Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
John McPhee has been called one of the pioneers of creative nonfiction. A four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, he took home that prestigious award for his book, Annals of the Former World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998). In a forthcoming book addressing the concept of “slow productivity,” author Cal Newport shares an anecdote about McPhee — how, while working on his first in-depth New Yorker magazine story, the author spent the better part of two weeks lying on a picnic table in his backyard, trying to figure out how to make the piece work. Applying traditional notions of productivity, those fourteen days might seem like a massive waste of time. But in reality, this stretch of solo thinking was a vital part of McPhee’s creative process — a necessary step to produce something of value.
As a society, we’re obsessed with productivity. For most knowledge workers, that entails being “always on,” including being digitally connected to coworkers and replying to messages as they pour in. But as the McPhee example shows, sometimes we need to disconnect and let our minds wander to do truly good and meaningful work — what I like to call “the big stuff.”
At my company, Jotform, we’ve fully returned to the office, but with more than 450 employees in seven offices around the globe, digital communication is a critical part of our collaborative work. In overseeing all that — and while I can’t hop on a picnic table and stare at the clouds for a couple of weeks — I can strategically plan periods of uninterrupted attention.
But before we get into addressing round-the-clock availability, let’s take a closer look at why it’s so essential to allow yourself to disconnect.
Busy work is kryptonite to the best work
A somewhat amorphous concept that includes rote, repetitive yet requisite tasks, busy work’s defining characteristic is actually what it isn’t: labor that inspires and fulfills. Put simply, these are not the meaningful tasks that move the career needle.
Of course, communication is a necessity for today’s knowledge workers, but there’s usually too much of it. Experts say that we’re still parsing out how to use modern forms, without becoming overrun by them.
As Newport noted in a recent interview, “History tells us that it will probably take a generation to figure out what the best kind of collaborative cognitive work looks like when we have external computational aids connected by high-speed digital networks. It’s going to take a while.”
Answering emails and replying to Slack messages can certainly be a form of busy work. Let’s say you’re working on an article that requires at once analytical thinking and engaging language, but you also have an inbox brimming with unread messages. Do you go for the low-hanging fruit (the emails) or focus on slower, more mentally-demanding work (the article)?
It might seem intuitive to knock out the former items first, but in fact that type of task often requires more time than estimated — a phenomenon called the “planning fallacy.” What’s more, emails might seem like a minor detour but are typically more mentally taxing than we realize. As Newport said, “When you looked at that email inbox for 15 seconds, you initiated a cascade of cognitive changes.” By the time you’re ready to turn to more meaningful work, a form of exhaustion may have already set in. “If you have to work on something that’s cognitively demanding,” he added, “the rule has to be zero context shifts during that period.”
Strategies for disconnecting
Certain professionals, like surgeons, must be on-call at all times. For the rest of us, that’s not necessary. That said, it’s not advisable to simply just go radio silent without also cluing in colleagues. The idea is to find a balance wherein you carve out time for yourself without disrupting the collective goals of the organization or project.
1. Identify “prime time”
A great way to begin is to pinpoint when you do your best work. Everyone has different peak hours when their minds are sharpest. Motivational speaker Brian Tracy calls this “prime time.” He explains: “[This is] the time of day, according to your body clock, when you are the most alert and productive.” Harnessing this can supercharge productivity, especially when it comes to the big stuff. Once you identify yours, schedule a regularly-repeating block of unavailability — with your inbox browser closed, notifications off and alarms silent.
2. Include colleagues
Next, notify office associates to determine that this approach works for the team. Ask them:
• Are there times when such blocked-out periods absolutely cannot be scheduled?
• What times would they like to block out for their meaningful work?
• How should team members break through blocked-out periods in case of an emergency?
Because the workplace is dynamic, these questions can be periodically revisited. As I write in my new book, when we implement systems, they should never be stagnant, never-changing mechanisms. Instead, they should be continually refined to serve their original purpose.
3. Automate the rest
An essential component of blocking out time for meaningful, uninterrupted work is automating the other stuff, which requires auditing busy work. So, for a couple of days, stop working every hour or so (using an alarm clock as a reminder) and note how you’ve spent time, whether you enjoyed the activity or got something out of it, and whether you’d like to do more of it.
This requires a few extra moments of reflection each day, but you’ll quickly see patterns emerge, and will soon identify rote, repetitive tasks that are perfect candidates for automation. Then, break down those activities into as many steps as needed and figure out where to plug in automation tools and apps. You may have to do some research to determine the best tool for this process, but fortunately, review sites like G2 are making it easier to sift through options.
Change can be intimidating. Once we have a certain way of doing something, like tackling busy work before we commit to the big stuff, it’s hard to pivot. Even a small tweak can seem to threaten the whole process. But with automation and coordination with colleagues, we can switch the usual way of doing things and carve out interrupted time for best work (on a picnic table, if you feel like it)… then, implement, refine and iterate.