What can you do with 3 inches of dental floss?
A 12-inch length of floss is 100% useful relative to its intended purpose: cleaning between your teeth. It’s long enough to wrap around your fingers a few times, so it makes the job easy (or as easy as possible, because every time I floss I think, “Am I doing this wrong? Why is this so hard?”).
A six-inch length of floss is maybe 40% as useful as a foot of floss. It’ll work, but awkwardly—six inches of floss is not quite long enough to get a good grip.
But a three-inch length of floss? It’s not 25%, 15%, or even 10% as useful as the 12-inch length. It’s useless. It’s too short to perform its function.
This has a lot to do time management, and world-class producers like author Neal Stephenson realize this.
In fact, it’s why he doesn’t return emails from fans.
Why Neal Stephenson won’t email you back
Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four.
If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.
You and I aren’t fiction writers (probably), but the same principle applies to our work:
Like dental floss, the longer a block of time is, the more useful it is. And below a certain point, it’s useless.
For important work, set aside large chunks of time
Everyone’s life includes trivial tasks. We’ve all got to take the garbage out and answer unimportant email.
But when it’s time to work on something truly important, don’t fall into the trap of chipping away at it over dozens of short sessions. 5 minutes x 12 will not yield the same result as an hour of focused productivity.
Instead, set aside large chunks of time. I like to block out at least an hour—preferably two—for things like writing and project planning at work. It’s hard to do, and it takes some planning. But when I don’t commit to these large chunks of time, I can tell. The quality of my work suffers.
If you have some important work you’ve been struggling to finish, try blocking out at least an hour tomorrow to work on it uninterrupted. I think you’ll be happy with the results.
Hat tip to Cal Newport here. His book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World is where I first encountered Neal Stephenson’s email policy. It also may be the best book I’ve read in the last 12 months. ↩︎