time to go beneath the surface. It becomes impossible to do your best work, because there's always someone or something pulling you back to the surface of a menial task, instead of letting you dive deep into your creation. Especially if you're a creative or a maker, this is a big problem: you end up managing your client or your team all the time, rather than serving them with your best work.
Interruptions create a self-fulfilling negative cycle: because you're constantly catching up, you can never do great work, and therefore you're always catching up.
Can you balance great work and communication at the same time?
How to protect your best work
To be able to carve out time to do your best work and interrupt interruptions: this can be the difference between remaining passionate about your business and work and looking for a side project (with no time for it). It's also the difference between remarkable and mediocre results: anyone can reply to a Slack notification, but not many can create a great user-centred wireframe for an app that delights users. Yet, we often let communication take over our superhuman skills.
If you're reluctant to turning notifications off and setting some "strictly no meetings" time, you probably feel that other people depend on you and will have to wait for you to do their work. Your absence will become the bottleneck in the team or in the project. Or what if a client gets offended because…they expect you to reply right away?
Before you jump right into "hermit mode", it's important to follow these three steps:
Step one: communicate and educate
The first step to guilt-free work is to educate your team and clients about why this is important to them. Instead of just disappearing from their radar, let them know that you need some uninterrupted time to create your best work, so you can better serve them as a team (or as a client). Then let them know when they can interrupt you or expect an update from you by setting expectations.
Step two: set expectations
The second step to create your own time is to set expectations. When can your team talk to you? When can your client expect an update? When can they set a meeting? We usually let expectations set themselves, and get used to them. A client gets used to getting an email at 1 pm every day. Or a team member gets used to walking up to your desk at any time to ask for answers. If you don't set clear expectations, you'll feel like you're breaking these unwritten rules. When you let others know when you're unavailable, they are empowered to do their own work, and they can plan their work based on everyone else's availability too.
Step three: use time blocks
The third step is to finally use time blocks.
Time blocks are kind of like a meeting with yourself, but for recurrent commitments. Put an actual event in your calendar, and make sure you specify a place too: now you know that nothing else can happen at that time. If you're a freelancer, you could use a time block on every Tuesday morning to look for new leads.
Or maybe you will be working from the kitchen area on the blog post of the week, or setting the monthly direction for the business.
Use time blocks throughout your week to get what's really important done. No cheating: if you set so many that you have to make exceptions, then it won't work.
To balance communication and great work, make sure you create moments in your day where you won't be interrupted and distracted by the seemingly 'urgent'. If you communicate with your team and clients, everyone will benefit from your newfound ability to make real progress on your best work.
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