Erecting Firewalls to Protect Your Priorities

Admit it: you have work avoidance habits. We all do. Checking email obsessively, frequent social media monitoring, news consumption or simply chatting it up with coworkers, we all have idiosyncrasies we use to evade those hairy projects sitting on our desks (or staring at us from our email inboxes). In and of themselves, these activities are not bad but calculated together they amount to possibly hours of wasted time throughout the week. Your productivity can be killed (death by a thousand cuts) if you don't acknowledge your own work avoidance habits and develop a plan to minimize them.

We live in an unprecedented age. You can block TV ads, divert emails, deflect unnecessary phone calls, control social status updates and more. Yet most people do not erect firewalls to keep distractions to a minimum.

We’re familiar with firewalls. “Firewalls” is a commonly used computer networking term designed to block unauthorized access (to keep harmful threats, like viruses, away from your computer system). “Firewall” was originally a term used to describe a wall or partition built to contain a fire and keep it from spreading. You need your own set of firewalls to keep harmful distractions at bay and to contain your energy so you can channel it towards your priorities. Building firewalls can be a combination of both low tech rules and high tech tools. A few examples:

High-tech firewalls:

  • Stop checking email obsessively. Use tools like Awayfind. Awayfind allows you to receive a text from the most important people in your life when they send you an email. This means you can live with your email closed most of the time (instead of open all of the time) and simply set up each of your major clients, or your boss, or other VIP’s in awayfind. Awayfind will notify you via your mobile device, a voice call or instant message.
  • Use blocker programs like Freedom. Freedom blocks your internet usage so that you can focus on mission critical objectives. Author Nora Ephron calls freedom the “antiprocrastination” technique.
  • Use a task manager to help avoid interruptions. Here's what I mean: if you've ever sent a funny video or interesting link to me, chances are I've used a tool like "send to Omnifocus" to transport that email (with a few mouse clicks) to a context I've set up in my task manager so that my workflow is not interrupted by dancing cats. (Sounds complicated, it's not). The context (list) is titled "online at home". When I have a moment and I'm in the right context for laughing at dancing cats, I can drift into that category, guilt-free, and enjoy a series of cool ideas and smiles sent to me by friends. It's not that I'm against a smile in the middle of the day, I just know my power of concentration is limited - I need all the help I can get.
  • Along a similar vein, use tools like Read It Later or Instapaper for saving that fascinating article, news story or video you've stumbled across for watching at a time that you determine.
  • Rest and recreation is a priority. Truly unplug when you unplug. (I need to take this one to heart). Yes, you can (yes, I can!). For inspiration, read the best vacation responder ever or the hearty advice in the last paragraph of Matt Blumberg's post "What Does a CEO Do, Anyways?" (the whole article is worth a read).

Low-tech (or no-tech) firewalls:

  • Close your door. To some it's a sign of rudeness but your work isn't substantiated by your peers opinions, it's about how much, or what, you get done.
  • If you are in an open office environment, wear headphones to signal to others you are knocking out a project and wish to not be disturbed but be sure to communicate to your cubemates that headphones are your personal "closed door".
  • Use visual clues. As a helpful hint to coworkers for when you are involved in putting out a serious fire or working toward a screaming deadline: place a visual signal on your desk, like a plastic fireman's hat, to communicate you cannot be interrupted. The novelty would be worth it just to maintain your power of concentration.
  • Don't buy a smartphone or, at least, power it down. (Yeah, you read that right). I have a friend (very tech-savvy, not a luddite) who never bought a smartphone simply because she didn't want the distraction when she was with her family. (Now, that's a solid firewall!)
  • For some, Mondays move like molasses but by Wednesday business is generally rocking. For others, mornings are slowest and afternoons are typically busier. Whatever your slow/busy cycle is, hallow those slower moments, they are generally precious and few. Rather than drift into the slipstream of noisy distractions choose to use that time to get your toughest projects completed because by Thursday or Friday, you might not have a choice.
  • Define new lines. Work lines have blurred. Laptops enable us to carry our work (and our distractions) with us wherever we go. New lines must now be drawn. Hard lines. "I will only check the news twice daily", is one, "I will protect my selling hours" is another.

What tips do you have on erecting personal firewalls? Do you have a no-tech or high-tech tip you can pass on to the rest of us?

(Portions of this post are from the article, Command and Conquer Your Day, published in PPB/Dec 2011. Cross-posted on Branded Matters).

Article written by Bobby Lehew.

Image credit: Leo Reynolds