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Time Management

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

What if you had to focus for at least 30 minutes on every single task that you did? Would it improve your productivity? Cal Newport takes hard focus for a test drive.


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

Cal Newport is a Computer Science professor at Georgetown University and the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. If you pre-order Deep Work before Christmas, you’ll gain access to a invite-only webinar in which Newport will breakdown exactly how he prioritizes deep work in his own professional life (see here for details).

Comments (8)
  • João Faraco

    This sounds a lot like the pomodoro technique, which I have tried in days that I needed some real concentration work done, and worked very well. @wethecreatives:disqus just posted the link to the site, and it’s worth a try : http://www.pomodorotechnique.c

  • Paulo Cabral

    Funny to read this article, because thats the same system that i adopted unconsciously.
    This is a very good concentration system, the time constraingth as you  said,
    improve a lot of your will to complete a task.

    good work.

  • MouthyAlex

    Yeah batching is a good thing! However how you batch really seems to depend on the type of work you do.

    For instance, if you are a project manager, I’d think your entire day is spend checking and communicating on many different levels that probably only take 5-15 min to complete.

    If you are a researcher or creative or analyst or construction worker…well your work probably demands a level of concentration to get the work done. Maybe 30 min to 2 hour blocks.

    Personally, I devote 3 parts of my day to correspondence (like this comment). Morning, Noon, Evening. And the tasks usually take 10min to  1hr to complete. It’s the only way for me to compartmentalize so I can spend the 1-4 hr chunks of time neccessary to focus on my job as an art director.

  • S2

    10.5 hours is not 12 hours.

  • Rskagy

    You are OCD. If you are working on something that requires a quick bounce to email that is included in that work and most people can stop themselves from doing anything but what they are in email for. Why do you assume everyone is as OCD and unable to handle simple rule bending as you? This is a great method with no annoyances if you arent so strict.

  • Christopher

    Uggghhhh… It sounds so beautiful…. but so hard.

  • Xtranscendent

    I was forced to batch since I was two. ::Blames education adamant grandmother:: I never really realized it’s benefits till now. i was thinking about something along these lines ever since I read your article on the tally marks on a wall in front of your desk. I realized thirty minutes is ideal for focus (at least for me). Years ago it used be as long as two-three hours. It’s my goal to bring it up to that level.

  • Paulr

    what time is lunch?

  • Jeff Goins

    oh man… so convicting. i need to do this.

  • Tommy

    Are we doing better creative work when confronted by the dollar-driven constraints of arbitrarily assigned  blocks of time which somehow have been certainly determined to be the most concretely productive (and therefore profitable) use of our time?

  • Eli Bishop

    Great article.  I think I just batched all over myself…

  • Michael Boland

    Great article. I’m a photographer, writer and sometimes music producer and find that I am continually pulled in each of these different directions. I think that batching could work well for me but would have to be combined with another program like the Action Method and also timed internet blockig software such as Mac Freedom. http://macfreedom.com/

  • Cathy Cervantes

    It all sounds well and good, but you forgot to figure in one thing–kids! I too am a to-do-list creative, and I work from home. Oh how nice it would be to only think about work related things! Oh, the animals too, and what in the heck to make for dinner, and that laundry is piling up…etc etc

  • Doncadora

    At the Economist’s Innovation conference one speaker told us that Email turns out to be the biggest distraction. Not Facebook, reading blogs, or Twitter. That seems to be illustrated in this article too. Just knowing that email is a distraction helps you. They say don’t start your day by checking your email. And try to check it only twice a day. Otherwise, it seems like the 30 minute block is nice way to go about smaller tasks. Now I’m going to read other people’s blogs for 30 minutes. Thanks!

  • Rowan

    This follwowing article on Behance actually answers the question that this
    Forced Focus experiment deals with, that too much Focus is actually not
    good for creative solutions:

    http://the99percent.com/tips/7

  • Linda paul - artist

    Great experiment and takes a lot of disciple to maintain. I am an artist and yesterday I divided my work into one hour segments and was amazingly productive, I even scheduled the painting and creative part, then marketing, web stuff etc.  Items on the bottom of the list did not get done. Today i have been free form with no set schedule. I have been amazingly creative and idea driven but have not got any other work done. ithink if youwork on your own its imprtant to schedule into “loose blocks” or its too tempting to play around all day

  • Dukennys

    I’d love to read all the article, but i lost the focus in the middle.

  • Davide 'Fol' Casali

    You basically described a first attempt at the Pomodoro Technique. 😉
    http://www.pomodorotechnique.c

    It’s an excellent method and there are some really good apps for many platforms to support it. It’s important to understand the basics (for example, 25+5 minutes aren’t for many of us, but not for everyone) and then use it every time you need to focus.

    It’s also useful because it helps us to train our focus, not just because it’s efficient. The good side is that by being efficient you train yourself to be more efficient automatically. 🙂

  • Sarah Treanor

    Great experiment!

    I work as a web designer for a fashion company, so busy times come seasonally in waves here. I have found that in the busiest of times when there is simply too much to get done in a day… I must resort to batching my time in order to tackle it all. “One hour for concepting this project, then move on” or “these three projects are all I am handling today – one before lunch, and two after lunch – and nothing more” It makes me incredibly productive and keeps me on schedule well – even in the most chaotic of times.

    However, I do find that it becomes very draining on my creative energy to do this for extended periods. After a month (about how long a busy period will last where I work) of having to batch my time… I feel very depleted and unable to really muster much energy for creativity. That is why, during the slower times, I make sure to abandon the batching system and allow myself the freedom to flow freely and with as little restraint on my day as possible. I will still make lists of projects to do that day – but other than that I will allow myself to relax and explore creatively throughout the day.

    So I suppose you could say batching, for me, is used on an as-needed basis when projects and timelines start to get tight and things need to get done. The rest of the time – I recharge my creativity by having more organic habits. I think a balance and ability to use both are vital. =)

    Thanks again for the article!

  • Julia Toth

    Useful article!
    I just started to make blocks for checking and replying to emails, but not as strictly as written above. It helped organize my day very much. Also every day I plan a flexible working schedule, and try to keep it as much as possible. 
    I check my emails 3 times a day. Email is possibly the biggest distraction, so I am trying to be strict about it (however the temptation is quite big :))
    I think it’s a good balance between totally random multitasking and an over-regulated working system.

  • Jeff

    When I left University and went to work in 1990, I had my own office. If I needed to focus, I simply shut my door with Do Not Disturb sign on and asked my secretary to hold my calls. Easy.

    Shift to my last office job before becoming self-employed in 2007. Open plan with 30 people, 5 printers, a kitchenette, 2 meeting rooms etc etc. Constant interruption by my phone, other people’s phones, faxes, printers whirring to life randomly, general chit chat, people stopping by to say hello en route elsewhere etc.

    As an Asperger person, it drove me nearly insane. I seriously began weighing up the social usefulness of hand grenades!

    I now work at home on my own with just the dogs to interrupt my day. I choose when to answer my phone and when to ignore it. No one visits my office (I meet clients elsewhere) and my wife is at work from before I get out of bed until at least 7pm.

    Bliss.

    Open Plan was only invented to save corporate property budgets from paying too much rent – but I bet the extra rent involved in giving people offices of their own now pales into insignificance when compared to the lost productivity of the same people in an open plan environment.

  • RB

    Great article.  I have been struggling with a crippling lack of focus fed by anxiety while trying to take on quite a bit.  I have been trying to figure out the best way to deal with this problem that sounds like it should be simple to fix but isn’t.  This is one of the most clear cut approaches that I have come across,  I was actually able to stay focused on reading it too!  I have been trying to start a similar approach recently and this article will definitely help me develop a plan of attack.  Thanks!

  • Dino

    Uninterrupted focus is definitely the key.  I go for 45-50 minutes focus and 10-15 minutes for email/coffee/small tasks every hour.  It works for me, and I use a timer (e.ggtimer.com) to help keep me on track.

  • Ramonantonio345

    Very important tips specially for self employed entrepreneurs. However, one crucial aspect is not mentioned: the need to determine and actually act to stop working on something and decide its complete. 
    My first teacher of word processing, in the Word Perfect days told us that the key lesson to learn was that you are the one who has to stop working in the document and determining it is a useful product for your need, be it an article, a letter, an essay or whatever. He strongly emphasized that anyone can go forever formatting, editing, adding bells and whistles and finally being late for the task. IT is up to us to stop at a certain moment and decide that what we have is what we need and FINISH. This so an oxymoron that its actually lost in reality.
    I recommend Stephen King’s: On Writing which is his writing testament. Two revisions and FINISH!
    Great article.

  • Eddie

    This article reminded me of a great little program I used a few years ago ‘Freedom’ that helped control the email and web distraction. Its very simple, Freedom cuts off your connection for the time you specify. The only way to get the connection back is to wait the time you set or restart your computer. 

    It helps a great deal if you have non-web reliant tasks, because even if you have any temptation to check mail, Facebook etc you simply can’t and have to re-focus on the task at hand. Going to start using it again! 

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