The meetings were held 8pm Wednesday nights.
Familiar faces each week.
We’d take it in turns to stand and recount the trials of our addictions and how we were gradually freeing ourselves from our demons.
Tales of multiple browsers open on multiple monitors fighting for attention with apps constantly pinging on our phones, dragging our awareness away from the overflowing inbox of email; which diverted time from social media updates, phone calls, and Brian who damn well just waltzes into offices any time he pleases.
Heads nodded as speaker after speaker detailed the negative effects this was having on their home lives, their incomes. They spoke of their consistent feeling of unease. The dis-empowerment and disconnection from a sense they were achieving anything of worth in their daily lives.
This was my Distractionaholics Anonymous meeting.
It was my turn to talk. I rose and greeted the room.
Me: “Hi everyone my name’s Simon and I’m a Distractionaholic.”
Group: “Hi Simon”
Some nights as I began the words didn’t come easily, but tonight I was lifted by a sense of achievement.
After a short preamble, I broke the news.
“. . but I have an announcement to tell you. It’s something I’m very proud of. You all know my story . . . my journey. You all know it’s been a long time coming . . .
(I paused to stoke the fire of anticipation)
“. . . I want to tell you that it’s been three hours since I checked my phone.”
The place went up.
Everyone was on their feet. I was enveloped in sea of hugs. There were tears of joy, and heartfelt pats on the back.
Now my Distractionaholics Anonymous meeting is fictitious, but some of the concepts it puts in the frame are very real.
Not that long ago this was the sort of support group I needed.
I had my own business, I had great clients and from outward appearances I had some good things going.
I’d consciously forged a path to the stage where I was able to work with the clients I liked. I could choose work that invigorated me. I had a couple of loyal full-time staff members. I’d built up a little black book of freelancers whose work I admired and who I could rely on to produce, high quality work on time.
But the machinery of modern, online, collaborative worklife had overtaken me.
I’d spend my days in a sea of desktop and mobile apps. I’d be responding to email while taking conversations in Skype . . . cutting messages from Slack . . . pasting them into Trello . . . and back to Slack again . . . downloading images from Skype and adding them to Slack and forwarding a copy via email with a screenshot taken from this monitor or that. I’d be in and out of a dozen applications: web analytics, conversion optimization apps, pay-per-click advertising. If the phone wasn’t ringing, SMS or Whatsapp would be buzzing in between more notifications from Skype, Zopim, Trello, Slack and all these notifications would be replicated as email notifications just to ensure that I didn’t have a single moment that wasn’t filled with noise.
I spent my day directing electronic traffic.
I’d become a human router.
I’m not paid to be a human router.
My situation is that I’m paid to think, plan and create. I’m paid to use the sum of my experiences to progress possibilities to probabilities and create valuable work for my clients. I wasn’t doing much of this. I was locked up in the appearances and the administration of doing it. But I wasn’t doing much of the things that mattered.
The effect was a constant, gnawing sense of frustration. I’d turn in at night, feeling tired, but with the sinister feeling I’d achieved nothing that day.
I knew things needed to change.
Now this part in the story might be more exciting where I to paint you a picture, in dark colours of despair and desperation: if I told you the situation had caused me to become homeless and destitute, living on the street where I sang Barry Manilow covers on a borrowed guitar, just to eat. But then one day something remarkable happened . . .
Or if I told you of my desperate situation against impossible odds, backed into a steep ravine with armies of enemies on all sides, forced to fight my way out with nothing more than a blunt butter knife and my ageing three legged horse.
Alas dear reader, things weren’t quite that bad. And there was no single blinding flash that sparked the process of change.
I had however, made a resolution to live my working day guided by 2 principles, one practical, one aspirational:
- I was going to spend more time at the whiteboard, less time at the keyboard
- I was going to leave the distracted masses, and join the focused few. *
(*This phrase is borrowed from Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work”)
The ‘whiteboard’ here is a concept, rather than a description of the shiny white wheely thing in my office. It might mean working with paper and pen, or rearranging notes and ideas on index cards. The ‘whiteboard’ can be anything in fact, where I’m doing clear, focussed work . . . away from the computer.
The practical application of this, and my recovery as a result, has come 20 minutes at a time.
Over the years I’ve read plenty of books about being more effective and managing time, or more correctly, managing priorities within available time.
One of the techniques that’s been most effective for me is the process of breaking down a task into small chunks and being able to absolutely devote myself to that task in the exclusion of everything and then walk away from it completely at the end of a timed period.
For me that was a 20 minute chunk of time.
I took these 20 minute chunks and fashioned them into a process which, I hoped, would create lasting, structural change in the brainware.
In the first week, I drew five squares on my whiteboard. One for each day of the week. Each day, I’d commit to one 20 minute block of undisturbed work.
Virtually impossible to fail.
At the allotted time, I put the computer to sleep, phone onto aeroplane mode, timer on. Nothing else but paper and pen.
When the alarm sounded, I walked. Even if I was halfway through and idea or a sentence. (Especially if I was mid idea / sentence as this has the affect of creating an open loop which made it super simple to take up where I left off.)
Each week I added a new square. So in the second week, there were 2 X 20 blocks to find time for.
Piece of cake.
This continued to week 6, where I paused adding blocks and where I dwell currently.
I’d found that if I’ve undertaken 6 sessions of highly focused work where I’m really pushing myself to draw out as much as I can, then pushing further is providing diminishing returns.
After 6 sessions, I’ve usually baked my brain. I’ve mined that day’s seam of mental ore. I’ve spanked the Muse’s butt and she’s given me that look that says: “Hey. Enough.”
When I look at the whiteboard at the end of the day, I see those crosses. I see a physical sign of the meaningful progression toward predetermined endeavours.
It’s only 2 hours in a 7-8 hour working day, but those are the hours that mattered.
I’m inoculated against having to say: “That was a real busy day. But what the hell did I achieve?”
And it feels good.
Then, the work seems to continue, as it were, underground.
While all this was going on in my daily activity, I noticed gradual changes were happening behind the curtains.
Sometimes when I sit down to the page, the complete project I was battling with the day before was laid out in my mind in its entirety, clearly organized, an elegant, succinct solution.
All I need do is show up and receive the dictation.
This doesn’t happen all the time of course, but with enough regularity that I’ve gained trust in the process.
I know these experiences would never eventuate had I not done the work and extracted all the requisite parts from my mind, thereby allowing the process of alchemy to take place.
So even though I may be undertaking a particular project and feel I’m not making inroads, I know the most important thing is to create as much material as I can.
Then when I’ve dumped a heap of files, imagery, notes and scribbles on to the garage floor of the mind, it seems the squirrels of the subconscious get to work dutifully cataloguing, archiving, rearranging the pieces and ditching the waste.
(Note: We don’t have squirrels here in Australia. The closest I can think of is the possum and in my experience possums tend to be smelly, nervous and cantankerous buggers that make a hell of a mess of your garage and trumpet a god-awful noise around mating season. Clearly they’re not contenders for the lofty goals of my metaphor. I don’t know much about squirrels but my naivete paints then as cute, smart, helpful little critters. So squirrels it is.)
Greater minds than mine throughout history have spoken about this power of the subconscious as a rule of nature in our shared biology.
Bertrand Russell is quoted as saying that when beset by a problem, he would work at it with great intensity then “order the work to continue underground”.
Bertrand Russell did some good work. Must have had some good squirrels.
Time blocking had given me the momentum of getting important work done, but the action of simply shutting off all the noise, didn’t magically make the noise go away.
Noise reduction was the job of discernment, delegation and procedures.
(Now the BS here stands for Beautiful Systems, rather than the more obvious bovine equivalent. Ok . . . I’ll work on a better acronym.)
I started taking a hard look at every task that came across my desk and asked:
~ Does this task need to be done at all?
~ If so, do I need to do it?
Running a small business creates no end of things that demand your attention. Sales and marketing, administration, accounts, compliance, it goes on.
I already had a number of procedures in place but when I looked at a lot of the lower value tasks I was still doing, it was usually due to:
A) an overvalued sense of my own self importance which makes me think I’m the only one who can do the task (usually false) or
B) I just haven’t made time to create the procedure, and train someone on it
Devoting structured time in the Department of Beautiful Systems to review existing procedures, and create new ones would close the loop on my new system.
If time blocking is the jet engine, then procedures are the wings which give it stability and lift. If I were able to procedurize more, I could delegate more, which would afford me more time to do the things that create value.
I started to schedule time each day to procedures. My first job was to simplify the existing ones into a standard framework.
Although we had a number of procedures in place, they were a bit of a ragtag bunch: some in Google docs, some in Word stored in Dropbox, some walk-through videos stored here, there, or somewhere. Some were outdated and could be removed, others needed updating.
I standardized these into a simple template in Google docs which lays out:
- What needs to happen
- Why do we do it
- When does it happen and what are the exceptions
- How to do it
- Who’s responsible
- Who is the backup
The procedures are predominately in Google docs format, with hyperlinks to the web and screenshots where required. Over the years I’ve found this is usually a better format than video walk-throughs as they’re so much easier to edit. If you need to edit a video walk-through, you need to recreate the whole thing. That being said, there are a lot of procedures once set in place don’t change, so my template has an area for a video walk-through, if appropriate.
Then I created a dedicated, shared folder and created a single Google doc that acted as the directory, hyperlinking to all others.
The Department of Beautiful Systems was starting to live up to its name.
No commentary about this journey would be complete without a discussion of email.
For some time, I’d been in the process of reducing the amount of email I received by virtue of using helpdesk software (in our case Teamwork Desk) and Slack. This had helped, but I still found myself spending hours a day locked inside the inbox.
Like a lot of people, I’d got into the habit of using the inbox as a surrogate to-do list. The to-do list that other people could put things on.
The first step to recovery was resolving to only open email at 3 set times during the day, and leaving it closed otherwise.
This was a good start.
Another change in email use is a one touch policy. Previously I’d use my email and as a place to store and organize. But that resulted in a continual batch of unrelated emails lurking in the inbox. Every time I’d go into the inbox, I’d see this motley bunch and I could feel my awareness darting this way and that, using some vague rules of questionable origin to determine which email to open and act on. The email would be opened, tinkered with until I decided that I couldn’t really act on it just yet, and another was chosen.
Hardly a recipe for productive nirvana.
Now, when its time during the day to “do email”, I have a one touch policy. If an email is in the inbox, it gets acted upon. Its replied to, forwarded, deleted or saved for later reference. But if its saved for later, it gets saved as a link in an Evernote project rather than saved in the inbox.
I know I could use email folders and tags, but that would mean spending more time in email, and I want to be out of there as quickly as possible.
This approach has been something of a revolution. I’m now spending far less time in the inbox, and the time that I do spend is vastly more effective.
Is my new system working?
I feel I’m achieving more some days than I used to achieve some weeks. But I’m only ever a click away from an new application or a new bright shiny object that can pull me into a wormhole.
Electronic distraction is like the opium den I have to pass through every day to get to my work. And I’m the recovering hookah pipe smoker.
There’s an inscription on the wall of the Returned Servicemen’s League building in Rose Bay, Sydney. It reads “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. My daily struggle with electronic clutter is not as momentous as the wars between nations that inspired this quote.
But if we want to create the best work we can, this is no less a war we need to wage.
So it doesn’t end here, this is very much a work in progress. Wish me luck.
I’m almost finished writing this piece and Oooo! . . an update on Instagram!
. . . must . . . resist.