The blog

Previous article

Next article

20 Nov

Keeping an eye with no effort makes for fewer distractions

Datum: 2023-11-20 08:55
A person in a blue and gold band uniform is holding a trumpet by their side.

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?)

A dark-haired girl sits at a desk, holding her smartphone in her right hand. Above the phone, an email icon hangs.

There's more!

If you want more tips on how to create good structure at work, there are many ways to get that from me - in podcasts, videos, books, talks and other formats.

Yes, I want more tips!