Dealing with interruption is a struggle that all freelancers and self-employed people face.
Whether the interruption comes from clients or family and friends, repetitive distraction prevents you from working efficiently.
As a developer and someone who writes a lot, even the smallest unexpected interjection knocks me out of my “deep work” state.
“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task” – Cal Newport
This is frustrating because getting to deep work state takes time.
Any interruption is like pressing the reset button.
Having dedicated periods of time to perform intensive tasks is what lead me to become a better freelancer.
How do I define “better”?
Spending more time with my family, having more social time, being able to reserve time for exercise, feeling mentally level, earning more money, working with interesting clients, being able to pick and choose projects, doing work that I find fulfilling and being in a position to help others.
Everyone’s definition of success is different, but for me, this, collectively, is it.
When you’re aware of your strengths, when it’s clear that what you’re doing is working; you’ve got to double-down.
Because I knew that getting to, and maintaining, deep work state was good for me, I started to protect it.
Protecting deep work through your own actions is straightforward.
If not straightforward to develop the will-power to not perform state-breaking actions, straightforward enough to grasp the concepts and why they’re important.
“Stay away from social media”, “Your inbox is not your to-do list”, “Don’t invite friends round for coffee in the middle of the day”.
You’ve heard it all before.
What’s harder to control are the external factors.
When you run your own business, have a family who depends on you and friends who you’re close with; that’s a lot of people vying for your attention each day.
Which in turn, through no fault of anyone, causes interruptions during work time.
Some of this interruption, I absolutely want.
Most, I absolutely don’t.
If my wife or daughter need help with something urgent, please interrupt me.
If a client’s website gets hacked I want to know ASAP.
If my brother-in-law tags me in a post on Facebook, I really don’t care at this moment in time.
If my friend calls to ask if I’m free for a round of golf, I don’t want to allocate mental space to that right now.
If a client wants to shoot the breeze for an hour, that’s often not worth being broken out of deep work state for either.
So what’s the solution to this?
How can you maintain productivity by protecting yourself from excess external demands for your attention?
Without coming across as a self-important and lacking empathy?
Communication Crowd Control.
Communication crowd control is what I call the system that allows me to maintain everyday efficiency by setting boundaries with myself and managing the expectations of the people who want my attention.
This is how the system is made up.
Firstly, I give myself the best chance of not being broken out of deep work state through communication crowd control.
These are the things that you can do yourself.
I’ve tested deleting my social media apps, but as I use my devices outside of work time too, this proved annoying if I wanted to quickly catch up while out walking or chilling.
What works best for me is to completely remove notifications from my life.
This includes my phone, tablet and laptop.
You can have the best will-power in the world, but while your devices have the ability to call out to you, whenever they want, you’ll lapse at some point.
It’s exactly what notifications are meant to do:
Encourage that first engagement, then hold you there, capturing your attention within the app.
The only caveat to my “Notifications Off” stance, is if I’m working closely with people on a specific project.
In these instances, we’ll likely be using a real-time chat tool like Slack.
What I do here is mute all notifications except direct messages.
I then make my communication preferences clear to my collaborators so that they know to use this avenue sparingly.
For instance, in scenarios where the information I hold is necessary to unblock their progress.
During work hours, my mobile phone lives in do not disturb mode.
Answering unsolicited phone calls all day isn’t a good self-employment strategy.
This revelation hit me a few years in to my freelancing career.
I’d been on calls all day.
Some calls following up enquiries that had come in through my website, most calls were completely out of the blue.
It was 09:00 one minute and 16:00 the next.
I got nothing else done.
None of my plans moved forward.
I finished work for the day feeling frustrated.
The calls all ended up being pretty much worthless.
Goodwill aside, the direct cost to me was a full day’s time.
The project work that I was involved in didn’t advance.
I didn’t get time to produce any content as part of my ongoing marketing strategy.
I made no money.
Couple this example of extreme unsolicited call frequency with the fact that even one is a deep work killer, and it becomes obvious that freelancers need to manage their incoming calls.
I took my phone number off my website right then.
The thing is, you don’t have to answer the phone every time it rings.
How do you know if it’s worth answering?
You can’t qualify an unsolicited phone call.
You can qualify one that’s to be booked in advance.
Sure, someone might have to wait a while for their answer.
But that’s not always a bad thing. For you, or them.
The person calling gets a well researched, prepared and considered answer as opposed to something less valuable, done off the cuff.
You get to focus on the work you’ve lined up for the day and because you don’t answer the phone right away, your time appears scarcer; which, rightly or wrongly, increases the perceived value of it (presuming you get back to people at all)!.
Taking charge of unsolicited calls allows you to filter contact through more manageable platforms.
If you train people not to call you by removing your phone number from your website and by not answering while you’re trying to focus, they’ll start using alternative routes.
For instance, receiving an email, or even a Tweet means that I can quickly read (and reply if needed) while on a break, without committing an unknown amount of time to the communication.
This means, if you want my attention quickly, an email or a Tweet is your best route.
Not a call out of the blue that I have no idea how long it will last.
Changing how I use email helped massively.
In my early career, I’d have the Mail app open while I worked.
I’d have half an eye on that little red number the whole day.
Not replying to the emails that arrived in my inbox would give me anxiety.
I took charge of managing this by starting from scratch in terms of how I deal with email.
Alongside my email notifications being off, I only check my inbox a few times per day, when I’m not aiming for periods of focused work.
Emails that need further attention, either a direct reply or another action, I set aside.
The rest, I leave.
I also reply to emails in bulk.
This is usually done at the start of the day, sometimes around lunchtime and at the end of the day.
Batching similar small tasks helps me to build up a flow of momentum.
Each task becomes easier due to the completion of its predecessor.
Retraining myself to use email as a whole allows me to prevent being interrupted by it, and, curb my need-to-reply anxiety.
If you want to get work done, you can’t meet up with everyone who wants to enquire about your services.
You can’t even meet up with your clients every time they want to.
I used to feel flattered by being asked to attend lots of meetings.
That soon wears off.
It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to
be nice get stuff done.
A meeting is the biggest form of interruption via external communication there is for a freelancer.
I’ve had people ask me to head to London (a 2-hour train journey from Wakefield) for an initial meeting, sans-payment of travel expenses.
It’s a huge commitment.
Time-wise and financially (“cost of sales” I hear you cry)!.
This is what makes gauging how essential, or necessary at all, a proposed meeting is.
“This meeting should have been an email!” – Everyone, ever
If someone wants to meet up to pick my brains about a project, as our first interaction, I can’t facilitate it.
A potential loss of time for nothing scenario is too much of a risk.
My experience also tells me, there’s a high chance this opportunity won’t ever come to fruition.
Take meetings sparingly; post qualification.
Does this meeting have a genuine chance of gaining business?
Seek answers from your lead to help you make the call.
I use questions like, “My projects start at £X, can this work?”, and, “Why do you want to work with me in particular?“.
This level of directness can make you worry about coming across abruptly (I know that’s how I felt), but in practice, people appreciate it when you get straight to the point.
Concluding early whether you’re a good fit to work together or not saves them time too.
Instances when current clients want to hold a meeting, of course, has more importance by default.
But you should still qualify these requests.
My default stance is to make physical meetings a rarity.
I clarify this with everyone that I work with from the off.
If I think that calling a meeting is going to result in better value being obtained than a combination of other communication, I’ll absolutely suggest it.
In practice, over an 11-year freelancing career, these instances have been few and far between.
When a client suggests a meeting, certify it with the direct time cost in mind.
Overestimate the involvement and underestimate your ability to do anything else that day.
A two-hour meeting with an hour of travel each way might look like half a day on paper.
However, if you’re anything like me, your sharpness will be shot in the afternoon afterwards.
That’s if your afternoon doesn’t get eaten into by meeting overrun or transport delays!
Stand up for the value of your time when meetings are called.
In my experience, a video call, email exchange or Slack conversation often gets equal results, faster.
When do you do your best work?
For me, it’s between 08:00–11:00 and 12:00–15:00.
That’s when the majority of my precious deep work happens.
Because I know this about myself, I schedule calls around these times.
This seems glaringly obvious to me now, but it wasn’t for a long time.
I’d accept any meeting time that a prospect or client suggested.
I was happy to have the call at all.
But I started to realise that because my calls were scattered across the day, often heavily amongst my best work periods, I was hindering my efficiency.
My tactic now is to steer people towards calls at the start and end of each day.
When a call is mentioned, I’ll suggest a date and time right away.
Not, “A call sounds great, let me know when’s good for you”.
But, “I can take a call tomorrow at 07:30 or 15:30, I’ll send you an invite for each, accept which is best!“.
Much of the time, the person will be able to commit to one of those.
If not, then it’s likely they’ll be able to the day after. The call organisation portion of communication crowd control isn’t a flat “no” system.
Obviously, sometimes you’ll need to schedule calls outside of these hours.
It might be a superb opportunity that you’re willing to make a concession for, or you might be working alongside an international client with a time difference.
Scheduling calls at smarts times means that you make a judgement call on each one.
Ask yourself, “Can this call take place outside of my best working times?“.
I bet most can.
This is the harder part of the communication crowd control system.
Managing the expectations of other people requires considered conversation.
It’s easy for people to take your request for focus the wrong way.
When you let people know how you’re most effective, and why their potential interruption hinders that, it must be done with understanding and tact.
These are the external communication expectations that I talk about with others.
If you’re working, you’re working.
While the flexibility of freelancing is one of its key benefits, if you’re serious about maximising efficiency, when you’re scheduled to work, people need to respect this.
Equally, your business associates need to respect when you’re not working.
Setting work time boundaries goes both ways.
- The time your clients and collaborators can expect you to be working
- The time your family and friends can expect you not to be working
Having worked alongside a range of people on digital projects over the years, it’s commonly assumed that your working hours are Monday to Friday, 09:00–17:00 (give or take) local time.
Overall, this is a fair assumption.
However, this isn’t always how freelancers structure their weeks.
Family commitments might mean that you don’t work early mornings.
Perhaps, like me, you sometimes take Fridays off.
Even if you do fit into the commonly assumed schedule of working, you’ll still get people who’ll text, email or call at 21:00, and, expect a response.
But you will get people who’ll text and call at 21:00, and, expect a reply.
This happens because people project their schedule of working onto you.
It’s fair that people do this if you haven’t previously stated your preferences.
If you don’t give people an idea of what to expect from you, how can they know? They have to run with what they think is best.
The same goes for your nearest and dearest.
Your friend who comes round for an off-chance coffee at 10:30 on a Tuesday isn’t being purposely interruptive; they just don’t understand.
It’s on you to introduce, set and uphold your work time boundaries with the people who matter to you.
This can mean by coming up with a list of rules of engagement beside your client.
Or, at home, letting your partner know that if the office door is closed, that means you’d prefer not to be interrupted.
If you do this in the right manner, people will begin to understand your scheduling preferences, and, start adhering to them.
This is an expectation I set early on in any business relationship.
If someone doesn’t have an agenda in mind for a call with me, I explain why I’m not going to take it.
Even if they want to pay for my time, with no clear purpose for the call, the likelihood of a valuable outcome is drastically reduced.
An “I just want to pick your brains quickly” call is one of the biggest red flags in freelancing.
What’s the purpose?
What’s the objective?
How long will a call like this take?
If someone can’t set a general direction or come up with a short bullet-pointed programme, it’s pretty safe to assume that the call won’t go anywhere.
It’s definitely not worth being broken out of your valuable deep work state for.
An agenda shows advanced commitment on the call requesters’ behalf.
Without it, you increase the risk that you’ll give away time for nothing.
If a relevant agenda is proposed for a call, the next thing that I do is to set a time limit for it.
The agenda of the call determines its duration. IE, the amount of time I’m willing to give to it.
Take an introductory sales call as an example.
Agenda: Potential client A and I are going to discuss whether we’re a good fit to work together or not.
After agreeing a start time, I’ll send out a calendar invite with a 20-minute duration attached. If you ask the right questions, this is more than enough.
This sets expectations right off the bat in a non-abrupt manner. You know how long the call will take and so will the person you’ll be speaking with.
Consultancy calls are commonplace in my weeks too.
Example agenda: Client B needs advice on topic X for reason Y.
With a clear topic to discuss and the reasoning for that pre-defined, I can allocate a sufficient amount of (paid) time prior to the start of the call.
You can avoid situations where calls become open-ended by setting an appropriate time limit in advance.
When you’re aware of how you work best, it’s important that you communicate that to others.
As I touched on earlier in this article, you can’t expect people to know this information if you don’t present it to them.
Early in my freelancing career, I was timid to express my communication preferences.
In the delight of my perceived importance to the project when being asked for calls or to attend meetings, I often fell into line with what other people expected and requested of me.
I know now, that the frequency and timing of incoming communication that I accepted back then, doesn’t allow me to do my best work.
My primary approach to taking control of this, and one of the key features of the communication crowd control system as a whole, is to be open and honest with people.
Keeping your preferences bottled up isn’t conducive to getting the best out of you. For anyone.
If you can’t do your best work, you feel frustrated.
If you can’t do your best work, your client gets a worse end result.
If you can’t do your best work, your ability to help others is diminished.
If you can’t do your best work, you’ll still be dwelling on it during non-work time.
You owe it to yourself and the people who matter to say how you work best.
People are often more understanding than you might think.
In terms of setting expectations with people, honesty, really is, the best policy.
Communication crowd control is a two-way street.
If you’re going to make your feelings known, you have to respect the wishes of the people that you work with too.
I always like to ask, especially at the start of a new project, what level of communication allows my collaborator(s) to do their best work.
In my experience, when I work with other developers, they largely prefer medium to large periods of deep work time like myself.
Projects managers, for instance, usually have slightly different preferences. Especially when it comes to communication frequency.
So in those instances, it’s important to come up with a compromise that best suits both of your needs.
This applies to family life too.
If staying in your office for 8 hours straight means that your partner feels lonely, you have a problem.
You can’t come up with a system that works for you and not the rest of the household.
It has to work for the unit in its entirety.
There’s a problem with communication crowd control.
Some people won’t get the concept.
When you’re used to being in control of your own work time, you have to take into consideration that a lot of people aren’t, and don’t want to be.
Some people might even think that being rigid with your time is a selfish angle to take.
That’s understandable because it kind of is.
I need to manage communication to be the best version of myself. Personally and professionally.
Whether that be dedicating more time to writing articles than texting someone back during work hours or focusing on the current task at hand rather than answering every phone call.
“Selfishly” I want to be the best that I can be to get the most out of my time for me.
But it’s not just for me.
When I’m the best that I can be, I’m in a better position to help others.
I can be a better Dad to my daughter, I can be a better husband to my wife, I can be a better son to my parents, I can be a better brother to my sister, I can be a better confidant to my friends, I can be a better coach to other freelancers, I can be a better mentor to new developers, I can provide more value to my clients.
If I can set reasonable communication boundaries and manage people’s expectations then I can be fully mentally present and give 100% to the current moment.
With all this said, it’s a problem that I can live with.
Learning to control how you deal with communication will guide you to become more efficient.
But do so with understanding.
If you can prevent the influx of daily information hitting you all at once, by allowing the right communication through your filter at the right times, you can be more effective across the board.
Use communication crowd control to get the most out of your time.