Death By a Million Cuts: The Small Stuff is More Disruptive Than You Think
No one succeeds by sweating the small stuff. How to ruthlessly edit what earns your attention.
Losing the productivity game? Chances are it’s the tiny distractions, not the big disruptions, that do your day in.
I was thrilled as I stepped out of Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, despite the blast furnace of Southeast Asian heat that never really subsides.
This was going to be more than an epic month-long adventure. It was going to be a test case for my new “laptop lifestyle.” Trying out the whole digital nomad thing.
My digital agency was making just short of six figures a month. I had all the money I needed. Now it was time to live, to experience the adventure of the nomadic lifestyle described by Ralph Potts and Tim Ferriss.
And why not? I was holding the ultimate trump card — my business had no office for me to show up to. My employees were on autopilot, and my own tasks required nothing but a laptop and an internet connection. My workday would be exactly the same, despite my position in an entirely different hemisphere. What could possibly go wrong?
That first week in Thailand, my business almost fell apart.
It wasn’t my team. They were — and still are — rock solid. They have outstanding SOPs to follow and work well without supervision. They have honestly saved me more times than I can count over the past couple of years.
I was the problem. I could barely meet my own obligations to my own business that first week of this new lifestyle because my productivity plummeted.
The murder weapon
In retrospect, the culprit was obvious.
My productivity didn’t plummet in my new surroundings because it was decapitated by a dramatic event — an elephant stepping on my laptop or the entire country losing internet. Nothing that dramatic happened.
No, it was the little things. I was jet-lagged. The new time zone threw off my routines. Calls and emails came at unexpected times and threw me off. I had to find the grocery store. The drug store. The most convenient power outlet. I was dazzled by a new language, the new culture, and the search for the best street vendor of noodle soup.
In other words, my productivity didn’t die in Thailand from a sword chop to the neck, but a million little papercuts.
This might seem like an argument against the nomadic lifestyle. Far from it.
First of all, I yearned to see the world. If the nomadic life turned out to be more disruptive than I expected, I would just have to plan better. I encourage every aspiring digital nomad to heed that lesson.
Secondly, you don’t have to fly around the world to kill your productivity with a million cuts. Many aspiring entrepreneurs never get off the launchpad because they face a million distractions in their daily lives.
It’s the little things. It’s the pause to check your email or the Pavlovian urge to see what’s new on Instagram. The news notification on your phone about the politician you love to hate, or the call from your mom who can’t stop guilting you about how you never call.
These things may only take five minutes. Or one minute. Or 30 seconds. It doesn’t matter. If you were in the zone, it could take you another 30 minutes to get back into the zone after the distraction knocks you out.
Where is your time going?
Is this you? Are a thousand or a million cuts bleeding your productivity dry? How can you even tell?
Here’s how. Commit to an exercise for a week. Set a timer for every 30 minutes. Every time the timer rings, make a note in your log of what you did for the past 30 minutes. No task is too small to note in this log, from grabbing a cup of coffee to making a few swipes on Tinder.
“Hold on, Dylan!” I hear you say. “If I have to stop and make a note of my activities every 30 minutes, aren’t I adding about a dozen more papercuts to my day? Isn’t that an extra distraction every half hour?”
Absolutely it is. But remember, we’re only doing it for one week. It’s an investment, and it will pay off big-time.
What can you eliminate
Once the week is over, it’s time to take a big fat pair of scissors to the paper making all those cuts. Review your log and ask of each task, “what can I eliminate?”
Be brutal. Subject each activity on your log to an exacting question — “Does this task help me produce the outcome my clients and customers expect of my product, service, or solution?” If the answer is “no,” it goes.
This isn’t just about your distractions that randomly pop up. It’s also the items on your to-do list that need cut. The fastest way to cut that list down to the critical is simply not doing certain things, from big to small.
Let’s talk about the websites. The dang agency websites. A perfect example of something on the made-up to-do list. I tell my students until I am blue in the face that I built my agency to seven figures before I ever made a website for the business.
And yet, 90% of the time, when I do my early check-ins with them, they’re still puttering around on Squarespace when they should be hustling to make their first sale. The answer: “Well, I need a website!”
No. You don’t. My agency was doing seven figures without a website. The students usually think a professional website will give them credibility as a business owner. But let's be honest, they’re doing it for themselves, not the clients. They have imposter syndrome, and they want to feel like they are legitimate business people.
But let’s subject that activity to our exacting interrogation. Let’s say your agency runs Facebook ads to generate leads for plumbing and heating companies in Washington state. Does a cool website help your clientele get the outcome they crave? No, no, it does not.
If you’re killing it, helping a guy with a pipe wrench and a Seahawks jersey grow his business and pay off his mortgage early — do you think that guy cares if you have a cool website?
Of course not. He cares about his bottom line and what you can do to help him.
Action steps to eliminate paper cuts that bleed away your productivity
- Set a consistent bedtime and rise time. You can structure your schedule much more effectively if you know when the day starts and when the day ends.
- Eliminate the “meal decision.” Interrupting your schedule to decide what to eat three times a day is a huge unforced error. Instead, invest in Sunday meal prep, meal delivery, or a personal chef, depending on your budget.
- Batch your tasks. For example, only check your email at a specific one or two times every day, so you aren’t constantly checking.
- Saving the best for last here. The biggest game-changer. Activate “do-not-disturb” options whenever possible, especially when you are “in the zone” and need to knock out some creative work on your phone, of course, but also on your computer.
I’ll say it again, be brutal about this. Most people don’t realize just how destructive these tiny little distractions are. If you want to get big things done, you have to protect your time above all else.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor