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A Day Without Distraction: Lessons Learned from 12 Hours of Forced Focus

What if you had to focus for at least 30 minutes on every single task that you did? Would it improve your productivity? Cal Newport takes hard focus for a test drive.

Here are the rules: All work must be done in blocks of at least 30 minutes. If I start editing a paper, for example, I have to spend at least 30 minutes editing. If I need to complete a small task, like handing in a form, I have to spend at least 30 minutes doing small tasks. Crucially, checking email and looking up information online count as small tasks. If I need to check my inbox or grab a quick stat from the web, I have to spend at least 30 minutes dedicated to similarly small diversions.

I followed these rules for one full work day. This post describes why I did it and what I learned.

Continuous Partial Attention

The motivation for my experiment should sound familiar. Over the past half-decade, researchers have been sounding the alarm on the dangers of multitasking. Gloria Mark, for example, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, found that the technology workers she studied would make it, on average, only 11 minutes into a project before being distracted. It then took 25 minutes to return to the task post-distraction.

For some jobs, where responsiveness is crucial, this work style might be necessary. But as an academic, I’m a to-do list creative — to keep my job, I have to keep up with logistical tasks, but to advance, I need long bouts of focus on hard problems. For a to-do list creative, ignoring the small stuff isn’t an option, but living in a state of continuous partial attention (to steal a phrase from Linda Stone) won’t cut it either.

The solution to this quandary is well-known by now: batching.

Check email only a small number of times per day! Work in big chunks without distraction!Everyone has heard this suggestion. But almost no one follows it.

This is why I launched my experiment. I wanted to see what would happen if I forced myself to batch.

Ignoring the small stuff isn’t an option, but living in a state of continuous partial attention won’t cut it either.

A Day of Forced Batching

I have a doctors appointment scheduled for 10 a.m., so I decide to focus on a writing project from 8 to 10.

I feel the normal temptation to check my email while writing — just in case — but my rules forbid it. Even a glance at my inbox would trigger at least 30 minutes of similar small tasks.

When I arrive at my appointment at 10, I discover I had the wrong time. The appointment is not until 11.

My rules force me to think in blocks of 30 minutes or more, so I decide to spend from 10 to 10:30 contininuing work on my writing project at a nearby library. Then, from 10:30 to 11:00, I do my first small tasks block of the day. I have high hopes during this first small task block that I will efficiently knock off many items from my logistical backlog. Instead, I end up bogged down in my email inbox, trying to sort through who needs what and when.

After my appointment, I head home, go for a run, and make myself lunch.

It’s now 1:30 and I’m in a tight spot. My goal for the afternoon is to continue work on an important research problem. To do so, I need to retrieve the latest draft of our write-up from my email. But this will require a small task block of at least 30 minutes, so I have to be careful about how and when I do this.

Even more tricky, I need to meet with my collaborator to help work through some kinks in the research problem. On a normal day, I might send him an email saying, “when can you meet?”, and then just keep my inbox open until he responds. My rules, however, forbid this strategy (that is, unless I want to dedicate my entire afternoon to checking my inbox and similar small tasks).

I come up with the following solution:

I convert my commute from my apartment back to campus into a small task block. That is, I will retrieve the write-up draft and check my email right before I leave my apartment. I will think through my emails and how to respond while traveling. Then when I arrive at my office, I’ll send off those replies and shut down the small task block.

I feel the normal temptation to check my email while writing – just in case – but my rules forbid it.

To handle my meeting dilemma, I send my collaborator an email that reads: “During the following times this afternoon I’ll be working on this  project, if you happen to be free anytime in here, stop by my office,  otherwise tell me some times when we might meet tomorrow and I will get back to you at the end of the day to fix one.”  I’ve now freed myself from needing to keep my inbox open during the afternoon.

From 2 to 5:30 I’m working on my research problem. The rules remove any possibility of distraction — no matter how brief — and this seems to improve my focus. “There’s a real sense of momentum here,” I write in my notes.

At 5:30, I decide to do one final small task block to shut down my day. I treat this like a challenge: how much can I squeeze into one 30-minute block? The time constraint provides a certain urgency to my actions usually lacking at 5:30 in the evening. I end up finishing my work emails for the day, answering some blog reader emails, paying the rent, approving a design concept, sending a message to a pair of old friends, planning the next day, and recording the notes from this experiment.

In the end, the momentum carries me past 6:00 and I end up finishing closer to 6:30. This is later than I normally like to work, but the day ends with a satisfying feeling of accomplishment.


I’ll start with the negative aspects of this experiment:

Batching, as it turns out, is hard.

It requires that you plan ahead to make sure you have the material and information needed for focused blocks. It also requires careful communication. Answering emails, for example, is complicated when you need those emails to include all of the information needed for the next actions to be taken. (It’s much easier to use email for informal back and forth dialogue.)  Because of this, tackling my inbox during the experiment was surprisingly draining.

In other words, batching requires more work than not batching. This is why, I now understand, most people are quick to abandon their good-natured attempts to enforce more focus in their day: once it becomes non-obvious how to continue, they toss the goal.

But then there are the positives:

Having a clear rule that forbids any distraction during focused work was freeing. I still felt drawn toward diversion, but knowing that acquiescence was not even a possibility reduced its urgency.

On the flip side, the percentage of time spent in a flow state was as large as I’ve experienced in recent memory. I ended up spending 2.5 hours focused on my writing project and 3.5 hours focused on my research paper. That’s six hours, in one day, of focused work with zero interruptions; not even one quick glance at email.

Having a clear rule that forbids any distraction during focused work was freeing.

At the same time, the careful pre-planning required to satisfy my batching rules increased the efficiency of my small task completion. Even though I dedicated 6 hours in one 10 hour work day to uninterrupted focus, another 1.5 hours to exercise and eating, and another 1 hour to a doctors appointment, I still managed to accomplish an impressive collection of logistical tasks both urgent and non-urgent.

My bottom line:

To do batching right requires the type of strict rules I deployed in my experiment. These rules, as I discovered, will absolutely make your day more difficult. There’s no avoiding the reality that there will be times when you have to take convoluted action to solve a problem that could so easily be handled with just a quick bounce over to your inbox.

This is a pain in the ass.

At the same time, however, if you survive the annoyance, there’s also no avoiding the reality that your work will be of a much higher quality.

Ultimately, this is the batching trade-off: inconvenience in your daily workflow in exchange for an increased quality of your work.

From my experience writing about productivity, most people will abandon a tactic as soon as it makes their life more difficult. My experience with batching, however, leads me to question whether we need to rethink where we place our emphasis.

What’s Your Take?

Have you experimented with forced focus? How did it go?

More Posts by Cal Newport

Cal Newport is a Computer Science professor at Georgetown University and the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. If you pre-order Deep Work before Christmas, you’ll gain access to a invite-only webinar in which Newport will breakdown exactly how he prioritizes deep work in his own professional life (see here for details).

Comments (10)
  • Peretzm

    I can’t help but think that there can be a happy middle. I would try setting aside a certain amount of time per day to uninterrupted focus, and the rest of the day can continue as usual.

  • Christopher S. Castleman

    I will definitely give this a try as I am always seeking innovative ways to be productive. Email will probably be my biggest obstacle. It would be truly helpful if you blog again in a few weeks letting us know if and how you continued to incorporated these rules into your workflow. Great read by the way!

  • edsel reamico

    i think you should have say, a controlled leeway, for unexpected i.e. emergency tasks. I think a flexible but still dominant batch scheduling will be better. 

  • Stephanie

    Did you use an alarm type timer? How did you keep track of the 30-minute or longer blocks of time? I could see myself checking the time again and again as a distraction. Thanks! Nice article!

  • blm

    I do this all the time, but I vary my batch times, from as little as 5 minutes to 30 minutes. My first job is always lining up the tasks to batch: in other words, planning my day. It can help if you actually schedule meetings for yourself on your calendar: this keeps you on track and helps you focus. I always put a few email breaks in the day to keep on top of things, because people expect you to see your email. I have IM at work, which can distract. By having shorter batch windows, I can make time for them, and then get back to my list. You should have a list of things you must get done, and that should be a short list. That way, even with interruptions, you have a focus.

    Like Cal said, batching is hard. It is also important to have intense periods and slower periods to give yourself a break, or you may find you lose your docus anyway.

  • Karen

    I like time batching in theory but I can’t see how I could successfully implement it into my full work day. I work for myself and I’m the one who has to answer the phone and respond to Skype messages and emails not to mention do everything else. I think a happy medium as Peretzm mentioned is a more realistic approach and I’d like to try to incorporate some rules into my day around that. Would be good to know if you continue it. Good luck!

  • Diego Zamboni

    I’m curious how did you handle external distractions during this experiment – mainly phone, people coming into your office, etc. Did you just lock your door and not answer the phone all day?

  • John McDougle

    I’m with peretzm on this. What works really well for me is a middle way of having appointments with yourself for specific projects. ie 9-10am Work on proposal. 2-3pm Budget spreadsheet. And then do flexible multitasking for emails and calls fitted around those blocks. It’s taking your ‘important but urgent’ projects seriously enough to block out time for them that is key.

  • Nic

    One of my biggest pet peeves at my job is the constant interruptions. Interruptions that I have no control over. When I’m working on a project, my superiors have a tendency to not only interrupt, but demand my attention. And I have no say in this. I have no office door to lock, and I can barely even say, “hold on a sec while I finish this.” Nope, they need me NOW. The worst part is, its usually unimportant tasks that could have easily waited until later, but that’s not convenient for them. Consequently, my work suffers: I make more mistakes on detail oriented projects, and have a have a hard time keeping ground breaking momentum on creative projects.

    I would love to be able to work like this article suggests, or at least be able to block off a couple hours here and there, but in my workplace, it’s just not an option.

  • Jasonbradberry

    I got distracted 3 times whilst reading this article. Maybe I should give this a try!

  • Jason

    I got distracted 3 times whilst reading this article. Maybe I should give this a try! 

  • Dan Roddy

    Sounds like Pomodoro to me. No harm in that – it’s a not a bad approach. http://www.pomodorotechnique.c

  • Advertising Agency

    What a cool infographic! I really love seeing these. They are even better when they have little details within them that keep you looking and reading for hours. I probably should have read the article too but I just can’t get over the graphic! Thanks for the post. 
    Integraphix | Graphic Design Company

  • Mike Todd-Miller

    Dan: Ha ha, was thinking the same thing!
    Cal: If you’ve not checked out the Pomodoro technique before, I’d definitely take a look. Personally, find a mixture of a few simple techniques like these the most effective.

  • Christian Ray

    I try to batch, doesn’t always work, or rather, I just don’t stick to it. On the other hand, I fight that battle daily because ultimately I want quality out of my time. It’s worth fighting for. 

  • impressto

    Actually started taking steps like this today to make myself more efficient. I started by limiting the amount of time I check email to twice a day. I’m gonna batch focusing this week for sure!

  • Phil Miller

    Agree with all of the above about having a happy medium.  I frequently block off my mornings and only have afternoon meetings so that I can maintain focus for an extended period of time on priority action items.  When it comes to e-mails I have found Microsoft Outlook’s functionality for sorting e-mails by conversation extremely helpful to focusing on one topic at a time.

  • Junk

    I run parts of my day like this. 

    re: the difficulty emailing like written in the article, handling email in a manner that discourages the email ping-pong with those you email does take longer when first beginning, however, after while it becomes habit and easier. 

    I remember my dentist when I was a kid my dentist had a sign on his wall: if you don’t have time to do it right, you don’t have time to do it over. 

    I have found that to do complete work (meaning complete thinking) while sending emails causes more work while creating the email but saves a ton of work in the back and forth that can happen when emails are not clear. 

  • Christian

    Well… I work in an open office, so this will never work for me, unfortunately. Somebody answering the phone is a distraction. I’ve even tried noise cancellation headphones. I just get a rubber ball thrown at my desk.

    This does sound interesting though. I’ll definitely try it out when we move to a real office building. Or I could just move my desk to the storage warehouse. 😛

  • Tapeleg

    I think there are a few issues with the way you did this experiment. Mainly, staying to a strict half hour followed by a strict half hour doesn’t leave any leway for things you may have to do, like fire off that quick email that takes no time at all.

    The Pomorodo Technique is like batching, but with a built in break. Each pomodoro is 25 minutes long, with a five minute break. Use the bathroom, fire off that quick email, or do what you need to (and this is key) for five minutes. Then, start another pomodoro. It’s 5 minutes less than the system you used, but allows for those things you needed to do that didn’t take a half hour, and without wasting a half hour to fit your one small thing in. After 4 pomodoros, you take a longer break (10-15 minutes) to reward you for your work. This could take the work at planning out of your system, since you get 5 minutes to do what you want, or even prep for the next pomodoro if you need.

    The other issue is that doing this for one day doesn’t make it a habit. I commend you for getting out of your comfort zone, but one day does not a good sample size make. 🙂 As you do it more, like writing, you will get better at it.

    Give the pomodoro a shot. You never know, you may like it. I do.

  • Srkant

    It’s feeling great to apply this thing to my life.
    But let’s see how far it will be successful for me.

  • Tony Lukasavage

    I have been toying with theories of focus lately (Pomodoro specifically).  This definitely seems like a more practical application for software engineers like me.  Great read.

  • writing jobs

    Thanks for this post! It’s cool.

  • Dorothée Vantorre

    Thank you for sharing this experience, that’s exactly what I need to be more efficient ! I will try that tomorrow (hope I’m strong enough !), it’s better if I don’t tell you that I’ve been trying for a while without success… I need more will !

  • Dvselby

    I have a home office and studio, and the only place I can write is on a laptop at a public WiFi coffee shop! Amid the white noise, I work til my butt’s numb, and never check e-mail.

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