How would you like to live a life without distractions? Your day seamlessly flowing from one productive activity to the next. Going to bed at the end of the day feeling an amazing sense of alignment with your goals.
Sounds good, right. Perhaps too good to be true.
I get distracted all the time. When I’m sitting at the computer working on a project, email messages are continually flooding into my inbox. And while I try to stay focused on the project at hand, I have a strong urge to check email for one of two reasons: (1) there might be something urgent that I don’t want to miss, and/or (2) I don’t want my inbox to blow up with messages, so if there’s simple stuff I can process it’ll keep my message count at a reasonable number.
Of course, that sort of “checking email” is distracting me from the primary goal of whatever I was originally working on.
In addition to email messages, there’s also Skype messages, Slack comments, text messages, tweets, Instagram stories, Facebook posts, and so on … all competing for my attention. It’s a never-ending stream of stimuli screaming: Read me. Pay attention to me. Click me.
But avoiding distraction doesn’t mean we never indulge in social media or attend to the needs and desires of ourselves and those people we care most about.
The Opposite of Distraction -> Traction
Rather, the key to minimizing distraction is recognizing that there are two types of action: traction and distraction – and they are completely opposing one another. Traction is the state of focused effort toward a desired goal, whereas distraction is simply what it is: a distraction taking us off the path.
In a powerful talk by Nir Ewal, he describes a concept called indistractable, which is the state of staying in traction while minimizing distraction.
But distraction is very sly and slippery. It tempts us to do things that are against our better judgement.
However, there is a way to tame the distraction beast.
Scheduling the day.
Taking everything that is important or must be done and putting it on the calendar.
At first, I found this concept appalling. I used to measure a “good day” by the amount of free time on my calendar. The more, the better.
But here’s what happened during those “open blocks” of time: I would haphazardly work on various projects that were important, but without any sense of focus or clear prioritization. And I was easily distracted. Very often at the end of the day, I would feel a sense of dissatisfaction at my lack of progress toward what mattered most.
The Remarkable, Unforeseen Benefits of Scheduling
The benefits of scheduling time specific to a particular project are enormous.
Consider this incredibly surprising study: participants were asked to exercise for 20 minutes sometime during the next week. They were split into three groups. Group 1 was given no additional instructions – just exercise for 20 minutes sometime next week. Group 2 was given the same challenge plus some information on the benefits of exercise. And Group 3 was simply asked to open their calendars and schedule a 20 minute exercise for some day next week.
How did the three groups do?
About 30% of Group 1 participants did the 20-minute workout. Group 2 did a little better at 39%.
Group 3, in contrast, had a 91% success rate! Ninety-one percent of them did the workout!!
The people in Group 3 were not more motivated. They didn’t have more willpower. They weren’t given any incentive. The only thing that separated them from the rest was the instruction that they enter into their calendar a day next week that they would exercise.
And they did!
The Best Way to Schedule – Block the Time, Not the Result
If we plan out what we want to and should do, we are far more likely to stay on track. The advantages of scheduling those time blocks each day are remarkable.
The key being scheduling the time, not the result.
I am absolutely terrible at estimating how long a task will take. And I’m usually wrong in the same direction – I think it will take less time than it actually does.
So, if I schedule a block of time to “Complete article”, then invariably a sense of disappointment sets in if the article isn’t complete by the end of that time block.
However, if the calendar item is “Work on article” – that is not only doable, but by the end I feel a sense of accomplishment. If the article isn’t done, I’ll simply add another block of time to continue working on the article.
There’s an old adage that says if you don’t schedule your time, someone or something else will.
Our time will always get filled. The choice of whether it’s with productive action or distracting activities is completely up to us. Scheduling out the day with time-blocks related to what matters most leads to a far more productive and satisfying life.
Give it a try and let me know what you think.