Bill Gates has his own productivity bunker. It’s not buried underground or encased in granite. It’s a cabin in the woods, and it separates him from the people and technology that distract him on a daily basis. Several times a year, he retreats into his bunker for days at a time with the goal of focusing on his ONE Thing: the future of technology.
He calls it his “Think Week”. We call it smart.
Success thrives on quality time. But it isn’t so easy getting quality time. Distractions are pervasive. Those that handle distractions best have learned a secret trick to keeping distractions at bay – never letting them in. In order to handle distractions and get a higher level of focus, we need a bunker. Everyone and everything takes time away from our ONE Thing if we let them. As career expert Meredith Haberfeld tells Forbes, “At work just in life, distractions are par for the course. The key point is how well you manage them.”
It doesn’t have to be a one-time secret space intended to protect Congress from Armageddon, a working space in the side of a Colorado mountain, or a hideout for the rich and famous—it just has to be a place where you can go and get things done without distraction.
In our research, we’ve found that every good bunker meets these four criteria:
- It’s safe.
- It has the supplies you need.
- It’s removed from distraction.
- It’s buffered by the support of the people around you.
We’ll walk you through in detail what that means and provide you with strategies for meeting those criteria in your specific situation. But before we get into that, let’s talk about some of the reasons why it’s so important.
Research shows that distractions can creep into our days almost immediately. In fact, people spend just over three minutes on any one activity at work before switching their attention to something else. When we let them, interruptions take up to 40 to 60 percent of our time. That’s no small thing. And based on work done in the financial services industry, efficiency consultant Edward G. Brown calculates interruptions and the accompanying mistakes, restarts, and stress can cost a person up to 6.2 hours every day. That’s 31 hours of productive time lost each week. So there you have it. When the potential to lose so much time that could be dedicated to your ONE Thing exists, it’s extremely important to have a place to bunker down. Now let’s learn how.
1. Create a Safe Space
When it’s time for us to get our most important work done, it’s essential to get out of the path of distractions. We need a dependable location that’s conducive for focused work.
In the Office
With all the people, meetings and projects we encounter in the office, it’s no surprise that we can often spend eight hours at work and feel like we got nothing done all day. Distractions are abundant — even if you have an office door to close. And if you sit in a cubicle, distractions seem downright inescapable. Whatever your situation, there are some universal strategies we can use to carve out our own productivity havens.
Blocking out the world around us is a must if we’re going to focus only on our ONE Thing. That might mean not dishing with your co-workers about whatever you may be binge-watching at the moment. Luckily, it’s harder to be tempted when you can’t hear what’s going on around you. Noise canceling headphones, or even simple earbuds, can go a long way toward keeping your focus when voices lure you into idle chatter. What your ears hear is up to you. And sometimes more importantly, it’s a subtle signal to others that you don’t want to be disturbed.
Designing a functional productivity bunker may take some creativity if you work in an open office space or a cubicle. Sometimes the best thing to do is to look elsewhere. A great first stop is a conference room. But if you can’t use one, try making one yourself by strategically placing plants and book shelves around you so they block your line of view.
We’ve seen many people hang shower curtains around the open area of their cube, making a make-shift door. The same thing can be said for privacy screens. Both options allow you to close yourself off from the rest of the office when you need to focus.
Using a do not disturb sign can benefit both office and cube dwellers alike. Their meaning is universally understood. If they work with complete strangers in hotels around the world, why can’t they work in the office? Next time you’re at a hotel, snag one and repurpose it. Or, make one yourself with its own distinct message. (Or just use the door hanger that’s waiting to be ripped out of the back of The ONE Thing book!)
In the Home
Working from home is becoming the norm.
Flexjob’s 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Workforce Report shows that the number of people who work from home at least half of the time increased by 115 percent since 2005. And if you’re one of the 43 percent of employees who worked remotely in the past year, creating a productivity bunker at home is equally as important as having one in a shared workspace.
Space for focused work can be tricky to find in your home. Ideally we want it removed from our shared family spaces. And don’t think that’s impossible. Even if you don’t have room for a home office, it’s still possible to dedicate a spot to your ONE Thing.
The area you choose should be as quiet and out of the way as possible. It should be comfortable and well-lit. And if a computer is going to be used in this space, consider its ergonomics. Chairs, for instance, should not just be comfortable, but supportive and adjustable too. Consider using desk lamps and natural light to brighten the space and avoid a glare from above hitting the computer screen. After all, there’s no reason to torture yourself while you stay in the zone. Drowning out sound that may distract your focus is also important at home, so invest in some quality headphones or speakers to play music or white noise.
2. Consider the Necessary Supplies
Next we need to make sure all our supplies are accessible to us so we aren’t derailed by our needs. It’s bunkering 101. If you want to outlast a storm, you’ll need to have enough provisions inside of it to last you until it’s over.
When stockpiling for a productive time blocking session, we should consider what materials we’ll use. Whether it’s printing out a report, calculating the monthly budget, or editing a marketing mailer, our priority during this time is to do what it takes to knock over our next domino. It will likely require a variety of supplies.
If you aren’t sure where to start when stockpiling necessary supplies, consider the following checklist. This list is in no way comprehensive, but it’s a good place to start:
- Reading glasses
Food and drinks are also necessary provisions when we stock our bunkers. This means having both the snacks you’ll crave and the beverages you’ll need accessible to stay hydrated and happy. (A private bathroom doesn’t hurt, either.) By doing so, you’ll guarantee that you don’t interrupt yourself when you’re in the zone to hit the snack machine or raid the pantry. (No excuses!)
The snacks and beverages you stock in your bunker matter. While it might sound great to have a jar of jelly beans within reach, they aren’t the best provisions for keeping your brain on target. To be your most productive self, make sure that what you keep nearby is healthy. Otherwise, you might get a quick sugar boost, but you’ll also have an energy crash a short while later. To maintain maximum focus and energy while working toward your goals, pack fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats.
3. Remove All Distractions
The next step is sweeping for and limiting self-imposed distractions. While you may have set yourself up for success by removing yourself from a distracting environment, you also have to remove built-in distractions from your bunker.
These landmines are everywhere. They’re our phones, our notifications, our email, our alarms, noisy neighbors, access to the internet or random objects that lure our interest. (You are just as likely to interrupt yourself as someone else is, after all.)
To dodge these land mines, we have to turn off our access to the outside world and limit its ability to communicate with us. Be unforgiving about it. It only takes one simple message to break your deepest mode of concentration. In fact, studies show that after an interruption, people don’t go back to their original task 41 percent of the time.
To stay in the zone, Fred Bateman, CEO and founder of a PR company recommends “blocking all audio and visual notifications from Outlook, Facebook, Twitter.” He continues, “I think all notifications are evil because they typically have both audio and visual distraction triggers, which can wreak havoc on your concentration.” We agree.
Follow the example of Tim Chen, co-founder of Nerdwallet, and turn all of your notifications off or to silent. Take advantage of the “do not disturb” mode that most phones offer. If you’re going to stay focused, you have to limit your ability to be surprised.
Like we teach in Time Blocking Mastery, our email’s auto-responder is an effective communication tool for the times we don’t want to be reached. If you think it might be rude, think again. People tend to be very receptive to autoresponders because it’s a tool that sets expectations around when their issue will be addressed. If you’re struggling to be polite about it, just use this script:
“Thanks so much for your email. Between the hours of 9am and 12pm I won’t be receiving emails. I will, however, be back online by 12:30pm and will try to reply to all emails promptly. If it’s an emergency, please contact _____”
Popular best-selling author and professor Adam Grant does this exact thing. He teaches in the fall at Wharton business school and spends his spring and summer researching his latest project. As Laura Shin from Forbes describes:
“Within these longer stretches, he dives even deeper in mini-sessions of three or four days, during which he puts an out-of-office auto-response on his email so he can concentrate on a single task. He’s still in his office — he’s just announcing he will not be responding to email because he wants to work uninterrupted for several days.”
Voicemail is another great auto-responding tool. We suggest changing your message daily to set expectations for when you will be reachable. For instance, start with recording today’s date to let people know they are hearing a new voicemail message. Then, let them know the time you expect to start checking voicemail messages. They’ll realize they won’t hear from you before that time, and can decide if they want to wait for your response or look elsewhere for answers.
If the idea of going off the grid for a few hours gives you the shakes, stop and ponder why. Are you afraid you’ll miss out on big news or that people will be upset they can’t reach you? Don’t worry about that, if you manage expectations, you’ll be surprised at how little a stint of being MIA will impact them.
4. Enlist the Support of Others
When you are truly committed to working on your ONE Thing, you’ll need help. This can seem like a big challenge because the people who are closest to us tend to interrupt us the most. It’s important to get them on board with the vision we have for our goals.
Asking for help is a good way to get everyone’s attention. Explain what your goal is, what you’ve done to set yourself up for success, and ask them for help. Tell them explicitly that you need their help to succeed.
We’re not talking about recruiting other people to pick up slack. We’re just recruiting people to set a good example and respect the time we’ve set aside for our goals.
Again, this is where expectations come into play. Don’t give them an excuse to interrupt you. Provide them with an alternate resource to get what they need during the times you are hunkering down. Take these steps before you head off to your private productivity space, and you’ll be one step closer an environment that is suited for success.
No plan is infallible. You may face challenges while time blocking for your ONE Thing. If interruptions are infrequent, make up the lost time in other ways and don’t be too hard on yourself. However, if it is happening more than you like, it may be time to have an honest conversation with yourself: is it the space or is it your desire to achieve success?
We’re the greatest hindrance to our own progress. Once you know where the problem lies, you can work on correcting it. After all, your bunker should be a safe place to go for working on your goals. Our Time Blocking Mastery course gives you a multitude of other tricks in addition to building a bunker for becoming your most productive self, so check it out for more great information.