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Staying Productive on Distracted Days

I don’t normally spend much time reading information online, so I definitely noticed this morning the unusual degree to which I was distracted by breaking election news. This points to an interesting question that I’ve seen discussed in some articles in recent days: what’s the best way to keep getting things done on truly distracting days?

My answer: don’t.

“Productivity” is a slippery term. It’s often used to refer exclusively to the rate at which you produce value for your business or employer. I tend to apply it more broadly to describe the intentional allocation of your time and attention toward things that matter to you and away from diversions that don’t.

A lot of days, this probably involves a solid push on professional activities, as craft is an important part of cultivating a deep life. But not every day. If there are consequential national events transpiring, or you’re dealing with a crisis in your personal life, or you’re not feeling well, a productive day doesn’t necessarily require steady progress through a task list.

The tools I talk about here and on my podcast, like time-block planning, are really powerful, and offer the ability to help you to execute intentional, high impact schedules. This doesn’t, however, eliminate the philosophical question of what exactly a “high impact” schedule means on any given day.

33 thoughts on “Staying Productive on Distracted Days”

  1. This is exactly how I feel about days like these, when half my attention is on something else — for e,g, the election results — and I can’t seem to get any valuable work done.

    I feel bad when this happens, but reading this article has alleviated my worries. I can’t expect to be productive everyday, especially not on days when crucial things are happening outside my work life.

    Thanks Cal.

  2. When i am too distracted (which is quite rare) to do productive / complicated things, i aknowledge it, and try to get rid of as much shallow / easy work as i can. At least, it gives me more time the following days to do deep work.

    • That’s very helpful. Thanks for your comment. I had some important writing to get done today, but the unusually unclear outcome of the election gave me a really hard time trying to stay focused. On top of that, halfway through the morning hours my son’s teacher called to tell me my son seemed a bit tired and might be coming down with a cold or something, so I had to pick him up. I couldn’t really get back on track and felt slightly let down by my inability to focus on my writing. Getting some shallow work done might have been a better use of my distracted day!

  3. To do lists are tricky. As a writer who has an element of creativity in my work, I have done things that only revealed their value in hindsight. What at first blush doesn’t pass the to do list test, and may even border on daydreaming, will yield unaccounted for results.

  4. Today is one of those “Chop wood, carry water” kind of days. A day to attend to tasks and chores that are minimally psychologically or emotionally draining, like cleaning the house or gardening. A day for solitude. Yes I will occasionally check the news, but not obsessively. Things take as long as they take.
    (For those who don’t know: “Chop wood, carry water” is a phrase that comes from a zen story where the student asked the Master, “What do I do before enlightenment?” and then, “What do I do after enlightenment?” The answer to chop wood, carry water is the same for each question.)

  5. “If there are consequential national events transpiring, or you’re dealing with a crisis in your personal life, or you’re not feeling well, a productive day doesn’t necessarily require steady progress through a task list.”

    Well said. I think it’s highly important for us to give ourselves some slack sometimes–to give ourselves permission to NOT be productive. Every single day can’t be a productive day–we’re only human, after all.

  6. I was struggling with the same issue today and this was a timely and encouraging reminder for me as a student. Thanks for all you do, Cal – keep up the good work!

  7. I spent last night (working a very quiet nightshift) attempting to avoid looking at any news sites and reading “Digital Minimalism” instead.

    The few times I did look at the internet, I quickly noticed that it was just a lot of noise and no real signal. Best wait till there is some real news to report. But it is difficult to resist.

  8. Hi Cal,
    Thanks for this self-caring reminder. I’ve been listening to your podcast on my walks, going back and forth with the episodes, trying to catch and understand your method, structures, and habits of doing Capture-Configure-Control (I would love to see a video of you demo-ing how to do it, btw). I’m attempting to derive and put into practice a Newportian Organization Method from the bits you’ve shared in the podcast + blog.

    Could you expand on the 4 Cs of the Deep Life? Could you offer a few more examples of what each domain contains and looks like?
    If I were to create goals in each of the 4 domains, would these be 4 additional goals to the Life goals and Work goals created in the strategic plan and quarterly plans?
    Thank you for your work,

  9. I’m trying a news blackout.

    I can’t do anything about what is transpiring and I don’t want my mind filled with the clamoring of media. I’ve never been a social media junkie so ditching Facebook, etc. is a breeze but not checking news? Now, I know what people feel like when they try to give up Twitter and the rest. The urge to check in is strong!

    20 years ago I couldn’t wait to check the news every morning and every evening to find out how the Bush/Gore count was going.

    This time around… well I can’t wait now either but if I can cold turkey this, I can cold turkey anything.

  10. Thank you for the post. Today is definitely an unusual day where I log more screen time than usual. Listening to Digital Minimalism on my way home increased my guilty. Good to see this post, at least that I am not alone. It is such a difficult day to plan any meaningful deep work to be honest. It reminds me that in planning I need to add “slack days” to account for the random/unexpected events/distractions like this. Meanwhile, it requires quite some self-control to get back to the norm as quickly as possible.

  11. I quite appreciate this post.

    Not because I’ve been greatly distracted by the US election: I haven’t… I’ve had lots of important and urgent stuff to do today, and most of my distractions (and almost all of the actual time I’ve spent distracted) have been wholly unrelated to the election.

    Instead, because it is more broadly applicable. There are days when my health does not allow me to do anywhere near as much work (broadly defined) as I would like. Stressing out about that is not helpful.
    On another note, I find it helpful to divide news–especially ‘ongoing news’–into two categories, and I don’t mean, “Directly affects me” and “Does not directly affect me”, although those are also useful categories. What I mean is that there is news that I can potentially alter or affect, and news that I can’t. There is news about petitions I could sign, public meetings I could attend and bring friends to, non-profits I could volunteer for, etc. Then there is news I cannot (realistically) alter: criminal investigations in countries across the world, elections in other countries, most scientific discoveries, profit/loss reports of companies I don’t work for or invest in, etc. Both kinds can be very important, very unimportant, or anywhere in between.

    In the case of the US federal election… I couldn’t vote in it; I didn’t vote in it; and whatever the results will be, they will be, with whatever immediate and non-immediate consequences there will be. Those are important. But I can’t do anything about them. So I’ve occasionally forgotten today that there even IS an election going on. For me as a Canadian, who is running the US and whether there’s any kind of turmoil down there related to that fact really, really does affect me, my family, my professional and social networks, etc., in all kinds of ways. But I can’t *do* anything about those election results, so I’ve still had a fairly productive day.

  12. It’s doubly hard if your job involves working with kids with serious emotional disturbances. Your attention becomes so divided you end up becoming reprimanded by your boss.

  13. Hi, this definition of productivity stood out for me, and it is indeed much ‘deeper’ than what the word broadly implies these days. I quote:
    “I tend to apply it more broadly to describe the intentional allocation of your time and attention toward things that matter to you and away from diversions that don’t.”

    Can there be an alternate word to describe this very process, such that it is demarcated from the somewhat overloaded term ‘productivity’? Mindfulness comes closer, but that feels too broad.

  14. Thank you for a great reminder!
    This is especially useful to remember for people with mental health issues (such as myself) that a bad or unproductive day does not equal failure.

  15. I haven’t been kind to myself these past few months, and then, I suddenly saw this post in my e-mail. I deleted my Twitter and Instagram account for almost a year now and I deactivated my Facebook account two months ago.

    Thanks for this, Cal. Highly appreciated.

  16. Thank you for your reassurance Cal, it is really great to see experts like you admit that you don’t have to be 100% on focus working like a maniac all the time.

  17. I’d be amazed if anyone in the US gets anything meaningful done this week – except perhaps journalists. Very distracting even here in Australia – and very difficult in the US I assume.

  18. I’m just having fun with this. I couldn’t care less who wins the elderly man contest (thank you John Mulaney), but I was partly hoping for a Biden electoral college victory with a Trump popular vote win just to watch the talking heads and overly invested worshippers of elephants and donkeys give themselves whiplash from the shameless 180 they would be doing when arguing the validity of one outcome over the other.

    Otherwise, I went to bed after a quick check of the AP map that updates in real time and checked maybe two times yesterday when I had a scheduled break. I guess that’s a benefit of having always lived in either overwhelmingly blue (Hawaii previously) or red (West Texas currently) areas where my vote literally won’t make a difference either way and the local authorities and people will just ignore anything they don’t agree with while daring the federal government to do something about it.

    • “I’m just having fun with this. I couldn’t care less who wins the elderly man contest ”

      Smells like white privilege…

      As far as your vote not counting, are you aware of what’s happening in Georgia right now?

      (Sorry Cal, I just couldn’t not address it.)

      • I’m from another country but it’s kind of weird to see that unless you are a democrat you are an unjust white privileged. Off course it’s a false dichotomy and an ad hominem fallacy but maybe social media platforms are responsible for that reductionism on public discourse.

        I’m currently reading Jaron Lanier’s “Ten arguments…” and Digital Minimalism again and observing all the warnings come alive. In my country people are repeating the same things in a fundamentalist way. Like an spanish writer said: “That means “political correctness”: assuming the right to forcibly correct others, although they are not breaking any law, with the puritanical pretext of improving the world”.

      • Kudos on the ignorant, lazy race baiting.

        As far as what’s going on in Georgia right now, whoop-de-doo. Georgia is irrelevant if the Nevada votes keep widening. Meanwhile, Georgia had someone who literally believes the QAnon stuff get elected to a state seat and her opponent dropped out and moved out of Georgia when he realized she was going to win.

        Yes, you could have kept this bottom feeding approach to yourself. We all would have been better off without it. Oh, and work on the reading comprehension while you’re at it. At no point did I say I didn’t vote, I just noted that I’ve lived in places where my vote won’t make a dent locally or at the state level so I don’t wring my hands over this crap while the intellectually inept think the sky is falling every 4 years.

  19. Would you do an article on your planning and organization system?
    I know that you use a notebook for daily time block that you have space for readjustment throughout the day, and your weekly plan that you also adjust during the week as needed.

    However, I get overwhelmed when it comes to other things which you did mention on a podcast about using Trello for things like “Waiting for…”

    And I set up Trello right away and it actually helped to get rid of that particular project nagging at my head because I wrote down what needed to be done first before I can move forward.

    It would be so helpful if you did an in-depth post with your organization system.

    Especially for master-list and project management.

    Also, I remember you mentioned that you don’t write down project ideas right away till they nag at you. Is that the same for writing ideas?

    One thing that helps and distracts me are my ideas. Sometimes I can’t sleep because when I am trying to sleep my brain starts pouring ideas for the next chapter in my stories.

    But it takes me away from the present moment with loved ones too. Like during quality time, or just hanging out in groups my brain would keep thinking or analyzing chapter I am working on.

    Do you have any tips for that would put a boundary? Or should there even be a boundary?

    Thank you!

  20. Thanks Cal for the reminder that productivity is “the intentional allocation of your time and attention toward things that matter to you and away from diversions that don’t.” These days, I often find myself spending hours mindlessly watching the news (not important to me) instead of deepening my craft (which is truly important to me).

  21. Even though I don’t use social media already but these days it’s quite difficult to focus. It’s an usual time not just for Americans, but for people around the world.

    At the same time I do have plans and goals for myself which are broken down to things to finish every day and I am not finishing them… and I feel guilty. >.< It's easy to dig into those today when we're working from home… perhaps the only way to focus more is to limit the time for reading news by using site blocking extension. That is… of course you also don't use phone that much!

  22. Yes, there will always be interruptions to our daily routine. Sometimes big, sometimes small. I am currently reading ‘The Willpower Instinct’ by Kelly McGonigal. One of the best ways to beat procrastination, both McGonigal and science argue, is to practice self-forgiveness and compassion if we have a setback.

    I think that is at the heart of your blog here Cal. Us productivity junkies have a hard time not working. We are acutely aware of squandered time and attention.

    The trick is to feel better about our indulgence – in this case, constant checking of news media re: the election – rather than self-critical of it.

    Love your work mate,

  23. I think everyone has low-productive days. Strong deadlines help me to stay focused, so on distracted days, I usually do just the most urgent tasks. It’s better to gather some strength and continue your work later again than stare at a laptop screen in a hopeless attempt to complete your task.


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