If you want to focus on your New Year’s resolutions, it’s important that you cut out as many distractions as you can. I could probably write an entire book on cutting out distractions, but I’ll instead talk about two things you should cut out of your life to focus on your New Year’s resolutions: “springy” life elements, and multitasking.
One of my favorite ways to cut out distractions is to tame the “springy” elements in my life–elements that, like watching TV and checking email, expand and contract to fit the amount of free time you have available for them.
I also think another huge way to cut out distractions is to stop multitasking. Multitasking is a weird beast, because it has been shown to make you feel more productive, even though trying to focus on more than one thing at once has been proven, time and time again, to make you less focused and productive.
Tame your ‘springy’ life elements
Springy life elements are elements of your life that expand and contract to fit the amount of free time you have available.
They’re part of the reason many people still have no free time even after they retire, go on vacation, or when the week is over. Springy life elements take many forms, like:
- Surfing Facebook
- Watching TV
- Cleaning up around the house
- Hanging out with friends
- Checking email
- Reading the latest news about Rob Ford
- Listening to music
- Playing video games
While some springy life elements are very valuable, I’d argue that all springy life elements need to be tamed. Springy life elements aren’t inherently bad, but if you don’t deal with them properly they can zap you of your time, energy, focus, and motivation, which will make it a lot more difficult for you to keep your New Year’s resolutions.
Why you should tame springy life elements
- They leave you unfocused, unmotivated, and unhappy. Springy life elements are like water in your schedule; they fill the gaps between your scheduled commitments, expanding and contracting to fit the free time you have available. Springy life elements are usually unstructured, so according to Csikszentmihalyi’s research on flow, by their very nature they will zap you of your focus, motivation, and even your happiness.
- They rob you of your time. Since you don’t often consciously structure spending time on your springy elements, and they expand and contract to fit the free time you have available, springy elements rob of you of your time–arguably the most important and valuable resource you have. Take watching TV, for example. If you’re average, you’ll spend a whopping 13.6 years of your life watching TV.1 Relaxation is important, but is it that important?
- They have a large opportunity cost. Many springy elements have another huge cost, in addition to your time and energy–what you could otherwise be doing with your time. After all, most springy life elements are low-return, and every hour you spend on Facebook is an hour you could be spending on something much better, like sticking to your New Year’s resolutions.
Identify springy life elements
I think the best way to identify springy life elements is to track how you spend your time. How can you do that? Here are a few ways that have worked for me:
- Keep a time diary. I prefer a good, old fashioned paper diary. A time diary lets you calculate what activities you spend the most time on. I find that keeping a time diary allows me to not only see patterns and trends in how I spend my time, but it also forces me to second-guess spending time on some activities in the first place. I’d recommend paying special attention to how you spend your unstructured time.
- Download RescueTime. RescueTime is a free app for your computer that tracks which applications and websites you spend the most time on. The app naturally won’t account for your whole life, but if you spend a lot of time on the computer, it will cover a good chunk of it.
- Be mindful of how you spend your time. The most productive people I know have a ‘double loop‘, where they constantly check and reflect on how they spend their time, energy, and other resources. When you constantly reflect on and are mindful of how you spend your time, it is much easier to separate the elements of your life that expand to fit the time you have available for them from the ones that don’t expand.
How to tame springy life elements
Springy life elements are unstructured, which is why they can expand so easily. Therefore, I think the best way to tame them is to provide them a structure to exist inside of. In practice, this basically means limiting how much time you spend on them.
First thing’s first, though–there are no doubt springy elements in your life that are very valuable that you’re not as interested in taming. Every single person has valuable springy elements (like hanging out with friends and family, and relaxing). These activities are valuable, fun, high-leverage, and productive. If you have time to dedicate to these elements, there’s naturally no reason for you not to do them, though I would constantly be mindful of how you spend your time, and think about how much time you’re devoting to each element and the opportunity cost of that time. It is also worth structuring that time (even if that structure is relatively loose), because even loosely structuring your time has been proven to provide you with more motivation, focus, and happiness.
For springy life elements that are less meaningful and productive, the key is to compartmentalize and limit the amount of time you spend on those elements. Here’s how:
|Body||Minimum of 3 hours|
|Career||Maximum of 50 hours|
|Relationships||Minimum of 8 hours|
|Fun||Minimum of 3 hours|
- Create minimums/maximums for how much time you’ll spend on specific springy life elements, like in the chart above.2 Limit how much time you’ll spend on a springy element of your life (for example, how much time you spend reading the news every day). After you create a time box around a springy life element and force yourself to stay within those limits, something magical happens–you force yourself to expend more energy over less time to get as much done as you need to. Make sure you schedule spending time on those hotspots after you set minimums/maximums for them.
- Remove them from your life entirely. If you can, and want to, removing certain springy elements from your life (like cancelling your cable subscription, downsizing your smartphone, selling your game console, or deleting your Facebook account) is a great way to make room for bigger and better elements to take their place. Just be careful that other unproductive springy elements don’t take their place!
- Say ‘no’ to them in the first place. This may go without saying, but the best way to tame springy life elements is to not introduce them into your life in the first place. Run more interference against taking on low-return bullshit.
- Remember: perfect is the enemy of good. Many springy life elements are springy because you try to make them perfect. For example, your house will never be exactly 100% clean–no matter how hard you try, something will always be out of place, and there will always be a few specks of dirt on the floor. While it might take you 1 hour to get your house 85% clean, it might take you another 3 hours to get your house 95% clean.
- Disable access to certain websites. Two great apps that will help you avoid distracting websites: SelfRestraint (for Windows); SelfControl (for Mac).
Even though some springy life elements are important, finding ways to structure them, compartmentalize them, or remove them from your life entirely will, at the end of the day, eliminate a lot of useless distractions so you can focus on accomplishing your New Year’s resolutions. Plus, chances are doing so will make you a lot more productive, happy, focused, and motivated.
Vignette: Get Organized
There are a few resolutions that require more tailored advice (in particular: quitting smoking, saving more money, getting organized, and eating healthier), and in those cases I’ve invited an expert on those topics to provide a few quick tips to help you achieve your goals.
You’ve decided that this is the year it’s finally going to happen. You want to get organized once and for all. Set yourself up for success by putting these three tips into practice and you’ll be well on your way to an organized and peaceful home in no time.
1. Set up a donation station ~ This can be as simple as adding a cardboard box to your closet or garage. The idea here is to find somewhere to collect your purge pile each day. At the end of the week, cart that box off to the thrift store so you aren’t tempted to take some of your stuff back out.
2. Make a commitment to add a set number of things to your donation station each day ~ Determine a reasonable amount of stuff you can purge each day based on the time you have available. You might want to start small and work your way up. Whatever number you decide on, whether it be one item or ten, don’t go to bed that evening until you’ve added that number of items to your bin.
3. Let go of the guilt ~ With every purge pile comes a small (or large) amount of guilt. We beat ourselves up over the money spent and maybe even the unfulfilled dreams we had attached to it. What’s done is done. Those unfilled dreams you are hanging onto are keeping you from living right now in the present. Instead of feeling guilty, decide instead to learn something from the experience. Use what you have learned to make more conscious decisions the next time you go shopping or say yes to a kind friend wanting to unload her stuff on you. Don’t get hung up on the past but instead look to your future. What do you see? Chaos and clutter or sanity and order? Only you can decide and make it happen.
According to recent studies, when you multitask, you are not being more productive, you just feel more emotionally satisfied with your work.3 That’s why multitasking is so fun. You feel like you’re getting a lot done because you jump between a large number of things, but you’re really being less productive than if you just focused on one thing at a time.
“If you’re, say, trying to listen to someone one the phone while typing an email”, says cognitive psychologist David Meyer at the University of Michigan, “something has to give”.4
Multitasking can hugely impact how much you get done. Here are five of the main ones I’ve come across in my experiments and research:
- It makes you more prone to errors, because you devote less focus to all of the balls you’re trying to juggle at one time. When you do more than one thing at once, you don’t focus on anything to your full capacity,
- It actually takes longer. When you switch from one activity to another, it takes time “to re-immerse your mind in one topic or another”.5 These are called “switching costs”, and you incur them every time you switch from one task to another.
- It severely affects your performance. For one example, in a study with young students, multitasking led “to spottier, shallower, less flexible learning”.6
- It affects your memory. Studies have shown that when you try to focus on too many things at one time, you are less likely to be able to differentiate between what’s important and what isn’t.7 Maybe that’s why you forgot why you just walked into the kitchen.
- It adds stress to your life. Your electronics should exist for your convenience; not the convenience of everyone else in the world. Allowing other people to shatter your focus by constantly interrupting you may be stimulating and entertaining, but it will make you less productive since you have less control over your environment.
From everything I’ve read, multitasking will almost always make you less productive. That said, there are a few ways to use multitasking to your advantage:
Only multitask with simple, habitual tasks, like while you cross off items on your mindless list. Your mind can lean on your habits to get the mechanical stuff done while your mind focuses on something more productive.
- Minimize distractions. According to attention researcher Winifred Gallagher, multitasking “creates a major expansion of the targets for your focus and a potential drain on its finite resources”.8 By minimizing the distractions around you (instant messaging alerts, text message vibrations, email notifications, and so on), you can improve your focus and become better at unitasking.
- Meditate. Meditation works out your “attention muscle”, which lets you focus better on the task at hand when you’re trying to unitask. I wrote a comprehensive guide on how to meditate if you’re interested in taking up the practice. I think meditation is the single best way to work out your attention muscle.
- Check your email on a schedule. Especially if you receive a high volume of email, checking it on a schedule means that you won’t be inundated with alerts and notifications all day. People can always wait an hour or two for a response.
- Know that your brain can’t actually multitask. You may feel like you’re doing more than one thing at once, “but what you’re really doing is switching back and forth between activities”. According to one brain researcher, “there are fundamental biological limits to what the brain can pay attention to. This is a problem built into the brain”.9
- Music is a-okay. According to Stanford professor Clifford Nass, music is different. “We have a special part of our brain for music, so we can listen to music while we do other things”.10
It’s very difficult to stop multitasking–every day I have the urge to check my email, twitter feeds, and text messages when I’m doing something productive (like writing this book), just for the emotional stimulation it will give me. That said, I think it’s worth pushing back against it in the end because of how much unitasking will allow you to focus on your goals and resolutions.
I think the answer to cutting out distractions is to simplify, both in the moment with not multitasking, and in general with taming your springy life elements. Springy life elements can easily get out of hand, and worst of all they can suck up your time, motivation, energy, and even happiness, all of which detract from your ability to keep your New Year’s resolutions. Similarly, when you stop multitasking, you regain control over your attention in the moment, and over time you will be able to transfer your focus to whatever you’re working on in the moment, including your New Year’s resolutions.