We’ve come to revere busyness, and to see it as being an indicator of high status. But busyness is harmful to our productivity and our health (and can even lead to things as horrible as burnout syndrome).
It’s not something to aim for or be proud of.
If you’re struggling with busyness and need to carve out more opportunities to do meaningful work, here are some tips for protecting your time from distractions and busywork.
Schedule focused work sessions in advance
Cal Newport knows the importance of setting aside time for his most important, and demanding, work. In fact, he’s written a whole book about it.
Newport is known for being prolific, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that he deliberately prioritizes his most important work over email, spontaneous opportunities, or meetings with colleagues.
To do so, Newport relies heavily on his calendar. He schedules blocks of time for his most demanding projects in advance, and protects those time blocks as he would any other calendar appointment. When the most important work is scheduled well in advance, Newport’s colleagues and fans fit their demands on his time around those appointments and Newport never has to de-prioritize his most important projects in order to find time for busyness.
The idea is also straightforward. I now schedule my deep work on my calendar four weeks in advance. That is, at any given point, I should have deep work scheduled for roughly the next month.
This four week lead time is sufficiently long that when someone requests a chunk of my time and attention for a given week, I’ve almost certainly already reserved my deep work blocks for that period. I can, therefore, schedule the request with confidence in any time that remains.
Automate your focus time
It’s all well and good to say you should be setting aside time for your most important work, but when it comes time to actually do that work, how do you avoid interrupting colleagues or busywork vying for your attention?
One way to make sure your focused work sessions run smoothly is to automate all the hassle around getting started. Here are a few options to get you thinking:
- Use RescueTime’s FocusTime feature to stop you visiting distracting websites
- Automatically set your Slack status to “away” during a Focustime session
- Automatically post a message to Slack at the start of your FocusTime session, letting your colleagues know you’re unavailable
- Automatically start a RescueTime FocusTime session based on time you’ve blocked off on your calendar or as soon as you arrive at the office
Think about what interrupts you during focused work periods and stops you getting your most important work done. Find ways to automate starting your session, staying away from distractions, and keeping others informed of your status to ease the transition away from busywork and into a deep, focused work period.
Turn meetings into gatherings
If your time is often taken up by 1:1 meetings, or you’re constantly turning these down due to time constraints, try this trick. Marketing strategist Dorie Clark suggests turning 1:1 requests into 1:many situations, so you can get more out of the time you spend helping others:
I’ll ask the student to email me his question, I’ll respond back electronically, and will later turn it into a blog post. Similarly, instead of one-on-one coffees, I’ll often organize dinners to bring together interesting groups of people who could also benefit from knowing one another.
If you spend a lot of time answering questions via email or contact forms, try writing a blog post you can point people to in future. This way, you only spend the time needed to answer the question once, but many people can benefit. Tech writer Robert Scoble answers questions on Quora, rather than via email, so many people can benefit from the time he spends answering a question.
If it’s face-to-face meetings you’re struggling with, try setting up a group coffee meeting or dinner party for people with lots in common. Rather than only one person benefitting from your experience and ideas, you can facilitate a group of people to share with each other, so you spend the same amount of time but help many people at once.
Choose something to be bad at
No matter how much we try, we’re never going to have time for every single thing.
The trick, according to Dorie Clark, is to decide consciously what you’re going to be bad at. If you decide to be good at email, replying quickly and thoroughly to every message that hits your inbox, you’re subconsciously deciding to be bad at something else. And that could be your most important work.
I’ve chosen to be bad at email response time because it’s less important to me than serving clients or creating new content like this article. But I’ll never let it get to the point where there’s no response.
Decide upfront which activities you can afford to put less time and effort into. Maybe that’s email, maybe it’s networking, maybe it’s filing your paperwork on time. The point is, something has to suffer if you’re going to prioritize your most important work, so you should decide ahead of time what you’re going to be bad at.
If you’re not getting enough meaningful work done, take a look at how you spend your time. You probably need to work harder to protect your time from the busyness and distractions that are so common for us all.
What are your best tips for protecting your time? Let us know in the comments.