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How fixing bicycles helps to be productive with digital work

One of the things I find incredibly important in my job and day to day life, is productivity. In my search for more focus and less distraction, I came across Deep Work from Cal Newport, which has been an absolute treasure from page 1 (no #spon, honestly). What Newport tries to convey with this book, is provide guidelines for anyone being distracted by impulses so much, they are unable to do focused work, or ‘deep work’.

Seeing as this is the 21st Century and we are more digital and online then ever, everyone recognizes at least some of this problem. As a social media manager, I wanted to learn how to handle his issue.

The two problems with our current digital work

One of the problems Newport explains, is the lack of a physical end product to show you have done your work. Not only is it more difficult to show your boss what you have been producing all day – it leaves you way more unsatisfied, being unsure of what you have achieved.

A second problem, is distraction. We aren’t talking about sceptical managers trying to ban Facebook from the workplace, as that is hardly a problem factor in daily work. We are talking about constant interruption being forced upon us, making it impossible to actually keep away from distraction.

These two factors are problematic, because they are keeping us from focusing and doing our jobs efficiently. Moreover – these problems have a clear main cause that we should learn to avoid.

The main causes found of distraction in our current work area are e-mailing and open offices.

Yes, the thing managers have been pushing for workers to be ‘sharing creativity’ and being ‘available to clients’ is exactly what is distracting us and killing productivity. Multiple researches figured out the loss of time and money due to the constant interruption of these two factors, making it impossible to work deep and productively.

This is where the part of fixing bicycles was the start of a solution for me, seeing as I mostly work from home or from behind a laptop in an office. I’m using this as an example to explain how this helps me avoid the problems of digital work in three steps:

1) Be unavailable

This might sound silly, but this way of thinking absolutely helped me in focusing. Everyone knows that feeling of ‘being busy’ all the time, meaning there is always something occupying your mind, leaving you restless. Wanting to get rid of this feeling but still finish my tasks, I returned to an old hobby: paint and fix¬†bicycles. Fixing a bicycle is basic problem solving: something is broken, and can be fixed in one or two ways. In order to focus on this, I had to postpone other tasks and avoid anything from interrupting my thought process.

Beach Cruiser 2

This is where your mindset gets a clear reset on what you are doing wrong in your digital work. Rather than having a pile of endless notifications, e-mails, co-workers asking for favors circling around your mind, which all together feel like a lot of headspace – turn off whatever you can. Be unavailable for a while and determine for yourself what you want to allow.

2) Calculate the process and steps

To understand which steps you need to make in order to be (and feel!) productive, let me start off with one of the distractions I hate the most – multitasking. I can’t emphasize this enough – One. Thing. At. A. Time. How tempting it may seem to keep fifteen tabs open in your browser so you are ‘multitasking’ (another myth, but let’s discuss that another time) or seemingly busy, stop doing it. It is as useless as trying to swat flies out of the air with one arm and trying to bake pancakes with the other.

Secondly, to do lists are a no go. Don’t get me wrong, I love making lists – but instead, try to make a list of three things you will be working on today that have most priority and how much time you ARE going to spend on this. Not how much time it will take you – that will scare you, right off the bat.

For example, with the bike:

  1. Clean particles (1 hour)
  2. Paint frame (2 hours)
  3. Oil up pedals (15 minutes)

Beach Cruiser 1

Is the paint unfinished after 2 hours? Stop anyway. Running overtime of this task will mean you do not respect your own boundaries you have set – and it means you are willing to run overtime on EVERY task.

The bike will definitely not be done after this, as it will need a least another cover of paint and a lot more greasing up to work properly. Not to mention, I’ll run into broken things and rust in the process. But the important lesson here is you have made the steps you promised to yourself, and you were productive. Repeat the same thing the next day, and you will find you actually have less of a workload then you originally thought you did and leave you more satisfied and accomplished in the end.

3) Create a clear end goal

In digital work, the end purpose of a task can be unclear. Tasks or problems often show up out of nowhere – responding to an e-mail or online question, creating evaluations of content that is already yesterdays’ news. Working on my Beach Cruiser bicycle, my goal is pretty straight forward – fixing it so it works. I might add some paint in the process – but the end goal never changes and keeps my mind focused.

Beach Cruiser 3

This made me realise the difficulty I’m sometimes having with my digital work and why it often feels unsatisfying. More importantly, I was able to work on my bicycle without distractions – so why wouldn’t that be possible with my online job?

Find satisfaction in focus

So how do these rules apply? What is my end goal? Choose one subject, one blog, finish it. Answer three questions on e-mail, shut notifications off, check again in a few hours. Schedule your ‘distraction time’ to allow yourself some air, and continue back on your three tasks. Create a clear goal, and stick to it.

I hope this example can help anyone out, as it did for me.

More ideas or questions? Shoot!