Much of what I experience as “neither working nor not working” (or just “not-working” for simplicity) is a by-product of simple curiosity. It’s worth appreciating for a moment that it’s a great and worthwhile thing to be fascinated by the infinite complexity of human culture and the natural world ... before figuring out how to reign it in, especially when it’s not really being curious and exploratory but rather being plain ol’ distracted.
I’ve adopted a variety of strategies to let me make more of my work days. Although productivity and focus can still be a struggle, I can vouch for the overall success of these ideas in varying degrees and circumstances. I divide my solutions into the categories of time and task management.
And apparently my opinions about this are voluminous enough to spill over into three whole blog posts. For today: time management.
Start by setting work hours. One of my earliest attempts at dealing with the problem of not-working was to define hours of business for myself. I would work from 9-5 or 10-6 (or 10-5, whatever). At various times I have also rented office space to double up on defining my work life both spatially and temporally. Some freelancers based at home will symbolically close their office door to identify work time. Anything you can do to draw a line between working time and free time will help distinguish between them, preventing neither-working-nor-not-working from encroaching on more and more of your life.
And of course work time can be flexible according to, say, the demands of parenting, volunteer work, or other commitments. Your freelance work time might be two hours before you go to an office job. It might be one hour in the morning and three hours in the afternoon: the main thing is to schedule well-defined time when you seriously intend to accomplish whatever work needs doing.
Taking control of not-working isn’t just about becoming a more productive worker; it’s about regaining and enjoying time off as well. If one does a lot of not-working, it can easily spill over into and take over evenings and weekends, partly because work isn’t getting done efficiently but also because self-distraction tends to become habitual. I like to draw a line in my day between when I will be at least attempting to be professionally productive and when I can wholeheartedly devote myself to fixing something, making dinner, or playing Skyrim, satisfied that I’ve put in a decent day’s effort on professional matters.
Simply declaring “I am now working, good sir, and shall be for the next several hours. Tally ho!” might work for some, but I find myself susceptible to distracted inanition even when officially on the clock. By far the best technique I have found to actually get down to business is the use of task timers, the most well-known of which is the Pomodoro technique. This involves setting a physical or digital timer for some reasonably short period of time (say 25 minutes), working on a single task for the duration, and then taking a short break. If you have trouble working with focus on something for 25 minutes, try 20 or 15 and work your way up.
The genius of the task timer is that it simplifies and externalizes motivation. There’s an interesting psychological sleight of hand involved in substituting a simple, arbitrary event (start a timer) for a more problematic and complex decision (revise chapter four). It’s surprising how effective it is to hit go and just set about doing something -- anything -- on a task that might be aversive or daunting when considered in its entirety. Once the timer is done, take a five minute break to do whatever you like, and then do another cycle. Sometimes one Pomodoro will be enough to kick off an easy day of productive work. Other times, I need to keep using timers, espresso, and gritted teeth to just make it through the morning.
This method both limits the amount of time you’re obliged to spend on focused work and provides a built-in reward in the form of the five minutes’ rest. Go nuts! Check your email! Surf Facebook! Do pushups! When I started doing Pomodoros I was shocked at how quickly break time went by when I spent it on social media. It seemed like I had hardly scrolled through and commented on a couple of things when *ding* it was time to return to work. Which underscores the value of taking control of your time -- it’s far too easy to let it slip through your fingers for little appreciable gain.
Work hours and task timers are positive tools that direct your attention towards making more productive and satisfying use of your day. It can also be helpful or even necessary to enforce that focus more negatively, by using apps or browser plugins that say, limit the amount of time you can spend on Reddit.
I favour the Leechblock add-on for Firefox (StayFocusd is a similar tool for Chrome). You can block sites entirely or just put your distracted browsing on a diet by, say limiting your preferred distractions to a total of 30 minutes between 9 and 5. The timed approach is a great harm-reduction strategy if trying to quit entirely for the work day doesn’t go well. It’s much better to allow yourself a lessened indulgence than run the risk of getting into a demoralizing quit/fail/quit feedback loop.
Most of us go through cycles of productivity and distraction, with attendant pride in our efforts or shame in our failures. Distraction blockers are a great thing to get set up when you are feeling motivated to take control of your work life so that they’re already in place as a safety net to limit how much future you is tempted to procrastinate.
My personal strategies have changed over the years. I began to take control of my workdays by setting work hours and using LeechBlock to limit time-wasting web surfing. This worked reasonably well, except that I found myself willing to work around LeechBlock by, say, not adding cool new sites to the block lists very promptly. And when I finally got a smartphone, having a whole other web-capable device was an instant out of my laptop-based restrictions. Partly in response to this, I currently rely on Pomodoros as my primary time-management tool when I have trouble settling down to work. (And I generally find that getting my day started is the real challenge -- the first Pomodoro is inevitably the hardest.) And now that I use my Nexus 5 as a Pomodoro timer (using the Clockwork Tomato app), it seems to have had the happy side effect of rendering it off-limits as a distraction machine.
I advise taking all of these measures fairly seriously but not too strictly. They are, after all self-imposed, self-policed, and can be easily circumvented if your distracted self is highly motivated to stay distracted. If positively redefining work time works without also having to negatively reclaim it, great. Others might need to seriously restrict their browsing, use timers to buckle down and get work done, and attend to the overall concept of work hours to reinforce their commitment to using those tools. It always remains up to you to choose to do a Pomodoro instead of loading up Twitter on your phone, but the real key is being faced with distraction as a moment of choice and not as a matter of course