As consumers, we love the always-on world we currently live in.
Amazon allows us to buy that thing as soon as we see it. Netflix lets us watch what we want when we want to watch it. Smartphones give us the answer to anything or allow us to reach out to any friend at any time.
A driver, a pizza, new shoes, music, banking, almost anything, is now available instantly, at any time of the day or night.
These conveniences are all wonderful, except what happens when the always-on world infiltrates your work?
Businesses have followed suit and moved digital, ditching paper while speeding up communication. The rise of smartphones has created a need for businesses to meet heightened expectations and demands of consumers.
Internal communication is moving more toward chat instead of scheduled calls and meetings—meaning there is an expectation of instant access.
While always-on is great for a consumer who wants something now, there are serious issues in how it impacts your work. Primarily, the issue is always-on expectations make you reactive instead of proactive. It puts you on defense instead of offense.
Rather than creating priorities and moving forward, allowing focus on what is important and being able to execute those important tasks, you are responding to constant notifications and prioritizing whatever is currently flying in front of your face. Cal Newport’s Deep Work brought to light many of the concerns about how on-demand communications diminish valuable work.
“In an age of network tools, knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative—constantly sending and receiving messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction.
Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality.
To make matters worse for depth, there’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow is not a choice that can be easily reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.”
His point is clear. In constant distraction, you produce low-quality work. You are not able to focus and execute what’s important because you’re always reacting to what comes your way.
Getting past these challenges is not easy. You are increasingly expected to be always-on and available at any moment. To get your best work done, you need to push back against the grain.
To get meaningful work done, you first need to identify what actually is most meaningful. A good step is to sit down regularly—annually, quarterly, monthly, weekly—and identify your top priorities.
At the annual level you’ should look at more of a high-level broad goal. Then, as you hone in on your weekly priorities, you can decide what things you can do this week that will have the biggest impact on that broader goal. Now you are playing offense not defense. As Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism says, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
If you show up to work every day without a plan, you’ll spend the entire day responding to incoming messages. When the day is done you’ll feel like you’ve been extremely busy, having accomplished little in terms of your main objectives.
As a team, methods such as OKRs will help ensure you always remain on the same page regarding key priorities.
Defining your priorities is great, but those distractions are still going to come. The next step is to make sure you execute on them. You need to protect your time.
This requires discipline because distractions will always be tempting to respond to. They are a convenient way to feel busy without moving the needle in a meaningful way. Creating priorities requires taking control of your schedule to make sure you get the priorities done.
One common term workers have success with is batching. Before you start a day, you should have a rough game plan hour-by-hour for what you want to get done and when.
You can use your calendar and create a block of time to work on a specific priority. In that block of time, you shut down incoming messages, emails, and any other distractions. It’s a block of time to execute on your priority and nothing else. When you batch email and chat comments, working through them all at once, you surprisingly find you can often respond to everything in less than 30 minutes.
Rather than constantly reacting to whatever comes in, create a batch of time for those responses and knock them out in one block of time. Now you are still available for your team, but on your terms, and without sacrificing quality work on your key objectives.
The most important aspect of this is the culture you have in your workplace. If there is an expectation of being always-on, stress will be high and quality work will suffer. Substantial long-lasting change requires a genuine cultural shift.
If you are a leader or manager, you should do your part to set expectations that immediate responses are only for a crisis, which would then elevate to a phone call. Most quick chat messages can wait.
If you are not a leader or the one defining the culture, it’s going to be harder. However, you are there to accomplish your priorities. Try setting aside time to focus on your work and diminish distractions.
Your work will improve, and likely no emergencies will be created. Having things on-demand is great, but not when it causes stress and distraction.
Being intentional with priorities will lead to greater productivity, more fulfilling days and meaningful work. You’ll play offense instead of defense and take control of your hours. You will stop measuring productivity by how busy you are and focus on the work being accomplished.
When an entire team can focus on their most important priorities, stress goes down and the team performs at a much higher level.