Removing Obstacles

February 11, 2021

Doing good work is like eating healthy food: hard to do but always worthwhile.

If your pantry is filled with treats, it’s harder to consistently eat healthy.

If your workspace is filled with distractions, it’s harder to consistently do good work.

What do I mean by ‘good’ work? It depends on your circumstance, but it’s likely the work that (a) you often procrastinate on (b) feels hard and (c) whose payoff isn’t realized in the short-term.

Checking email, replying to chat messages, attending meetings — these are the junk foods of work life.

Coding a feature, writing a press release, making sales calls — these are the health foods of work life.

While it is possible to ignore those junk foods in your cupboard and make a salad instead, the odds of you sustaining that good choice day-after-day are low.

In the same way, if we sit down to work and open up our email, a chat app, and have our phone next to us, the odds of sustaining focus on good work are low.

So what can you do?

There are two broad strategies:

1. You can force yourself to ignore the distractions and use willpower to work hard.

2. You can remove whatever is distracting you from your immediate environment.

In my experience, most of us default to #1. I’m guilty of it all the time.

But over time, I’ve realized that environment trumps willpower all day.

So if you find yourself struggling to make time for good work, maybe mustering more energy and effort isn't the answer. Perhaps taking a pause, evaluating your environment, and removing an obstacle might be more worthwhile.

Put it into practice

While your context is unique, there are a few tactics I’ve come to rely on that might be useful to you.

First Hour Email Free. Experiment with using the first hour of the day to work without email. Often our inbox is full of to-dos that we let other people assign to us. Work on what matters to you most first.

Phone Timeout. Our phones are filled with enticing distractions, and I too easily grab mine whenever I feel discomfort or boredom. By putting your phone in a separate room, it removes the knee-jerk reaction of constantly checking it on autopilot.

Pick a New Place. Choosing a special place where you’ll focus on your good work can be helpful. For me, I often write on the small desk in our bedroom and do the normal work of the day (email, meetings, etc.) on our kitchen table.

P.S. Although some of these tactics might be familiar to readers of OPW, I've found that just because an idea might be common sense, it's not always common practice. So consider treating this as a friendly reminder :)

Words of Wisdom

"The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak."

— Hans Hofmann