Confronting the Attention Deficit

At Asher Agency, where I work, the average attention span is pretty short. Muggsy Bogues short. Freddie Patek short. Doug Flutie short. In fact, most Asher employees reading this would already be gone, clicking over to YouTube to watch the Hail Mary pass from the 1984 Orange Bowl.

At Asher, you see, conversations are non-linear. Digressions are the norm. And multitasking is not just valued–it’s expected. This hyperkinetic energy is part of what makes our team creative, and a big reason why I love my job. But it also can be frustrating as hell–especially when you’re trying to get stuff done.

I’ve been thinking a lot of about productivity the past few weeks, primarily after reading Seth Godin’s Linchpin and Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s Rework. Both books emphasize the power of momentum and the need for uninterrupted time in order to grease the skids of creativity. It’s been a good reality check for me, because I realize that the greatest source of my interruptions is…myself. Like many of us, I’ve confused hyper-connectivity with productivity. And many of the things I want to do–start this blog, write a book, eat better and exercise more–have often been impeded by self-induced interruptions instead of real work. The reason I can’t get to my book isn’t that my day job gets in my way. Its more a matter of priorities, with all the little interruptions adding up to big holes in my day where nothing gets done–especially the stuff that doesn’t have a deadline unless I create one.

So I’m making a concerted effort to change things. Every day–or at least as many days as possible–I’m reserving two hours for uninterrupted time. No phone calls, emails, social media status-checking, or face-to-face conversations unless it’s something truly urgent. Its been tough so far because old habits are hard to break (for myself and others), but I’ve done some things that I hope will help:

  • Striving for a consistent “no interruptions” time–10 am – 12 noon every workday
  • Sending the coworkers with whom I work most often this video, to help them understand why I’m doing this
  • Being firm in telling people I’m serious, and not allowing low-priority interruptions “just this once”
  • Making myself hyper accessible at any time outside of the “no interruptions” window
  • Closing my door
  • Setting my email to “offline”
  • Putting my phone on “do not disturb”
  • Setting deadlines for things I would otherwise only get to “someday”

So far, I’ve seen my productivity improve,  even as I try to retrain myself and manage others’ expectations. What I’ve found is that on my best days, I get more substantive work done in those two hours than I used to in some eight-hour days. And on my worst days, I’m not much worse off than the average day when interruptions used to rule my schedule.

What would you do with two extra hours every day? Why not change the way you work and find out?

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