Momentum is one of the keys to accomplishing your priorities. If you always have to start and stop, not only will things take longer, but you might get thrown out of the mental state that is required for various complex and high-level tasks that you need to accomplish.
The result is that a one hour divergence can actually destroy four hours of productivity (or more).
The most well known (but certainly not only) momentum killer is email. The thing about email is that you never know what you are going to get. You could have had your email clear at 10:00 am, but then at 1:00 some complex emails come in that present a series of tasks that may take an hour to complete. Simply knowing about this can be distracting, but more than that it can be tempting to diverge from your course to accomplish the more important task.
So let’s say you have the afternoon blocked off for a large and complex task. But when you get back from lunch you decide to check email before digging in — and the above scenario happens. A series of complicated emails comes in that require about an hour to complete.
Because you now know about these tasks, your mind starts going down that road a bit. You find this distracting. So you say to yourself, “it sure would be nice to get my email all clear again before heading into this big and complicated project I need to work on.” Then you move ahead on getting those emails and the tasks they contain out of the way.
At the end of this hour, more emails have come in — in part because people are responding back to you from some other smaller emails that you also decided to get out of the way — and you are now on a completely different course.
Now, this is not bad in itself. Email is not the enemy, and there are many instances when it is useful and productive to follow your email for a period of time. The issue here, though, is that you have a different, non-email, high priority task that you need to accomplish. And email derailed you from it.
The real problem, though, is worse: Email didn’t simply cost you the 1-2 hours that you spent away from this high priority task. For by the time you have your email wrapped up again where you want, it’s 3:00 in the afternoon. Half the afternoon is gone. Further, your momentum has been going towards email for the last two hours, making it hard to shift gears into this complex task.
As a result, you are “out of the mindset” needed to generate the focus you need to make progress on the task. So even though you have two hours left before you planned to head home, you cannot use that two hours for the original task you had planned. You’ve lost your momentum. Two hours on email destroyed four hours of productivity on your more important task.
And, it gets even worse. Because, unfortunately, the following day is all booked, you have some other things you need to get done in the middle of the week and, of course, more email will be coming in over that time as well. So it looks like it will be a few days before you can get back to this task. And even then, it is going to be a fight to make it happen.
This is how the loss of momentum makes important things take forever and makes us less satisfied with our days. There is no perfect solution here, but it can make a huge difference to pause and reflect before taking a “small and temporary detour” in a different direction.
By being aware of the potential consequences of losing momentum, we can become more disciplined at putting first things first, and letting other things be crowded out rather than those first things.