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20 Nov

Keeping an eye with no effort makes for fewer distractions

Datum: 2023-11-20 08:55
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When it comes to reminders, push noti­fi­ca­tions and noti­fiers of oth­er sorts, I always rec­om­mend adher­ing to the rule of thumb that if the reminder makes us want to stop what we are doing and change activ­i­ty, we should keep it. If not, it is not help­ing us and we should remove it. Noti­fi­ca­tions that help us are those that real­ly catch our atten­tion and make us drop what­ev­er we are doing to do some­thing else. All oth­er ones can be regard­ed as distractions.

For you who pre­fer lis­ten­ing to read­ing, this post is also avail­able as an episode of the Done!” pod­cast:

Change activ­i­ty, but only sometimes

But when I gave a lec­ture in Oslo the oth­er day, one of the par­tic­i­pants shared a tricky dilem­ma that requires some pon­der­ing. She asked:

My col­league is respon­si­ble for doing a par­tic­u­lar task at a cer­tain time every day. When she is not at work, I am respon­si­ble for doing it instead. She has cre­at­ed a reminder that we both share, and that pops up every day when the task is due. The prob­lem is that the approx­i­mate­ly 50 days when she is not at the office in a year occur spo­rad­i­cal­ly and with­out me being able to pre­dict when. This means that for 200 days every year, the reminder is noth­ing but a point­less dis­trac­tion, but for 50 days every year, it is invalu­able. How do I solve this dilemma?”

The sit­u­a­tion is very inter­est­ing. If she keeps the reminder, she will get used to it not mean­ing any­thing most days, and hence risk ignor­ing it on one of those days when she is respon­si­ble for com­plet­ing the task and the reminder actu­al­ly is tremen­dous­ly impor­tant. But if she were to remove the reminder, she would risk miss­ing the task com­plete­ly on the days when she is respon­si­ble for get­ting it done since noth­ing noti­fied and remind­ed her of it.

What is the trigger?

Since the val­ue of the reminder depends on some­thing being a cer­tain way (in this case, that the col­league is not at the office), we need to make it clear to our­selves what the trig­ger is, mean­ing what con­di­tion has to be met for the noti­fi­ca­tion to mean some­thing and for us to take action. If you are famil­iar with any pro­gram­ming code, you will see that this is a kind of if … then”-sentence.

The more we can auto­mate the con­trol of whether the con­di­tion checks out or not, the bet­ter and eas­i­er it is. Even if auto­mate” might sound a bit high-tech, it need­n’t be. As I see it, it is a mat­ter of either allow­ing some­thing else to check in with and con­trol the con­di­tion (how­ev­er, this is prefer­ably done by some tech­ni­cal means, such as by soft­ware) or check­ing our­selves as we are doing some­thing else any­way, so that it gets done with­out any extra effort, almost automatically.

There may be more solu­tions than this

At the lec­ture, we all con­clud­ed that the best solu­tion to the participant’s dilem­ma was to remove the noti­fi­ca­tion and add anoth­er step to her morn­ing rou­tine instead, which was If the col­league is not at the office, set a reminder to do [the task] at 2 pm.”.

She will do her morn­ing rou­tine any­way, and adding this addi­tion­al step will not make any real dif­fer­ence or take any extra effort. The reminder will here­after only be active when it is mean­ing­ful, which means she will take it seri­ous­ly when it alerts her.

(If I could have it my way, I would want the cal­en­dar to auto­mat­i­cal­ly check if the col­league is at the office or not, and judg­ing by the out­come, acti­vate the reminder when it is rel­e­vant. Per­haps it could even be pos­si­ble to find or cre­ate a script that looks for if the col­league is logged in to the com­pa­ny serv­er, or the like. Hmm, this would require some thought.)

Do this

If you have a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion in your every­day life where you only have to do some­thing if cer­tain con­di­tions apply, then make it clear to your­self what this con­di­tion is.

Could you write a for­mu­la, cre­ate a macro, change some set­ting that responds to con­di­tions, or cre­ate a recipe in an exter­nal ser­vice (such as IFTTT or Zapi­er) that only trig­gers you to act when the time is right?

If not, can you incor­po­rate check­ing whether the con­di­tion is met or not into some oth­er rou­tine, task or activ­i­ty so that you do not have to remem­ber to do yet anoth­er thing — in addi­tion to all oth­er things you have to do?

More time, more focus

If you iden­ti­fy what con­di­tions need to apply in order for you to do things, and more or less auto­mate check­ing these con­di­tions, you will have one or a few few­er dis­trac­tions and have few­er things com­pet­ing for your atten­tion. All in all, you will have more focus to invest in the tasks that real­ly mat­ter — to you and to the busi­ness you work in.

What would you have done?

Using the morn­ing rou­tine was the solu­tion we com­mon­ly agreed was the best one for the woman in Oslo, but per­haps you have anoth­er clever way of solv­ing these kinds of dilem­mas? Tell me!

(But, what reminders do you need?)

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