A friend’s grandfather liked to say “one boy, full boy; two boys, half boy; three boys, no boy at all.”
What he meant, I think, was that if you hired a boy to do work around the farm, you got a full unit, “one boy” of work. If you hired two boys, you didn’t get two units of work, you actually got a half unit because of all the time they spent talking to each other and horsing around. Hire three boys and they are as likely to run off down to the fishing hole as they are to actually get farm chores done.
I think about this a lot when I’m working on projects. While modern life might be more solitary than ever, I’ve started to think about the Internet as being “three boys.” No matter what I’m doing, if a joke occurs to me, if I have a random thought, or a question, I can reach out and ask it, or answer it, or take a photo and post it.
When I was young I would paint the fence around our property every summer; it was an old wooden fence, weather worn, and it would take a few days to make it all the way around the house. Normally, I wouldn’t talk to anybody, or maybe at most, one person would walk by. Pure sustained concentration.
I got a lot of good thinking done.
I honestly don’t remember the last time I was able to get such good, sustained effort on a project.
I think it is worth it to install website blockers on your computer while you work. I can hear a lot of defenses already, but I need Wikipedia to research or What if they find that missing plane, but I can assure you, you can wait to do the research, and if they find that plane (or resolve whatever the current news story is), you’ll hear about it pretty quickly.
One thing you’ll likely discover, as I did, is that there are a lot of articles I end up not reading, a lot of wiki-holes I don’t go down. I never quite remember to read the full article on that town where that author I liked is from. Certain things persist, hold on in my memory, and when the blocker turns off (mine turns off at 5pm, which is when I’m usually done writing), I still remember to look up a few things that I’m legitimately interested in, and I let the rest go.
I had the wonderful experience of working on a project last year in an area of the country known as the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ), a fifty square mile area in the mountains of West Virginia with no cell service. There’s a radio observatory up there looking into space hunting for evidence of the birth of the universe, and an NSA facility listening in to radio activity around the globe (originally built to spy on the Soviets, way back when). Cell phones just aren’t a thing in the Zone. In fact, microwave ovens aren’t either.
What was amazing was how much more present I was, and so was everyone else on the team. I’ve gotten really focused while collaborating with people who aren’t present. The minute there’s a lull in the work they are checking their email, checking in on Facebook, prepping the next job.
But in the Zone you couldn’t text if you were late. So, most people were just on time. You couldn’t check your email on your phone during a work lull, so you talked to your co-worker, either about the project, or just the weather.
Though we were working in teams, the proverbial “three boy” without the Internet to play with, we didn’t have the burden of “infinite boy” to goof off with. Everybody was focused and present.
I’m not such a Luddite that I want to get rid of cell towers, but I think there is a valuable lesson in all of this that I have tried to incorporate into my life back in the national radio loud zone. I have started putting my phone into airplane mode before important work sessions, meetings or dinners. I want to be “right there.” Since I don’t have children, there is literally almost nothing that might happen that needs my immediate attention, most things in my life can wait until I am done focusing on the thing in front of me.
Napoleon was famous for his dictum to never answer a request the first time it was sent understanding that most issues resolved themselves and didn’t deserve his attention, and if it was really a vital issue, the person would ask again. While we can’t always do that, it’s important to remember that some of the highest achievers in history did so by letting a lot of things go.
I’ve been in countless business meetings that were continually interrupted by the person with whom I was meeting. They had to take texts on “just one little thing.” If that thing was really more important than our meeting, we should reschedule. If not, let it wait.
To really focus, you want to get to a “one boy” state, where it’s literally just you and your task. Nothing to distract you. And you get yourself into a flow. You’ll earn more money in less time and be happier doing it.