Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

A Day Without Distraction: Lessons Learned from 12 Hours of Forced Focus

Here are the rules: All work must be done in blocks of at least 30 minutes. If I start editing a paper, for example, I have to spend at least 30 minutes editing. If I need to complete a small task, like handing in a form, I have to spend at least 30 minutes doing small tasks. Crucially, checking email and looking up information online count as small tasks. If I need to check my inbox or grab a quick stat from the web, I have to spend at least 30 minutes dedicated to similarly small diversions.

I followed these rules for one full work day. This post describes why I did it and what I learned.

Continuous Partial Attention

The motivation for my experiment should sound familiar. Over the past half-decade, researchers have been sounding the alarm on the dangers of multitasking. Gloria Mark, for example, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, found that the technology workers she studied would make it, on average, only 11 minutes into a project before being distracted. It then took 25 minutes to return to the task post-distraction.

For some jobs, where responsiveness is crucial, this work style might be necessary. But as an academic, I’m a to-do list creative — to keep my job, I have to keep up with logistical tasks, but to advance, I need long bouts of focus on hard problems. For a to-do list creative, ignoring the small stuff isn’t an option, but living in a state of continuous partial attention (to steal a phrase from Linda Stone) won’t cut it either.

The solution to this quandary is well-known by now: batching.

Check email only a small number of times per day! Work in big chunks without distraction!Everyone has heard this suggestion. But almost no one follows it.

This is why I launched my experiment. I wanted to see what would happen if I forced myself to batch.

Ignoring the small stuff isn’t an option, but living in a state of continuous partial attention won’t cut it either.

A Day of Forced Batching

I have a doctors appointment scheduled for 10 a.m., so I decide to focus on a writing project from 8 to 10.

I feel the normal temptation to check my email while writing — just in case — but my rules forbid it. Even a glance at my inbox would trigger at least 30 minutes of similar small tasks.

When I arrive at my appointment at 10, I discover I had the wrong time. The appointment is not until 11.

My rules force me to think in blocks of 30 minutes or more, so I decide to spend from 10 to 10:30 contininuing work on my writing project at a nearby library. Then, from 10:30 to 11:00, I do my first small tasks block of the day. I have high hopes during this first small task block that I will efficiently knock off many items from my logistical backlog. Instead, I end up bogged down in my email inbox, trying to sort through who needs what and when.

After my appointment, I head home, go for a run, and make myself lunch.

It’s now 1:30 and I’m in a tight spot. My goal for the afternoon is to continue work on an important research problem. To do so, I need to retrieve the latest draft of our write-up from my email. But this will require a small task block of at least 30 minutes, so I have to be careful about how and when I do this.

Even more tricky, I need to meet with my collaborator to help work through some kinks in the research problem. On a normal day, I might send him an email saying, “when can you meet?”, and then just keep my inbox open until he responds. My rules, however, forbid this strategy (that is, unless I want to dedicate my entire afternoon to checking my inbox and similar small tasks).

I come up with the following solution:

I convert my commute from my apartment back to campus into a small task block. That is, I will retrieve the write-up draft and check my email right before I leave my apartment. I will think through my emails and how to respond while traveling. Then when I arrive at my office, I’ll send off those replies and shut down the small task block.

I feel the normal temptation to check my email while writing – just in case – but my rules forbid it.

To handle my meeting dilemma, I send my collaborator an email that reads: “During the following times this afternoon I’ll be working on this  project, if you happen to be free anytime in here, stop by my office,  otherwise tell me some times when we might meet tomorrow and I will get back to you at the end of the day to fix one.”  I’ve now freed myself from needing to keep my inbox open during the afternoon.

From 2 to 5:30 I’m working on my research problem. The rules remove any possibility of distraction — no matter how brief — and this seems to improve my focus. “There’s a real sense of momentum here,” I write in my notes.

At 5:30, I decide to do one final small task block to shut down my day. I treat this like a challenge: how much can I squeeze into one 30-minute block? The time constraint provides a certain urgency to my actions usually lacking at 5:30 in the evening. I end up finishing my work emails for the day, answering some blog reader emails, paying the rent, approving a design concept, sending a message to a pair of old friends, planning the next day, and recording the notes from this experiment.

In the end, the momentum carries me past 6:00 and I end up finishing closer to 6:30. This is later than I normally like to work, but the day ends with a satisfying feeling of accomplishment.

Conclusions

I’ll start with the negative aspects of this experiment:

Batching, as it turns out, is hard.

It requires that you plan ahead to make sure you have the material and information needed for focused blocks. It also requires careful communication. Answering emails, for example, is complicated when you need those emails to include all of the information needed for the next actions to be taken. (It’s much easier to use email for informal back and forth dialogue.)  Because of this, tackling my inbox during the experiment was surprisingly draining.

In other words, batching requires more work than not batching. This is why, I now understand, most people are quick to abandon their good-natured attempts to enforce more focus in their day: once it becomes non-obvious how to continue, they toss the goal.

But then there are the positives:

Having a clear rule that forbids any distraction during focused work was freeing. I still felt drawn toward diversion, but knowing that acquiescence was not even a possibility reduced its urgency.

On the flip side, the percentage of time spent in a flow state was as large as I’ve experienced in recent memory. I ended up spending 2.5 hours focused on my writing project and 3.5 hours focused on my research paper. That’s six hours, in one day, of focused work with zero interruptions; not even one quick glance at email.

Having a clear rule that forbids any distraction during focused work was freeing.

At the same time, the careful pre-planning required to satisfy my batching rules increased the efficiency of my small task completion. Even though I dedicated 6 hours in one 10 hour work day to uninterrupted focus, another 1.5 hours to exercise and eating, and another 1 hour to a doctors appointment, I still managed to accomplish an impressive collection of logistical tasks both urgent and non-urgent.

My bottom line:

To do batching right requires the type of strict rules I deployed in my experiment. These rules, as I discovered, will absolutely make your day more difficult. There’s no avoiding the reality that there will be times when you have to take convoluted action to solve a problem that could so easily be handled with just a quick bounce over to your inbox.

This is a pain in the ass.

At the same time, however, if you survive the annoyance, there’s also no avoiding the reality that your work will be of a much higher quality.

Ultimately, this is the batching trade-off: inconvenience in your daily workflow in exchange for an increased quality of your work.

From my experience writing about productivity, most people will abandon a tactic as soon as it makes their life more difficult. My experience with batching, however, leads me to question whether we need to rethink where we place our emphasis.

What’s Your Take?

Have you experimented with forced focus? How did it go?

Cal Newport

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Cal Newport writes about building a remarkable life at Study Hacks. His latest book, How to Be a High School Superstar, explains how to ace the college process without hating high school.
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