I was in a remote part of Sweden on holiday over the summer with family and close friends. The nearest place to buy water was a 90-minute drive away, the only light source in the cabin was a candle and at night the only thing you could hear were the wolves. It got me thinking; this was a great place to write a book. No distractions apart from having to catch supper from the lake.
It also got me questioning how I could replicate this solitude in my own projects without driving to such a remote corner of Scandinavia. To do so, you need to get good at ‘shutting out the noise’.
I’ve always been interested in why some people get a lot more done than others. Everyone has the same number of hours, but that’s where the similarity ends. Some people just specialise in being busy. Others just make things happen.
‘Am I a busy fool?’ is a question we should ask ourselves each day. I know I do. The busy fool doesn’t lack effort, just focus. Quite simply, I think the big difference between people who ‘get shit done’ and those who don’t is the ruthless prioritisation of time. This applies to business as well as to individuals.
To be clear, I am not saying ‘work longer’. What I am saying is be ruthless with your time. I am a big fan of Jason Fried who runs Basecamp. We use its software, but I also love the culture he is building there. To quote him: ‘Working more than 40 hours a week doesn’t mean you’re working hard. It just means you are working more than 40 hours a week.’
The thing I have learned from running The Do Lectures for nearly a decade is that people who ‘get shit done’ manage distractions as well as focus. They simply switch off the distractions, (the smartphone is the ultimate attention seeker,) and then spend their time on the one thing that will give the biggest return on effort. If you want to see just how much time you are on your phone, download an app called Moment; it will show you the truth of your day. You won’t like the results. To do your best work, you will have to commit all your attention for long periods of uninterrupted time. It demands ruthless blocking of distractions.
Cal Newport has written a great book called Deep Work, and its essence is that you need to find two to three hours each day without wifi, without your phone, and make that a habit of how you go about your work as part of your daily routine. Those few hours will be worth more than other people’s eight hours. They may be working longer, but they will be doing shallow work. They will be distracted by gossip in the open-plan office, by an email that has just arrived, by a great photo on Instagram.
When you are doing shallow work, you can’t solve difficult problems. Your best work will require you to overcome ‘difficult’. Your best work will stretch you, push you, find your very limits. This work cannot be done while thinking about something else.
For every distraction we get caught up in, it takes us another 20 minutes to get back into the flow of where we left off. Distractions take more time than the distraction alone. Because they leave an open loop in your brain, it takes time to regain focus. If you want to start doing the best work you have ever done, hit the airplane mode on your phone. Or head three hours north of Gothenburg. There’s a great cabin in the woods.
David Hieatt is the co-founder of The Do Lectures, a series of networking events.