Discover more from Robbie Clutton
On focus and productivity
My journey in time management
Ever have the feeling of being constantly busy and achieving little? Of questioning yourself at the end of the day - “what did I do today?”. By slowing down, being more intentional we might just end up going faster. As the saying goes: “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. I’ve been on a bit of a journey with time management, removing distractions, and creating focus over the last few years and I wanted to share what I’ve learnt so far.
Like many others, I have been guilty of mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds. It didn’t feel rewarding, it was just mind candy for a few minutes between other things. After reading “Digital Minimalism” from Cal Newport I resorted to what felt like somewhat drastic action. I removed Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook from my phone and did not feel the desire to reinstall them. I turned most of the notifications off, so no more distracting pings when I was trying to do something. I’ve removed and reinstalled LinkedIn several times. I do find that useful for work, but also find myself sometimes scrolling mindlessly, which can result in uninstalling the app. I have removed all but “new message” notifications from LinkedIn now though.
I also removed news apps from my phone and stopped going to their web pages as a default. I opt now instead for a physical weekend edition newspaper so that I can stay informed but without the near-constant updates of the 24 hour news cycle.
Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky in “Make Time” go one further, and discuss a “distraction-free” phone, with all those apps and even the web browser and email client removed. They leave utility apps such as maps. I haven’t yet been that brave to remove the browser.
Stolen Focus by Johaan Hari is another excellent book about how we’ve created products and services which steal our attention, and the impact this has on individuals. Hooked by Nir Eyal conversely is an eye opening read which details how to create engaging products. Reading this was like reading the playbooks of digital products, and knowledge of this supports the creation of a self-defence mechanism.
Create a plan
When I first heard of people journaling, I must admit - I didn’t think it was for me. I thought I knew how to get things done. What was wrong with my index cards, post-it notes and random thoughts in various to-do apps?
I’d sometimes been described as stoic, and I had an assumption about what that meant. I’d often shrug off the label. In 2021 I discovered that stoicism was more than a label of someone who is not prone to showing large emotions, it was an ancient philosophy and a practical way of living. I read the excellent “How to think like a Roman Emperor” by Donald Robertson, and one of the things discussed is a daily “learning cycle”. In the morning, you prepare for the day ahead; during the day you strive to live according to your values, and in the evening you review your progress. If you’ve practised forms of agile software delivery, you’ve likely experienced this as a daily standup (let’s stick to intentions, not what people might have experienced) and weekly retrospectives.
Whatever tool I used wasn’t working for me. My to-do list never seemed to get shorter. “Make Time” by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky gave me more of a structure. Have one and only one “highlight” for a day. Make it sizable enough that it takes at least 90 minutes, but not so big that it takes longer than 3 hours. You will have other things to do during the day. Make it something so that when you look back you can be sure you’ve had a productive day. Learn how to create “laser focus” time, monitor your energy levels through food and exercise, and reflect at the end of the day.
My former colleague, Joe Masilotti, on the podcast, “Code and the Coding Coders who Code it” describes a system he’s using. Each day has 3 and only 3 goals on the todo list. When you’ve completed those 3, stop working. This stops him from never-ending work, and/or any mindless scrolling. Each week also has a single mid-sized goal and each quarter has a further 3 high-level goals. The dailies should roll up into the weeklies, which should roll up to the quarterlies. The podcast host also discusses his own use of the Hero’s Journal, a fun way to engage in journaling and go on “epic journeys”.
I purchased a simple week-to-week diary which offers enough space to track the “Make Time” approach, but also is a simple structure which I can adapt as I learn and iterate on what works for me.
At the end, it’s face-plam simple: plan, monitor, reflect and repeat. I’ve also found the act of physically writing things down is less distracting than an electronic version, and gives me space to plan and reflect away from the keyboard. Also having it in a structured book as opposed to a general note book with other writings, or on random post-it notes means I can observe what I've been doing over time better and how I should iterate and adapt.
Execute the plan
Removing distractions and having a plan still isn’t quite enough. Distractions are still there, and so I’ve been looking at ways to follow the “laser focus” concept in “Make Time” in order to create and protect time to deliver against the daily highlight. One tool I’ve started using is Freedom.to, which blocks websites and apps for a given time period. I recently found myself writing a proposal for a potential client of mine. As I pondered the next sentence or paragraph, I found myself almost automatically going to check LinkedIn, email or the latest sports news. I knew I shouldn’t, but it was hard to stop myself, or pull myself back once there. With a blocking tool like Freedom.to, web pages are automatically redirected to a page with a reminder that it’s blocked, and apps will remain in a disconnected state.
It feels like a heavy solution, but it does work. You can of course turn the blocker off, but that has to be a conscious decision. Those nudges have been enough to stay on target and achieve the daily highlight.
Engaging my system 2 brain
So why go through all of this? For me is it trying to remove the feeling of being constantly busy and achieving little. This also allows me to exercise some of the Red Team Thinking practices I’ve been learning about over the last few months. I try to pick goals that are meaningful, and try to prevent myself from satisfying myself by picking the first reasonable thing on the todo list. I try to recall Daniel Kahneman, and engage in system 2 brain, and leverage some of the six strategic questions:
Is this the right goal for the day?
If I choose to do this, what goal am I choosing not to do?
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