When to Let Distractions Derail Your Work
Few people know about this, but in college I decided to write an entire science fiction novel. In those days, we used something called DOS (or Disk Operating System) that felt like typing on a stone tablet compared to the modern word processors we use today.
Each morning, I'd walk to the computer center (this was before laptops even existed) and type up a few chapters. I'd work on character development over lunch breaks and between classes, then flesh out my plot twists and devise entire government oligarchies bent on alien invasion in the late evening hours. It was quite an undertaking, trying to write a book and major in journalism at the same time, but somehow my grades didn't suffer too much.
One day, I was pounding out a new chapter of the book when I noticed someone new had arrived in the computer lab. It was exactly like that scene in the Pixar movie Up when the dog gets so easily distracted mid-sentence (Yes, the dog can talk.) by a squirrel. One minute I was typing away and inventing the scenery of an ancient alien homeworld, the next I was looking up at the woman who would eventually become my wife.
As you can guess, I never finished the novel.
Has this ever happened to you? One minute you are working diligently on a project and hitting a high level of productivity and then (wham!) you get completely derailed by a major distraction. For most of us, interruptions are a nuisance and can cause serious work problems. But how do you know when it is a good distraction, something that is more worthy of your attention?
Over the years, I've learned to use the better-best approach to being productive. It's pretty simple. Right now, I am looking out the window trying to stir up some creative thoughts, watching a few loons cavorting on a pond. I could go for a walk or check the mailbox, but I'm being productive. I'm at my "best" right now. Going for a walk is not necessarily an improvement and won't help me get things done.
The better-best concept works well for those starting a company. Let's say you are creating a business plan at a Starbucks in Silicon Valley and you're feeling pretty good about the overall direction. You look up and notice Dave McClure, the prominent angel investor, is about to buy a latte. Your fingers are just flying over the keyboard, but guess what? It's better to stop what you are doing and approach him. Or, maybe you are having a pow-wow with your exec team and hammering out some details for an upcoming sales presentation. Good for you! If you get a call from a potential customer with loads of cash to spend, it's best to table the discussion. Everytime. Always. Without exception.
I've been using this approach to productivity for about a decade now. There are times when a lesser diversion tries to steal my productivity, and I fight it as much as possible. I press on. At other times, I have one of those squirrel moments and see an opportunity that looks promising. I set aside the tasks, even when I'm firing on all cylinders, and let my productivity slide. Knowing the difference is what counts--plowing through diversions can help you complete a task. Yet, letting a diversion derail you can make all of the difference in the world. And, hey, I also have four kids and a son-in-law!
How about you? Post in comments if you agree/disagree with my better-best approach.