If You Want to Be More Productive, Research Says to Lose Track of Time

UPDATED: June 8, 2023
PUBLISHED: April 1, 2022
If You Want to Be More Productive, Research Says to Lose Track of Time

Here’s a confession: I am a literature professor who is having a hard time reading. It’s not that the words on the page have lost their meaning, but that my ability to sustain focus seems to be slipping away. My students seem to be experiencing this phenomenon as well. “Professor?” they’ll ask. “How should I get my reading done?”

I didn’t used to have this problem, nor did my students. What I’ve been prescribing to them (and to myself) has been relatively simple: “Put your phone away when you read. You’re not that busy.”

Nonetheless, the beeps and boops of our electronic lives tell us otherwise. We live in a world of time management apps, hacks and tips. At any office or coffee shop, you might hear a cacophony of alerts sounding, tweets twittering and the frenetic tip-tap of fingers typing off one more email or text in order to check that one last thing off the to-do list. We are so busy, our devices tell us. Best not to let a single step or typed word go uncounted.

The apps in our lives tend to emphasize achievement at the expense of creativity. After all, how does a phone know whether an idea is truly original?

Even with the trend of low-tech bullet and best-self handwritten journals, the effect is the same: We are increasingly becoming micromanagers of our days, dividing our time into increasingly tiny chunks all in the name of progress and productivity.

But at what cost?

By now, most people have heard of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on flow states and how conducive they are to deep creative work. He describes a flow state as one in which people become so absorbed in their work that “nothing else seems to matter.” It’s in such states that innovative problem-solving takes place and great ideas are hatched. What we’ve taken less seriously as a tech-obsessed culture, however, is the degree to which the electronic productivity tools and the frantic pace of work activity might be eroding our ability to engage in this productivity.

If you are very lucky, your career provides you occasional opportunities to do the kind of work that can be deeply absorbing, that sucks you in and revs you up, that so engages you that the minutes and hours slip away. This kind of deep focus can seem almost extravagant in our era of the Pomodoro Technique, in which we set alarms for 25-minute increments to increase productivity and hyperfocus. But it’s also incredibly precious and worth protecting.

Most of us work in fields that demand some measure of our output, whether on a weekly or quarterly basis. Thus, a conundrum. As business school professors Forbes and Domm note in their 2004 article, it can often seem as though creative flow and task-oriented efficiency are at odds: “Curiosity is open and playful, while drive is serious, competitive and achievement-oriented,” the authors write.

The apps in our lives tend to emphasize the latter (achievement) at the expense of the former (creativity). After all, how does a phone know whether an idea is truly original? How can a step counter track whether the stroll was one during which the walker had a brilliant insight?

Forbes and Domm suggest ways for managers to build flow states into employee work by emphasizing the intrinsically motivating factors of a task, including independence and choice for employees, as well as highlighting the challenge at stake.

For those who work on their own and in more creative fields, however, it might be important to create strategies for protecting those flow states in which we lose track of those seconds and minutes that our apps are so happy to report on. Here are three such small tweaks to decrease tech disruption and recapture flow:

1. Release your inner child.  

Work one day or afternoon a week on paper and away from any time-keeping device. Even better, work in nature or solitude. Be childlike and sprawl out on the floor, or use different colored pens or markers. Give yourself the opportunity to have your work be an immersive sensory experience—for example, provide yourself with the tactile experience of moving index cards around, spreading your ideas out in physical space to look at them. Get into it.

2. Lose time.

If giving over a whole day this way seems scary, set out a specific chunk of time you can “lose.” Use a timer and decide that whatever happens within the hour or two you set for your creative task will be fine. Do not look at the timekeeper while working. Stop worrying about tracking your time in the security of knowing that the ding will let you know when you’re done.

3. Box out technology.

Put your phone physically away, whether in a drawer or zipped into your purse or briefcase. Turn off sound notifications on your computer. Use an internet-limiting tool such as Freedom, Self-Control or Focus. As the names of these apps indicate, these products limit the user’s access to distracting and disruptive sites creative workers so often go to when ideas are hard to push through, rather than staying in the moment of creative problem-solving.

At the end of the day, being in the flow is where we do our best work, and where we are happiest. It might not always look like productivity, but in a world where everyone else is obsessively measuring and counting, maybe losing track of time is just the right kind of different.

This article was published in September 2017 and has been updated. Photo by @zepolixel/Twenty20

Katherine Fusco is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she teaches film, theory, and American literature. She is the author of Silent Film and U.S. Naturalist Literature: Time, Narrative and Modernity (Routledge) and Kelly Reichardt (University of Illinois). Currently, Katherine is working on a book about stardom and questions of identity in the 1920s and 1930s. Katherine has appeared in The Atlantic, Dilettante Army, Harpers Bazaar, Headspace, OZY and Salmagundi; you can find her blog on motherhood and creativity at CreateLikeAMother.blog.