It is amazing how much you can accomplish in 15-25 minutes. I have used writeordie.com to help me focus on slamming out 300-500 words at a time. It provides a distraction free page that will flash red when you stop writing for a few seconds and eventually will play horribly obnoxious sounds after 30 seconds or so. The only other interface elements it has is a countdown timer and word count. This allows me to focus on one goal: finish writing 300 words. Once I pick a topic and start the timer, it’s easy to just sort of open my brain and let the words flow out.
I have used a similar technique at work: Pomodoro. Basically it involves sectioning my work into 25 minute blocks, setting a timer, and focusing until the time is up, then breaking that focus for a few minutes. During that 25 minutes, I don’t answer emails, or browse the internet, or do a different task than the one I started until the time is up. Then I do something completely different to break my mind out of that mode. Usually I get up and walk around for a couple minutes (this helps preserve my back and legs as well).
I think there are two key factors that help me be productive with these systems: automation and removing distractions. I’ve already covered the distraction part, so I’ll talk about automation now. Ramit Sethi has great material on automating your finances. His point is that until you automate, you won’t be able to fool yourself into saving money. It is too hard and usually, impossible to be disciplined on your own every single week for the rest of your life. But, the more you can automate, the more you remove your mind and emotions from the problem. You can completely automate saving out of your life, forcing the habit to work by using software instead of relying on your own mind.
Although it is much harder to automate creative production, I think there are a lot of things I can do to help improve this. Once I already have content produced, there are lots of things you can do to automate publishing ahead of time, like scheduling Twitter and Facebook posts in Hootsuite. Or writing all of my blog posts ahead of time and scheduling them to be released once a day or once a week. This requires being disciplined for a single block of time, then removing the distraction of having to be discplined and remember to publish that content later.
My wife and I have established a habit of reading the “news” with our coffee every morning. We both get most of our news through RSS feeds (thanks The Old Reader) and for awhile, my subscription list was getting out of hand. There were so many articles to read, I started saving things for later. Between this and my email inbox, my digital office felt very cluttered. I have since forced myself into zero inbox mode. Although I still occasionally keep a handful of emails in my inbox as a to do list, I almost never save articles from RSS. If I want to read it later, I’ll open it in a new tab, or if it’s more timeless, I’ll save it to Pocket.
I also went through and trimmed down my subscriptions, which has helped reduce distraction. If there’s a blog that publishes multiple articles I skip, then it’s time to unsubscribe. I’m doing the same thing with Twitter and email subscriptions. I haven’t taken the time to track any metrics, but I feel like this has definitely saved me at least 30 minutes a day.
Now I just need to fill that extra time with a more productive habit. At the very least I plan to get back into the habit of writing 500 words a day. I’ll need 15 minutes for that. I also want to actually publish my thoughts, so I’ll need at least 30 minutes each week to edit my content.
Overall, reducing distractions is sort of like budgeting your time. I would like to find more ways to “automate” my production. Please leave a comment if you have a tip for reducing distractions and automating your production.