This epiphany for deep, focused work really solidified itself while we were under quarantine during COVID-19.
I was having to learn to work from home, like so many of the entrepreneurs I know.
Or better yet, like my wife had done for years.
Sarah owns a bookkeeping business and she would always tell me how difficult it was during the summer, because our three children would take turns interrupting her day.
For a bookkeeper, interruptions means administrative mistakes, like putting the decimal in the wrong spot.
Well, now I got a taste of it.
During those first few weeks of quarantine, I was helping dozens and dozens of entrepreneurs navigate SBA loan hell.
Every day, one of my so-happy-not-to-be-in-school children would come bounding in to ask very important questions like, “Can I have a cookie?” or tell me, “Ava threw a sock at me!”
Each time they would do that, I would get totally distracted and it would take forever to get back on track.
By the way, it takes an average of about 25 minutes (23 minutes and 15 seconds, to be exact) to return to the original task after an interruption, according to Gloria Mark, who studies digital distraction at the University of California, Irvine.
I finally had a come-to-Jesus meeting with them and said they weren’t allowed to come into daddy’s office (the master bedroom) unless there was a really big fire or someone was bleeding profusely.
After that little announcement by me, I remember thinking that I needed to research a question about the PPP loan. Then I saw a news article about small business tips to surviving COVID-19; then I got a text from my one of my clients, which made me remember an interesting video that I wanted to watch; then I saw something in the video that made me remember I had a post on LinkedIn that I was super proud of and I wanted to see if got any likes or comments; then I noticed that I had two invitations to connect to people that I sort of knew and I clicked on their profiles to read more about them and one of them was local and for some reason that made me think about an email I was supposed to send; then when I opened my email there was another entrepreneur that had a question; then I started another tab in my browser to research that question….
And then it hit me.
Each of these little thoughts and each of these distractions were just like my kiddos asking me one more question.
Except the distractions I created weren’t sweet little faces that were hoping for just a little guidance from their dear ole dad.
Nope. They were just one more endorphin rush to the brain that led to absolutely nowhere. Well, except to a frustrating day where I had been really busy, but accomplished very little.
Personally, I have always been big on time management and prided myself in it. I would block out time on my calendar, turn off some of the notifications on my phone, and make some effort to not check email every 10 minutes. I was ahead of most folks at least. However, I would still have way too many days where I didn’t know what in the world I had accomplished.
I decided right then and there that every time I saw a notification (you know the redbox with the white number) I would picture one of my children’s faces asking me another question.
If I wasn’t willing to answer question after question to my kids, then that goofy little notification wasn’t going to get my attention either.
Sure, I could rationalize that it’s the client of my dreams that was going to hire 100 people and make national news.
In reality it’s just another black hole of a 45 minute set of distractions. And I was tired of distractions.
The same goes for every fleeting thought in my head.
I don’t need the answer to, “I wonder how many people liked my post?” or “what is the latest breaking news on CNN/Fox News/whatever” right now.
If it’s super important I’ll remember it later.
And if it’s truly business related and I know that I MUST KNOW the answer, I’ll simply write it down and make it a point to find out at the end of the day, when after I have spent my energy on more important topics.
This decision has made a dramatic improvement in my production, creativity, and most of all my sanity.
The real problem for our generation of entrepreneurs (or really anyone) is not the Democrats, Republicans, China, Russia, sitting too much, or what kind of mask you wear.
The real problem is our complete inability to focus and actually think all of the way through a problem and creatively solve it.
We are way too submissive to distractions and digital clutter.
We have fully embraced being plugged into a giant machine and we don’t know or even seem to care about who’s running the show.
If you want to run your own show, it’s time to unplug and take control.
Try this tomorrow.
Think of a problem that you would like to solve.
Then spend 90 minutes thinking about it with nothing but a pen and paper.
No phone, no computer, no music, and no podcast.
Odds most of you won’t make it 90 minutes.
Heck, I’ve seen people give up after nine minutes and give excuses about how they work really well with more stimulation, i.e. scrolling endlessly on their phone and pretending it is research.
But this is your chance.
Everybody else is distracted with multitasking and made up emergencies.
There is a huge business and personal opportunity to do what means the most to you by diving deep into your work like nobody else will do.
Charles Alexander is the director of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center at Vol State.