Since opening South Loop Strength & Conditioning about three years ago, my stress levels have been steadily ratcheting up – occasionally leveling off, then hitting a massive, plateau-busting spike. Kind of like the training process for a lot of athletes, although my own training has definitely suffered massively over the last year and a half or so.
One of the major stressors for me has been the increase in demands on my time. As a small business owner, you're forced to wear many hats, and, at some point in the process, there comes a time where, even if you were working all the time (which you basically are) at maximum efficiency (which you never are), you would still fall short of knocking everything off of your to-do list. There's just no way to do all the coaching, all the e-mailing, all the payment processing, and all the cleaning that needs to be done. And, while you're doing all that, there's definitely no way to take the actions that will actually grow the business.
We've been fortunate enough to bring in some great employees, coaches, and partners over the last few years that have allowed me to delegate, but I still struggle with prioritizing and, as Tim Ferriss says, being "effective rather than efficient."
Since signing our first major lease in the existence of our company last month (huzzah), we've moved from a position of constant frustration and powerlessness (due to inability to take the actions that we know would help our business) to having an insane and overwhelming list of to-dos. And, while it is a massive relief to be able to control our space and implement our vision, we now have a rapidly ticking clock hanging over our heads in terms of growing membership before our investment money runs out and we can't pay rent. We basically need to transform the customer experience of someone coming to South Loop Strength & Conditioning (buildout, employees at the front desk, clean-up), drive massive amounts of new leads (e-mail marketing, content creation marketing, SEO, referrals, challenges, relationships with local businesses and schools), and tighten down the process of converting those leads into members (consultation protocol, offer for Elements, conversion from Elements to membership). While doing that, we also need to maintain our commitment to offering the best coaching and programming in the city (hiring new coaches, creating programs to develop these coaches).
I've always employed a variety of productivity systems, apps, and to-do lists which have enabled me to keep a semblance of organization and avoid letting things slip through the cracks.
Over the last few weeks, I've taken some major steps to allow myself to not only keep track of what the top priorities are, but also to avoid the constant pinging and distractions of technology.
In my experience, I see four major ways that people handle the constant intrusion of texts, e-mails, phone calls, and visitors who just want to chat:
- Be instantaneously reactive to everything – without thinking about anything
This minimizes "decision fatigue" since very little thought or energy goes into each action. These are the folks who instantaneously reply to every e-mail they receive…but they always "reply all" inappropriately and their their communication can sometimes be indecipherable due to typos.
While this is effective at constantly keeping the "plate clean" in terms of incoming communication, it also forces you into a reactive state. Your time is constantly controlled by the incoming beeps and buzzes from your phone and your inbox, and you end up working on other people's priorities instead of your own.
2. Be constantly distracted, and love it
Some people thrive on being distracted. This is the polar opposite of mindfulness, and seems to be a default state for most people. Humans have a deep-seated drive to alter their consciousness and escape the present moment, either through ingesting assorted substances or through constantly staring into their smartphones. Remember the study making the rounds a few months ago showing that people who would prefer to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being alone with their thoughts?
What does the average modern Western human do with his or her time? Spend all day at work on Facebook, Buzzfeed and GChat. Come home and watch TV. Grab dinner with friends, but refresh your Instagram feed every minute or so. Come home and watch a Netflix series until bed, but have your phone next to you and be texting or looking at Instagram every 30s.
3. Ignore everything
You all know that person whose phone has 100+ notifications on e-mail and text messages. They ignore your texts and e-mails half the time, but it's hard to blame them, since you know that they have so many unattended to little red bubbles clamoring for their attention. They only react to something if it immediately grabs them – otherwise it falls into the roiling mess of unread notifications.
But, there is another way. It requires taking some time to set up systems and a commitment to self-experimentation, but I will share what has worked for me over the last few weeks.
Before we get started, there must be an understanding that the goal of all of these systems is to minimize the use of will power and the number of decisions being made.
We tend to think that we can improve ourselves and move closer to our goals by "just trying harder" or "getting it together," but this is not how human beings actually work. We're slaves to habit and impulse, and our ability to control our behavior through willpower is in very scarce and limited reserve.
So, to get off the impulse roller coaster and work become proactive rather than reactive, we must take steps to control our environment to get us to do what we want to do, rather than relying on willpower.
I've found the smartphone, almost counter-intuitively, to be one of the most dangerous things to productivity. This is a tool that allows me to work and communicate from almost anywhere and in almost any situation.
But, instead of making me brutally efficient, these endless possibilities make the smartphone extremely dangerous. By having so many choices and so many opportunities for incoming communication, the smartphone ends up distracting me and paralyzing me far more than it ends up helping me.
Here are a few things that I've found helpful:
- Turn off all push notifications (I have an iPhone – not sure exactly how other devices work)
I don't want to know. I don't care. Don't interrupt me.
I left on the badge app notifications for things that I would actually like to see and respond to like text messages. I very purposefully turned off the badge app notifications for e-mail. Disconnecting myself from e-mail on my phone is one of the actual best things I've done for mental clarity.
It can be tough to take yourself off the constant dopamine hits of your vibrating, singing little friend. What if I miss something? I want to know who liked my photo because it tickles my ego. I want to know the score of the Bulls game. Something serious could happen at work.
This is where willpower does come in…but not necessarily in the way that you would think.
Honestly ask yourself if you value your effectiveness more than your fear of missing something. Can you make the decision to work on what you want to work on – not what someone else wants you to work on. Do you trust yourself to figure it out? Do you trust yourself to handle the consequences if there are any?
Are you willing to conduct an experiment for a week to see if it helps you reach your goals more effectively?
If so, use your willpower right now to go into your notifications settings and start turning things off.
2. Utilize the "Do Not Disturb" feature
This is one of the best things ever. By enabling do not disturb, your phone will not vibrate or ring (you can set it to ring for people on your favorites list or for repeated calls in case of an emergency). This is a bit more extreme than turning off your push notifications, but this is the Nirvana of smartphone ownership. You still have the benefits of being able to use apps, look things up, and play music from anywhere, but the little beast will not be constantly demanding that you feed it your attention.
3. Bury your e-mail and social media apps in folders
I thought about deleting my e-mail and social media apps, but the reality is that they are both very useful in certain situations. There are times when it's a massive benefit to be able to quickly send an e-mail while waiting for the train (like trying to wrap-up our year-end taxes over the last week). There are also times where it's nice to scroll through your Facebook feed or to take some time to lovingly bully your friends for posting stupid things.
Still, since e-mail and social media are among the more addictive attention-grabbers, it's been a huge benefit for me to bury the apps in folders. When they were on the front page, I would impulsively check them pretty much every time I opened my phone.
Respond to a text, go to the home screen and, before I could even think about what I was doing, my e-mail would be open. Then, once I'd started to look at e-mail, I might as well check Facebook and Twitter, too. E-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Repeat. Go through three or four loops if you're really feeling distracted.
By burying the apps in folders (I have to go second page, in a folder, on the second page of the folder for my e-mail), you interrupt the pattern. It's no longer possible to start the loop accidentally. You have to actually decide to check your e-mail.
4. Leave your phone in the other room (or out of reach) while working – and sleeping
This one is massive. Even with all notifications disabled and attention-hungry apps buried in folders, it's still easy to habitually grab your phone and start looking something up or texting while you're "supposed" to be writing or reading. The goal again is to interrupt the pattern. If the phone is in your pocket, it can be in your hand soaking your brain in its glow before you even know what you're doing. However, if it's in the other room or even on a table out of reach, you're not going to "accidentally" get up, walk to another room, and start scrolling through your newsfeed.
Similarly, taking your phone out of your bedroom while you're sleeping is almost a necessity for survival in the modern world. When I work with clients on nutrition and training, I often find that they sleep with their cell phone next to their bed (to use as an alarm clock) and are constantly woken up throughout the night by its notifications and buzzing.
While that can be an easy fix by putting the phone on do not disturb during the night, there is still the tendency to rock yourself to sleep by fiddling on the internet or social media. Problem here is that the light from the phone can disrupt melatonin production and impair your quality of sleep. Alarm clocks are back in! (Or just use a broken old phone with no SIM card as an alarm clock like I do).
5. Use a time-tracking app like Toggl (it's free)
This is my most recent discovery, and has been one of the most profound for my own productivity.
Since I'm in a situation where I'm (mostly) in control of where I spend my time, I can be paralyzed by choice. I end up jumping around between to-do lists, e-mail inboxes, e-mail campaigns, and programs I'm designing for athletes. I theoretically divide my days up so that I focus on "marketing on Monday, programming on Friday, etc." but the real world isn't always kind to that schedule. As such, I get myself in a lot of situations where I feel like I'm behind and I'm scrambling to catch up. Some of this is my own psychology and some of this is the nature of small business ownership, but I've found clarity by using a time-tracking tool.
I've used passive tools like RescueTime in the past and found them to be helpful in terms of analyzing data, but, the most profound thing about Toggl is the "upfront decision." When you log into the interface, you tell the app what project you're working on and type in a description. Then, it starts a running clock. So, right now, my Toggle says: "Productivity blog post – SLSC Marketing – 1:06."
I've decided to write this blog post, and I have a running clock holding me accountable. I'm not deciding what to do moment by moment. I'm not looking at my to-do list, spending a few minutes on a government website trying to make sure our account is set up properly, getting frustrated, responding to two e-mails, starting to template out a new cycle for one of my athletes, feeling like I need a break and grabbing a snack, coming back, looking at e-mail but not responding, looking at my personal to-do list, looking at the business to-do list in Asana, writing an outline for a blog post, remembering to call the bank back, etc.
I'm just writing a blog post. I've decided what to do with my time, and, while the impulse for distraction is still there, it's not hard to resist once I've made the commitment and I know there's a clock ticking holding me accountable.
So, over the last few weeks, I've transformed my own mental health and my capacity to work on the things that are truly priorities for me and my business. As someone who's been interested in productivity and systems for basically my entire life, it's almost astonishing that it's taken me this long to find a system that I feel is actually working. Still, it's been an iterative process, and it's required me to be very self-aware and honest about what patterns cause distraction (the mere presence of a smart phone) as well as what patterns cause productivity (pre-committing to a certain task and having an accountability mechanism like a timer).
This is what has worked for me, so there's no guarantee that this is what will work for you. Some of you will be thinking to yourselves, "I could never do that, I would get in trouble for not responding to that text or e-mail immediately." Or, some of you will be telling yourselves, "The only way I can stay on top of my work is by responding to everything right away."
And there may be some truth to both of those statements. You may need to schedule time every hour to respond to e-mail, texts and phone calls. But, resist the urge to stay on the notification roller coaster. Allow yourself to prioritize and create systems that enable you to work on the things that are most important to you.
Recognize that productivity doesn't come from filling empty moments with business, but comes from taking action on the biggest wins that will move you closer to your goals.