Time is your most valuable currency. You can always earn more money, but you can never recover the time lost.
If you were to examine how you spend your time, you’d realize that a lot of it is wasted on activities that don’t really bring you joy and fulfillment, but you’re doing them over and over again because they became a habit.
In my experience, the easiest way to disrupt those habits is to build protective mechanisms around them. In other words, make it easier to break the bad habit than it is to maintain it.
Most of the tips I share below are about bringing this concept to a practical level. I’ll show you how I make sure that when I sit down to do something for my work or personal projects, I stay focused.
By being intensely focused for a period of time we get to access the state of flow, and during this state we’re able to do things faster and create better results. One hour spent in the state of flow is more valuable than 10 hours spent dabbling and multi-tasking.
My most important job is to protect my creative flow — everything else is an option.
Here are 5 ways you can create ideal conditions for focus and flow and do more of the work that matters.
1. Restrain your internet addiction
This means stop wasting time on the internet!
I’m a huge information addict — my self control is abysmal, and I need apps that prevent me from browsing at times when I should be doing something useful.
It might seem strange that a person who is so big on freedom is putting up strict boundaries for herself. However, I learned the hard way that too much internet noise overwhelms me and stresses me out.
These particular boundaries are good for me — it’s my way of being kind to myself. I’ve proved to myself over and over again that if I “just check Twitter” in the morning, I get sucked into the vortex, and it’s so difficult to get to work on things that matter.
I’m using the LeechBlock add-on for Firefox for this purpose (I’m sure you can find something similar for your platform and browser of choice). Recently I installed an app called focusON that does pretty much the same thing on my phone. (EDIT 2020: I ended up deleting social media apps from my phone. Problem solved!)
The way this works is that I set rules for different website categories: I list URLs and set at which times and on which days will these websites (or apps) be blocked. Once I set these rules, they’re in place day after day, and I don’t even think about it.
If I had to manually turn on the blocker, it wouldn’t work nearly so well.
When I forget and type facebook.com and it’s 2 PM, I’m greeted by a blank page that reminds me it’s not time for Facebook yet.
I don’t read e-mail before noon, I don’t read blogs or listen to podcasts before 5 PM, and I don’t go on social networks before 7 PM.
I don’t read the news at all because news is bad for you.
With these restrictions in place, my time spent on e-mail and social media is incredibly effective. No more refreshing to see what’s new every 2 minutes.
I can hear the disbelief in your head. “But I could never do that.” I’d argue that unless your job is customer support or social media management, your clients will survive if you don’t answer them right away.
I’m challenging you to try it for one week only and see how it goes. You might like it!
2. Turn off notifications on your phone
Notifications are the devil. The very sound is distracting, but it also creates the nagging need to check what it’s about, and once your attention is away from your task, it’s over. A single private message can trigger a chain of events that result in an hour spent mindlessly browsing
I don’t get a ping on every new e-mail, @reply, comment, heart or whatever because it would drive me crazy. My job is not to reply to every single piece of communication the minute it comes in. My job is to protect my creative flow.
Just turn the notifications off. Alternatively, turn off wifi, or put your phone in another room (though, this interferes with tip #3 so I don’t like it).
3. Pomodoro timer
I already wrote about Pomodoro in my earlier post Productivity Tips from a Hopeless Procrastinator, but it’s so good it’s worth repeating.
If you’re not familiar with it, here’s how it works. You work with no interruptions for a set amount of time, followed by a short break. A typical Pomodoro consists of 25 minutes of work and a 5 minute break, but you can customize it to whatever you prefer.
The reason I like Pomodoro is that it seems so easy. It’s like that famous “I’ll only work on this for 15 minutes” trick to overcome starting friction.
By the time the first Pomodoro is up, I’m already focused on my project and more likely to just continue working.
Pomodoro got its name after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer, but in the modern times we use apps. Here are some resources to start with:
4. Make your focused time non-negotiable
The biggest enemy of focus is interruption. Research found that it takes around 20 minutes on average to get back to the level of concentration that we were at prior to being interrupted (source).
You know what it’s like when your loved ones want to tell you something right at this very moment (even though it’s not urgent, and it can wait until later). We do this in the workplace too, when we check in on our colleagues if they did what we needed them to do, or to ask for a piece of information.
I used to get pissed at my partner for entering my office as I was consumed in writing because he was breaking my flow. He just wanted to check in on me, and I’d yell at him to get out and felt sorry about it later. But I couldn’t just let him come in whenever he feels like it — my need for quiet, focused time is just as important as his need for company and affection.
Then it occurred to me that there’s a really old-school solution we can implement to prevent this from happening: a do not disturb sign.
Now we have an agreement that whenever there’s a sign on my door that says “Do not disturb”, nobody comes into my office, and nobody shouts through the door.
Of course, the first time I put the sign up he just stormed past without even noticing, so I had to draw his attention to it, but we’re getting used to it.
I guess it might get tricky if you have little kids around, but since I’m not a parent, I’ll just say: good luck.
5. Prepare a container for brain dump
One of the ways your mind will rebel as you start focusing on a task is to bombard you with a thousand other ideas and to-dos that are soooo important and the world will end if you don’t do them this very minute.
Prepare a place — whether it’s a paper or electronic document — where you will write all the things that come to mind, and you want to remember later: new ideas, to-dos, things to research, anything related to a project you’re not currently working on, updates to post on social media…
At the end of day or during your breaks, sort all this information into the system you usually use for ideas and to-dos. (If you don’t already have a system for keeping & organizing your ideas, I’ll walk you through it in my post How to handle a crazy influx of ideas and keep them organized.)
How are you preventing time suck in your life?
Have you tried any of the methods above, and how did it work for you? Do you have any other favorite tips to share?
What one method of disrupting your bad time-management habits would you like to experiment with in the next week?
Let me know in the comments!
For more info on why it’s better to start your day with creating (instead of consuming), read my post A simple tip for better creative productivity.
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
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