How to Firewall Attention and Reclaim Time

I am a strong proponent of “single-tasking” as the defining feature of top performers in a digital world. Social media expert Brian Oberkirch just posted a great list of rules he’s implemented for “firewalling attention”, to quote the inimitable Merlin Mann and Gina Trapani. Here are a few of my favorite picks:

* I’m checking email Dr. Pepper style, at 10, 2, and 4. Batching should help, and also making it a sprint to process my inbox within 10 to 15 minutes. “Reply to” stuff goes in that folder. Stuff I note and might want later goes to “Archive”. Stuff I never need again gets deleted. You can delete a ton of your email. Really. Process voice mails at the same time. (I’ll also do an RSS feed run at these times. I’ll reward myself with a flickr/twitter/mefi review if I’m a good boy.)

* No email review in the morning as I start my machine.

* Turned off all email notifications from social networking sites.

* Stop trying to accomodate a global work schedule. Again, unless it’s really mandatory or unavoidable, I work during my work hours, not those in other parts of the world.

* No answering emails on the weekends, unless absolutely necessary. One review per day on Sat/Sun.

* Dump new contacts immediately into Address Book so I never waste time looking up contact info.

* Make “no” the default answer for new project/app review/etc. requests. New things should earn their way into the attention field.

His full list can be found here. In light of the recent Blackberry blackout and all of the depressing interruption addiction it highlighted, I plan to lobby here in the capital of Silicon Valley, San Jose, to have Father’s Day (Third Sunday of June) also officially made “E-mail Detox Day,” during which people attempt a 24-hour e-mail fast. The trick to stepping off of the gas pedal is proving to yourself that it can be done.

Anyone interested in helping me make that national (or international)? In the meantime, are there any former Crackberry addicts out there with tips for newbies trying to break the once-every-5-minutes e-mail habit?

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

Leave a Reply

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration.)

18 Replies to “How to Firewall Attention and Reclaim Time”

  1. I’ve used to love to listen to radio programs and music while I worked. This week, based on your comments, I tried single tasking and getting my work done without those background distractions. It’s amazing how having just a little bit more clarity has helped me produce results better and faster. I even find that I’m less forgetful. Thanks for the valuable tips, Tim.

  2. My pleasure, James! I still often work to music (without lyrics) to shut-out environmental distractions, as I travel all the time and enjoy writing from cafes and universities. At one point, though, I realized I was legitimately losing my hearing, as I jacked volume up to overpower things like hissing espresso machines and gaggles of high school girls. The solution? Get a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that allows you to shut out the external while listening to music at a non-lethal volume. I used the relatively cheap and extremely portable Philips headphones, and my hearing has fully recovered:

  3. That’s a great article, Erick! It’s not bad being Pavlov’s dog, but we need to make sure we’re responding properly to the right stimuli. The psychology of Blackberry addiction seems like a combination of emotional eating and OCD hand washing.


  4. I find music critical for blocking out distractions. If I’m at the office, there are people talking over cube walls. If I’m home, there’s three kids. If I’m out, there’s people on their cell phones. Music makes a great “wall of sound” to block out things which will sap my already diminished attention span.

  5. Both cocaine and ipods have white lines and glassy surfaces, coincidence? I suggest the day be expanded to those and youtube as well.

    My favorite example of how focus and a strategy can either make something happen or take forever to never get right, is a rubiks cube. Try watching the TV and solving the cube during commerical breaks.

    I used to work in an open office, phones ringing everywhere, people yelling from office to office. In-ear headphones that double as earplugs (etymotic er4 with 29db isolation) helped me from going postal…great on airplanes too, they are small so easy to pack and hard to destroy.

  6. Count me in for Father’s Day. I’ll start spreading the news…

    As for email tips — I’ve been trying to get my email to push to my desktop / blackberry at the top of the hour rather than ever minute. I can’t seem to get it to work though. Not sure if the server is overriding my settings or what. Will keep trying though.

    I’m in an open cube with a network printer right outside my ‘door’, reception 15 feet to my right and a loud talker (with entourage) to my left. I will be checking out the noise cancelling headphones pronto.

  7. Oh yeah, I have one for you. iPhone users (and, get this, their employers if the users have ever received email from the employer’s Microsoft Exchange Server) can selectively disable or completely wipe the phone with an email bomb.

    Not only is this a great reason to keep your employer (if any) out of your phone, but think about this: If you could set things up in such a way that, if you check your email / call any number other than 911 / turn your phone on during certain hours / whatever, it triggers an automatic wipe, or locks the phone up for the next hour…

    How often would you succumb to temptation?

    Maybe do the same with your desktop / notebook–triggering a shutdown (or worse).

  8. Tim,

    Liking this idea about attention. I’m wondering if attention deficit could simply be solved by training yourself to 1-task. It could be a whole new form of psychotherapy instead of pills and this diet stuff I’ve heard about.