It’s so easy to lose the thread these days. When we’re constantly hopscotching between emails, texts, social media, real-time interruptions, and more, remembering what you were doing can be almost as hard as getting it done.
That’s why living in the Age of Distraction calls for a new modus operandi. One that is all about playing defense: fending off superfluous meetings, prioritizing what emails you respond to ruthlessly, and fighting the urge to constantly indulge in social media.
When you decide what you should be saying NO to, saying yes to the right things becomes infinitely easier. Here’s my shortlist of things I say NO to, and how it helps me stay focused:
1. Say NO to letting other people run your schedule. The antidote to this problem is a powerful activity that I learned from Cal Newport called “focus blocking.” It’s the act of proactively blocking out chunks of time–preferably 90-180 minutes–on your calendar for focusing on the work that really matters. Blocking out the time in advance is key, because it’s essentially like playing defense on your shared calendar. If you already have a 3-hour chunk of time set aside two mornings a week, someone isn’t going to book a meeting there that breaks up your day and leaves you with no time to get into the creative flow.
2. Say NO to allowing email to eat up all of your time. The two most important concepts for managing your mail are: One, set aside 30 minutes 2-3 times a day to check it, and ignore it the rest of the time. Truthfully, everything can wait. And it can always wait at least a few hours. Two, recognize which emails are important and have a valid demand on your attention, and which do not–and prioritize your responses accordingly. All emails are not created equal, and you’ll never get anything done if you treat them as if they were.
3. Say NO to constantly checking Twitter/Facebook/etc. The way that an app like Twitter delivers little bits of information that surprise and delight at random intervals activates the brain’s pleasure center and creates craving. That’s why social media (or texting or even email) holds such a powerful temptation. What’s more, our ability to resist temptation declines over the course of the day. That means you’d be well-advised to do your “hard work” in the morning, while your ability to resist distraction is still high. When you’re running lower on willpower in the afternoon, set aside two or three “reward blocks” of 10-15 minutes to let yourself indulge in social media without guilt. Then turn Facebook/Twitter/etc off or minimize it (seriously!), and get back to work.
4. Say NO to getting rundown. It’s worth remembering that staring at a screen 16 inches in front of your face for 8-10 hours a day is completely unnatural. Which means you need a strategy for re-energizing yourself throughout the day to avoid physical and mental fatigue. To combat this, I do two things: I alternate tasks that demand creative thinking (e.g., editing an article or brainstorming ideas for a new project) with tasks that are relatively mindless (e.g., responding to routine emails, building out spreadsheets). And I do everything I can–including taking lunch away from my desk, going for walks, and stretching–to avoid sitting too much (it’s deadly!).
5. Say NO to distractions: Keep the big picture at the forefront. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to “zoom in” and “zoom out.” To make sure we don’t fritter away our time on the little things at 99U, we regularly zoom out and talk about the big picture. We set an annual roadmap for key product launches, feature upgrades, and events across 99U, and then set individual quarterly goals for every member of the team. This ensures that everyone knows what we’re working toward, and what their role is in achieving those goals. Then we’re able to zoom in to the execution level, asking: What do I need to accomplish this month, and this week to meet those goals?
As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.