Minimizing Distractions

Last modified on August 24th, 2009

This is the third post in an ongoing business series I’m going to be writing. You can view them all by visiting here.

A few years ago I read a book called The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, an interesting book by Tim Ferris. Since that time, I’ve seen Tim talk at least once (maybe twice?), and have read a few other books with similar concepts as the ones presented by Tim.

While there are a few things in Tim’s book I don’t entirely agree with, some of his core concepts are fairly important if you’re thinking about branching out on your own. For instance, Tim makes the assertion that most people don’t actually want to run their own business, they simply want to own one instead. To that end, he points out how important it is to remove yourself as a bottleneck from your own company, either though automation or by empowering the people around you to make decisions on your behalf. If you don’t do that, you’ll always be a slave to your company.

Tim points out an interesting example. Years ago he was making a lot of money from his own company, but was working 10 – 14 hour days in order to make that happen. After years of doing that, he basically had a nervous breakdown and had to take a bit of time off of work. The first week he was away, his company’s profits rose by 40%, simply because he was no longer a bottleneck at his company.

One of the best take-aways from Tim’s book is how unproductive most people are nowadays, mainly due to the neverending stream of emails, twitters, and IMs, most of which only serve to distract us from what we’re working on. Sure, some items like Twitter are fun from time to time, but spending time doing those items not only extends your work day, but also trades away some of your free time, time you could be relaxing or reading, or spending time at the dinner table with your family.

Tim’s main solution to that is minimize how often he checks his email, advocating no more than once a day for most people. I used to only check my email twice a day, but have slowly regressed back into having a notifier go off whenever a new email comes in. So, I think I’m going to go back to the old system where I only checked it a few times a day, and used the time in between to get real work done without distractions.

In terms of IM, I’ve never been a big fan. Not only is it a distraction, but I’ve also found it promotes laziness in people. That is, instead of spending an extra 10 seconds to figure out a problem on their own, most people will simply IM someone else with the knowledge and ask them to figure it out. Back at my old job I purposefully stopped using IM for a while and found that most problems sorted themselves out without my input. If the problem was serious enough, someone would come up to my desk, and I’d help them out that way (which usually required far less time than trying to sort something out over IM). To this day, it’s pretty rare to find me on an online chat program (I pretty much only use iChat consistently, and that’s mainly reserved for my friends).

Another thing I recommend doing is splitting your personal and business email accounts, and only use/check your business account when you’re actually working. It’s very easy to set up your life such that you’re always aware of the status of your personal business. For example, I used to have all my work emails forwarded to my iPhone. Ultimately, I don’t think that lead to me being more productive — it only led to me being more stressed. Another habit I think is useless is checking email when you first hop out of bed. I used to do that a lot, most of the time prior to taking a shower or going to the gym. But all it did was start my head racing with all the problems I needed to sort out during the day, often making my trip to the gym less enjoyable, or causing me to skip breakfast so I could start working on things. Work’s not going anywhere, so wait until you’re actually in the mood to work to tackle things.

I also think it’s really important to set boundaries, both physical and technological. If you’re working from home, try to only work in one or two rooms, and leave your bedroom and relaxation areas out of the equation. In terms of technology, shut off all your work-associated gadgets when you’re done for the day, so that you can actually spend a bit of time relaxing, or having a healthy, cooked meal at home with some friends or family.

Finding the right balance is tricky, and I think it’s more of an art than a science. But I think it’s important to find some form of balance, such that work doesn’t consume your life. It’s that much harder when you work from home, but all the more important for your sanity.

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