The Number One Reason People Get Sidetracked

Juuso Hietalahti (Game Producer) had a blog entry today entitled How to Stop Getting Sidetracked in which he shares the 1 hour solution. In the 1 hour solution you make a commitment to yourself to keep working no matter what. This is similar to my articles In Praise of Single-Tasking. Don’t stop to take a quick peek at email, to check the CNN headlines, or see if anyone’s replied to your comment on 37signals/svn. Just keep working on the task at hand. That is a good idea and thanks to Juuso for sharing it.

Email’s Not ‘Fun’, So Why Are We Distracted Into Checking It Often?

It got me wondering: why are we so tempted to be sidetracked by email, blogs, and other online information? Why would we think that email is any more fun than coding or designing or writing? On the face of it, it seems ludicrous to think that anyone would rank email as more fun than their primary reason for going to work or starting a company. But there is definitely something that makes email and other distractions seem more appealing. That thing, I think, is natural laziness and email’s, blogs’, and other outlets ability to provide some easy ‘work’.

We Get Sidetracked Because We’re Lazy

Tasks can be divided into those tasks we do in response to some outside input and those tasks we do to create something as part of a plan to accomplish a larger goal to which we have committed ourselves. (Ok, that’s actually three types; but you get the idea – there are responding tasks and planning/creating tasks.) And ’responding’ tasks are simply easier than ’planning’ and ’creating’ tasks.

We Seek ‘Opportunities to Respond’

So we seek “opportunities-to-respond”. And email happily provides opportunities-to-respond all day long.

The mind is constantly thinking, “Isn’t there something I need to responding to?” and secretly hoping that difficult, original, work must be put aside (“I don’t have a choice – this other urgent task must be done now”) because of an important, urgent request from the boss for a sorted list of last month’s TPS reports or a customer’s request for an information packet. We’ve learned that we find opportunities-to-respond in places such as email, blogs, social-content sites, and 24-hour news outlets. ’Opportunities to respond’ provide easy ‘work’ and this is the number one reason why these outlets are so tempting.

’Respond’ tasks provide feelings of accomplishment

Add to this that responding itself can seem like an accomplishment, a task completed, and a sense of work getting done. Even if nothing truly constructive came of it, it is easy to feel a sense of accomplishment when responding to an email, blog entry, or forwarding on an interesting news story or YouTube clip. How many times have you heard someone seemingly exhausted from answering 100 emails in their inbox or proud of the fact they had back to back to back meetings – even if those emails or meetings had no constructive use. Happens all the time. I just emptied out my inbox – whew, feels good! I’ve acted that way tons of times, for sure.

But long term mastery is the ultimate thrill (also: Success Breeds Success)

Our primary work, the tasks resulting from planning and creating goals, take much longer and are harder to accomplish. Especially ones in which you are creating something new or mastering a new skill.

Seth Goodin, in talking here with Guy Kawasaki about Seth’s new book The Dip, said this:

Most people never master anything and never experience the thrill of being on the other side of the Dip. As a result, they don’t seek out new opportunities for mastery.

What Goodin is talking about here is a thrill of success and the ultimate feelings of accomplishment at a level that most people have not experienced.

When you do experience it though, I believe you would have less need to find reward in responding to inputs, would stop being distracted by opportunities to respond, and would therefore even further master your primary accomplishments. Another case of success breeds success.

Email, Blogs, Social-Content Sites, and News Channels are Empty Calories

The main thing to remember is that there is a big reward out there – there is a thrill to be had – by keeping on task and mastering your big-picture goal. Consider email, blogs, and other “opportunities to respond” as empty calories. They provide quick-hit feelings of accomplishment but little long-term sustenance.

What do you think?

4 thoughts on “The Number One Reason People Get Sidetracked

  1. This is one of the reasons that I’m warming up to a GTD-type system. You can channel those email-checking urges into project-checking.

  2. I think you’re spot on with your analysis. I find that I am most focused on my work when I am working toward a very specific and attainable goal. If there’s no chance to meet a goal within the next couple days, it’s much easier for me to rationalize a snack on that “empty calorie” content.

    Please ignore the irony of posting this rather than getting work done… I better set a goal for the day.

  3. Dan – I was thinking the same thing about the “irony” when I was writing the blog entry instead of doing “work”. 🙂 Thanks for the comments.

  4. SH – Most people that have tried sure have found GTD-type systems effective. I haven’t looked into it in detail but should.

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