Removing Distractions at the Project Level

I write about distraction quite a bit. Considering the extent to which we are inundated with information it's a pretty easy target. Doing good work is hard and embracing distraction is easy. While distraction as a concept gets a lot of ink from writers like me, I think we may be overemphasizing in-the-moment distraction at the expense of something much larger -- distraction at the project level. 

Are any of your ongoing projects distracting you from what you should actually be working on? Do you immediately turn to a low-priority yet easy to accomplish project whenever you're feeling challenged by something more important? Checking Facebook, organizing your sock drawer, and responding to texts are the candy versions of doing work that actually matters. Projects can be candied, too. 

Have Your Projects Grown With You?

I think it's important to periodically sit down and determine if it's necessary to remove or downplay your involvement in projects that are more of a distraction than an opportunity for you to do your best work. Many projects are long term endeavors and therefore may not keep up the pace with your growth as a person. A project that seemed a good idea with your values and priorities six months ago may no longer be relevant as your values and priorities continued to evolve. Why keep plugging away at something that's doing nothing but keeping you from what matters?

Noticing The Way You Think About Your Projects

The thing is -- it's hard to do. Really, really hard to do. I recently decided to turn down a research project that was very tangentially related to my main interests, but involved several extremely interesting people. I tried to make it work for a couple weeks, but I noticed something every time I sat down to work on this project; instead of thinking about how I could bring my best and most creative self to the project I noticed I was constantly thinking in terms of time. "How long will it take me to research this section? When will I be able to move on to something else? I only have an hour to dedicate to this today." While it's not inherently a bad thing to think in terms of time, it begins to be a problem if it's the only way you interface with a project.

I decided to (as graciously as possible) bow out of the project while it was still in its earliest stages. I sent an email to the entire team (including the professors leading it) that was honest and to the point. I said that I think it's vitally important for everyone to be brutally honest with themselves and their colleagues when it comes to how we allocate our time and attention. Since the project was not connected to my primary research interests and I had many other ongoing projects, I knew I wouldn't be able to bring my highest quality of attention to the research project. While it felt good to send that email and reduce my commitment on that project, it was definitely a tough decision. But ultimately, the right one.

The other thing I noticed once I sent that email is that I attacked my ongoing projects with a renewed sense of energy and vigor. I found myself thinking that I didn't want to fail on these projects AND have stopped working on the other one. I wanted to show my colleagues on the project I removed myself from that I wasn't wasting my time. That I really was working on some cool things that require my full attention. It pushed me to be better in everything I consciously decided to keep on my docket.

Removing Distracting Projects From Your Life

There's no specific formula or list of criteria to decide whether or not a project is a distraction or should be left alone. Hell, plenty of times there are distracting projects in your life that you just feasibly cannot remove. We all have to do things we don't like from time to time but it is worth minimizing those projects as much as possible. While I can't give you a specific list of criteria, I can give you a couple things to think about as you look at your list of ongoing projects.

  • Which projects fill you with the most dread? Which projects can you not wait to keep working on?
  • Which projects feel like an impediment keeping you from what you really want to do?
  • Which projects do you think about in terms of how much time it will take to finish them?
  • Which projects are you not a primary component of? How difficult would it be to completely remove yourself?
  • Which projects have the highest cost to benefit ratio? Which projects have the lowest cost to benefit ratio? How difficult would it be to remove yourself from the former projects?

Your projects are the investment vehicles for your time and attention. Choose wisely. Review often. Be ruthless.

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