Daily Gleanings: Avoiding Distraction (25 July 2019)

Michael Hyatt and Megan Hyatt Miller discuss how to avoid drifting along without accomplishing what you mean to.

The discussion is directed most immediately at leaders. But as with many such things, there are direct lines of application in other contexts too (e.g., those of us who need to avoid drifting off course from completing a degree or writing project).


Cal Newport discusses digital distractions and how to avoid them on the Entreleadership podcast.

Are You Free to Focus? (Part 6: Takeaways)

The past few weeks, we’ve been discussing Michael Hyatt’s new book, Free to Focus.1

We’ve given some general context for the book and discussed each of its three major sections on stopping, cutting, and acting. Then, last week, we offered an general assessment of the book and its proposal to “achieve more by doing less.”

As we round up this series, I’d like to share my two main takeaways from the book and hear about yours.

Two New Takeaways

As a matter of principle, Hyatt is ever generous with his content. So if you spend enough time Googling, you should find where Hyatt has discussed openly online most of what’s in Free to Focus.

If you read the book, you obviously save yourself quite a bit of time Googling. 🙂 Beyond this, two helpful topics in the book that I haven’t seen Hyatt discuss as fully his previous, openly-available work.

These are Hyatt’s comments about “megabatching” and overcoming both interruptions and distractions. Both of these topics offer discrete strategies for improving focus.

1. Megabatching

“Batch” production is the idea of doing a lot of the same kind of work all at once. By grouping production in this way, you save yourself the cost in time and effort necessary to switch between kinds of activity.

For instance, if you’re fencing your back yard, you don’t do that project in one-post increments. If you regularly set one fence post and then move to something else, you’ll never finish. Instead, in batch production you do more of the same kind of work in a given stretch, you work on fencing for a half or full day at a time.

“Megabatching” takes the batch production principle one step farther. Megabatching asks you to think about linking up batch blocks with each other. So rather than preparing that lecture or writing that chapter for an hour per day, 5 days per week, think about assigning that activity a larger batch slot (e.g., a whole day or series of days).

The upside of megabatching is that your tools (mentally or otherwise) are already “out.” Therefore, you’re ready to continue the same kind of work you’ve been doing.

The downside might be that other things need to get done too. So if you’re going to assign larger blocks of time to a certain type of activity, these might need to be also less frequent blocks. If the blocks are too infrequent, you might lose traction on the project.

That being said, while weighing these factors, “megabatching” is definitely something to consider. Since reading the discussion of it in Free to Focus, I’ve tweaked my default weekly time blocks to group similar activities together more closely. So far, this restructuring seems to have resulted in less friction and better focus on those particular activities in their individual contexts.

2. Overcoming Interruptions and Distractions

Hyatt’s chapter on activation offers two strategies for overcoming interruptions and five for overcoming distractions. All seven are intensely practical. They provide excellent starting points as you work out for yourself what you find to be the best ways of protecting your focus.

I’ve particularly started making use of two of these strategies.

2.1 Be Proactive about Boundaries

Hyatt advises that you should “proactively set and enforce boundaries” around your time. If you’ve set aside a certain time for focused attention on something important, you need to keep that commitment (213).

Of course, this can be difficult to do in the moment. But Hyatt’s excellent advice is to—not wait until you are in the moment. Instead, “proactively set [others’] expectations by letting them know” when you’ll be unavailable for certain kinds of interaction because you need to prioritize a given project, time with your family, service in a ministry, or anything else.

I’ve tried this before on larger-scale blocks of time. But I’ve now also started working on ways of communicating my availability day-to-day more clearly as well. For instance, I’ve started indicating typical response times in my email signature.

And this is ultimately helpful for others because it leaves them with actual information rather than their own best guesses.

2.2 Using Technology to Automate Focus

Hyatt also recommends that you should “use technology to manage technology” (217). I’ve previously mentioned how very useful I’ve found Freedom. I’ve customarily used Freedom to schedule periods of focused effort during the work day.

Reading Free to Focus though, I realized could also do something similar when I’m away from the office. So now I have a recurring Freedom session that kicks off at the end of the day. It blocks email on my phone every evening when I’m focused on being present with my family.

2.3 Obscurely Obvious Next Steps

On reading Free to Focus, these takeaways both became—in David Allen’s wonderful phrase—”blinding flashes of the obvious.” But as is too true, “every problem becomes very childish[—but sometimes only] when … it is explained to you” (Doyle, “Dancing Men,” in The Return of Sherlock, 705). And Hyatt has instructively offered this explanation.

Conclusion

In the end, I’d definitely encourage you to work through Free to Focus if you haven’t already. It clearly isn’t and doesn’t purport to be about biblical studies directly. But it is the kind of book that will help you “sharpen the saw” so that you can live and work more effectively in this discipline that we all find so fascinating and enriching.


  1. Header image supplied by Michael Hyatt and Company. 

Daily Gleanings: Email (10 May 2019)

Michael Hyatt offers practical advice for staying on top of email.


In contrast with the commonly touted practice of “Inbox Zero,” Taylor Lorenz describes “Inbox Infinity” in the Atlantic. HT: Doist

Part of what can help prevent the extremely large inboxes that give rise to Lorenz’s counsel of despair is to unsubscribe from messages you shouldn’t get in the first place. If you can’t unsubscribe, email clients and services often have good filtering abilities. A few minutes spent learning and setting up some key filters can drastically reduce the amount of email that appears in your inbox in the first place.

Are You Free to Focus? (Part 5: Assessment)

The past few weeks, we’ve been discussing Michael Hyatt’s new book, Free to Focus.1

Thus far, we’ve given some general context for the book and discussed each of its three major sections on stopping, cutting, and acting.

This week, we offer an general assessment of the book and its proposal to “achieve more by doing less.”

GTD for Essentialists

Hyatt’s overall proposal in Free to Focus is quite well rounded. It doesn’t have the specificity of something like David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but that’s part of the point.

Narrower Focus = More Brought Forth

Rather than getting as much as possible done, Hyatt wants you to get a few right things done. Peter Drucker’s sage advice continues to be appropriate: “there is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.” In this way, Free to Focus has a deeply essentialist core.

Reverberating in the back of my mind throughout my reading of Free to Focus was Greg McKeown’s observation that a nonessentialist “does more,” whereas an essentialist “brings forth more” (Essentialism, 188). Hyatt wants to help us “bring forth more” that is more in keeping with what is most important.

Freer Focus = Less Preoccupation

To be fair, Allen’s approach to “getting things done” (GTD) speaks to this as well. But as I’ve utilized GTD, the approach has felt like it contains a practical bias toward getting more done.

In a way, it does, and this is a good thing. And Allen rightly recognizes that some of the best things never (and perhaps shouldn’t) end up on a to-do list.

But what I noticed was that my mind was always in “to-do list building” or “to-do list reducing” mode. And for me, it was difficult not to succumb to a mindset of always trying to get more done faster.

Getting more done faster is all well and good. The trouble is that we humans have limits—limits on our time, our energy, our focus. In short, there are limits on how much we can get done and how quickly we can get it done.

Focus = The Way Forward for Those with Limits (i.e., All of Us)

Given these limits, it became clear that what would help me be more productive wasn’t to continue trying to do things faster. (Knowing email keyboard shortcuts is good, but it will only buy you so many seconds.) Instead, the key would be to focus more deeply on whatever passed the test of being worth attention in the first place.

As knowledge workers, we tend to be most productive when we’re “in flow.” And flow is largely a function of focused attention, being deliberately “inside” one experience (whether that’s writing or running after a soccer ball with your kids) rather than being haphazardly bounced from one point of focus to another.2

It was this conviction that originally drew my attention to Hyatt’s reflections on productivity. I still find the basic principles of Allen’s GTD methodology immensely helpful. But what Hyatt has been proposing and what has now taken form in Free to Focus has been indispensable.

It’s helped significantly clarify what I didn’t get with sufficiently from GTD directly—namely, how to track and execute what I have to do in ways that serve what’s most important, rather than what’s most urgent or enticing in the moment.3 In particular, the core of Hyatt’s “ideal week” proposal is the time blocking that I’ve mentioned before as being so helpful.

Conclusion

In sum, the proposal Hyatt articulates in Free to Focus makes a meaningful contribution to the space. It provides immensely practical advice on clearing the decks so you can focus on what’s essential.

Whether that’s writing that dissertation, preparing that lecture, or spending time with those closest to you, surely this is something we can all profit from as we strive to live and work well in biblical studies.


  1. Header image supplied by Michael Hyatt and Company

  2. For the original, groundbreaking study of flow, see Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

  3. For clarity’s sake, my aim here certainly isn’t to fault GTD itself. My understanding of GTD may be insufficiently nuanced. But beyond what I got from Allen’s classic approach alone, Free to Focus has supplied something truly meaningful and essential. 

Are You Free to Focus? (Part 4: Acting)

This week, we continue reviewing some highlights from Michael Hyatt’s new book, Free to Focus, and treat the final section on “action.”

If you haven’t done so yet, be sure to read the prior introduction to the book and our discussions of stopping and cutting. These will each provide necessary context for this final part of the book.

Image of "Free to Focus" books and the book hashtag #FreetoFocusBookImage supplied by Michael Hyatt and Company

The book’s first two sections give Hyatt’s operative definition of the subtitle’s promise about “doing less.” Stopping and cutting are ground-clearing exercises that remove obstacles to accomplishing more.

Peter Drucker famously commented that “there is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.” And doing stopping and cutting first helps prevent you from focusing on something like how best to peel the skins off a potato skin appetizer.

With this groundwork laid, Hyatt offers advice on how best to “act” on the goals you’ve identified in the space you’ve cleared to pursue them. As with stopping and cutting, Hyatt subdivides acting into three mutually reinforcing actions.

1. Consolidate

Hyatt advises us to “consolidate” by planning an “ideal week” (163–83). Rather than waiting for others’ priorities to fill your calendar and direct (or usurp?) your focus, the ideal week is you taking action with your calendar on the principle of “be[ing] proactive” (cf. Covey, Effective People, 73–101).

You block out time in advance to give attention to what’s most important. You take the initiative to create a plan, even if you may also need to “go with the flow” in tweaking this ideal schedule in any given week.

(For further discussion of how to implement an ideal week in a digital workspace, see “Time Blocking, Part 3: 6 Tips for a Digital Work Space.”)

2. Designate

Next, Hyatt recommends we “designate” what our particular goals are for each week and then, on a daily basis, what goals we have for a given day that will add up to our achieving our goals for the week (185–206).

Of course, the weekly objectives shouldn’t be random. You should select them specifically to support the specific areas where you’ve decided to devote your attention.

3. Activate

Once we’ve consolidated and designated, we should “activate” the weekly and daily plans we’ve developed (207–23).

Doing so requires that we take steps to avoid external interruptions. For example, we might need to put our phones into airplane mode or exit email. Citing a study by Hewlett Packard and the University of London, Hyatt summarizes, “when we divert our attention to incoming calls and messages, it dings our IQ by 10 percent; that’s twice the effect of smoking marijuana” (italics added).

Activating a daily or weekly plan also requires that we avoid internal distractions. For instance, if email is off, what’s hitting your inbox can’t interrupt you. But if your brain gets tired with working through that difficult German article, you might find yourself more easily distracted by a desire to “just check” an otherwise boring email inbox for some relief. Doing so though has high costs in terms of “attention residue.”

As Hyatt notes, tools like Freedom can be great ways of staying disciplined against these kinds of distractions. For some further discussion of where and how I’ve found Freedom useful, see “Focus—there’s an app for that,” “Scheduling focus,” and “Time Blocking, Part 3: 6 Tips for a Digital Work Space.”

Conclusion

In short, after you’ve cleared the decks by stopping and cutting what isn’t essential, you’re free to focus on what is.

By making a plan and working that plan, you can begin to gain traction. You can begin to make good progress on these essential fronts in your life, be they personal or professional.

As the variously-attributed quote affirms, “No plan survives contact with the enemy”—or, in this case, the everyday realities of life and work. But going without a plan leaves you without any touchstone or base of operations from which to encounter these realities.

So certainly let plans flex as they need to. But keep making them according to what’s most important. Orient yourself by these plans, and you’ll find yourself starting to make progress. And incremental progress over time is key to accomplishing any large goal, be it a degree, a writing project, a relocation, or whatever.

After stopping and cutting, what’s left for you to act on? How will you make meaningful progress in this area(s) this week?

Are You Free to Focus? (Part 3: Cutting)

The past few weeks, we’ve been reviewing some of the highlights of Michael Hyatt’s new book Free to Focus.

If you missed the introduction or our discussion of stopping, be sure to go back to read those posts. They’ll provide helpful context for what we’re discussing this week.

Once you’ve made the effort to stop and get an sense of what you should really be devoting yourself to, you proceed to “cutting” what distracts you from these aims. For cutting, Hyatt suggests three strategies.

1. Eliminate

You might be able simply to “eliminate” commitments that dilute your focus (93–115).

Here you recognize that you aren’t superman (or superwoman) and don’t have the limitless capacity God does to focus on everything that comes into your awareness. Every time you say “yes” to something, you implicitly say “no” to something else.

So you take responsibility for saying “yes” to the right things. And you work at seasoning the necessary corresponding “nos” with as much grace and helpfulness as you can imagine.

2. Automate

What can’t be eliminated you think about “automating” (117–38). Automated activities take less of your focus away from where you really want to be putting it.

As Hyatt conceives of it, “automation” might take any of several forms. This might mean:

  1. Developing certain habits. For example, you might work out a morning routine that gets you dressed and off to your writing space while leaving you less frazzled by attention-hijacking news about the latest political mess or research initiative you might have a real but only tangential interest in.
  2. Creating templates. If you find yourself reproducing the same kind of information (e.g., in email), that makes a great candidate for templating. Then, the next time you need it, simply drop the templated information into the new setting, edit as needed, and sidestep having to focus on recreating what you’ve already done.
  3. Documenting workflows or processes. If you can reduce a complex series of steps to an outline of what you do (e.g., a checklist), you can then follow those steps yourself to avoid missing something. You can also—if applicable—pass this documented workflow off to someone else to supervise.
  4. Leveraging technology to do by itself work that you had been doing. Examples might include email filtering or moving information from one place to another.

3. Delegate

What you can’t eliminate or automate, Hyatt asks you next to consider for “delegation” to others (139–60).

Of the three parts of “cutting,” this one might be most challenging to apply in biblical studies unless you’re in an administrative role (e.g., dean, chair) or you’re a student whose work puts you in an administrative capacity in that context (e.g., some church work scenarios).

In any case, we can’t all do all things better than everyone else. Consequently, you might do well to reflect on what you do but would rather not and that someone else might be able to do better—and perhaps even enjoy.

Conclusion

As with stopping, the three “cutting” actions form a cycle that you walk through recursively.  As you gain greater clarity on where you should be putting your attention, you can also get better clarity on what distracts you from doing so. And you can take steps to stop yourself from getting sidetracked by that distraction.

What do you need to cut? What strategy will you use to cut it?