Focus seems to be an incredibly rare commodity these days. It is something I have struggled with most of my life. Do you remember the scene in the movie Up! In the scene, Dug the Dog introduces himself to the main characters and halfway through he stops, mid sentence, looks sharply to his left and says “Squirrel!” then brings his focus back to the conversation at hand.
That scene resonated strongly for so many that all you have to do is yell “Squirrel!” and people will immediately get the reference. It speaks to our collective tendency to succumb to distraction.
In her 2014 book, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time” Brigitte Schulte coined the term “Time Confetti” to describe what she found to be the shredding of what should be plenty of time, into small, unenjoyable chunks. After a time-use researcher suggested to her that like every other American she had 30 hours a week of ‘leisure time’ she was skeptical. He challenged her to keep a journal of her leisure time which led her to discover vast amounts of what she describes as “Time Confetti”.
For me when I think of Time Confetti and the damage that it does in my life, I think of the amount of times that I switch tasks during my work day. Ultimately I often end up feeling like I spent all day being incredibly busy but surprisingly unproductive. What I realized years ago (yet still struggle to implement) was that when I am at my best I am working in short, focused blocks of time.
Rarely did I truly lack the time to get things done, but often I lacked the focus to get things done. In order for any of us to be truly productive we require focused attention and effort. While we tend to applaud people’s ability to “multitask” what we really need to learn to do is to “monotask”. We need to learn to actually focus on one thing at a time. This is true whether we are talking about specific home or work projects or we are talking about personal relationships.
How often have you been on the phone with someone sharing a story only to realize that they are not actually listening. Their focus is clearly elsewhere. Maybe they are in the middle of writing an email or simply thinking about the next task that they have to do. How does that make you feel? Right?! It’s annoying as fuck. Yet we all are guilty of it from time to time.
My partner Michelle and I were discussing the concept of time confetti this morning and she laughed when I first mentioned it. She explained that she had just used the word confetti to describe strings of her work emails. When working in a team environment, how often do you receive separate emails on a single topic from multiple people?
All potentially valuable information yet somehow incredibly fragmented. Everyone contributes their own relevant bits however, if there isn’t an easy way to tie them all together we end up with a giant box of unassembled puzzle pieces. All the pieces are there, yet all the individual team members are left to assemble them on their own. This has the potential to prevent any one person from actually seeing the whole picture. Or worse everyone seeing the picture differently.
So how do we manage “Time Confetti” in our life?
It Always Starts With Awareness
I’ve said it a thousand times and I will say it a thousand times more. It always starts with awareness. We can’t manage what we don’t see. With awareness comes choice. If you prefer a more philosophical lens the philosopher Gurdjieff says
“You are in prison. If you wish to get out of prison, the first thing you must do is realize that you are in prison. If you think you are free, you can’t escape.”George Gurdjieff
In other words if you don’t know you are in prison, escape is impossible. For many of us we are loath to admit it but we are addicted to the confetti. These small bursts of dopamine hits that give us temporary satisfaction as we jump from thing to thing to thing. Sometimes it is easier just to pretend that the problem does not exist and carry on complaining about our lack of time.
“What I really need Mike is more time in the day”
I hear this so often yet when we get down to really examining where time is spent it is rarely true that we actually need more time in the day. For most of the clients I coach they simply need to be more efficient with the time that they have and focus on the priorities. That means reverse engineering the confetti and putting it back together into an entire sheet of paper.
There are a few tactical ways you can do this. You could create a scorecard and tally all the times in a day you get drawn off task. If you are the kind of person that carries around a notebook, use one of the back pages and write down the date and simply add a tick mark beside or under that date every time you catch yourself getting pulled off task.
November 26, 2021: IIIII IIIII IIIII IIIII
Yep, it’s been a lot for me and it’s only 9:30am. This is why I need to use some of the techniques below to maximize my opportunities to stay on task and be the most productive version of myself possible.
Track where you actually spend your time. I’ve written about this before but using a time tracking app such as Toggl or something similar can be very helpful. Simply start the timer when you begin working on a task or project and stop it the moment you stop working on that task or project. If you are anything like me you will likely find that in an 8 hour work day you can only account for half the time. I found that much of my time was not directly attributed to specific projects or tasks.
That means that the rest of that time has been shredded into those tiny little flakes of confetti. This presents us with a huge opportunity to actually create more time in the day. That dream that so many of us have.
As I discussed above, it can be fun and gratifying to switch tasks a hundred times a day. That means that it really all starts with discipline. It will take discipline to sit down and track where you actually spend your time and how often you get pulled off task.
It will take discipline to not allow yourself to get sucked into that industrial size, micro cut, time shredder. I love visualizations so one of the things I do when I catch myself getting pulled off task is to picture a giant vortex sucking my time away from me and funneling into one of these giant shredders. The next time you find yourself saying “If only I had more time” try replacing that with “If only I had a little more discipline” and see how that feels.
For me this has been the most powerful shift in how I approach my day. It started when I wrote my book. The thought of writing an entire book over a long period of time was overwhelming. I came across a method that many are likely familiar with but I would suggest few actually employ with any consistency.
The method is called the Pomodoro technique. Initially by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980’s. It uses a timer to break work into shorter intervals. Traditionally 25 minute blocks followed by a 5 minute break. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I do almost all of my work in “Poms” now. It’s similar to how I run ultramarathons. If I think about having to run 100 miles all in one go the task seems overwhelming and largely impossible. However when I break that run down into running from one aid station to the next it becomes much more doable. I can always run the 8-10 miles required to get me to the next aid station.
Emails have become so ubiquitous that it is easy to allow them to shred our time into a million little pieces. When I started to recognize the number of times I was checking email, looking for something to respond to, it became very clear that this was a huge source of Time Confetti for me.
With awareness comes choice.
I created an autoresponder that replies to every email letting the sender know that I check emails at noon and then again at 4pm. I also give them my cellular number so that if they really need to get ahold of me urgently they can simply text me. Now I just have to be disciplined enough not to look at my emails until those time slots.
The reality is that there is rarely an email that cannot wait at least four hours. Immediately my productivity went through the roof. I stopped responding to other people’s “demands” and could then focus on my priorities. I could do this in a much more efficient manner and I am certain that none of my clients felt that they were any less of a priority for me because of it. That was the lie that I had been telling myself.
I told myself that in order to be exceptional I needed to be ‘responsive’. I told myself that would be one of my differentiators. The truth is that responding in four hours is still incredibly ‘responsive’ when you compare to the rest of the business world. It can still be a differentiator for me.
It just means that I have to be disciplined about sitting down and providing thoughtful responses at the right time. For things that will require larger amounts of time to respond to I will schedule a “Pom” or two or three in my calendar. I will reply to the email immediately at noon or four and set expectations on the timing for a thorough response.
By now you should know that I am a big fan of ‘sound bites’. Little digestible descriptors that I can easily hang onto and reference throughout my day. It is a large part of what I practice sharing with you. When I heard the term “Time Confetti” I knew that it would stick for me.
I’ve shared with you some of the tools that I use to minimize the Time Confetti as much as possible. My challenge for you today is to start with some of the awareness practices. Start to document your confetti. See if you can identify how much “Time Confetti” is impacting your life and your productivity.
I’d also love to hear some of the strategies that you use in order to manage the amount of time shredding that happens in your life. Drop a note in the comments below.