Recently I wrote an internal blog post at work titled On the traps of working from home.
While the content isn’t new it was triggered by the recent events around COVID-19 and the fact that all of a sudden the whole company was working from home, distributed across multiple timezones.
I was worried that we may default to having more meetings instead of better communication and writing this post was my attempt to share how I tend to deal with distractions.
What follows is a summary of said post, including a new section at the end.
- The shoulder tap
- The all day meeting
- Same day meeting invites
What they all have in common is the unspoken – and unreasonable! – expectation that people have their email and messaging apps open all the time so they can quickly respond to notifications.
This bias towards synchronous communication is a sure recipe for lost productivity and wasted time through context switching and ineffective communication. If we’re not careful these traps leave very little time for deep work.
We need to get better at planning our days ahead of time. Here are some things I find useful and that keep me productive:
I sometimes have people ping me and potentially get annoyed that I didn’t reply to an email I received 2 hours ago. Here’s a little secret: I don’t have my email client open all day. I try and check it twice a day at most and reply to emails in batch.
I apply a similar approach to Slack/Teams but do check it more often, about 4 times a day depending on my meetings schedule.
Try and create some blocks of time for focused work and kill those apps. It’s quite freeing and you’ll quickly realise how many distractions you’re subject to on a daily basis.
Prefer asynchronous communication – and long form
This very blog post could have been a meeting however that would have been a terrible use of time as most likely not everyone would be available. In addition there would be no documentation of what happened in the meeting – meetings notes are generally very bad at conveying context.
Instead, I chose to write it up and share it with everyone asynchronously. Now everyone has an equal opportunity to consume the content when it suits them and provide feedback – again, asynchronously – via comments and/or other medium.
As a side benefit we have yet another bit of our culture documented to which we can point people in the future. Basecamp has a great guide on this topic.
Plan your day ahead of time
In the current world setting if you’re planning your day when you sit at your desk in the morning you’re late. We should think about it in advance so that we can optimise our time and be respectful of the time of others.
Here’s a few questions I tend to ask myself:
- What do I want to accomplish tomorrow?
- Do I need anybody’s help in achieving these goals?
- Can that help be obtained asynchronously? – If so, send them an email or a slack message clearly stating what you need
- Is it better to meet and talk in real time? – Send a meeting invite for late in the day (if it’s your morning) or the next day (if it’s past lunch time or you’re in a different timezone)
- Block your calendar for focused work
- Always have a project to fall back to
- Async has disadvantages - so always have a project to work on if you get blocked.
What I did leave out of the original post is the role boredom plays in all this. It seems we are constantly inundated with a barrage of information that does little more than cause anxiety.
Between phone calls, answering emails, pop up notifications, Netflix, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the dozens of other apps fighting for our attention we have little time to just sit still and be bored. As a result we rob ourselves of the opportunity to let our minds wander and be creative.
One of the things I have found intriguing during COVID-19 is to hear the stories of the hundreds, thousands – maybe millions? – of people who are struggling being in lockdown because they are bored. But are they?
You see, lockdowns and quarantines aren’t new. They have been used effectively in past epidemics such as the Plague, Smallpox, Cholera and Influenza to name a few. Some of these are very old - certainly old enough that people at the time didn’t have access to the technology and entertainment options we have today. Yet, our ancestors have endured these measures.
So why is it that being alone at home in 2020 is so difficult? We have entertainment, books, food, games, all at our fingertips and yet we say we are bored. I don’t think we are bored. I think nowadays when someone says they are bored they really mean anxious. It’s as if you take technology away we are at a loss much like a boat without a crew, drifting across the ocean, with no direction, at the mercy of the moon.
Boredom is a crucial element of improving focus and doing Deep Work. And some claim you can be more productive by doing nothing.
I am not a psychologist and won’t pretend I understand the underlying causes of our difficulty being alone with our thoughts.
However what I do believe in, is that if we don’t deliberately create blocks of time where we simply allow the mind to wander, we will keep getting more anxious, less creative and less happy overall.