Time is our most important resource and an especially difficult one to protect as life returns to “normal.” Although many of us felt more productive while cloistered at home, researchers find that remote employees worked longer but less efficiently. Emails, messages, news articles, and social media continued to hack our attention.
Now, networking events, conferences, and meetups are back, competing for more of our time. The new “hybrid” norm of balancing in-office and remote work adds even more complexity. Without the social structures of a conventional office, there is pressure to do things coworkers notice and reward, like answering emails quickly. These distractions can imitate productive uses of time.
Time is the most valuable, non-renewable resource I have in my work. To run a startup studio, or a company that builds other companies, my cofounder and I must protect our time against noise and distractions. I want to offer some tools that have optimized my time and may help you as well.
Start by defining your goals to filter distractions
Defining what qualifies as a distraction, or noise, is challenging and varies from person to person. Instead, start by defining your goals. Your goals might be to start a business, complete an urgent project, or find a new job. A distraction is then anything that takes you away from that core goal. When you evaluate ways to spend work time against goals, distractions become obvious. Emails, for instance, will begin to look like someone else’s to-do list.
Perform a focus audit
Even with defined goals, you might not spend as much time on your priorities as you think. To find out, audit yourself. For at least a week, make a list of everything you do at work and how much time you spend on each item. You can also use software to automate the tracking. The point is to identify the specific distractions that steal time you could otherwise spend on your goals.
Be selective about who you network with
Rather than wander around networking events for hours hoping to find a valuable contact, get on LinkedIn or Twitter and decide who you want to meet. Find people who work on the same issues or used to work for your competitors. To start, suggest a 20-minute phone call so there’s no added pressure to set up for a formal video chat or meet in person. You’ll save time and have valuable conversations more often.
Don’t let social media set your information diet
On social media, the clicks, likes, and comments of other users determine what appears in your feed. Why let random people set your information diet? Instead, go to experts. Read books by people you admire and want to learn from (the late Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, is one of my favorite business authors). Likewise, be highly selective with the publications you follow. Books and quality journalism have high hurdles to clear; social media posts don’t.
Get comfortable saying “no”
At Wilbur Labs, we wrote in our studio handbook, “Saying no is more important than saying yes.” Only by saying no to distractions can you say yes to important goals and execute them. While you might not be able to rewrite your company handbook, you can have a conversation with your teammates. Define your goals together, and point back to them when you need to say no to a new project or task that competes with higher priorities.
Build habits and routines that reduce distractions
Many people believe the key to being productive is being motivated, but I believe building strong habits and routines is far more important than motivation. For example, even the most disciplined, motivated people succumb to smartphone apps. There’s probably one you’re tempted to check every time you grab the phone. It might even be something core like your mobile browser or email app. Rather than try to resist, make a habit of deleting those apps, moving them to the second page, or placing them in a folder labeled “distractions.”
Ignore what others are up to
Last year, we surveyed founders about startup failures. Almost none of them said they failed due to a competitor. Whether you run a startup or work in a fast-paced culture, don’t waste time monitoring what others are doing and worrying about how you measure up. Instead, spend that time serving customers better than they do and making progress against your own goals.
So did I waste my time reading this? To be clear, we’re not suggesting you stay in a pandemic bubble to protect your time. Get out into the world. Have fun, be social, and make time to play. When you’re working though, set a high bar for the value of your time. By focusing on what matters, you’ll raise your output and create more time for everything you missed during the pandemic.
If you read this article and take no action, you will have wasted about six minutes of your day. And you can never get them back. Instead, I hope you will set new goals and relentlessly protect them from distractions.
Phil Santoro Is the cofounder of Wilbur Labs, a San-Francisco-based startup studio. Prior to building Wilbur Labs, Phil was a growth strategist at Google and the founder of company which allowed users to create free forums.