Protect your time and energy

Be conscious and deliberate about what you 'let in the door'

There are two shorter pieces in today’s newsletter.

Both are about the idea that we should deliberately be setting boundaries to protect our time and energy. One deals with your attention, and one deals with decision-making.

They’re both excellent conversation starters during a 1:1 with your team mate, or a team retro.

#1: A simple technique to protect your energy and attention

Time management — scheduling your calendar, timeboxing, etc — is useful, even if just as a way to set boundaries with your team, but I believe the true skill is actually attention management.

Attention is the primary resource we spend, as individuals in knowledge-work.

Previously, I wrote about situational awareness as a skill. One of its advantages is it compresses the 'seeing and connecting' effort in time, thereby increasing the results you enjoy from paying — spending — that attention, or, measured from the other side, reducing the amount of attention you needed to spend to get those results.

Another way to ensure your attention is spent wisely, is to control all the ways in which other people can spend it for you.


Here's that technique:

Stop letting other people decide when you pay attention to things.

In today's world of remote work with digital tools, that boils down to making this one basic change:

Push notifications: Disable them.

On your computer, on your phone, on your tablet, on your smartwatch. All of them. Yes, even that one. Yes, really!

But Robert, you cry, how will I know when I am needed? What if I miss out? #fomo

You're right! You can't just disappear. You still need to show up. You still need to be subscribed.

The remedy is simple, it's just not as effortless as passively waiting to be distracted all day long:

Schedule time to process your inboxes, and stick to that schedule.

These are all inboxes:

  • Chat/IM — Slack, MS Teams chat, etc.

  • Tasks — Asana, Notion, Monday, etc.

  • Role-specific — Engineers: exception tracker, infrastructure alerts. Customer success: user support requests. Etc.

  • And of course, good old email.

Depending on your role and responsibilities, some will need checking often. That's fine. Develop the habit of checking them often — but be sure to close them again when you switch back to your next Deep Work session.

Another energy management trick is to save the 'shallow work' — inbox processing, responding to stuff, gardening your digital work areas — for when you've already spent your primary creative energy for the day, and don't have much left in the tank anyway.

Multitasking is a myth

We can focus on one thing at a time, and we can switch that focus quickly, with practice.

Even with practice though, rapid context-switching — which is the real name for the activity we call multitasking — is costly in terms of energy, and in terms of time.

It takes real 'activation energy' to load context in (to read, to understand, to situate yourself, to form opinions and plans about how to act), but it also takes energy to hold just enough of what you were doing before in your head so that you can return to it in a moment; to switch back.

Is the trade-off of a quick reaction worth the loss of productive effort on your planned work?

With better planning, you can spend less energy to produce more value. Enjoy a flow state more often.

Accomplish your Important goals, rather than only reacting to urgent requests.

Why not commit to a two-week experiment, and see how much better your results are, and how much calmer you feel?

So, to recap:

  • Disable push notifications.

  • Process your inboxes on a schedule.

  • Focus on your deep work, knowing you can't be distracted from it.

Bonus tip

Also, stop getting automated email notifications for stuff happening in other systems that have their own inboxes, e.g. Notion or Asana. Why process those things twice?

#2: Saying 'no' is one of the most important skills you can learn.

Here's 4 reasons why, and 3 ways to do it. (And, why it'll earn you trust.)

We want to please the people we serve. We want to make them happy.

But if we say yes to everything that's requested of us, we can very easily become overwhelmed, despite having the very best of intentions. And then we are helpful to no one.

Sometimes, we need to say no.

4 reasons to say 'no'

  1. Often, as experts, only we can see that what they’re asking for won’t actually meets their needs.

  2. Or, the cost to us (or to us and to them) is too great.

  3. Or, we may simply not be capable of following through on a schedule that helps them.

  4. Once we commit, we need to be sure that we’re prepared back it up. We may not be able to do that.

3 ways to say 'no'

So, from time to time, we need to say no, one way or another:

  • No can mean ‘not yet’ (a deferral). This is what we mean by “no is temporary, yes is permanent”.

  • No can mean ‘not what you’ve asked, but here’s another way to meet your needs’ (a negotiated alternative).

  • No can also simply mean ‘not at all, in any shape or form’. The request may simply just be inappropriate, or directed at the wrong people.

Saying 'no' builds trust

In a healthy system-of-work, all three are necessary from time to time.

Saying no immediately is the most energy-efficient way to deal with something that you shouldn’t be doing. Saying yes and then backing out later is much harder and costlier in terms of social capital, stress, trust erosion, and so on. Loss aversion is very, very real. You’re doing everyone a favour by preventing it when it’s necessary.

If you never say no, then the only logical outcome is that you’ll be micro-managed by someone more senior than you. It’s just a matter of time.

If you’re the most senior person, you could exhaust your resources without meeting your goals! It’s even more vital.

Learn (when and how) to say no!

In case this was forwarded to you:

Hi. I’m Robert Stuttaford.

In this Knowledge Worker's Toolkit newsletter, I introduce, explain, tell stories, share past experiences, and explore the connections and intersections of all the various systems thinking & knowledge work concepts & models I've encountered during my tenure as CTO at Cognician, over the past 13 years (and counting!)

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