Work like you’re driving
We’ve been sold the idea that notifications are always important and we should allow them to constantly distract us.
March 20, 2019
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This post was originally published on my now-defunct personal site. It’s been republished here on Fathom as the ideas found within it have informed and inspired our approach to business, privacy and philosophy.
Years ago I turned off notifications on all my devices (and I didn’t end up crying in a corner and my business didn’t crash and burn).
Nowadays I treat my work time as if I’m driving.
Notifications = distractions
It’s illegal to text and drive where I live. Lots of people have bumper stickers with a cell phone and a red circle with a line through it. That’s because it’s hard to pay attention to two things at once and makes accidents far more likely.
Most of us don’t have jobs where our attention is so critical that we could cause serious harm to ourselves or others should it momentarily waver, but the idea still applies: if we aren’t paying attention to our work, we’re not going to be able to do it properly. We may not cause a crash, but we won’t be able to get things done effectively or efficiently either.
Instead, when I’m working, I’m doing a single thing at a time. If I’m writing, my writing app is the only thing open on my computer, and my phone is on Do Not Disturb mode (and typically not even in the same room). I even do the same with social media. If I’m on Twitter, then that’s the only thing open on my computer. And then when I’m done, it’s off until I use it again.
It’s weird how ruthless single-tasking works, but it allows me to get so much done in not too much time. Nothing pulls me away from my work, just like when I’m driving, nothing pulls my attention away from the road (I don’t even like changing music when I’m driving).
On road trips, if I feel my eyes fatiguing or attention wandering, I pull off the road. I take a break to stretch my legs, hit the bathroom, or grab some food. And, when I’m feeling too tired to continue, I stop—at whatever motel is closest to the highway.
With computer/internet work though, we tend to try to just “power through” those things because we merely need to keep sitting in the same place, which we can continue to do even if we’re tired or our focus is failing.
Does that really help though? Does pushing through for another few hours actually result in decent work? Not in my experience. The more I rest, the more I take breaks, the better I can focus my attention when I need to. Not for 16 hours a day, but for a good 4–6 hours a day. It seems counter-intuitive to work less and only when focused, but being productive is different from being effective. I know I can easily sit at a desk for 10 hours a day and accomplish very little—hello social media and videos of otters fist bumping!
Awareness of the road and other cars on it isn’t the same as looking in all directions, at all times. If we drove around, eyes darting to every mirror and blind spot, every few seconds, it’d be hard to stay on the road.
I do the same with my work—I’m aware of what’s going on in general, but I don’t need constant updates every few minutes to do my job well. Awareness isn’t the same as knowledge, and it’s up to us to determine what’s important and what’s not. Knowing where other cars are on the road is important, but I don’t need to make note of every make and model that drives past me.
My experience with the Apple Watch illustrates this point well. I figured it’d help me with fitness and sleep by making that data available to me. The only problem was, it constantly wanted me to be aware of everything via sounds, screens and haptic buzzes. It told me to stand up (when I was focused on work), it sent me app notifications from apps I didn’t care about, and it showed me text messages when I wanted to deal with them later. It even told me to breathe (which I’m pretty sure I do often). Instead of being a helpful tool that I could use to gain knowledge it turned out to be an annoying attention seeker. I got rid of it after 3 days.
I don’t need to be constantly informed of everything. Email can wait until I want to focus on my inbox. Social media mentions can wait until I want to focus on them. I need to be aware of things with my work, but I wouldn’t be able to work or drive if I was constantly being made aware of everything, at all times.
The basic “rules for working like I’m driving”
Lately it seems like there are very few technology features I think are good ideas. Too frequently new “features” are touted as tools we can use, when more often than not they become annoyances we allow into our lives.
The only killer feature on my phone I think is smart is that it senses when I’m driving and automatically puts my phone on Do Not Disturb. It keeps my phone both silent and dark when it thinks I’ve got more important things to pay attention to.
In a perfect world, your phone and computer would sense when you’re doing work and turn off everything else while you’re doing it. Thankfully, although it’s not automatic, this can be done by simply putting your computer and mobile device in Do Not Disturb mode while you work.
So, maybe try treating work as if you’re driving:
- Don’t allow distractions.
- Keep your eyes on the task at hand.
- If you can’t focus, take a break.
We’ve been sold the idea that notifications are always important and we should allow them to constantly distract us. I refuse to accept that, just as I refuse to text or use my phone while I’m driving. My work is as important as paying attention to the road, so I treat it the exact same way—by not allowing distractions while I’m paying attention to it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make a pit stop.