How easily do you get distracted? If you’re like most of us, the answer is, well, pretty easily. According to new research from Michigan State University, it takes only three seconds to get distracted to the point where we lose flow and become unproductive. Over on New York Magazine, Melissa Dahl breaks down the impact of the research for us:
This means that “it’s not just a phone call that counts as an interruption — just the ringing counts … even if all you want to do is find your phone and shut it off,” the study’s lead author, Michigan State University psychologist Erik Altmann, said in an email.
Obviously, I don’t know what your office culture is like (or if you even work in one), but if you can, try dedicating 60- to 90-minute chunks throughout the day to totally distraction-free work. (Studies have suggested that’s about as much time as your brain can bear to produce quality work before needing a break, anyway.)
Whether you work in an office setting — where the occasional “quick question” from peers can be a more-than common occurrence — or solo from your home or a cafe, if you’re not blocking even slight distractions you could be opening yourself to breaks in flow.
Things like text messages, social media notifications, or a random email notice may be all it takes to distract you. Even if you don’t read the messages, check the notification, or open the email, as this new research shows: all it takes to break flow is a quick chime from your browser or buzz from your phone.
To really get in-the-flow and produce your best work, do what Dahl recommends in her article and find a way to set aside 60 to 90 minutes of pure, completely distraction-free work.
Read the whole write-up covering the research right here.
Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two, speaks about the advantages of competitive collaboration in an article for The Atlantic. His famous example is that of The Beatles’ Paul McCartney and John Lennon who would regularly “answer” each others’ songs in friendly competition. When John wrote “Strawberry Fields,” Paul came back with “Penny Lane.” Paul notes that the competition made them “better and better all the time,” and created a creative tension.
Despite the tension—because of the tension—the work was magnificent. Though the White Album recording sessions were often tense and unpleasant (Emerick disliked them so much that he flat-out quit), they yielded an album that is among the best in music history.
The Beatles’ producer George Martin described the relationship as “two people pulling on a rope, smiling at each other and pulling all the time with all their might.” Not only did their competition create tension, but their contrasting personalities added to it as well. Paul was meticulous, diplomatic, and polite, while John could be chaotic, impatient, and rebellious. Although completely different, they complemented each other perfectly. As John’s first wife Cynthia Lennon observed:
John needed Paul’s attention to detail and persistence. Paul needed John’s anarchic, lateral thinking.
Although tension can foster creative productivity, remember to surround it with sufficient support and shared passions.
Creatives are subject to high levels of rejection. Even though companies seek out innovative individuals, they seldom listen to their new ideas due to the risk involved. Fortunately, research suggests that rejection may actually help – not hinder – the creative process. Rejection hurts, but if there is no pain, then there is no gain. In an article for Slate, illustrator Jessica Olien explains:
Perhaps for some people, the pain of rejection is like the pain of training for a marathon – training the mind for endurance. Research shows you’ll need it. Truly creative ideas take a very long time to be accepted. The better the idea, the longer it might take. Even the work of Nobel Prize winners was commonly rejected by their peers for an extended period of time.
Social rejection can be liberating. Once you know you don’t fit in, you can concentrate your energy on your creative projects as oppose to stressing about what others think. Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.” Just be sure you know when to push through and when you should call it quits.
Now in its 40th anniversary, the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons has emerged as an initial force behind many creatives’ success. As a piece in the New York Times explains:
Though Mr. Díaz never became a fantasy writer, he attributes his literary success, in part, to his “early years profoundly embedded and invested in fantastic narratives.” From D&D, he said, he “learned a lot of important essentials about storytelling, about giving the reader enough room to play. . .
“For nerds like us, D&D hit like an extra horizon,” he added. The game functioned as “a sort of storytelling apprenticeship.”
But the skills learned through play go deeper than narrative writing:
What makes a D&D story different from novels and other narratives is its improvisational and responsive nature. Plotlines are decided as a group. As a D&D player, “you have to convince other players that your version of the story is interesting and valid,” said Jennifer Grouling, an assistant professor of English at Ball State University who studied D&D players for her book, “The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games.”
If a Dungeon Master creates “a boring world with an uninteresting plot,” she said, players can go in a completely different direction; likewise, the referee can veto the action of player. “I think D&D can help build the skills to work collaboratively and to write collaboratively,” she added. (Mr. Díaz called this the “social collaborative component” of D&D.)
If an acquaintance, or someone you’re just not that close enough to, asks for a job recommendation that you feel uncomfortable giving, New York Magazine suggests you try one of the following “humanely disingenuous” approaches:
1. Respond enthusiastically with information of limited value: “Would it help if I gave you the name of the human-resources person? I think I might even have his e-mail!”
2. Issue a self-deprecating disclaimer of helplessness: “I don’t know how much my word counts on this one . . . ”
3. Technically do the favor, but warn off the prospective employer either explicitly or between the lines: “An acquaintance of mine is looking for something. I’ve known him ever since we went to Bennington! He dropped out though.”
If they take the next step in asking you why they didn’t get picked or why you won’t personally recommend them, remember that no one can get better without feedback — just make sure you give them criticism without being critical.
How can we know which projects are worthwhile for us and which are trivial? At Hotel Genius, a letter from the late quantum physicist Richard Feynman explains why the humbler projects are also some of the most important for us to work on:
The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to…
I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile…No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.
The advice Feynman gives is simple enough, yet how often do we feel like we need to work on something colossal in order to feel validated and purpose-driven?
While you may feel pressure to revolutionize the race to mars, to write a #1 best-selling novel, or to start a business and sell it for billions of dollars, the real worthwhile work to be done is any work that you can realistically do now. The problems you solve and the work you do now may not be work “close to the gods” (to use Feynman’s words), but that doesn’t make it any less important.
Scheduling meetings over email is like playing ping pong, where a simple “Can you meet at 4:00 pm?” could easily turn into an endless volley of back-and-forth replies.
In The 4-Hour Work Week, author Tim Ferris suggests a simple strategy to streamline things:
Email communication should be streamlined to prevent needless back-and-forth. Thus, an email with “Can you meet at 4:00 pm?” would become “Can you meet at 4:00 pm? If not, please advise three other times that work for you.”
Get into the habit of considering what “if … then” actions can be proposed in any e-mail where you ask a question.
The “if…then” statement preempts follow-up questions and prevents them altogether. By avoiding separate dialogues, you dramatically reduce emails sent. Let the other person give you some options while you get back to doing real work.