Making It Count: How I Steward Time, Attention and Technology

This is the fifth post in a series called Making it Count about getting things done and using our precious hours wisely1 .

The last post in this series discussed the mechanics of distraction—specifically, I considered how the context of the tools we use personally and professionally makes stewarding technology difficult. Here’s the summary:

My point in all of this is to highlight the context in which we experience distraction. There isn’t a clear dichotomy for many of us—we don’t simply quit what we are doing and go outside and play. For me, at least, distraction is much more subtle and the vehicles it uses are many times intertwined with—or the same as—the tools I use to get stuff done.

At the end of the day the question I need to ask myself is: “Am I using these tools with purpose—using my limited hours intentionally—or am I using them in reaction and allowing them to distract me (even when it doesn’t feel like it)?”

In this post, I’ll cover the specific ways in which I attempt to steward time, attention and technology. I use the word ‘attempt’ because unless you have 100% control over everything in your life, which no one does, stewardship is always going to be a journey of adjustment and refinement.

Everyone faces a different flavor of distraction, so I want to make it clear that this is what stewardship looks like for me—I’m not necessarily prescribing these principles as rules everyone should follow. People are wired together differently, so naturally the practical implementation of stewardship is going to vary.

Time and Attention

I begin with time and attention because these are the foundation—if you don’t have a plan for making the most of your mind and minutes, then figuring out more efficient ways of using technology is a moot point.

When I’m working, I try hard to follow a set of rules that create a fence for my focus.

Focus on one task at a time.

Deciding to work on only one thing is, empirically, the absolute best way to get as much of your best work done as possible. Not doing so literally guts your productivity2. So, when I decide what I need to work on, I close all other applications on my computer not related to that specific task. If the task is in the browser, I close all tabs or windows not related to what I’m doing. The waters get a bit muddy, of course, when what you are doing requires collaboration via chat or going through email, but away statuses and discipline are simple fixes.

Work in sprints.

You can’t force your mind to work at 100% capacity for endless hours. Brains need breaks when they are working hard, just like our muscles after working out. I’ve found that a rhythm of sprints works really well for me. I (try to) spend 45 minutes of 100% focused time tackling as many things (one at a time) on my to-do list as possible. At the end of the 45 minutes, I stop and take a 15 minute break, even if I’m in the middle of something. The 15 minute break is completely unstructured, allowing for time in company chat, browsing the web, talking with people working around me, getting coffee, etc. It’s a good mental break, and as I wrote in a previous post about intentional unstructured time, lots of good ideas for what I was working on come during break periods. Both the work and break time are timed so that there is a clear start and end to each.

If you lead a team or manage people, turning everything off except what you are working on can result in being unavailable when someone needs you. For me, the 15 minutes is a chance to see if anything urgent has come through on chat, sometimes spot-check my email (which I’ll cover in a future post) or maybe check my phone if I haven’t in several hours. If someone has an urgent need, the next 45 minute work sprint gets delayed.

It’s worth mentioning that I find it almost impossible to stay within these boundaries 100% of the time, but having structure to pursue helps keep me on track by forcing me to think about what I’m doing with my time. The clear context of “work” or “break” makes figuring out what I should be doing much, much easier.

For those interested, I use Howler Timer3 to track sprints.

Turn notifications off.

When I’m in work mode, I set notifications to “do not disturb” on my computer so that no banners or sounds tempt me to stop what I’m doing. On a Mac running Mountain Lion, you can do this by clicking on the notifications icon in your menu bar, scrolling the notification screen down and toggling “Do not disturb” to “on.” (You can accomplish the same thing by holding Option and clicking the icon in the menu bar. In Yosemite—the beta at least—Option-clicking is the only way to toggle this setting.)

mac-os-x-mountain-lion-yosemite-do-not-disturb-toggle

As I said in my last post, reasearch shows that while interrupted work is often picked back up the same day, the average amount of time it takes to get back on track is 23 minutes and 15 seconds4.

There is almost no notification that can’t wait 45 minutes and by the numbers alone it’s not worth the time cost.

Technology

I’ve chosen to separate this analysis into sections focused on the computer and phone individually. They are different (but related) media and require different treatment. These aren’t exhaustive lists. I’ve chosen the specific tools that I struggle to steward the most.

On the computer: Email, Twitter, browsing, news, Messages/HipChat and Google Chat

Email

For me, email can a horrible time suck. Part of the issue is that looking through or processing messages can give me the impression that I’m being productive when in reality I’m simply looking at information or moving it around, not actually doing anything with or about it. Here’s how I try to wrangle the email beast (a full post on email management is forthcoming):

    • No email notifications whatsoever. I don’t know when new messages are coming in, meaning I’m not thinking about them.
    • No email badges. I can’t know how much new mail I have a a glance, which greatly reduces the temptation to look.
    • Email stays closed most of the time. Unless I’m intentionally processing email as a task or checking during a break from a work sprint, email stays closed, no exceptions.
    • I use a very defined process to either spot-check or achieve inbox zero whenever I do actually check mail. When my inbox loads, the attack plan has already been determined.

Twitter

Twitter is a tough one. I’d like to spend more time interacting with people, but for me the medium tends to be all or nothing: checking it constantly or rarely. Maybe that will change someday, but my work is far more important than what people are saying on Twitter, so for the time being I’m sticking with rarely. Here’s how I steward Twitter on my computer:

  • No native Twitter app. I can’t click an icon or launch an app and access it.
  • I access Twitter through the browser. I have to open a browser and type in the URL. Also, I don’t have automatic log-in enabled, so I have to use 1Password to get in. That’s intentional—I don’t want it to be effortless to access something I’ll waste time on (more on that below).
  • Email notifications are turned off or filtered. I don’t get an email every time something happens on my account in Twitter. Combining Twitter and email creates a toxic concoction of distraction for me.

Web browsing

I rarely just browse the web. Not that I don’t enjoy it, I just don’t have the time. I have a post coming up that will discuss how I ‘consume’ the internet, but for now here are a few practices I follow:

  • I keep a list of the things I want to learn and when I find time to browse, which is rare, I use that list as a guide for where I go.
  • I keep a short list of sites in a folder in my bookmarks that are ‘pleasure reading or browsing sites.’ If I’m not researching something on my list, I’m looking at those sites (over time, I’ve found them to be insightful and enjoyable. Yes, the list changes.

Having some sort of a plan when I browse the web keeps me from wandering aimlessly from headline to listicle to YouTube video.

News

I never read news online. I covered that in a previous post5.

RSS

RSS overload isn’t as much of a struggle for me as it used to be. I’ll cover specifics in a post about consuming the web, but my current method of stewardship is pretty simple: I only subscribe to 13 feeds and I can read everything that comes through even if I only check them twice per week. I’ve whittled down the content in my feeds to the point where there’s no ‘unread count pressure.’ I use all of the same rules that I use for email as well: no notifications, no badges and scheduling time to read as an intentional task.

YNAB (budgeting software)

This is a strange one, but I love to tinker with our family budget and make sure everything is up-to-date all of the time. For our savings, that’s a good thing, but I found myself turning that tinkering into a distraction fairly often. Now, I check our budget once per day in the morning, make sure everything is up to date and then don’t look at it again for the rest of the day.

Messages and HipChat

I’ve grouped these together because the distraction they offer is almost identically for me. As a general rule, I keep both Messages and HipChat (The Iron Yard’s company chat program) turned off during my 45 minute work sprints and check them during the 15 minute break. Similar to email and RSS, I don’t have badges enabled. That way I don’t see lingering amounts of unread messages even when I’m using the program. (Both tools highlight missed messages such that if you’re using them intentionally, you don’t need badges.)

Google Chat

I used to have Google Chat (via Messages) open all day. I chatted with my wife. I chatted with friends. I chatted with some co-workers. It was a marvelous way to stay in touch with people, but I realized I’d spend 20 minutes chatting to someone (or multiple people) and be completely distracted from my work.

So, I stopped using Google Chat. There are relational costs. I am, quite literally, not as close to some people because I don’t chat with them on a daily basis. Staying in touch is great, but I’d rather invest in parts of relationships that aren’t supported primarily by internet chat. I’ve found that while relational quantity has decrease, quality has increased because when I sit down to talk with friends who I used to chat with daily, the conversation is rich because we have so much to share.

On the phone: Email, Twitter, browsing, Instagram, text messaging, news

I don’t have very many applications on my phone—it’s pretty much the bare necessities and nothing more. That’s not because I don’t like having lots of different apps. In fact, I love apps. I used to browse the app store for fun just to see what was there and try anything that interested me. The reality for me, though, is that most non-necessary apps turn into distractions and I don’t have much disposable time at this point in my life. (I’ll write a post about which apps are on my phone soon.)

As you might expect, a general rule is that I have almost all notifications turned off. The only alerts I have enabled on my phone are for text messages.

Email

Email on my iPhone is a horrible distraction for me. Worse, many messages I can’t do anything about until I’m at a computer. Knowing about something and not being able to do anything about it creates mental tension for me. Also, I found myself checking email on my phone as a habit of escape—when I was bored, I’d open email to see if there was anything new. Sometimes that habit was compulsive to the point where I thought it was unhealthy—if I can’t do much with many of these messages or, in many cases, even take the time to respond, why do I keep checking?

Now, I have email mostly disabled on my phone. I didn’t completely disable the app because there are certain situations where having email on hand is important. For me, that’s mostly when I’m traveling and I know something important is coming through or I need to look up information and don’t have access to internet for my computer.

Even so, I can’t just check email. If I want to, I have to go into my settings, select the the Mail, Contacts and Calendars section and toggle the switch to “on.” Then, I have to swipe to the second page of apps on my phone and open a folder to get to the actual application. Annoying? Yes. But intentionally—there are rules set up to make me think about what I’m doing. More on that below.

Twitter

This one is easy: I don’t have Twitter on my phone. Like email, I would compulsively check it when it was there. It was a constant source of escape or distraction (via notifications).

Instagram

I used to love posting to and following people on Instagram. Actually, I’m sure I still do love both, but I don’t do either anymore. Like Twitter, it became a compulsive activity and source of escape or distraction. Also, the metric of “likes” can be very unhealthy—something that tempered my experience using the app in a negative way (more on that subject in another post).

Instagram was deleted along with Twitter.

Browsing

This one is easy, too: I have Safari disabled and no other web browser installed. “What if you want to look something up” you ask? I put it on my “things I want to look up on the Internet” list, which is synced to my computer, and I look it up when I decide to browse.

As with email, though, sometimes having access to the web is really useful. I can do this in two ways: 1) access the browser contained within the 1Password application or 2) go into settings and enable Safari. Either way, I have to go through several steps to get to a browser, another intentional barrier.

News

Another simple one: I don’t have any news apps on my phone. At one point I was a news junkie and there are apps galore to feed that appetite, so I got rid of them.


Setting up intentional boundaries

You may have noticed above that I set up barriers that force me to go through multiple steps in order to access or use some applications. That’s intentional. I want it to be difficult to engage with things that I tend to abuse, or not use intentionally. The extra steps—whether that’s manually visiting Twitter on the web or toggling email to “on” in my iPhone’s settings—are signposts that force me to think about why I’m trying to access that application or information. Those signals beg the questions, “Is this necessary? Am I doing this because I need to or because I’m bored? Am I trying to escape?”

I want to say again that I don’t abide by those boundaries 100% of the time, but that’s not the point. For me, the point is constantly evaluating the things I’m using and how I’m using them because I know that my tendency is to waste valuable time without feeling it.

Am I over-thinking it?

My take on stewarding technology might seem ascetic, [luddite] or even boring and bland, but these practices aren’t over the edge. This is really important stuff that’s hard to figure out. There are critical things at stake in the balance of how I use my time, so over-thinking how I steward things that consume it isn’t a concern.

I’ve found that with most things, starting at bare minimum and adding complexity is the best way to be a good steward. Technology is no exception.


1. You can read more about the series and view links to additional posts here.2. You can read more about single-task focus on the American Psychological Association’s website. A particularly interesting quote is, “multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.”3. Check out Howler Timer in the Mac App Store. I really enjoy the ability to set custom times and assign shortcuts. For example, when I key Command+1, my 45-minute “work sprint” timer is launched.4. Read the Fast Company article about the time costs of interruption and task switching here.5. You can read my article about why I don’t keep up with news here.

2 thoughts on “Making It Count: How I Steward Time, Attention and Technology”

  1. Great post. To me, the keyword in all of this that has the potential to affect everyone, regardless of their personal time-management preferences is “intentionality”. No matter how you’re spending, or *not* spending, your time, be intentional about it.

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