(Un)Productivity

Undistraction

Look, there: Something new and shiny! It says it will improve your daily productivity levels by 200%! Hush, click it!

Wow. Their website is really pretty designed. And they got a Twitter account. These guys know about customer loyalty, I can tell! And their new app, it’s un-pre-ce-den-ted! It’ll get you focused right away. And it’s so pretty! And thoughtful! I mean, it uses tags and categories and it hides the icons on your desktop. Hell, there’s even an iPhone app! How cool is that? It syncs with the computer version, just like that!

Quick, buy it now!

Or wait. Just one second. Do you really think this will work?

Think again.

“Reducing Distraction through Care (Rather than braces, armatures, and puppet strings). Removing interruptions and external distractions that harm your work or life? Great. Counting on your distraction-removal tool to supplement your non-existent motivation to do work that will never get done anyway? Pathetic.” (Merlin Mann)

Unfortunately, Merlin is right. More and more people want to sell us pre-packaged solutions to deal with distractions, procrastination and our creative work. But there’s an inconvenient truth we should consider:

  • A minimalist workspace won’t save us from getting overwhelmed.
  • Getting Things Done won’t get things done for us.
  • iPhone apps won’t give us eternal focus and concentration, no matter how new and shiny they are.

The Sleeping MonkRemotely related question: Have you ever seen a Buddhist monk sleeping like a baby in some corner of a crowded and chaotic farmer’s market?

Here’s a thought: The real Zen creative is the mother with a 5-year old kid romping next to her, while she is sitting on the floor of a shabby room illuminated by a 20 watt light bulb. It’s a cold room, because she didn’t have enough money to pay the heating bill. Right outside her window a massive load of city traffic drives by – honking, creaking, raging – filling her dim room with exhaust fumes and never-ending noise. She doesn’t have a clear desk. Damn it, she doesn’t have a desk at all. She doesn’t have the latest gadgets. She never read Getting Things Done. She doesn’t know about Zen Habits. But instead of freaking out and complaining, all she does is concentrate, boot her 1999 IBM laptop, and do her fucking work. Because she cares. Because she’s got something to say.

Let’s be honest: Most of us are better off. But instead of doing our fucking work, we prefer to whine and nag and bitch around. We look for new distractions, so we have a reason to buy a new anti-distraction tool to distract us a little more. Buying new anti-distraction tools and decluttering our workspaces and setting up new productivity systems won’t get our work done. Sitting down and doing stuff will.

So if you care and if you’ve got something to say, you know what you should do: Get undistracted, sit down, and do that thing.

Wonderful Sleeping Monk photo CC (BY-NC-SA) Frank Boyd. (You have to picture the farmer’s market by yourself. Thanks!)

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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

Milo February 3, 2011 at 9:29 am

Well said Fabian. I have to admit I did go through a phase of trying out every web/iPhone app there is in order to help me get stuff done.

I have now settled on two iPhone apps that are very useful, Simplenote and Due. These genuinely do help me to remember stuff/remember to do stuff. But only because they are extremely simple. I’m sure a printed calendar/notebook would do just as well though, as long as you don’t lose it!

You’re right that there are no excuses. If you’re too busy to see your friends and family, you need to drop some commitments, not make excuses. If you’re too busy to do the creative things you really want to do, you need to have a long hard look at your priorities and make some tough decisions.

The thing they never teach you when you’re younger and growing up in a relatively comfy existence is how hard it’s going to be. Our education system and culture doesn’t prepare us enough for adulthood and the world of work. Once you accept that hard work is unavoidable, you’re ready to get on with your life and make stuff happen. I’d rather work hard at the stuff I really want though, rather than renting my time to somebody else, to fulfil their own priorities.

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Fabian February 3, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Milo!

Agree with you on the lack of preparation for the grown-up life. What’s worse is that the educational system actually prepares us for the latter scenario you describe: Rent your body out, do as you’re told, don’t question your boss, shine brighter than your co-worker even though it’s just personal marketing, compare, compare, compare.

What’s missing is the person saying: Hey, look at what you care about, and then do that thing. Have a reason for doing it. And at best, a better reason than a steady paycheck. Learn to focus, but don’t get anal retentive about it.

And concerning apps, I have to admit I googled “Due” right away. Sure I’m interested in that stuff, too. But I sometimes perceive productivity bloggers hyping these tools just for the sake of it. That’s where the problem lies, I think.

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Kee Kee February 3, 2011 at 9:30 am

This relates very closely to the Zen concept of Wabi Sabi: finding the perfection in imperfection. Perfection doesn’t exist, so we should find beauty in a blade of grass peeking through a crack in the cement, the 4 year old blackberry that someone just told us is “vintage”, OR in the clutter of cords and papers on our desks. At least I know which pile is which! Great post.

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Fabian February 3, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Kee Kee, thanks a lot for the reference to Wabi Sabi! Hadn’t heart about it before, but after looking it up I think it really fits quite well! Let’s find the beauty in our paper piles, then, and do our work anyway! :)

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Gary Frank February 3, 2011 at 10:11 am

Coming into 2011 I have had one main focus and that is focusing on one single task. Fabian, you have hit the nail squarely on the head. We can all accomplish so much more just by putting our head down and just do it one task at a time. It has amazed my how well this simplicity is working. -G-Man

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Fabian February 3, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Totally, Gary! The only way to do it is stop looking for excuses and actually DO IT. :)

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Terry February 3, 2011 at 11:32 am

Great post! Beautiful picture of the monk, this post helps put things in perspective.

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Fabian February 3, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Thanks Terry, glad you like it! :)

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Aaron Griffin February 3, 2011 at 11:54 am

If caring is the name of the game here, how does one LEARN to care. What if you don’t? What if you do your work because it helps you live the life you want, but find it difficult to care about the actual work?

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Fabian February 3, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Hey Aaron, I think there isn’t one “right” answer to your question, because it depends so much on the situation you find yourself in. Is your job really that boring that you couldn’t care at all?
If so, is it a 4-hour workweek, managing a business that finances your life, even though you don’t care about it? This would certainly be okay for me. 10 hours? Still okay. 20 hours? Even more?

Here I personally would already start to look for alternatives. Because what’s the point of spending a large part of my waking time doing things I don’t care about, only to finance my life?

Of course, your mileage may vary: You might have a family, an expensive place where you are living and that you don’t want to leave. So you might be okay with working more, even though you don’t care about the work itself.

At least I believe that asking this question is valuable for every single one of us. Consider this: Since the beginning of happiness research in the 1950s, we’ve had five decades of economic growth. People in the Western world got richer and richer. Yet happiness leveles stalled. The only conlusion I can draw from that is that happiness doesn’t lie in the money, as long as we aren’t starving. Doing things that matter might have an impact, as far as I can tell from personal experience.

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Aaron Griffin February 3, 2011 at 3:02 pm

I’m currently working to pay off debt (most of it is my wife’s student loans…). At this point in time, doing something I would care about would be a significant cut in pay.

I plan to have this done in about 2 years, hopefully. But until then, I’m more or less stuck here.

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Fabian February 3, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Okay, and there you’ve already got a reason to care, even if it is external: You know you’ll have to do two more years of that job in order to pay off debt and reach a new kind of freedom.

Now, taking the risk of giving advice I wasn’t asked to give, the next question would be: What would you like to do next – and how can you start working towards it *right now*?

Whatever it is that you care about, whatever it is you’d like to do as a job, chances are high that you could take small steps towards it, even if you have to work full-time in a job you don’t really care about. This could either be done during your breaks, on weekends or in the evenings. But it could also be related to your current job. My friend Robert Wringham recommends using the time at a job as a personal skill gym: Take whatever training opportunities you can, build a network of people, learn new things that could help you later on.

And if you’re not sure yet about what you’d like to do, the time you’ve got can be used for finding out about that, too, of course. Take some time to think about your passions, start writing about the things that matter to you, experiment in your free time.

I think that if you start practicing this and plot your escape from that job, you will start to care. As I said, the reasons might be external – but they still can be helpful!

I hope this helps in some way!

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Aaron Griffin February 3, 2011 at 3:44 pm

That does help a lot. Thanks for the advice, and thanks for the awesome blog.

Steve M February 3, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Fabian – great post – loved the edge, the rawness, to the way you conveyed what is to all intents and purposes a simple message – stop reading about stuff and start doing it. Live it! Like you say the real Zen master is not the one sat in a monastery, meditating all day to find themselves and peace but the person looking after 20 kids, who has to work 12 hours a day, and who lives below the poverty line – when they can cope with that and they have peace – that’s Zen. And it didn’t come out of a book, or via an e-course; it came from simply doing it.

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Fabian February 3, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Thank you Steve, glad you enjoyed it! “Simply doing it” really brings it down to the essence! :)

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Cristhyano February 3, 2011 at 5:20 pm

I was talking about that other day. Now with the boom of zen (they know what they’re doing with budhism? They are turning it into a thing like The Secret), minimalism and self help bullshit, everything is another excuse to sell a new product. They say they’ll give you freedom, creativity and your life will be awesome.
What you want to learn about minimalism and simplicity is not on a 150 pages book.
Every blog that sells that bullshit says exactly the same thing they’re saying at their blogs, but with other words.
It’s like you releasing a book about living and traveling with low income. Why i would buy that? I can learn here for free. A bunch of people will because if you use the correct marketing tools you’ll make them believe that the book has the magic keys that will do the things they want to do with no efforts at all and they won’t need to think for themselves and read your entire blog. Like a ‘How to Travel Around The World in 4 Weeks’. C’mon… they tell us to be different, stay away from the corporations, but they’re becoming one.
Of course there are two or three that don’t do that and release one or two books so they can receive some money and keep their lives going, but i feel betrayed when i see that “I DID IT! CLICK HERE TO KNOW HOW” bullshit.

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Milo February 4, 2011 at 6:51 am

Have to disagree with you there Cristhyano. Why shouldn’t bloggers make some money? It’s hard work maintaining a blog and if they can distil the knowledge they’ve accrued over the years into a useful ebook which I can download and read at my leisure then I’m happy to help support them by paying a few dollars.

Of course the minimalism thing is a bit out of hand so I agree with you on that – there’s only so many different ways you can say ‘sell your stuff on ebay’ ;)

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Cristhyano February 4, 2011 at 7:17 am

Yes, i think i put it with the wrong words. When you want to “live with less” and have more free time, the way to achieve it is to sell ebooks in your blog, i’m okay with that. Of course you can compile all your knowledge in one book to make it easy for us to read and to make money for them.
When they release one or two ebooks (that is really helpful, not only a scheme saying the same thing with other words for money) to support their lifestyles we should help them. We are trying to achieve that too, so we need to suport each other.
I feel betrayed when they use that excessive marketing, i don’t want to lose 4 hours of my work week here pointing fingers, but some blogs i used to visit uses a marketing scheme that is abusive. It’s major bullshit and based on lies. Every single inch of the page has some words with capital letters for you to click, buy the book and change your life forever.

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Fabian February 4, 2011 at 8:56 am

I agree with that. As Milo says, making money with your blog doesn’t have to be a bad thing – and there are actually many people who prefer paying a few dollars to get a digest, an overview, even though they could as well spend more time reading the whole archive and get the same (or even more!) information.
But when it gets all flashy and hypy, a line gets crossed for me, too. As you say, Cristhyano, marketers then start to apply the worst corporate techniques without doing much good.

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Milo February 6, 2011 at 9:29 am

Definitely, agree with you both – I can’t stand the hard sell and every blog post having an ulterior motive!

michael keller February 4, 2011 at 2:42 pm

i recently removed my television from my house. i took it out of the living room, and now the whole room has a serene quality……

love this article!!

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Fabian February 5, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Yay for that, Michael! TVs are so ugly… I am noticing it again these days, as I have a TV in the room I rented during these weeks. Haven’t had one in like 10 years, and really didn’t miss it… too much trash, too much ads…

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Patricia February 21, 2011 at 3:34 pm

I agree…tvs are ugly…and most people have them as the focal point of their living space…and it irritates me when they have it on. I do have a 37′ flat screen tv that has been sitting in a corner, quite literally collecting dust as I have no cable. Last month I finally decided to use my tv….as my second computer monitor! It’s ugly…it’s bad feng shui…but it is helping me to get a whole lot of work done. Now if I could only hide the ugly beast when I’m not using it! :)

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Fabian February 23, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Ha, at least you put it to good use! :)
I personally strongly dislike both a running tv as well as just the dark screen. Feels like an evil robot in my room… not that I “trust” my laptop, but at least it helps me get my work done. I still prefer human company, though! ;)

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Chase Night February 5, 2011 at 12:48 am

Hey Fabian! Found your blog a while back, and guess what? Got lost in the distractions! Glad I rediscovered you because this is really something that drives me insane. I became a blogger because I saw all these people who I thought were getting stuff done only to realize they weren’t getting anything done that mattered. Most of them act like Asian countries are their personal playgrounds for drinking and sleeping around, not places where anyone would live as you just described. I’m glad to have found someone else who sees through the false promises out there on the web.

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Fabian February 5, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Hey Chase, thanks for taking the time to comment! I strongly believe that the change in the working world is no good if we continue to play by the same old rules of exploitation, money-hoarding and ego-feeding; the only difference being operating on our own instead of being backed up by a corporation.

The more people understand the problem behind that, the better things will get, so I’m really glad you got in touch!

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Kane February 6, 2011 at 7:45 am

Fabian Hi.

I really think you hit a note with this one. Most of the electronic noise in our lives is distracting, creating fragmentation in our minds and taking attention from the things that really matter. Who wants an ap for everything when just living is the difficult bit.

I like the point about the 10 year old laptop. I can’t type faster than I did then, Photoshop is a bit faster, but really I’m not doing anything much that I didn’t or couldn’t achieve 10 years ago. It’s just that now there are more people trying to
distract me and damn it I tend to co-operate with them!

Time to clear my head I think.

Good post. BW K

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Fabian February 6, 2011 at 9:03 am

Thanks Kane! As the web gets bigger, distraction becomes professionalized, too. Sometimes all we need to do is reconnect with what we really want to achieve. :)

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Untroubled Mind February 6, 2011 at 12:06 pm

wait… where’s the link to that real zen creative mothers website ;-)

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Fabian February 6, 2011 at 12:07 pm

I’l keep it secret for now, but she’ll be a superstar soon! ;)

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wilson usman February 6, 2011 at 6:51 pm

Man I had a similar problem when I got into affiliate marketing. I couldn’t focus on one thing. I would visit a blog read the post, comment read other comments go to those commenters site read their post and you know the never ending circle.

All the tips and tools took over my bookmarks and I had more folders than I could remember.

Now I have one folder I read only on my reader and write like a mother…fucker. People focus so much on the wrong things I feel bad for them, but I guess some will learn others will just make the same mistake over and over.

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Fabian February 10, 2011 at 9:09 am

Wilson, I suppose it’s the same experience for all of us! :D
The best advice I ever got in respect to this: Try to read only the stuff that’s directly relevant for you at the current state of your business. I.e., don’t try to get the “big picture” before starting, but start with the first step. Then, read about the next thing to do – and do it right away. Of course, this doesn’t work for everything in life, but I think especially for SEO and internet marketing, it’s a *very* good advice to avoid getting lost in the info loop…

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Marco Lee February 10, 2011 at 5:30 am

The anti-distraction tool that I bought was a calendar/reminder for my desk top. Progress? I’ve been using it fairly but not always. But I’m still using it lol

Aside form the calendar/reminder. The simplest and my most effective way for me to just “start” getting things done is a pen and paper.

I use my calendar/reminder fairly because I work when I feel like it and stop when not. It may work to some but not to all.It works for me.

So when I work, I give it my all. I do it with “don”. I make it extraordinary.

When distraction comes (or new ideas), I just get my pen and paper and write it there and forget it again. I need to focus; sitting down and doing stuff. :)

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Fabian February 10, 2011 at 9:11 am

Marco, this paper trick is great! I used to do that for a while but somehow forget about it… will start again! Just writing down whatever distraction comes to mind is a really nice hack to get the brain focused again. Just like saying, “Oh, I definitely HAVE to check Twitter, so I’ll put it on the list and then do it later” – instead of getting sucked into distraction mode for hours right away!

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IngmarsGross February 10, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Another excellent post… I really get what you mean, because not so long ago, it was really hard for me to do anything in a working day I set for my self. Usually I had to finish everything in the last night before deadline. Than I started to look for “Anti-distraction” tools… GTD apps, to-do lists apps with reminders, even apps that hide other apps and block Facebook and similar websites… Few weeks later – nothing changed… with all those apps I still found new distractions.
Next step was, that I cleaned my computer form all those apps and started to use standard (those who come with computer) iCal and Mail notes just to write down deadlines and tasks that need to be done…

With my distractions I fight even today, but now I know how to do it… “Just sit down and do it…”

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Fabian February 11, 2011 at 9:44 am

Hehe, it’s surely a fight for most of us people who are free to work on our own. Even though tools can help at times, “just do it” is the only real solution there is! :)

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a'ishah February 21, 2011 at 12:35 am

wow. i am catching up on my google reader and…i really enjoy your blog, but this post…i am so so happy you wrote it. thank you for writing it. it really spoke to me.

i am a bit of a productivity/lifehack junkie, but my background also doesn’t match the audience of most productivity books/blogs, so sometimes i feel a bit out of place when reading them. many of my friends have been that mom in the room with the old laptop and the kid and no utilities in the middle of nowhere, america, or in protest-filled cairo…i have been that person, my sister has been that person. and as much as i love reading productivity blogs, actually knowing women who have created powerful work in the most desperate and run down of situations is still the most inspiring force when it comes to making me want to get up in the morning and put out my voice. not that the productivity tools and advice don’t help but – it helps to remind myself that if they can do it, i can do it, too. and more importantly…it’s something we *must* do.

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Fabian February 21, 2011 at 2:13 pm

A’ishah, thanks a lot for taking the time to comment! As you say, this reminder is so very important. In the end, it comes down to the question: “Does the thing I am working on really matter?” – If it does, we *will* get it done!

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Miss Britt February 23, 2011 at 8:57 am

A friend recommended I take a look at this blog, and this post solidified that I’d be a subscriber.

Magnificent.

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Fabian February 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Thank you! :)

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