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How to Conquer Email Distractions at Work

Schedule creative 'focus blocks' and let colleagues know you're booked in advance 

By Cal Newport

The following is adapted from the new book Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind.

Since yesterday, I’ve received 86 email messages, many of which require a time-consuming response. Only four of the messages directly concern the primary responsibility of my job as a university professor: publishing big new ideas.

Increasingly, we’re being torn in two opposing directions. We’re asked to apply our intellectual capital to solve hard problems, a creative goal that requires uninterrupted focus. At the same time, we’re asked by our employers to be constantly available by email, an administrative goal that creates constant distraction.

The Distraction of Work Email

We’re being asked, in other words, to simultaneously resist and embrace distraction to advance in our careers — a troubling paradox.

Consequently, we’ve sunk into a productivity morass.

This problem means we need to find ways to preserve our ability to apply undistracted focus at our jobs while still making ourselves available enough that we do not annoy our coworkers.

Over the year, I’ve seen many proposals for how to preserve focused work in a hectic schedule. Of these, one stands out as unusually effective. I call this the “focus block” method, and it works, ironically, by turning the machinery of the distraction culture against itself.

The Power of Daily Focus Blocks

The focus-block method leverages the well-understood concept of a prescheduled appointment. You block off a substantial chunk of time most days of the week for applying sustained focus to your most important creative tasks. The twist is that you mark this time on your calendar like any other meeting.

(MORE: Why You Shouldn’t Be a Perfectionist at Work)

Setting aside specific creative focus time is especially important if your organization uses a shared calendar system. This way, when someone tries to schedule something during one of those blocks, you can defer to your clearly marked obligation: “Sorry, I’m already booked from 9 to 12 that day.”

Similarly, if someone complains that you were slow to respond to an e-mail or didn’t pick up the phone, you have a socially acceptable excuse. “I was booked all morning and am just seeing this now.”

People are used to the idea that they cannot demand your attention during times when you already have a scheduled appointment. The focus block technique takes advantage of this understanding to buy you time for undistracted focus without the need for excessive apology or explanation.

Blocking off time for uninterrupted focus, however, is only half the battle.

(MORE: How You Can Get a 4-Day Workweek)

The other half is resisting distraction. This means: no e-mail, Internet or phone calls during your creative-thinking time.


4 Ways to Make Focus Blocks Work

Daily focus blocks sound easy in theory, but they can be surprisingly hard to put into practice. A few tips can help you in this effort:

1. Start with small blocks of focused time and then gradually work yourself up to longer durations. A good rule of thumb is to begin with a one-hour focus block and then add 15 minutes to each session every two weeks.

The key is to never allow distraction.

If you give in and quickly check Facebook, cancel the whole block and try again later. Your mind can never come to believe that even a little bit of distraction is okay during these blocks.

2. Tackle a clearly identified and isolated task. For example, if you need to write an article, do the research ahead of time, so that when the block period arrives, you can turn your entire attention to your prose.

3. Consider using a different location for these blocks. Move to a different room, a library or even a quiet place outside to perform your focused work.

4. When possible, do your focus block work with pen and paper. This will help you avoid the possibility of any online distractions.

The battle between focus and distraction is a serious problem, both to the competitiveness of our companies and to our own sanity. The value lost to unchecked use of distracting work habits is staggering.

The focus block method does not fix this problem, but it does give you a way to push back against its worst excesses, systematically producing important creative work even when your environment seems designed to thwart this goal.

Cal Newport is a writer and a professor at Georgetown University. His most recent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, argues that “follow your passion” is bad advice. Find out more about Cal and his writing at his blog, Study Hacks.

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