How long can you concentrate and focus on one thing before your energy and attention begin to falter? How long does it take you to engage in a particular thing to make the effort of engagement worth it?
The answers to those two questions make up (what I’m calling) your engagement threshold, and figuring out your engagement threshold is probably the most important thing you can do to become more consistently creative and productive.
A long time ago, I wrote a post called A General Theory of Productivity, in which I said that one of the components of an effective productivity system is “ideal time.” I’ve been working with that idea in one form or the other since then, and your ideal time is identical to your engagement threshold.
Your engagement threshold consists of three factors:
- How long you can work on one thing
- How long it’ll take you to get something meaningful done
- A consideration of the particular task at hand
I’ll explain each of these in sequence.
How Long Can You Work on One Thing?
This component of your engagement threshold relates to the upper limit of how long you should plan to sink into something.
Let’s take writing a blog post as an example. Each post will require a different amount of time to complete, but regardless of that, we each have a gut feel for the longest we’d be able to write before we’d need to switch to something different under ideal circumstances. For instance, if you know that the longest you’d be able to go before you eat something is four hours, then four hours represents the limit of your engagement threshold – your effectiveness will drop dramatically the longer you try to go past four hours.
This component of your engagement threshold gives you that good upper edge when it comes to looking at your time as a container for the things you need to do. The idea is to look at your daily workflow and to free up as many large blocks of time as you can so that you can do some creative heavy-lifting, but it’s only part of the information you need to know. You’ll also have to answer…
How Much Time Do You Need to Make Meaningful Progress on Something?
One of the most common themes that have come up from my work with creative folks is that they’ve chopped their days up into so many incoherent chunks that they resist starting anything because they can’t settle into the creative pocket for long enough to make a difference. In other words, since they can’t fully engage with a task, they don’t engage at all.
Few things are more frustrating to a creative person than to be lit afire with a rich idea and being unable to do anything with it. A continual pattern of doing this eventually shuts down the creative process and stalling habits develop in the meantime. You’re not doing what you want or need to do, but you can’t disengage because you’re on the clock – this state is what I call the “middle ground.” (Note: This is one of two kinds of middle grounds that I talk about. The other is meaningful play, and that’s a good middle ground. This is confusing but also representative of our reality.)
Let’s return to our previous example of writing. It’s hard to do something worthwhile in 30 minutes, so rather than try to engage in writing for 30 minutes, most of us do something else, like check email or fiddle around with our To-Do lists.
If our days were spent just on discrete tasks, it would be one thing, but that’s not quite the way things work. There are the discrete tasks that we do and then there’s the time we spend switching between tasks.
What Really Keeps Us from Engaging
Every time you switch tasks, there’s a switching cost. Since this switching cost is intangible, many of us don’t recognize it – but it’s real nonetheless and I’ll show it by making it a bit more tangible.
Let’s imagine that you’re a writer who has two different computers, in two separate rooms. One computer is set up with all of your favorite writing tools but can’t connect to the Internet. The other computer can connect to the Internet but doesn’t have your favorite writing tools on it. Got it?
Imagine how much time you’d spend in transition between either writing or doing Internet-related tasks if you switched back and forth every 20 minutes. Imagine how frustrating it would be if the information you needed for a given task was on a different computer than the one you’re currently using. That time and frustration would present very real switching costs that would create a gaping hole in your workflow.
But here’s the deal: those same costs are present in your cognitive workspace. Switching contexts from writing to email to Twitter to phone calls to going to the bathroom presents distinct breaks in engagement, and those breaks come with costs. It’s like running a marathon where the finish line keeps getting moved in radically different directions, causing you to switchback.
So you might have two hour-long calls, one at 2 pm and one at 4 pm. At around 1:45, you’ll naturally start to disengage from whatever you’re doing before that 2 pm call, and after that 2 pm call, you might have a hard time engaging in anything until 3:15. But you’ll also disengage at 3:45 for your 4 pm call in the same way. If your “work hours” for the afternoon are 1:00-5:30, you’ll be hard-pressed to get a lot done that afternoon outside of your calls. On paper, you have 2.5 hours to get things done, but the reality on the ground is that you have about half of that, and even then it’s not in a big chunk.
I needed to talk about the idea of switching costs because of its relationship to the lower limit of our engagement threshold. On paper, our schedules are spacious, but it’s more common for switching costs to make it such that we don’t have time to engage in some of the meaningful, bigger projects that we’d like to advance. Despite the fact that the time isn’t there, we beat ourselves up like crazy and are both frustrated and unproductive.
Switching costs are also part of why I’m adamant about asking people why they’re trying to save time. If you alter the relaxed quality of your work just to save 30 minutes that don’t make a real difference to the things you want to do, you’ve added stress to your day for no effective gain. As I’ve said before, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.
With switching costs covered, we can finally take a look at the last component of your engagement threshold.
Different Activities Have Different Engagement Thresholds
One of the reasons we default to things like email, Twitter, and list-fiddling is because we know we can do something in those contexts. In 30 minutes, we can process email messages and perhaps go ahead and swallow a frog for the day. We can poke around on the Internet and maybe catch up with friends on Facebook or Twitter.
What you might not expect me to say is that this is probably the best way to use that time, assuming that they are things that need to be done in the first place. It’s far better to plan on doing that stuff during those transition zones than to plan on doing a lot of creative work – it keeps you consistently productive and allows you to use the energy and resources you have to your best ability.
When it comes to creative stuff, though, your engagement threshold will be higher. This is why it’s critically important to slot your creative stuff in the times in which you’re the most productive and stick to doing it then – if you don’t do it then, you won’t do it. It’s damn hard to engage in something creative when you know you have only 30 minutes before you’ll have to start disengaging and moving on to something else.
The problem, of course, is that we slip up and get caught up in paying switching costs associated with the different things that distract us, with the final result being that we never build the inertia we need to on projects, and we settle into the habit of project shuffling. We get something to a certain point, get distracted externally or internally, and start something else without ever coming back to the first thing. Your engagement threshold determines how much momentum you can get going on something in any given day, and since you’re not meeting the minimum of your engagement threshold on creative projects, they don’t get done.
There’s a flip side to this, too. Sometimes people allocate too much time for some of their tasks, when the upper limit of their engagement threshold for those particular tasks is much lower. There’s only so long you can stand to do those things you don’t want to do before you become ineffective or start resisting the hell out of them. For instance, if you have some difficult calls to make, it probably doesn’t serve you well to program a whole afternoon of making those calls; you’re less likely to start in the first place and you’ll probably get only one or two done before you’ve had enough.
It’d be better to do something like plan to make one or two calls before you do something you want to do or something that’s otherwise rewarding – we’re not above our natures to be motivated to do something difficult because of the reward on the other side. Better to make one call a day for a week than to schedule five calls for an afternoon that never get made.
One last bit of theory before I wrap this post up.
Engagement Threshold Does Not Equal Flow
It might seem like engagement threshold and flow are one and the same thing, but they’re not. You can be engaged in something without being in flow, but you can’t be in flow without being engaged. In that sense, flow is a type of engagement.
As I mentioned in the heatmapping post, you can be insanely productive and effective without being in a hypercreative state – in fact, some of the biggest gains in effectiveness can come from learning to harness the power of the “engaged but not in flow” state. There are two reasons for this: 1) this state is more common, and 2) with some self-discovery, you can figure out how to get yourself into the near-peak state more easily than you can get into the flow state.
But wait, there’s more! The near-peak state happens before and after flow. If you can consistently get yourself into the near-peak state, you’ll experience flow more frequently. And the more you figure out the best things for you to do while in near-peak, the less dependent you’ll become on having all the magic happen during flow.
Imagine a day in which you spend 2/3 of your time engaged in this way. How much more would you be able to do with less effort compared to when you’re engaged for only 1/5 of your day? If your experience is anything like what I’ve seen in myself and my clients, it’d be a complete game-changer. Being consistently productive and creative is a marathon, and incremental improvement sustained over time makes a huge difference.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Engagement thresholds create an extremely useful constraint for planning your work and reworking your schedule so that you’re working on the right kinds of activities, at the right time, for the right amount of time. If you want to jump into application, check out the post on time blocking.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you can see the general theme of my approach to productivity here: rather than trying to force your work into a system, it’s far better to have your system be something that helps you work the way you work. If you know that you need two full hours to fully engage in something, you can allocate two full hours instead of thinking you can do it in four 30-minute chunks. The equal quantities of minutes in those two scenarios do not translate to an equal quality of minutes.
You might be uncomfortable with these ideas because, while they’re fine and good in theory, you think it’s simply impossible for you to change the way you work for a myriad of reasons. Over the past couple of years, I’ve become very familiar with this response, and while I get it, I’ll also say that many people don’t think about the time they do have control over. Sure, your boss or coworkers might hijack your time during the workday, but what keeps you from using your time wisely in the mornings, evenings, and weekends when your boss and coworkers aren’t around? Why must you work the same way you work when your kids are at the sitter’s or asleep as you do when they’re jumping on your lap?
One final thought. Imagine that you were able to make a few changes during the next week that gave you three additional periods of time in which you could meet your engagement threshold on a really important project or two. How much difference would it make to you to have three more meaningful chunks of something done within the next week? It turns out that if you use the two-hour rule to make meaningful progress on your projects, it makes huge differences over time.