Welcome back, friends, to your final lesson. Together, we have moved from the very big picture to considering how best to use a 90-day period, to a week, to a day, and now, to how to live a purposeful and productive hour.
In this lesson, we’re going to focus on how to avoid distractions and accomplish what matters, whether your hours are filled with work tasks, projects, or caring for others. We’re going to talk about staying present, and give you tools and ideas to manage your attention. Because in this day and age, our attention is very much something that needs to be managed. I love this quote from Winifred Gallagher’s book Rapt: “Like fingers pointing to the moon, diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.”
Sine qua non - that’s Latin for “that without which cannot be,” or the thing that is absolutely essential. And focus - the ability to direct and hold your attention where you want - is absolutely essential to being both purposeful and productive. Like Gallagher said, so many different experts from so many different disciplines point to the same truth: we can’t be effective parents, or employees, or friends, or family members, or business owners if we can’t focus. The best plans for our quarter or week or day - these things you’ve learned to create over the last few lessons and have so thoughtfully put into place - they’ll be useless, impossible to follow through on if you can’t direct your attention.
Now I want to pause here and say that maybe this makes you feel some frustration or impatience. I know I’ve felt that way in the past - like, why can’t we just do this thing that sounds so simple?? Why can’t we just be present? Do we really have to talk about this and learn strategies for this? Maybe you’re also feeling shame or guilt, because this hits home and it’s a struggle for you, and you wish that it wasn’t.
I don’t feel shame or guilt or frustration over this anymore, and you don’t need to, either. The truth is that we live in a time when almost every force is conspiring against our being present and focused. It’s the device in our hand, yes, but it’s also the speed at which the world moves, the way in which the internet platforms we spend time on were designed, our employers’ demands, the social pressures we might feel from the people around us. It’s a lot. There are more distractions, and more powerful distractions, tempting us than ever before in history - truly.
But - there is hope, and there is good news, and we have a lot of it to talk about today. It is absolutely possible to direct your attention intentionally and to be present where you are. It will take discipline and practice and some smart habit hacks, but you are more than capable if this is something that really matters to you. And I know it does!
I’m going to present to you three practices for maintaining productivity and purposefulness in your work and projects, and three in your personal time. You ready? Let’s do it.
First, let’s start with our practices for work and projects. These are tools that you might find particularly helpful if you work outside the home, you’re an employee, or you own your own business. But, they might be equally helpful if you do volunteer work, or if you just have focused work you need to do for the life of your family. These could be things like helping prepare a will for your aging parent, creating an agenda for a board meeting, or planning a birthday party for your child. Whether we work outside the home or not, we all have projects that matter deeply to us and that we want to complete efficiently and well.
Alright, our first practice, and arguably the most life-changing AND the most challenging, is to reduce task switching - especially around internet use.
Task switching is just what it sounds like - hopping from one task to another. If you’re anything like me, you’re prone to do this constantly. You’re typing an email and pull up a tab to order more sunscreen. You go back to typing then check the weather on your phone. You respond to a text message. Back to the email until you remember you need to print out the recipe for dinner tonight. And on and on and on.
You know this, right? This is how most of us function these days. And even if we’ve adapted somewhat to living like this, when we’re honest, it doesn’t FEEL good. We feel scattered, and disappointed with ourselves, and frustrated. Task switching is part of what makes us look back on a day and say, what did I even accomplish? How did I even spend those hours?
And not only does it not feel good, but many studies have shown that it is not helping our productivity. For example, a University of California at Irvine research study showed it can take us more than 20 minutes to refocus on the task at hand when we’re interrupted by a coworker.
It is a truth that we all have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as we use it. Our willpower is not a part of our character that never runs out; it’s instead like a muscle that tires. Over time, distractions drain our willpower until it becomes impossible to resist the next ping or idea that pops into our head. The same thing happens to each of us. In my experience, it gets worse over time. To go back to the muscle analogy, it’s like our willpower muscle atrophies over time - it gets weaker and weaker the less we use it.
But the opposite is also true - if we practice using our willpower muscle, we can strengthen it. And we can put practices in place to help us do that. One very powerful and very simple one is to keep a distractions list.
This is just like what it sounds - a simple list to keep close at hand where you can jot down every stray thought that pops into your mind while you’re doing focused work. Any notepad or piece of paper will do, or you can even use the to-do list on each daily page of your Season by Season planner. As you work on your task and things come to mind, like texting a friend, switching the laundry, checking social media, or making those dinner reservations for this weekend, you can jot them down on your pad but stay focused on the task at hand. Once you’ve written them down, the urgency with which your brain felt those ideas will quiet - you’ve satiated them, but crucially, without giving into your brain’s impulse to act on them.
This is a tactic I have used and loved for a while with great success, and I was delighted to see Cal Newport recommend it in his book Deep Work. He goes a bit farther, and I love what he has to say: “I propose an alternative to the Internet Sabbath” (which would be something like a social media-free weekend). “Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus,” he says, “you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction. Schedule in advance when you’ll use the internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.” He recommends keeping a notepad near your computer at work, like we discussed, and writing on it the next time you’re allowed to use the internet - and until that time, absolutely no network connectivity is allowed, no matter how tempting.
So: close down email, close down Slack, turn off notifications. In this practice, you go TO those resources instead of letting them come to you.
One important thing to note is that he doesn’t prescribe a certain amount of time between breaks. If you have a role that requires more frequent communication or touchpoints, that’s okay - you might schedule an internet break every hour. The crucial practice is to resist the urge when it comes, maintain your focus, and, over time, strengthen the muscle so doing so becomes easier. “The use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus,” Newport says. “It’s instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.” And that has ramifications for how much you can produce today, but also for how you show up in the rest of your life, as we’ll talk about more in a bit.
Alright, so first practice: reduce task switching, especially around internet use, with the help of a distractions list and set-in-advance internet breaks.
Practice number two is to build in rest.
It is not effective or desirable or, you know, human, to work without pause from 9-5, or even 9-10. Instead, we’ll do our best, most productive work, and feel most human and purposeful, when we intentionally build rest into our days.
Let that sink in for a minute. Hopefully, you’re nodding in agreement, but maybe some of you are not. Maybe you’re actually giving this practice the side-eye. Maybe, even though you’d tell your sister or friend that rest is good and essential, you actually think it’s lazy. Or a waste of time. And wasting time is the last thing you came to a course on productivity for, right?
We’re here to gently press you on this. You are not a machine. You are not a robot. You, yourself, are something that needs tending, not just your tasks. And when you do give yourself rest, in small pockets and big gulps, you actually will find yourself more productive in the long run. And certainly more purposeful.
What does this look like? After lesson four, which covered planning your day, you’ve likely been experimenting with time-blocking your day. Hopefully you’ve found this to be so helpful - our brains love having a set time devoted to a task, and time stamps set in advance are key to this. And of course, your Season by Season planner is set up perfectly to help you do this, with half-hour time blocks for each day.
A way to take this one step further, making each of those time blocks more effective and to build in rest, is to practice the Pomodoro technique. The Pomodoro technique is a time-management method where you set a timer for 25 minutes and work with focus until it dings, then take a 5-minute break to refresh yourself.
The break is yours to use as you wish - you can attend to something you wrote down on your distractions list, you can check in with coworkers, you can stare off into space - whatever you’d like. I personally have found that one of the best things I can do is stand up, even if briefly - moving my body is helpful for re-engaging my mind.
Whether you use Pomodoros or another system, the key takeaway from this practice is that sometimes the most productive thing we can do is to take a break. Building in rest is key to living an hour well.
Our final work-focused practice is to acknowledge and mark transitions.
This practice is also inspired by Cal Newport - Deep Work is a really great read if you want to focus in on reducing distractions and making the most of your time at work. He recommends what he calls a “shutdown complete” procedure.
We’ll get into the specifics, but what I really love about this practice is that it’s brief - it doesn’t take up much of your day, and it’s not something you practice throughout your day, like task switching - but it has really big implications for your productivity and purposefulness both at work and outside of work. This is a work practice, but you’ll really see the effects on your relationships outside of work, too, which is neat.
Okay, here’s how it works. At the end of your workday, or even at the end of a big chunk of time spent working on a project before going back to family time, “you must shut down your attention on work issues until the next morning,” he says. “No after-dinner email check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle upcoming challenges; shut down work thinking completely.”
For many of us, this might be a BIG change - it’s common right now for work and life to bleed together, but that’s exactly what Newport is advocating against. And he notes that the first step to being successful with this practice is to commit to it, committing to avoiding even the smallest work challenge worming its way in. This includes checking email and Slack, since we all know how one tiny message can derail a whole evening, ripping our focus away from what’s in front of us. When that happens, we’re no longer present, because either we attend to it at the exclusion of what’s happening around us, or we don’t attend to it and it gnaws at us in the background.
But how to do this? Depending on your work situation, there might be individual concerns you need to address with coworkers or your boss, but we’d encourage you that solutions might be easier to find than you think. After all, most employers and clients understand that in the long term, it’s better to have a capable, refreshed, and motivated employee show up each morning than one who’s tired, resentful, and burned out.
Once you’re ready to try it, Newport recommends creating a strict shutdown ritual that you use at the end of each workday to maximize the chance that you succeed. Your ritual might include things like tidying your desk or closing out of all of your tabs - he encourages doing the steps in the same order each day - but crucially, your ritual must include briefly reviewing each incomplete task, goal, or project and confirming that you either “have a plan you trust for its completion” or that it’s been “captured in a place where it can be revisited when the time is right.”
You don’t need to solve every problem, but you do need to reassure your brain that there’s nothing it needs to worry about that evening - at the least, you can assure it you’ve made time to worry about it the next morning, ha.
Finally, Newport recommends having a set phrase you say - literally out loud - at the end of every workday or session. This is another cue to your brain that it’s safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day, and makes it less likely that you’ll be tempted to pop back into email “just real quick.” Newport uses the phrase “shutdown complete.” You might say “time to party!” or “the good stuff is waiting!” or you can borrow a phrase that our founder Lara used to say at the end of her workdays: “let’s get growing,” which, of course, is perfect for a Cultivator. Yes, it sounds a little cheesy, but we’re not afraid of cheese around here! Anything that helps us cultivate what matters most is worth trying.
Alright, so those are our three work-related practices: reducing task switching, especially around internet use; building in rest; and acknowledging transitions. Now let’s move on to our three practices for personal time, or time outside work.
There are a LOT of resources available about productivity at work, aren’t there? And that makes sense. There are a lot of people - a lot of employers - who are incentivized to get the absolute most out of you while they’re paying you. But what about your personal life, your personal time? Who is looking out to make sure you live deeply and enjoy the people around you, and yes, accomplish the tasks that need to get done? There’s a lot less focus on that.
But here at Cultivate, it should come as no surprise that we think it’s equally, if not more, important to live your life well when you’re with the people who matter most, when you’re tending to the relationships and hearts around you. Being productive outside of work is going to look different - it might not look like tasks accomplished or boxes checked - but the ability to direct and hold your attention is still crucial. So let’s move into our three practices to help with that.
First, we’d encourage you to choose and set a hard boundary for presence.
Yes, of course, it would be wonderful to be 100% present at all times, but for most of us, that’s not realistic. If being present is something you struggle with, start by setting a specific time period when you commit to being fully present. It might be in the hour after your kids arrive home from school, the thirty minutes when you sit down to dinner or breakfast, or the fifteen minutes with your spouse before you go to bed.
Before we can keep a commitment, we have to make it. Defining these purely present periods - writing them down in your time-blocked day in your planner, even - is the first step. Sweet and simple, but really impactful.
The second practice is to remove your phone.
I know - you’ve probably heard this before. You’ve DEFINITELY heard this before. And if you’ve tried it, or are regularly practicing it, you already know how life-changing it can be. On the other hand, if you’ve heard this advice and resisted, I want to tell you that this might be one of the easiest and quickest ways you can feel a real change, and notice change in your relationships with the people around you. It’s that good.
Here at Cultivate, we’re all about smart strategies, right? We don’t just HOPE things will work out - we make a plan! We use brain science! We use habit hacks! It’s the same with our phones. We’re not just going to hope we don’t reach for them and start scrolling, because we already talked about how willpower runs out over time. No, we’re going to make a plan.
In the case of your time at home, the plan is likely going to look like removing your phone from your immediate vicinity. I have found that the very simple practice of putting my phone in the same place on the kitchen counter when I end my workday stops me from having to make a decision every day about whether I’ll have it in my pocket, in the bedroom, etc. When I place my phone down, it’s a physical reminder that I’m switching over into uninterrupted time with my kids.
We want to rule over our devices instead of letting them rule over us, and that means putting them in their proper place - sometimes literally. So think about the times when you struggle to be present, or the times when you most want to be present (maybe the hard boundary you just set). Then, choose where you’ll place your phone in these times, and anything else you might need to do to ensure success.
Do you need to buy a cheap alarm clock so you can charge your phone in the kitchen and not scroll when you’re in bed? Go for it. Do you need to turn your ringer up and change your settings so that only calls from your mom come through when your phone’s in the other room? Do it. Do you need to plunk a cardboard box down on the kitchen counter as a reminder to deposit your phone inside during the busy evening hours? Yes yes yes. With just a tiny bit of forethought, you can reap huge rewards of focus, attention, and presence. It is so worth it.
Alright our first two practices were very clear and concrete. The third and final one is a bit less so, but I think you’ll love it. Our third practice is to embrace boredom, and therefore wonder.
The reason we’re naming this as a practice is because it can be a challenge - and therefore, it’s something we need to practice! It is a challenge to embrace boredom and maintain wonder when the entire world is screaming at you to move fast and accomplish things and cram as many tasks as possible into a day. And maybe it’s not even something you’re interested in. Wonder, yes, but boredom? We don’t usually seek that out.
And who has time for boredom? There are things to be done, things to accomplish, goals to complete.
But being with the ones we love, on an everyday basis, often looks uncomfortably like boredom - or maybe quiet, or monotony. It’s exactly the kind of low stimuli/high value activity we talked about earlier in this lesson. It’s sitting with a child while they play in a sandbox. It’s sitting with a parent while they prepare lunch. It’s sitting with a friend while she waits for the doctor. Being purposeful with the ones we love, and, over time, producing good things from those relationships, requires drawing near, sitting quietly, being available. No phone in hand.
This is a challenge. We can acknowledge that tension. That’s okay. We want bedtime to be the sweetest time of the day, but it can feel like a hurdle. Shouldn’t being with our kids or friends be the easiest thing in the world? Shouldn’t sitting with our spouses bring us the most joy? They very well might – but that doesn’t mean the pull of old ways of being is easy to break. You are learning something new, so it’s okay to acknowledge the little-by-little steps you’re taking as well as the setbacks.
There’s no real action step here, just an encouragement to commit to practicing. One thing that can help, though, is to find a way to quiet your mind. By definition, if we’re not “in the present,” our minds are in the past or future, right? So, once my phone is put away, I focus on soaking in as much of the moment as I possibly can — the sights, the sounds, the smells — instead of focusing on what happened earlier that day or what’s to come. It can also be helpful to focus on your breath, especially if you feel a pull to grab that phone or to turn to a task.
I want to leave you with this thought, for today’s lesson and really, for this entire course. What we want - what we all want - is to live deeply in important moments, to give the people we care about the gift of our attention, to do good work, and to maximize (in the most heart-centered sense) each moment we have. We want to live and remember each day as distinct and praiseworthy instead of just one more in an undifferentiated slog. We want to count the fruit from a purposeful and productive hour, day, week, month, year, and life. It’s possible to live this way, and you’re already doing it.
THANK YOU for joining us here and giving us the gift of your time and attention. We can’t wait to see what you do next. You know all those things you’ve always wanted to do? You should go do them.